I am not a parent, but I delight in my job of almost 10 years teaching Middle School students at my Alma Mater. There are new things to learn every day from parents, students and colleagues about life, about children, and about constructing a community of growth together.
Working with Middle School students is sometimes tough, but always rewarding, which I can imagine is how it feels to their parents who are raising them. Over the years, there are some basic mental models that have helped give me a framework for dealing with the daily ups and downs of working with children. Perhaps the most central are the ideas that the grown-ups around a tween-aged child can help the most by “parenting to prepare” rather than “parenting to protect,” and also that the questions asked by adults are often more powerful than any answers that they may give a child.
“Parenting to prepare” vs. “parenting to protect” is something I discovered in a reading for my graduate studies in organizational dynamics. There are two main stories within which teachers and parents often work:
1) that being a good teacher/parent means protecting children – making sure that nothing really bad ever has the chance to happen to them
2) that being a good teacher/parent means helping children build the skills to be prepared to fight their own battles, make good decisions and fix their own mistakes.
Both stories are needed, but the first may be more dominant when working with children in their early years, while a transition toward the second seems important in the tween years. I’ve found that navigating the “parenting/teaching to prepare” model can be very difficult. I sometimes undermine my own efforts to “teach to prepare” by sending kids the message that they should grow up, while not really seeming to trust that they can or by swooping in to fix things for them. Similarly, tweens often demand that we treat them like adults, but then expect us to do all of the work when they fall.
This is where remembering to ask questions has helped me. Luckily, asking questions is already built into so much of what we do at Friends School. When we mediate an Eye-to-Eye conference between students, one of the most important moments is when we ask students how they think the problem being discussed can be solved, rather than telling the students what they need to do.
Academically, we rely on asking essential questions about the content. For example, instead of merely asking what social problems exist in their assigned countries for our recent World’s Fair, students were then asked to discuss on model UN Day how these problems might be solved and what ethical implications were involved. In a math project, students then used data to show the outcomes of proposed solutions.
In short, the emphasis is on helping students learn how to think, rather than what to think. This can be applied every day to both problems big and small. I also enjoy that it allows us to create a community in which problems are really seen as opportunities, rather than road blocks. When a student approaches with a problem, and an adult responds with, “Hmm, that does sound like it may be a problem. How do you think you can fix it?” it is always amazing to see how the student’s demeanor changes – it’s not all about being in trouble…. and he/she is in the driver’s seat!
I’ll leave you with some thoughts from a very interesting story which aired on NPR this week and was shared with me by a colleague. Here’s the overall idea:
In looking at the differences between how the East and the West approach the experience of learning, psychologists have noticed that Westerners tend to view academic success as caused by intelligence, or something that resides within a person’s mind, while in many Eastern cultures excellence is linked with what a person does and especially on his/her willingness to persist through struggle.
In one study, American first graders and Japanese first graders were given a math problem that was unsolvable. According to the article “the American students ‘worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this.’’” On the other hand, the Japanese students worked for the entire session – an hour – even though they never found an answer.
It is interesting to think about how we might unlock even more potential in our students if we praise them for hard work and practice rather than innate intelligence. Do our learning processes and our outcomes change if struggle is raised up as an indicator of emotional strength rather than intellectual weakness? How can we build more experiences into the curriculum that encourage students to reach past just past their current abilities and to struggle?
Maybe we should ask our students….