Parents and Schools

My three months in China earlier this year highlighted in the most vivid way imaginable a dilemma that schools face when trying to manage the expectations of parents. This is not, let me hasten to add, a uniquely Chinese problem: it occurs throughout the world; but it is a problem that seems to manifest itself more starkly in China than in any other country I have worked in.

Put simply, the problem is this. All parents want the best for their children, but what is that? Many parents, perhaps most, are genuinely uncertain about what that “best” is, and those that are certain are almost as certainly wrong.

Unfortunately, once this has been said, we have to draw a distinction between parents who want the best for their children for the sake of the children, and those who want the best for their children for the sake of the parents. Of course, all parents would deny that they come into the latter category, but many do: their motivation for pushing their children, manipulating their children’s lives, and generally denying their children much or any autonomy to decide what they want to be or do, is either that they want somehow to live in their children’s reflected glory or that they want to avoid the social opprobrium that they imagine will arise from being thought in some sense neglectful or “bad” parents. So they rush their children from activity to activity, filling every second of their lives with something “productive” and “improving”, and everyone – parents and children – find themselves exhausted and unfulfilled.

It is regrettable to have to start this important topic with such a negative observation, but it is unavoidable because so many of the decisions parents make on behalf of their children stem directly from where they stand on this dichotomy. Take, for example, the question of how clever or intelligent a child is and the associated acknowledgement that society misguidedly bestows on children whom it deems “successful”. Parents who want to live off reflected glory become obsessed with academic and sporting achievement not because it is in their child’s interests, but because it will bring them as parents some kind of fame or notoriety; parents who genuinely want the best for their children don’t care how successful they are as measured by social parameters, and choose to measure their achievements and progress relative to what they deem to be their children’s best interests. Parents whose children struggle academically or at sport or at music or, indeed, at anything, are in the former case more worried by the supposed shame it will bring on them than by any consequences it may have for their children (because it usually doesn’t have any if it is approached properly, which is to say by not treating it as something of any great consequence).

This brings us directly to the question of what constitutes a good education, a good school, college or university for a particular child or young adult: is it one that has already achieved social status and so is seen as an aspiration for no better reason than that parents want their children to be seen to have gained admission to somewhere that constitutes a “top” school (whatever that means), and so brings glory to the parents for having brought such a talented child into the world? Or is a “top” university or school one where a child thrives, “finds” himself or herself, and achieves a confident, self-assured manner and the associated skills needed to deal with the vicissitudes of life?

The best school or university for any child is one where they thrive, find themselves, acquire the knowledge and skills and develop the personality they will need to live fulfilled lives.

And it is important to remember that this is not “the” school or university where they can achieve these things: there are many, and obsessing about whether you or they have chosen absolutely the best possible one is a waste of emotional energy.

So what has all this to do with China in particular? Chinese schools frequently market themselves on the coat-tails of individual students who have done particularly well, for example by getting straight A* grades at IGCSE or A level, by having done particularly well in the notorious gaukau examination, or by obtaining a place at Beijing University or Oxford, Cambridge, Yale or Harvard (amongst a stack of others). That these students almost certainly were blessed – if indeed it is a blessing – with a set of parents and early experiences and in particular genes that wired their brains or bodies up in a way that led to such success, and that the school had precious little to do with it, is forgotten in this mad rush for customers. There is an almost laughable belief in the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after that and therefore because of that), which in the language of education becomes “because X went to school Y and got into Cambridge, you should send your child to school Y if you want your child to go to a really great university”.

And what makes this so painful and irresponsible is that there is in these schools no attempt to manage parental expectations, no attempt to counsel them and their offspring into adopting realistic ambitions, no subtlety at all in the blatant exploitation of the obvious lie that a school plays a crucial and unique part in bringing a child to achieve whatever success they deem desirable.

But let’s be clear: this is not to argue that what schools contribute is negligible or unimportant; it is not to argue that one school is exactly as good as any other; it is to argue that the raw material must be present in any given student for the kind of success that is being promised to be achievable. And to promise this kind of success to parents of children who do not have that raw material is to invite them to embrace ambitions that cannot be fulfilled and can only therefore  bring them to disappointment and frustration; in the worst and most extreme cases, it can bring the student to suicide.

But every use of the word “success” in all this demands to be bracketed in scare-quotes, because the most damaging assumption of all is that we know what success is; it is even more damaging that the false claim that we know how to achieve it.

This is an example of a general type of argument that human beings seem to find it very difficult to understand, still more appreciate and embrace: that effects have multiple causes, and to provide only one of the influences responsible for a particular child’s success is to provide only one of a basket of causes unique in that particular child’s life and probably unreproduceable in any other child’s life. So yes, schools play their part, but when they try to lay claim to the lion’s share of responsibility for a particular success, they claim too much.

What is particularly interesting about this pattern of behaviour in China is that the way schools market themselves is seldom challenged by parents on this basis. Parents will want to choose “the best” school on the basis of the statistics of that school’s success in examinations, university entrance and, occasionally and rarely, something like music or sport, they will scrutinise exhaustively the qualifications and track-records of teachers, they will examine the scale and safety of facilities, and they will ask endless questions about what a school does to give extra lessons and help to a gifted student in order to achieve this kind of “success”. But very few parents seem to challenge the underlying assumptions implicit in this whole sorry business: that schools are capable of making up for deficiencies in a particular child (because no parent will acknowledge, at least openly, that their child has such deficiencies); that the basic assumptions about what constitutes success are justified (that going to a famous school or university matters more than going to one where there is a good fit between the school, university and student); that anyone really knows the combination of factors that make one student more “successful” than another (because not only are the known influences vast in number; the unknown influences are almost certainly even greater in number); that we are in a position to say what success is (because we all think the future will be like our own past having no other basis on which to examine it).

The deficiencies of human beings in understanding multi-causal systems lead almost inexorably to destructive behaviour: when we cannot see a direct link between some activity A and some desirable result R, ambitious parents tend to discourage or forbid A as “a waste of time”. But activities that are not directly associated with desired results may play a huge part in helping any person to achieve those results; it is just that we are unable to find and trace a link between the result and the activity. In general, we just don’t know what or whether something is a “waste of time”, if, indeed, anything is. There is considerable merit in the argument that anything that a person finds of compelling interest, however frivolous and non-productive it may seem to a bystander, can never be a “waste of time”. (Although we should specifically exclude addictive behaviour from this claim.)

Some kind of bizarre socio-politically-reinforced work-ethic leads many of us to believe that working hard at something we hate doing is somehow more meritorious and likely to be productive that enjoying doing something everyone thinks pointless and frivolous, but this is almost certainly a social prejudice that does incalculable harm because it discourages us from playing, and from appreciating the importance of play. And nothing is more important in the establishment and maintenance of a creative, fulfilling life than play.

Nothing is more important in the establishment and maintenance of a creative life than play.

Why society might endorse this prejudiced and damaging work-ethic is easy to see: it is a direct consequence of an industrialised view of human labour in which the world works on the basis of a model of social organisation in which there are only a small number of creative leaders who control and exploit a vast number of worker-drones. And that social model created an educational system to supply those drones and vigorously opposed – usually as “left-wing” or “socialist” – any attempt by professional educators to change it. But of course this industrial assumption is soon to be demolished by the advent of intelligent machines, robots and androids, and the need for a class of undereducated worker-drones will diminish gradually to nothing so that the only purpose of education will be to equip people for fulfilled lives of leisure and creativity.

There is, however, another danger. If we were to persuade parents that a more expansive and general set of experiences plays more of a role in the accomplishments of their children than we currently allow, immediately there would be a rush towards the industrialisation and institutionalisation of variety, of play, and our obsessional drive towards doing anything and everything that might be accepted socially to contribute towards success would lead us to invent a new drudgery: the drudgery of enforced play. And that, of course, really is an oxymoron: play must be free.

But such ambitious parents as we managed to persuade of this would still in all probability ask us for some reassurances that our new methods would be successful, that their planned negligence, their single-minded refusal to try to control and manipulate their children’s lives especially in play, other than to encourage it, would produce at least as good a set of outcomes as the existing system. Could we give such an assurance, let alone a guarantee? Should we even try?

The problem here, although closely associated with our persistent demand that the word “success” be enclosed in scare-quotes, is that the request for such a guarantee, or even assurance, is based upon the mistaken presupposition that we know what success looks like. And we don’t: we don’t know what success looks like for a particular child; we don’t know what success looks like for a particular life; we don’t know what success looks like for society or the world; and most importantly of all, we don’t and can’t yet have the vocabulary in which to describe the kinds of success we have not even imagined.

In other words, parents are not only asking for assurances and guarantees that cannot be given because of the serendipitous relationship between multi-causal systems and their outcomes (whether deemed successes, failures, good or bad); they are also asking for assurances that whatever system we employ will deliver back to them a future child or young adult who conforms to their existing expectations of what a well-balanced, mature, successful adult looks like. And neither the concepts nor the vocabulary needed to describe such a future person exists. How much less then do the developmental systems exist that can create them?

So what is the message schools should be delivering to the parents who want the best for their children? It is something like this:

We don’t know how any particular child will develop under the countless influences that will fall upon them; neither do we know the kind of world in which they will spend the majority of their lives, or the kind of personality that will best adapt them to that world, or the knowledge and skills they will need to contribute to the creation of that world’s successors. So we are all on a journey of discovery together, and this institution will need to develop with its students and with the world in which we all live, constantly exploring new possibilities and seizing new opportunities. We do not believe that it is possible to offer more, but we are sure that it is not acceptable to offer less.

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