A Letter to Grandchildren

To: Cindy, Scott, Paul J., Pam, Todd, Teresa, Ted, and Kathy
From: Granddad Paul W.

Not one of you has chosen a career in professional education, but you are choosing to be parents. Since I believe one key to better education is in the collaboration between parents and school specialists, it seems appropriate that the summary of a message I recently prepared for a professional journal be summarized for some special parents who happen to be my grandkids.

I like what I see and hear about my great-grandkids from my Foxdale retirement observation perch. Please continue to watch and listen to these new creations; they will tell you when they are ready to use some help with their learning. Their childhood curiosity will mature into motivation for exciting lifetime learning if it is not too soon crowded into an adult-engineered social pattern. Give them time to discover the world with their own eyes, ears and hands. Of course protect them from dangers they can’t safely meet, but——

I have a confession, a very personal one, to share in some detail about the schools you now confront as your children head off to be educated for life in 21st-Century global society. Nineteenth Century school planners led by Horace Mann projected an organization and a list of courses for compulsory schooling intended to give every child the education that had been available only to the wealthy. Beginning in New England, the 20th Century saw that goal and its implementation at local and state levels inch its way to all 50 states. Uneven population distribution and spotty funding yielded mixed results, but overall the nation moved through the 20th Century with a schooling system accurately reflecting American style living: content-standardized, age-graded, competitive and focused on anticipated needs for adults living in the emerging industrial age.

The plan did not work well on the frontier in Minnesota farm country where I began my career as a teacher. My first Otter Tail County Supervisor, an elected farmer and friend of my farmer father, sensed the new plans coming out of the East were not realistic for farm kids destined to devote their lives to “caring for the old farmstead.” His instructions to me as I accepted the role of Teacher for District 66 at age 18 in the fall of 1930 were: “Forget the theory you learned in summer teacher training and use your head.” I found it good advice—in fact the only way to survive—with 25 young farmers, ages 6 to 16, facing me with washed and smiling faces that September morning.

Horace Mann lived to see many of his 19th-Century dreams accomplished. The schools your parents attended in the 20th Century were refined versions of the Mann dream of a schooling system, universally required and guaranteed to turn out educated citizens for an increasingly industrialized world organized on assembly lines that could produce standardized motor cars and other manufactured things with great efficiency. Lacking insights yet to be discovered about the learning process from the undeveloped research field of psychology, it is really not surprising that teachers and their supervisors—your grandfather among them—defined school learning as a product to be managed in a system borrowed from industry. Learning was seen as something to be produced on children and the assembly line was the key to efficient production. The error in assumptions—that learning was a commodity that properly organized could be affixed to children as they moved in age groups through childhood and adolescence—was not spotted until several generations of children had been processed. Dropouts from the graded school system destroyed the goal of efficiency and though teachers tried nobly, uniform results could not be achieved by the age-packaged students.

A two-century historical perspective is revealing. The 19th and 20th centuries had rapidly industrialized the American spirit and energy; the public schools unsurprisingly conformed to the organizing pattern. Centralized school organizations borrowed the theory of systems so necessary for efficient industrial production. Since schools were service agencies in the larger society, following the production model seemed logical, even necessary: demand consolidation to achieve central direction, specialize the learning experiences, organize the learners into batches and mass-produce educated citizens for American industrialized democracy!

The borrowed plan worked just well enough for about half the students to encourage full speed ahead. By 1930 (when my career as a teacher in public schools began) the learning-psychologists and neurobiologists were only beginning to raise serious questions about “learning” as a product that could be prefabricated by schooling systems. No doubt schools could and should influence the learning progress of children but mass production of learning, that we began to see generates in the brain of the individual learner, appeared increasingly absurd. But separating children’s learning from system patterns that worked so well for manufacturing has been slow and difficult. Enough pupils were able to adjust to the borrowed system to keep it alive. The many school dropouts were encouraged to just try harder and the stalled misfits or nonconforming were allowed to shift into neutral and wait for graduation to escape the system and move on with their individual learning and living. Isolated teacher-parent teams scattered throughout the system occasionally demonstrated better arrangements for individual learners, but system inertia usually terminated such creative gestures without serious apology.

The often named “Peace Corps” generation of the 1960s made valiant efforts to escape the dominant system but often lacked scientific support and personal conviction. Some of their children (that is your generation) seem now to understand better what the scientists can demonstrate about the learning process and are gingerly taking back the authority to manage the learning experiences for their own children. The public school system with its resources is now being challenged to help parents move childhood learning away from a mass production model to a parent-student accountability model—more akin to that traditionally accepted for individual artistic maturing and developing (art, music, athletics, etc.).

During the 19th and 20th centuries, professional educators should have learned that:
 

  • The pressure on developing skills and ideas for use at some later time in life deprives many learners of naturally motivating curiosity with attendant waste of school resources.
  • Desired learning cannot be guaranteed by standardizing information, sorting the learners, assigning them arbitrarily and compelling attendance.
  • Carefully chosen professionals can and should supplement the parenting role but can never substitute for home nurturing and authority; schools can supplement but never replace the reality of the workplace; that must be provided and supervised by employers.
  • Schools at all age levels need more programs that encourage decision-making and accountability in addition to academic excellence.
  • Public supported learning resource specialists should be and often are readily available beyond the years of formal schooling.

 

As we face the future, several assumptions seem safe:
 

  • Humans will continue to procreate.
  • Parents will increasingly reclaim responsibility that has devolved to professionals such as teachers and guidance counselors.
  • Public funds and competent specialists will be available to assist parents and the children as they both move toward the goals of responsible independent learning and living.

 

How will the changes happen?

 

  • Slowly, experimentally, one situation at a time. Established systems are difficult to change.
  • By being alert for “soft spots.” Professional staff and parents in the system will arrange exceptions and by carefully evaluating and documenting innovations will move ahead. Perhaps charter schools, home schooling, individualized programs, substitutions for required courses, internships for school credit, classes for parents with their children are examples already being tested to provide win-win situations for learners.
  • By designing other win-win situations for learners. (avoiding traditional report cards that always create losers)
  • By expecting, accepting and explaining resistance to change and tolerating many failures while enjoying a few exhilarating successes.
  • By being content with small gains in the traditional system. For steady progress toward a new vision for public education, too little progress at any specific time is safer than too much.

 

Teachers and principals can ease the transition by watching for parents who take their parenting responsibilities seriously. Listen to them and try to accommodate their unique requests for assistance. Even Horace Mann never claimed schools could substitute for creative, responsible parenting. Twentieth Century industrialized America inevitably (but too quickly and completely) adopted industrial production practices for public education. The responsibility for childhood learning was confused and distorted. Some 21st-Century parents are demanding changes to acknowledge what we now know about individual differences in learning. Parents need to be in control of educational decisions for their own children; school professionals should be doing more to help those parents who are ready to try new promising approaches to parent/school collaboration.


The present system of schools with its graded curriculum has developed using some assumptions about learners that can no longer be defended. Incorporating the new psychology of learning and the new biology of the neural system into school practices will take time. Progress will come through making wise exceptions for individual parents and their children who opt out of the present system and ask for help to do what they believe fits better for the individual child learner. Creative professionals in schools have always done what they could to support such parents. Leadership and patience are urgent needs as the new system emerges.

As a final confession to you and your children, I helped to build that public school system described at the beginning of this letter. We really did not know how to do it right, but you found a way to make it work individually for you. Schools are even now reorganizing and training personnel to improve this helping service, but you 21st-Century parents must learn how to use the education system as it exists and operates today; your children are here now. Changing any system is a slow process.

Know your responsibilities as parents, firmly declare that the decisions about your child are yours to make, and by insisting on your authority and responsibilities encourage a new schooling model to arrive sooner rather than later. You can do it even as your parents did for you!

 

Granddad PW
September 2011