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Shifting parents

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.

Community engagement , , ,

  1. anne
    | #1

    Hello David, I enjoyed this posting because in my opinion and from my experiences you are beginning to ask the right questions. I agree parents have been left behind, and don’t know what do do to help their children. Schools are engaging their communities in lots more consultation on directions the school should be taking. However, I believe there is a very large and relatively quiet group of families in schools that are not engaged. Many of them feel unsure of themselves when talking with teachers about education. I’m currently busy working with an intervention called ‘The Families as Coaches Programme’. which coaches families in practical ways they can help their children do well at school.The families who have been involved the last three years report a growing understanding of how literacy and numeracy is taught, and have the strategies and confidence to develop literacy and numeracy skills in their child at home. Many also report that they have developed better strategies to communicate effectively with their child’s classroom teachers. Families from all socio-economic levels have told me regularly that they often don’t know what exactly to ask the teacher when they have concerns. Parents who understand enough of the vocabulary and concepts that teachers use automatically, can ask the questions they want to ask confidently and clearly, and also understand the answers they are given. Practical programmes such as The Families as Coaches Programme will over time create a more empowered and engaged school community. You can’t engage in dialogue with another if you don’t have the language.

  2. Ally
    | #2

    Hi Jack. You raise some really interesting issues. I just want to pick up on your final question, “Does it really matter…or will things just sort themselves out?” I think it does really matter – I think we have plenty of evidence that our current education system is not preparing many students well to participate fully in today’s society let alone in tomorrow’s. The question for me is how can we get a whole range of people interested enough (and sufficiently informed) to be able to participate in the sort of debate that might actually help us to re-think what we are doing in the education system. Presumably a public education system is supposed to serve the “common good” but what is that and who should decide? How best can community (however that is defined) be actively involved in this debate? We all lead busy lives – what does each of us as an individual (as well as a member of a community) gain from being involved in this debate? I know some schools have found it easier to engage parents in discussions about education when it pertains directly to their own child’s learning. I wonder whether these discussions could be structured in a way that encourages parents to engage, in time, more with the “big picture” of education. This might be one way forward but I’m not sure this task of engaging the community should necessarily be initiated by schools. What other community organisations could take a leading role in facilitating these discussions? Who should/could provide input of information about “future focused” issues into these discussions?

  3. | #3

    Hi Jack, welcome, I’m excited to hear that this topic has interested you enough to dip your toes into a new medium! Hopefully this won’t be your last appearance on shiftingthinking.

    I think your thoughts and questions resonate with much that’s been talked about in this thread, and elsewhere on the site. You are spot on that this is an issue much bigger than just what’s happening (or not) in schools. You’re right – “community” is a word that perhaps tends to be used unproblematically. Your suggestion that “we might need to begin to develop an understanding about what a community really is in this day and go from there” – definitely! I, for one, want to be part of such conversations!

    Also your comments about needing to engage people from the community “to become active citizens with a voice, and an understanding that they are a part of the community – active or inactive”, plus the “why” questions you pose at the end – absolutely!

    Jane has talked about some of these ideas, and the projects that we’re working on in this area, in this blog posting.

  4. Jack
    | #4

    I don’t normally communicate in this medium, but find this an interesting topic so here goes.
    Some questions that I have relating to engaging communities and parents are:
    Who owns the school? and
    What is the role of the school (and therefore the staff)?
    Maybe if the community (whatever that is) was aware that they owned the school, that they were “the boss”, and somehow felt empowered to believe they could make a difference, then that would be a start.
    I know this is bandied around a lot but there does seem to be a lot of expectations and responsibilities loaded on the schools that are much wider social issues beyond their educational prime directive …
    I think we might need to begin to develop an understanding about what a community really is in this day and go from there. It may well be that this is considerably more than a school issue and therefore requires other groups to step in and connect up.
    A part of this puzzle may well be working out how to involve those people who are a bit reticent to get involved (for whatever reasons) and how to encourage them to become active citizens with a voice, and an understanding that they are a part of the community – active or inactive. Also important to that may be “why”. “Why should they want to be engaged?”
    Does it really matter? or will things sort themselves out …
    or as we say in New Zealand,
    she’ll be right!

  5. | #5

    The question of how to engage parents in 21st century education ideas is one I constantly grapple with in my job. In fact, I’m involved with researchers in writing a book for parents which is trying to show that school is not like it was “in your day” and here’s why. The points David makes about early childhood education are interesting and in line with my experiences as a parent. The centre my children went to had photos of all the families on the wall and parents were encouraged to contribute to learning stories and to regularly update information on their children’s interests and activities at home. Maybe a new generation of parents who have felt that their own stories and knowledge of their child were sought, valued and celebrated at an early childhood centre are ready for new family -school connections. Some parents are resistant to greater involvement though, even at early childhood level, because they are paying their money, they are under pressure and they just want to be able to drop their children off and be able to concentrate on work. Even more so once children are at school. Engaging parents in conversation about the future of education means getting their attention and their time. It means asking them learn new things, not just in their workplace. I think it is correct to think of it as a community development task because it challenges the boundaries we tend to construct around different parts of our lives.

  6. sonjanz
    | #6

    I think that the issue is older than the new professionalism – rather the curriculum changes have aggravated it. This is going to sound blunt, but teachers rely on being expert and protect that expertise. The gap has widened because parents were taught differently than their children so have difficulty identifying learning and supporting what their children are doing. And teachers are notoriously bad at giving clues.
    Science fairs … what are parents supposed to be looking for? How was it assessed? What are the important learnings here to encourage your child in? Would it hurt for the teachers to do a display at the entrance saying “these were the goals for these groups – these are the kinds of questions to ask the children showing their projects” so the whole community is involved in the process.

    Maths – what strategy are you expecting for this maths homework? Do teachers know how frustrating it is when that subtraction or addition is being done using a strategy we parents never heard of (we just learnt to carry the 1)

    Writing – When is the story important? When is the grammer, punctuation and spelling. Can you be specific in the feedback so I (the parent) know what I’m looking at? How many kids are praised by a teacher for a great piece of creative writing – take it home to a parent and what they see is the less than perfect handwriting or poor spelling? But wait for it – the next week the opposite is happening.

    In fairness these are the more extreme examples – but we will continually have issues of parents not recognising the learning that is happening (and not respecting the teachers who facilitate that)if there is not some transparency and openness about the learning process within the classroom communicated in a way that makes sense.

    How is that for some examples Rachel :)

  7. | #7

    Hi David, I really enjoyed this posting,and I was really excited to hear you talk about engagement of families as a “community development task” (I would love to hear more about this!). Your comment about schools feeling they need to “de-professionalise” in order to engage parents is interesting. I feel there are parallels for us here too (i.e. researchers, educationalists, theorists, school leaders etc) as we seek to engage people from inside and outside the education sector in shifting our thinking about 21st century learning and education. I’ve heard a lot of people say they are hesitant to engage in these conversations because they feel they have nothing to contribute, or because they think the ideas are inaccessible, obscure, too academic, or simply too far removed from their own experience. I’m sure we’ve all had these feelings at some time or another – I know I am notoriously bad as an audience member at lectures or presentations. No matter how interested I am in the subject matter, I can *rarely* formulate a response or even a question for the speaker that I feel is worthy of sharing. Just like early childhood centres you discuss have done, we need to create a bond of trust that we truly ARE all in this together. Reshaping schooling/education is everybody’s responsibility – and everybody has something to contribute. Those of us who genuinely believe this have a responsibility to create as many different opportunities as we can for people to be part of this process and these conversations – on their terms, in their environments, in the contexts and on the topics that mean something to them. If this is what “de-professionalising” means, then I am all for it! But I also think it’s a two-way street. The 21st century world is complicated – and we can’t navigate it on auto-pilot – none of us can. As a society, we have to stop believing that someone out there who is smarter than us, more professional than us, or more articulate than us will do all the hard thinking on our behalf, and tell us what to do. We’re going to have to figure this out together! I guess this is what Jane meant when she talks about the need for deliberative democracy. I’ve had real trouble connecting with this as a THEORETICAL concept. I think we need more STORIES, EXAMPLES, ANECDOTES, IMAGERY to show what this all looks like in real communities.

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