7 years ago my wife and I sat in a big hall with about a hundred other parents. All of us sharing a common bond; our first-borns were about to enter kindergarten. The local council had organized a meeting to explain the process. To do this, they had enlisted Kathy Walker as keynote speaker. Her career has combined academic research with years of teaching experience in pre-school education and she was there to regale us with the wisdom that comes from such expertise. I found the night quite memorable. In fact, it is with a fair degree of confidence I now quote from memory a fragment of her opening monologue.
‘…So early in the year a parent seeks me out after the class and says “Katherine,” (Uh oh I think, It’s never a small thing when I’m called ‘Katherine’ and not ‘Kathy’) “Katherine”, she says, “I’m not happy about the way the children are being taught.”
“Oh”, I say, “What’s worrying you?”
“They aren’t learning their ABC’s.”
“Yes?” I replied non-committally.
“Well,” she continued, ”What’s going to happen in Year 12 when everyone else has had the benefit of a year’s head start?”’
Kathy paused for effect and this is why I remember the moment so clearly. You could have split the room into two almost equal groups based on their reaction to this apparent punch line.
Half the audience saw the joke. This half recognised a situation where the experienced educator must patiently manage the anxiety of the aspirational, ambitious and possibly naïve, parent who either doesn’t understand or believe in the “learn through play” concept.
However, there were an equal number of parents looking concerned. For them there was no joke. Indeed, the looks on their faces indicated they were thinking the mother in the story had a good point. They were impatient with the amused half of the room because of the interruption to an unfinished anecdote.
“Well? So, what is going to happen to them… ‘Katherine’? “
The mixed reaction of the room certainly didn’t unnerve Kathy. In fact, now I think about it, I suspect she was pleased to have this reaction because the rest of her talk was on the importance of preschoolers learning through play and the sound pedagogy that underpins it.
She earned her fee that night I think.
This event turned out to be one of great professional significance for me. Not because of the public lecture that explained ‘learn through play’ – although that was something I found interesting, as I was only really half aware of it before. No, this was the first time I’d sat in on a discussion of education as a parent, sitting amongst parents. It brought with it, an extraordinary new perspective.
Everyone in the room was united in their sincere wish to provide their children with the best possible opportunities. However, the way of going about it split them down the middle. It didn’t matter that the prevailing academic opinion advocated ‘learn through play’. It didn’t matter that the advocate was an expert with 20 something years worth of experience in managing kindergarten classes as well as academic research. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if the room was informed that ‘learn through play’ is a fundamental element of the highly respected system of education in Finland (see previous blog for details).
No, roughly 50% of the parents in that room were starting their child’s education journey convinced that it’s a race from day one. Furthermore, they were going to take an awful lot of persuading before they were convinced that any deviation from content acquisition and assessment wouldn’t equate to a damaging loss of ground to other children.
I am caught between frustration and admiration for these people. I have great respect for their devotion to their kids…but they were wrong (sorry to be so blunt) and they needed to hear from an unquestionable authority in the field that their adult perspective was misguided.
I really like the idea of the big room with the expert discussing teaching and learning to the community. Not a specific school community, a local community. Public lectures where families learns what’s important in education rather than what your school is doing for you and your child. Sadly, this one night 7 years ago has been my only experience of it to date.
That particular cohort is rapidly approaching the half way mark. I wonder if those parents, whose preconceived ideas of what is best for their child’s education, have been challenged since that night. I wonder if they’ve changed their thinking over the years. I wonder if they still think it’s a big race to be better than everyone else.
I wonder all this but I’m pretty sure of one thing. All their kids know their ABCs these days.
If you’re interested in Kathy Walker here’s her foundation’s webpage.
I am almost 100% sure they still think it’s a big race!