02 August 2005

Choosing Schools

This post is a response to a posting on a private discussion group that was inquiring about how to select an appropriate pre-school.


I wanted to chime in on the topic of educating your little ones. I am not a parent, but have worked with children for over 15 years in a variety of settings. My first job after I left college, in response to my realization that working with children was more fulfilling than anything I could conceive of getting a degree in, was as a pre-school teacher for 3-4 year olds.

In the intervening years I have pursued not only great ways of educating young ones, but also the stories we tell each other about what it is we think we are doing when we educate children. Those stories are more academically known as educational philosophy. Everyone of you tells yourself, and anyone who will listen, a story about what it means to be a parent, how to be a good parent, how to avoid being a bad parent, and why it is that you do not buy into different ideas about those same issues. Those stories you tell are a parenting philosophy. (Isn’t it odd that there is a whole discipline of educational philosophy, but there isn’t a discipline of parenting philosophy?)

In educational philosophy there are two long standing traditional positions that appear to be fundamentally opposed and two more recently developed positions that are both attempts to overcome the limitations of the traditional opposites. The opposite positions are most easily understood as the teacher-centric and the learner-centric perspectives on learning. The first attempt to overcome the limitations of opposing these roles was to blend them into a single whole, the relationship-centric perspective. And finally, the most recent attempt is one that takes an even wider view where even the relationship is embedded in a context that has significant influence on the learning process and might be called the context-centric view. More academic names for some of these views would include behaviorism, constructivism, and situated cognition.

Personally, I favor an inclusive view. Everyone is right, to some degree. My challenge is to figure out how to communicate my understanding of how they all fit together in a way that will help, and not merely confuse, parents. I believe that if you can understand how those philosophical ideas really relate to each other and reality then you will be better able to get through the confusing mass of information that you will inevitably gather in your conscientious search for the RIGHT school.

I also like to make pictures in primary colors (that pre-school influence, I guess) and so I created a little drawing to illustrate how those different views mentioned above all fit together.

The method behind my madness in this particular illustration is to group the academic disciplines into their respective philosophical views: Behaviorists opposite the Progressivists, the Blended Constructivists including both, then all three being engulfed by the Situated Cognitionists. The extension of each of these views beyond the bounds of the philosophical framework in which they were developed leads to the diversity of rhetoric that you see in the promotional literature of schools. The problem with using philosophical positioning as a way to market and sell schools is that if you assert one position you are forced to distinguish that position from all the others, therefore, the tendency is to talk about your own position as if it is in opposition to the other views, as if the others are lacking something that you have. Thus, each of the philosophical positions leads to a distinct kind of schooling rhetoric that appears to bear no meaningful relationship to the other rhetorical approaches.

Every good parent is sooner or later inundated by information about schooling. The question is how to make sense of it all. With that challenge in mind I drew the universal players matrix (click on the image to see a larger version):

In this illustration I take the colors from the first picture to show what part of reality each of the philosophical positions was primarily drawing on to gain their valuable insights. The external constructivists/ behaviorists were looking at catalyst’s role in learning, the internal constructivists/ Progressivists were looking at agent’s role in learning, blended constructivists were looking at the school context’s role in learning, and the situated cognitionists were looking at the community’s role in learning. The teacher centric philosophers (in red) were looking at how the catalysts of the learning process influence the learning process. Their mistake, in my view, was to confuse the vitally important catalytic function with the most common role that we think of fulfilling that function, the teacher. In reality the catalytic function is served by many people who may have many different roles, some of which have nothing to do with teaching as it is normally meant.

“So,” you ask, “how does all this help me make sense of the piles of school promos and make the RIGHT choice for my child?” First, the most important thing is to understand that schooling, through the lens of educational philosophy, may sound complex, but it is not rocket science. The truth is that it always boils down to your child having some kind of relationships with those people and things that surround them. No matter where they go they are an agent of their own learning process, and you can’t do anything about that. Sometimes they will find people and things that catalyze their enthusiasm, and sometimes they might be their own catalyst. Your influence in this area is limited to creating catalytic opportunities and hoping for the best. The area you have the most influence, and a fundamental responsibility as a parent, is in the area of context.

The idea of a school is to create a context within which education is more assured as an outcome than if the children were not in that context. The question of the quality of a school entirely rests on the quality of the relationships they will develop there. The only way to predict the nature of the relationships that are available in a given context is to begin relating to that context. The practical reality is that you have to meet the teachers, the administrators, the other parents, and the kids. The more you can relate to them, the more accurately you can assess the kind of relationships that seem most likely to develop. The fact is that you have to follow your gut instinct and choose a school in which both you and your child will be supported to be the kind of people you most want to be.

Now, the question is, why was it necessary to go through so much falderal to arrive at the simple truth of following your gut? Because, in case you haven’t noticed, your gut is directly connected to your brain. If, as you listen to some schoolman selling you on the tremendous value of his school, you can filter the technical jargon into the simpler categories of agent, catalyst and context, then you can hopefully discern how this teacher thinks he is supposed to relate to you and your child. Then you can compare:
1. his opinion of how he is supposed to relate
2. your experiences of how he actually relates to you and yours, and
3. the stories of how he has related to other parents and children.

It really makes little difference what he thinks about what he does, but what does make a difference is whether he acts according to how he thinks about what he does. This is known as integrity. If he is making promises about parent involvement and the other parents are not involved, then something is not right. If he is promising democratic decision making and consistently acts as the dictator then something might be amiss.

The right questions to ask of the school people are things like;
How do you practice respect for children with different learning abilities?
How do you transition children from dependence on adults to resourceful self-reliance?
How do you help children balance their need to develop self-reliance with the fact that they are part of the community?
How do you handle emergencies, like injuries and public tragedies?
How do you balance your responsibility for protecting my child with his/her need for independence?
Tell me about some of the more challenging students you have had?
How do you balance the needs of the outwardly energetic children with the needs of those who are more inwardly energetic? (I’ve never met a child who was not energetic.)

Some of these questions may not be your typical interview fare, but part of the point is to get them to tell you personal stories about the difficult situations they have handled. If you have gotten an earful of their philosophy, then frame the question so that it challenges their favored perspective. For instance, if the teacher is espousing a learner-centric philosophy, ask them questions about how the events in the outside world are dealt with in their class, or how they handle situations that clearly call for adult interventions. The challenges that you pose could give you an insight into how they might handle a future situation in which you feel obligated to challenge a decision they made about your child. The more you can get them to tell you stories, the more personally you will get to know them and the better possibility for building positive and engaging relationships that will better serve the children. Or for discovering that you are not comfortable with them and moving on.
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