A Conversation with a Parent Over Coffee

I had a visit yesterday from a parent who is interested in enrolling his children in our school.

The children are already in school and reasonably happy; the parent wanted to know what made a TASIS education superior. For context, this father is a highly-educated professional, obviously smart and well-informed, and both parents work in the technology industry. I expected the conversation to center around the use of technology in schools and our approach to educating young people for the future of work. And in part, it did.

However, like many parents who work in the field of technology, including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, these parents don't believe that ubiquitous technology in schools is the right approach; they even implement controls for their children's access to and use of technology at home. I surmise that this may be because they recognize that too much of a good thing can be harmful, and also that providing a firm grounding in art, reading, history, philosophy, and science is a better way to prepare young people for an uncertain future.

I have written about this in other blogs, so rather than risk repeating myself, I will focus on the other interesting aspect of this conversation.

This father and I largely agreed on the importance of a school partnering with parents to educate their children, and that good schools had a "feeling" that was tangible; that when you enter such schools you immediately feel at home. I mentioned that the best schools in which I have worked throughout my career (there have been 10) were family oriented. They invited families in, valued their involvement, and invited parents to be a part of their child's educational journey. 

The question was how to create such a school. In my opinion, three things stand out:

  1. A commitment to partnership. Many schools would rather have parents enroll their children and then let the school get on with the work of teaching without comment. Although I understand why this might be attractive to school leaders, TASIS schools do not subscribe to this notion. The highly successful TASIS boarding schools invite parents in and communicate regularly with them. This is necessary to building a healthy school community.
  2. A set of common goals. An understanding that the partnership of education yields the best results when both parties (parents and school) are involved and are working towards the same goals.
  3. It helps if the school is new...and small. Both of the aforementioned items are easiest with schools that are new and are small. At TASIS Portugal, we welcome families to help us as "founders" of this new campus. We know we can do it on our own--our founder Mrs. Fleming started schools all over Europe--but we want families to join us in building a school that is right for their children, a school that values families, values teachers, and values respectful relationships.

There was one comment this parent made that gave me pause. He opined that skills are more important for young people than knowledge, because facts can be found on Google when needed. I used to believe that as well, but my opinion has shifted over my time in education.

There is no doubt that teaching students to memorize and recite facts is of little value. But that does not mean that knowledge is no longer important, for as Newton, Vygotsky, E.D.Hirsch, and Nuno Crato demonstrated, new knowledge builds on previous knowledge.

No person can be a subject expert, whether scientist, computer programmer, financial adviser, or art historian, without a large base of knowledge. Even Googling something for understanding requires some background knowledge. When you learn something from the internet you are, in most cases, teaching yourself new knowledge.

Arguably, some of the processes involved are "skill-based," such as reading, reasoning, fact-checking, and so on. I would argue that learning new skills is best accomplished while building a student's knowledge, vocabulary, and historical perspective. Reading is a skill, but it requires knowledge (see my blog on reading). Number sense is a skill, but it is dependent on knowing certain facts and theorems. Writing is a skill, but it is greatly enhanced by developing a solid background in the subject area.

In a good school, two foundational components are required: a consistent, communicated, and well-developed  thematic curriculum, and great teachers. We have both of these at our new school, and a philosophy of having these great teachers work with parents to achieve the very best outcomes for their children. 

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