Parenting and Education

Education has been under the spotlight in recent times, largely because of Australia’s declining performance on the world stage. There have been various reports (chief amongst them the Gonski report) about how we need to spend more money to ensure our children move their way up the international league table of educational outcomes.

The dominant criticism from various experts and “think-tanks” seems to be that while in the last decade or so we have effectively doubled our per capita expenditure on education, our international standing in most aspects of education has been diminishing. And yet governments seem to believe that the only way to improvement is to throw yet more money at the problem. And the prevailing theme, fervently advocated by the teachers unions because it delivers more members, is to concentrate on reducing class sizes despite the fact that research suggests there is little correlation between reducing class sizes and educational outcomes.

I have dealt with this in other blog essays on education.

In this essay I am going to be controversial and suggest that our falling educational outcomes might be closely related to a social failing in our society.

In a previous essay I ventured:

“I know I am simple-minded with respect to such issues but the key determinants of good educational outcomes would seem to me to be:

  1. Competent teachers,
  2. An environment conducive to learning,
  3. Pupils who have an interest in learning,
  4. A curriculum that has relevance to the learners, and
  5. Well-managed autonomous schools.”

I have not had cause to shy away from this assessment. (No, not that I am simple minded but that these are important determinants of the success of our education institutions!)

What I want to discuss with you this week is the respective roles of the schools and the parents in attaining good educational outcomes.

As a parent we rightfully expect our schools to provide our children with good teachers, adequate facilities, a safe learning environment and a useful but stimulating curriculum.

But what should the rightful expectations of schools be with regards to the parent’s obligations?

Some might take issue with my thoughts here, but let me try to articulate what I believe our parental obligations are.

Well the first obligation is to ensure our children attend school. Now this is not an issue within the population generally but there is a minority of parents who don’t honour their legal obligation to have their children attend school on a regular basis. Now we know this has been an issue in some indigenous communities but the problem is broader than this. When parents have not been able to perceive the advantages that education can bring, perhaps because of prevalent high unemployment or their own bad experiences with education, it is unlikely that they will have the motivation to ensure the attendance of their children.

Secondly, if we get our children to school it is incumbent on us to ensure that they arrive ready for learning. Whilst it is good to see that they have the required books, school uniforms and so on, it is even more important that they have been fed and have been rested properly.

It is an indictment on our society that some families are so dysfunctional that these two basic needs are not met. It seems reasonably commonplace these days for schools to provide food for children who turn up not having had breakfast. It is wonderful that others care so much that they should want to provide for these deprived children. But it is still an example of parents avoiding their responsibilities.

Now I stated above that one of the requirements of a school was to provide “an environment conducive to learning”. Now some of you on first reading this might believe that this is primarily the school’s responsibility. Let me assure you that this is largely the parent’s responsibility!

What is the bane of a teacher’s life? Undoubtedly, behaviour management! In some classes the demands of behaviour management are such that the teacher has vastly reduced time and emotional resources to devote to what should be the prime focus of their role – teaching!

It seems that many parents now abrogate their duties in respect to the behaviour of their children and largely expect teachers to fill the role for them. So let us be clear that a responsibility of parents is to ensure that when our children are in the classroom they pay due respect to the authority of the teacher and they recognise the rights of the children around them not to be distracted from learning by their poor behaviour.

It is appalling that so many children enter school without the ability (and perhaps the expectation) to sit still and pay attention for reasonable intervals of time. Mind you the problem is exacerbated by teachers who don’t have the skills to engage the children. Symptomatic of the problem is the number of children, particularly boys, being diagnosed with ADHD. One can’t help believe that these behavioural problems are more a function of poor parenting then psychological or neurological malfunction. Of course such a diagnosis often then provides a convenient excuse for the parents not to try to teach the child more appropriate behaviours.

My son is a teacher and we have discussed these matters many times.

When I talk to my son about what works in the classroom he is emphatic that behavioural control and parent support are paramount.

When he starts a new class each year, he spends some time with his students to establish a behavioural compact. He encourages them to identify the behaviours that are helpful in the classroom. He moderates a discussion amongst the children to agree on what behaviours will be acceptable and what behaviours won’t be tolerated. This “behavioural contract” is displayed prominently and the children themselves take on a responsibility of adhering to its dictates.

Many parents have not come to realise that education is a compact between the child, the teacher and the parents. And again my son stresses the value of parental support. It is not surprising that many of the countries performing well in the education stakes are countries where the family is very important and parental expectations of children are high. I am not suggesting that we emulate all the cultural characteristics of such countries, but I am sure the education of our children would benefit from more parental support in the teaching process.

My son points out that when the school holds parent/teacher nights, inevitably the parents that turn up are not the ones that have problem children. Those that front are generally good parents wanting to work on strategies to have their children do even better!

I have also been long of the opinion that some of the government targets in education are not helpful For example I believe that the attempt to have as many young people as possible finish high school creates underlying problems.

In my youth, those who were not academically inclined left school early to become a junior in the local store, start an apprenticeship, repair tyres in the local garage or whatever. In short they became part of the local economy, contributing their skills and learning to play a part in the community. Now we have many young people who are locked into school and simultaneously locked out of society. They attend school with little chance of success with dire consequences to their self-esteem. The consequent behavioural issues make school a much more difficult place for teachers and students alike. It seems ridiculous to rate schools by their retention rates, rewarding them to keep students locked in irrespective of the educational outcomes.

Twenty year ago I initiated a program with one of the local high schools. The teachers at the school were complaining that a small coterie of boys was proving unduly disruptive diminishing the educational outcomes of their peers. They were largely disengaged with schooling and acted out their frustrations in a disruptive way.

With the cooperation of the local Chamber of Commerce we placed these boys with local employers for three days a week for a term. (The Education Department would not allow further.) Now the interesting thing was that none of the employers reported problems with the boys. Once they were engaged in doing something meaningful their behaviour changed. In fact over that period a number of them were offered jobs which they accepted. Back at the school their behaviour also improved largely because their self-esteems had been enhanced. As well some were able to make a better connection between education and work opportunities.

But we should be aware that children relate to various learning strategies. There is no doubt that there is a sizable minority of children who don’t learn well in the classroom and who benefit from the opportunity to be involved in more “hands on” experiential learning strategies. I remember John Edwards, an educationalist from James Cook University, colourfully talking about children “drowning in a sea of blah”!

The American psychologist, Carl Rogers had this to say:

“Human beings have a natural potentiality for learning. Significant learning takes place when the subject matter is perceived by the student as having relevance for his own purposes.” It is surely incumbent on parents to cultivate in their children a desire for learning.

My own father, who never attended high school, inculcated a love of learning in me. Despite his lack of formal education he was interested in history, politics, and geography among other things. He taught himself to mend clocks and people often brought their clocks to him for repair. I remember once when he was on the local council buying a book on fluid dynamics because he wanted to understand some of the technical issues put to council by the engineering staff. Despite our humble background there were always books to be read in our household.

It is incumbent on all parents to try and instil such a love of learning in their children.

The converse, of course, is that when the learner doesn’t perceive relevance regarding the subject matter then learning is unlikely to occur. When a child comes from a family that has had two or three generations of unemployment it is difficult to see the relevance of education as a pathway to a meaningful job. (It is interesting that such families don’t encourage their children to learn mathematics or English but they generally have encyclopaedic knowledge about welfare provisions!)

Angela Shanahan, writing in the Weekend Australian some time ago also pointed out that the failings of our education system are being born disproportionately by boys. On most indicators girls are outperforming our boys in schools. This trend became apparent a decade or more ago when the then Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, commissioned an enquiry into the issue. Unfortunately the report was never acted on and, shortly after, Nelson left the Education portfolio to become Defence Minister.

Shanahan writes, “According to experts such as Kevin Donnelly, CIS’s Jennifer Buckingham and Peter West, an expert in boys’ education and development, this is because for too long both curriculum and pedagogy have been feminized. Education has been skewed to the psychological and physical development of the girls.”

Buckingham maintains that the usual contemporary teaching methods such as continuous assessment and more collaborative techniques work well for girls but not so well for boys. This is exacerbated by the fact the emotional development of girls can be up to two years ahead of boys. The problem is also heightened by the fact that in our primary schools at least, women teachers dominate so that there are so few role models for our boys.  And now of course that there is a growing proportion of households where there is no permanent male partner present means that our boys are doing it tough. (In saying this I imply no criticism of the women who do their best to raise their progeny under these circumstances.)

But overall, despite these other impediments to learning, I would like to finish by summarising the parental obligations in sending a child to school:

  1. Parents need to ensure the child’s regular attendance at school.
  2. The child needs to be taught appropriate behaviour so that they are capable of sitting and paying attention and not incur on the right of other children to learn.
  3. Parents need to support the initiatives of the school to implement appropriate behavioural management strategies.
  4. The child needs to come to the classroom appropriately attired and with required equipment. But perhaps more importantly, they should be fed and rested.
  5. Parents need to ensure that the child appreciates the benefit of learning and its lifelong impact.

It is easy to blame all our educational ills on inappropriate teacher training, inadequate curricula and poor school management, but as parents we must acknowledge we have a role to play as well. The biggest concern here is behaviour management. It is unfair of us to throw the burden of remediating our children’s behaviour on teaching staff.

As one of my correspondents recently remarked, “I can see a time coming soon where parents say, ‘My child sulks and lacks manners. The school hasn’t done a good job, so I will sue them.’” It is a frightening thought and I can only hope that he is wrong!


5 Replies to “Parenting and Education”

  1. Hi Ted, Once again you have got to the core of yet another problem. I was fortunate to attend school in the ’50’s, when discipline was a central feature of school conduct. I was one of a class of 100(+) from Year 5 to Year 8, and on average a Class of 50 (+) from Year 9 to Year 12. There were very few if any discipline problems in all of that time.
    Another feature of our time at school was that virtually all of us had a stay at home mother who ensured that we were packed off to school with a full belly and a packet of sandwiches for lunch. At night it was homework and more homework.
    From that Class there were 10 or more doctors a Federal Court Judge and many more high achievers, in academic, sporting and social areas. Let us learn from the past.

  2. Great article. This is just one example of the trend of making someone else responsible for what you should be responsible. I would also add that teachers today neither get the support from Education departments and parents that they once did, making their job much more difficult.

  3. Thanks again Ted for a well-written article that nails the problems in education today. Hope it is okay if I share your concerns and discuss these relevant ‘parental obligations’ with my school.

  4. Don’t disagree with anything you say Ted. Parents have a big role to play. I have some other suggestions though that I don’t think would do any harm either.

    Teaching I suggest is not a an overly respected profession. Many teachers end up teachers because they could not get into their chosen profession. As a result they are often poorly motivated and not suited to the profession. A poor teacher can not engage and be successful with a small class let alone a large one. A good teacher will achieve good results even with a large class. Classes of 40 or more are far from impossible for a good teacher. So why not double class sizes, remove all the teachers who don’t want to teach teach, double the pay of the remaining teachers and through this process greatly raise the respect and integrity of the profession so that better and more motivated teachers take up the profession into the future.

    Teacher support combined with accountability is also essential in my book although very contentious with the Unions. Some teachers can’t cope in the classroom, but perhaps having a good experienced mentor can change this. At present it seems to me we have many poor teachers but no mechanism to assist them to improve. Sadly many teachers will find this support / mentor process threatening and oppose it. Ultimately if a teacher can not meet minimum standards should be encouraged to find employment that is more suitable to them.

    Teachers need a disciplinary mechanism. From experience with my own children a common serious disciplinary measure is to take children out of their class room into a “planning” area to do exercises in isolation that are supposedly designed to make the child reflect on what they have done and why it is wrong. At lunch time they are let out because the teachers go to lunch. It is psychological punishment that is usually handed out over several days or more and in many ways it is crueller than a ruler around the back of the legs. I firmly believe corporal punishment metered out in a controlled and safe way is both more productive and more humane than some of the punishment methods that schools are being forced to use because there is no alternative. Corporal punishment is quick, its immediate it does not stress a child over sever days or more and it puts the teacher back in control in most instances. Teachers would of course have to be trained to administer it and it can not be over used. Its got no chance of happening of course. The debate on this topic became emotionally irrational a long time ago.

    Formal education starts too young. Children learn things best when the time is right for them. I read once that it takes months to teach 4 year olds the calendar but at 8 it takes only a day or 2. I think we rush our children into education and make it difficult for them and the teacher. The early formal schooling commencement we have today is not about improving education it is about free child minding but it is clearly not free. The other problem with formal education is it stifles creativity. Our children today seem to miss out on playing and make believe and that I suspect stifles their future creativity which society badly needs. TV and computer games don’t help either.

    So here are my radical suggestions in a nut shell:

    (1) Double class sizes.
    (2) Double teacher salaries
    (3) Coach and support teachers.
    (4) Measure and act on teacher performance.
    (5) Start school a year or 2 later.
    (6) Allow teachers to deliver controlled and humane corporal punishment.

    I am sure I will be caned for some of these, but hey I’ve been caned before. With a good dose of parental support as outlined in your blog Ted, we can have a first rate education system at no extra cost. 

  5. Thank you all for your comments.

    Brian it was great to hear from you again.I know it sometimes seems that people like you and I are reactionary old troglodytes but nevertheless it seems to me that we often did some things better in the past. The expectations we had for our children’s behaviour in school was certainly one of them. The support of a “stay at home mum” was also very beneficial. Unfortunately the prevalent social mores of today would seem there is little likelihood of us reclaiming such a past.

    Thanks Mack for your words. There is no doubt that in modern society more and more people seek to have themselves viewed as victims and resile from taking responsibility for such things as the behaviour of their children.

    Thank you too, Lynda – and by all means feel free to circulate my essay to whoever you see fit.

    And Greg, as usual you have posted a challenging response. With respect to your “radical suggestions”I can agree with most.

    Let’s not obsess with class sizes but focus on educational outcomes. Let’s pay good teachers well but monitor their performance closely. Let’s support teachers with mentoring and coaching by exemplars in the teaching profession.

    I am not so sure about starting school later. I would have no problem with this where a child has a supportive and stimulating environment.But there are a lot of children in deprived households where this might mean just another year or two of minimal developmental opportunities.

    I am all for letting kids be kids. In today’s litigious society we prevent them from climbing trees and riding billy-carts or whatever. Wrapping them in cotton-wool is restrictive to their development.

    But then you raise the vexed question of corporal punishment. Of course, as you probably knew I would, I will turn to a higher authority!

    The good Dr Phil has taught us that effective behavioural management requires that there are consequences for behaviour (reinforcement for good behaviour and negative consequences for poor behaviour). But this must all be applied in an atmosphere of unconditional positive regard. The punishment should be directed specifically at the behaviour and not at the person.

    You might remember his little analogy. We all learn not to touch the hot-plate on the stove. Why? It is entirely consistent. Each time we do so it burns us. The hot-plate is not judgmental. It doesn’t say “you stupid child”it just burns us. As a result of a consistent non-judgmental response we learn very quickly not to touch the hot-plate.

    I can support corporal punishment when it is done this way. That is it is probably done out of the sight of other children such that it is not demeaning. It is not done in retribution but to modify behaviour. And that it is never done in anger.

    When there is someone of such psychological maturity to render the corporal punishment then I am happy that it should happen.

    My greatest fear is that the “punishers”, be they parents or teachers don’t have such emotional maturity. In such a case corporal punishment might be dangerous.

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