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Shifting parents

May 19th, 2009

The questions on this blog site about community and family engagement in education are timely. Having been lucky enough to be paid to think about these education questions for a number of years now, and more lately having two children on their way through schooling it is becoming clear to me that schools and their communities are in something of a rut in terms of how they can collectively work to enable the learning of young people. This is not a great start point for shifting thinking.

Over recent years in education there has been a strong focus on quality schooling – schools getting better and more focused on enhancing learning outcomes for all children. Observers note a new professionalism in teaching, and effective educational leadership has been strongly harnessed to teaching, curriculum and indeed learning. There have been big moves to enhance literacy and numeracy teaching across diverse schools and some impressive gains.  The notion of a teaching community of practice has found favour and teachers are becoming more inclined to be critical of each other and themselves. Reflective practice is everywhere. Formative assessment is taken seriously and there are tools in place to support it.

I think parents and by extension communities are being left behind in the new professionalism. Most school parents I know in my decile 9 community have little grasp of the reforms presented in the paragraph above. At the same time I pick up an unhealthy amount of parent stress around schooling. Confusion, mixed messages from teachers, fluctuating assessment results, unrecognised talents, apparently different teaching standards in different classes etc… Nothing new here perhaps but what really concerns me is that there is a lack of open dialogue between parents and schools about these concerns. They fester.

Why? One theory is that as teachers have raised their professional status parents have become stragglers. Really not much has changed about being a school parent across a generation – odd considering that in in the past 20 years the schooling system has been radically overhauled in its administration and national curriculum (twice!), not to mention the rise of the digital education age and a completely new secondary assessment system. Teaching communities of practice have created stronger bonds between teachers, and in some classrooms, between teachers and students, but this learning community has not bridged to parents. Its language and operation are pretty mysterious to parents and I think teachers struggle to see this, as well as how their new professionalism can dislocate them from parents, even in very subtle ways.

But of course this blog is about shifting thinking, looking ahead. Is it good that parents have been left behind because we need to start practicing differently anyway? I don’t think so because engaging parents in discussions about what is valuable to learn and know in the 21st Century has to excite a passive and disengaged group. This is a community development task – a vastly different proposition to most of the current school tools of parent engagement.

I think there are good models out there and one of them is some of the practice in early childhood education. Open and engaging formative assessment combined with a resolute view of all children as capable and competent learners, and a view of the family and community as fundamental assets to the learning of these children, has established a more purposeful family-ECE link that empowers parents as it values their contributions.

In talking to schools and early childhood educators about engaging families meaningfully, some have literally described the need to ‘de-professionalise’ themselves. They do not mean this in the sense of playing down to the audience, but they recognise the fundamental importance of relations of trust between teachers and parents to getting things happening for children. Perhaps some also appreciate that uncomfortable parents are the product of decisions of history that saw the outsourcing of the education of the community’s young to an institution. Over time that institution has changed and improved with very little influence or direct input from families. It has become more sure of itself which reinforces that taking children away from their families and the factories and into schools was the right call.

So to address one of your questions:

If schools are to become more future focused, what sort of support or information does the community need to be able to participate fully in debates about educational issues?

What is needed is a pathway of re-engagement for each school. I think each school needs to look at their current family and community strengths and opportunities to see the way forward. Who are the movers and shakers, the connectors in this community, and what already works to engage parents in the school? Last week I heard of a single Pacific women in one secondary school that got 130 parents to a school meeting in 2 weeks. Today I shivered with a smattering of parents at cross country; six months ago I sat in a packed hall for a school quiz night.

But then what? How can relations of trust grow between teachers and parents. What seems to have worked for early childhood educators is to reinforce that parents are an asset to the teacher as well as their child. If parents learn through real experience with teachers that their ideas, histories, skills, stories, and everyday activities, are part of the stuff of good pedagogy, and that they are not merely backing up the real professionals this could create a more fertile platform to have a genuine community conversation about the future of learning and schooling.

It’s not simple I admit.

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