Sunday, 17 June 2012

What School?

school road sign

With our son at his last year of kinder before heading off to prep next year, one item at the top of our agenda and the agenda of our peer parents is the question of which school we/they should be sending their kids to next year. I have already touched on what I consider the sad option of private schools, but even ignoring that I still find myself amazed by some of the arguments I hear from other parents. Take these two for example:
“I prefer this school because they separate boys and girls at math and science classes as of year five.”
Girls and boys learn differently, true, but does separating them increase their studying achievements so significantly it is worth the social price of the division? I have been a victim of a “mostly boys” high school myself, and I definitely think it had damaged my social skills; I don’t think it made me any smarter. Besides, in a society that is already too blatantly chauvinistic for its own good, do we want to encourage that further?
“I prefer this school because they emphasize discipline.”
I recognize the importance of discipline; however, I do not want my child to spend his childhood in the military. More than anything, I want him to learn how to think for himself, not how to obey and conform. If thinking for himself means he stumbles here and there then so be it; I’ll be there to help. Besides, I would be very two faced if I was to say I was any different myself, so why should I wish extra discipline on my son?

Looking back at those two criteria, my feeling is best summed up with: Really? Are these the criteria parents use to choose a school for their children?
The combination of the above two arguments makes me think parents don’t really know what they send their kids to school for in the first place. Perhaps it's a mirror of their anxieties. If any systematic thinking is to be identified, it is that which argues sending their kids to school is the first step they take in ensuring their kids’ future financial success. All’s fair in this quest, including doing things they would not want done upon themselves – such as the application of rather grim “educational” practices.
Parents really owe it to themselves to look up and see what factors truly matter in the educational achievements of their children. If they do, they will find their own involvement matters most, as well as the quality of the teachers. Yet these same parents will vote for the party that wouldn’t raise teachers’ pay and tries to reduce the number of permanently positioned teachers, steps that would clearly reduce the quality of teacher talent at hand. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these parents seek the schools perceived to be of the highest status mainly to clear their conscience as they fail to become involved with their children’s activities: "I can work till late with a clear conscience because I fork out $20,000 a year on my child's private schooling".
None of that represents what I would call worthy education. I prefer to think of schools as tools to help produce decent members of society. A good school is one that does so while helping the kids enjoy the process. Granted, an even more important purpose of schools is to help their parents be productive by providing child minding services, but that is not an objective by which I would like to choose my son’s school.
By definition, decent members of society are rational, educated thinkers. Clearly not what the powers that be want to see too much of! Clearly not what they want us to choose our schools by, either.

Image by, Creative Commons license


Uri said...

Oh yes, you were quite the rebel.

What is the rationale behind the separation of boys and girls? Do they teach them different things? Teach the same things differently?

I don’t think I’ve ever hear of this before.

Sarah said...

The "research" shows that girls do better in single sex classes as there is less competition for the teachers attention as boys tend to be louder and more demanding of it. The girls can feel confident to participate without having the pressure of feeling stupid or uncool in front of the boys. However the research also shows boys actually do better in co-ed settings. So obviously not everyone can win.

Apparently our school choice was the hot topic of gossip at a kinder get together yesterday. People think we are "crazy" for the choice we have made. We have a public school a few blocks away which has tight borders and people are dying to get into. As our local they have to take us. They have a strong emphasis on the academic side of things but seem to be lacking in other areas like social and emotional development. The playground has been built all over so there is not much space and the teachers I spoke to were fine but not inspirational.

The school we have chosen the teachers were passionate about the kids,school and the community. Their focus is on developing the whole child academically, socially, emotionally and they care about well being. The also have a really good technology program integrated in the classrooms. The playground has lots of space and good old fashioned sandpits which is one of the important ways my child socialises with other kids.

So we are bucking the trend and not going with the "best" school in the neighbourhood and apparently that is unthinkable. However as an ex teacher I think I may be seeing stuff other parents don't see. I agree with you that my idea of best is not the smartest kid with the best results but one who is emotionally ready to deal with the society in which they find themselves in. Education is much more than the a,b,c's and 1,2,3's

Moshe Reuveni said...

You have a point about discipline. I agree: some kids can be a handful, and in some cases some extra discipline might be the best way to sort them out. However, I wouldn’t run schools that take kids on the basis of their residential address on such a regime; clearly, there would be too many false positives there.

You should be ashamed of yourself! What gives you the right to defy social conventions this way? And for what – the well being of your son?
I’ll go back to the personal story I’ve hinted at in the post, the high school I went to. I went there mostly because my parents wanted me to go there, and they wanted me to go there mostly because graduates from such schools did not get recruited to combat duties in the mandatory Israeli army draft that follows Israeli high schooling. I appreciate their choices: I strongly suspect combat duties and everything that goes with them would have cracked me. On the other hand, I still often ponder on what might have been if my high school years were to be spent on a more socially inclusive school at my local area. It took me way too many years to feel happy with myself, and I have strong suspicions those high school years were critical in that delay. [You can also see hints as to why I took a rocket out of Israel when I could, but that’s another matter altogether.]
That’s my way of saying I think you’re doing the right thing. By the way, I am not convinced we are doing the right thing for our son: the school we’ll be sending him to has been selected on geographical basis alone (you can argue we chose not to go private, but that’s a different story). That’s because I have a problem: I cannot see how I can choose the best school for my son based on the information available to me. There’s none, and seeing the faces of teachers as per the parents’ night we had last week does not contribute in any meaningful way.

My 2c on boys/girls education:
Sarah already gave the common Australian story there (thanks). For Uri’s benefit I will say that I’ve heard it many times but I only heard it in Australia.
What I can add is that I read several research papers that clearly indicate at differences between the way females and males learn. They’re the result of different evolutionary courses, and no – men and women are not equal. I am still to see anyone coming up with schemes that would properly benefit from those differences, and I doubt they would be worth the social price of separation; I think the changes would be more along the lines of changing the way subject matters such as IT are taught so as to make them more attractive to women.
In the particular case I was referring to in my post, I was told that the boys learn maths in the context of sports while girls do so in contexts more relevant to them (don’t ask me what). Given my general regard towards sports, I suspect I would have preferred the girls’ class.

Moshe Reuveni said...

It goes without saying but it's worth saying: Sarah, I love your last two sentences.

Moshe Reuveni said...

It seems my colleague Catherine Deveny has pipped me to the post by a few hours, saying essentially the same things I did:

Uri said...

Your usual regard towards sports? Aren’t you the one who’s waking up in the middle of the night to watch Euro2012 games? (Although one can argue that soccer is not really a sport)

My kids’ match books contain problems of the nature of how many crates does it take to pack 350 oranges if one jalopy (is that what you call those, or is that only an English thing?) holds 25. And how much change would you get for a twenty if you buy five notebooks at 2.5 each, and six pencils at .90.

I’m not sure they’d find it more interesting if the domain was something closer to their hearts. Something like that Sears-Zemansky wondrous person problem: "4-13. A student determined to test the law of gravity for himself walks off a skyscraper 900 ft. high, stop-watch in hand, and starts his free fall (zero initial velocity). Five seconds later, Superman arrives at the scene and dives off the roof to save the student…."

Did we find that problem more interesting than the rest?

But sports problems for boys? What would the girls have? Cooking problems? It sounds like a fifties movie.

Sarah said...

I think Catherine's arguments are a little different to yours. I think she is spot on about the ridiculousness of the pressure and hysteria the school decision seems to create in parents (mainly mothers as she says). However her discussion then seems to come down to stop being precious and put them in the local school and they will be fine.

I am one of those parents who has looked at 5 different schools. It was only by doing this I could see the differences of what they all offered and get a feel for what felt right for us. Some are very traditional and offer straight grades while others do multi-aging and seem more progressive. It was also interesting while the schools that do multi-aging are asked to defend this choice constantly. When I asked the traditional school why it maintained straight grades there was no educational philosophy behind it just that it was the way it had always been done, there were the number of kids to do it and the parents want it (as that is what they had decades ago).

I am lucky as where I live all the schools are good so you can't go wrong as such. In the end I didn't want the "best" school I wanted the one that was right for my child. While it is still a tug to do the traditional thing and send them to the local school as it would be good that they can walk home in 6 years time, I can't go past my gut which says go with the school that develops the whole child not the one that just wants the best NAPLAN scores.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Due to time limitations I'll answer Sarah first:

In my opinion, one needs to be careful when reading Deveny and understand she loves exaggerations. She's a comedian, it's allowed: if she had her way, according to what she said elsewhere, I would have been beheaded for being a four wheel drive wanker. I would behead myself if she beheaded herself first for having four kids and all the carbon imprint that comes with that (to cite an example Deveny herself mentioned).
You’re right, her post does start like mine but then strays. I read her arrows to be directed at parents that screen schools for silly reasons along the lines of those I have labelled myself – that is, parents who are more status anxious than truly caring for the wellbeing of their child. Parents who, for example, seek discipline for their kids but would never impose discipline on themselves. As you know, such parents are the majority.
On the other hand parents like you, who really know their way around education and know what to look for, are rare. That is exactly my problem: I would love to be in a position such as yours where I can truly make evidence based school selection choices. I can’t, though, because I don’t know what I should be really looking for. For example, until I read your comment I had no idea there were [state?] schools around that do multi aging (other than some seemingly eccentric private schools that are too far and too expensive to be on our agenda). I can’t even profess to know what multi aging is. I’m totally ignorant there, which is why I’m happy with the school near us – I don’t know any better.
Deveny’s problem, and for that matter mine as well, is the parents who don’t know better that fail to recognize their ignorance and thus make things worse.

Moshe Reuveni said...


There are vast differences between practicing and spectating sports. My poor performance in the former caused me many childhood anxieties; nowadays I practice sports primarily on the PlayStation.
I agree with you that the concept sounds daft. I suspect it all comes down to the teacher: they could have our Sears-Zemansky or they could run experiments where they burn stuff. Our arguments then become the same: if it's all up to the teacher anyway, why not come up with a great way to excite both males and females together?
I like your "it sounds like a fifties movie" comment, because that's what I tend to think of the stay at home motherhood practice that prevails in Australia (and was quite rare in the Israel I used to know). This is exactly why I think this boys vs. girls separation is bad, because this grouping/tribing is the best way to create antagonism between people. Do we need that in an already chauvinistic society?

Moshe Reuveni said...

Leslie Cannold turned my attention to this article on school sex segregation (degregation?):