BY BRENT SILBY
My four year old son attends a local pre-school. The teachers there do a wonderful job. In fact, I think they deserve medals for the care and attention they pay the students. Working in such a noisy, demanding environment takes a high level of dedication.
We have just received a Progress Report for our son. After a series of comments on a range of social attributes, there is a section for parent comments. Within that section they ask the question:
What do you feel is important for [your child] to have learned / developed before [the transition to] school?
I find this a strange question. For a start, rather than being asked “what I feel”, I’d prefer to be asked “what I think”, which I consider to be a far more interesting question. But despite this relatively unimportant choice of words, I am concerned that they are even asking this sort of question. Now, I’m an educator, so I can make a pretty good attempt at answering the question. However, since I do not work with children of pre-school age, I do not really know what they need to have learned before transitioning to school. And most parents of children at pre-school would have even less of an idea of what their children need to have learned during their time in Early Childhood Education.
It seems to me that this question is analogous to a doctor asking a parent “what do you feel are the most important vaccinations for your child to have before traveling overseas?”, or an electrician asking “where do you feel are the safest places to install power points in your house?”, or a lawyer asking a client “what do you feel is your best line of defense?” Most lay people are unable to provide realistic answers to these questions. That’s why they employ trained professionals. Surely education should be the same. Rather than the teacher asking the parents what their child needs to learn, the parents should be asking the teacher what their child needs to learn.
Because parents generally do not have knowledge of the curriculum or complete understanding of child development and teaching, the best available answer to such a question will involve socialization. Parents will respond in terms of the importance of a child’s well-being, friendships, and values. These are undoubtedly important. However, these will be acquired regardless of the intentions of parents and educators. As human beings, children have a disposition to become socialized. It seems that in making these a priority, the pre-school teachers end up simply observing and reporting on the development of social characteristics that are bound to occur simply by the child being part of society.
So why do we not defer to the professional educators? Why do teachers ask parents what’s most important? This seems to be part of a trend in education. Students are often considered to be “clients” to be served by the teachers. The old saying “the customer is always right” is working its way into this new education model. Teachers are losing the professional ability to make decisions for the best interests of the child. Instead, their role is to take note of what parents require and then ensure that those requests are fulfilled. It seems that education is becoming a service industry. The teachers at my son’s pre-school even wear uniforms similar to those worn by service staff in certain food chains such as McDonald’s. Their job is to serve the customer.
Some might argue that there is a real benefit in this trend, and that as education moves further in this direction, student individual needs are more likely to be met. They have a point. Having the ability to directly tell the teacher what they want their child to learn means parents have a certain guarantee that their child will not be lost in the crowd.
But do parents know what is best? They certainly know their children and are well positioned to make decisions about their child’s social needs. But there is more to education than socialization. Children need to become literate and numerate. They also need knowledge of the world and their place in it—geographically, historically, and philosophically. Education professionals need the autonomy to make decisions that they know are in the best interests of the child. This does not mean cutting parents out of the learning process. Instead it means getting parents more involved. It means informing parents of what the child needs and then proceeding with the required teaching. As part of this, teachers should provide access to material so that parents can become involved in reinforcing the child’s learning at home.
Making decisions about a child’s education requires specialist knowledge of what children need. Teachers are trained to understand the needs of children and they have the skill-set required to meet those needs. Education is not a service industry and students are not clients. Education is a system that provides students with knowledge and the ability to comprehend that knowledge. It is time to halt the decline of education. Teachers need to reclaim their status as education professionals. So next time a teacher asks me what I think my child needs to learn, I am going to respond by asking the teacher what she thinks my child needs to learn.