Thursday, August 27, 2009

Engagment is not enough

School is starting, in most places either last week or this wee. Like any other sort of new year, it's a time for resolutions, for setting new expectations and resolving to do the right thing.

The president spoke to the nation's children, or tried to, with this in mind. Time to think about hard work, finding your strengths and persevering through the challenges, he said.

Children are not the only ones who begin a new year around labor day. Parents, too, begin a new cycle. They see their children off to school, to a new grade, and know that themselves are beginning a new year. For many of them -- perhaps most and eventually we hope for all of them -- one of their own issues each year is figuring out how to support their children's learning. Buying school supplies is easy. What about the rest?

Obviously, parents can help their children with their homework. They can set aside a quiet place and time for them to study. Is there more?

Well, traditionally, parents would ask their children "How was school, today?" Maybe they'd ask "What did you learn in school today?" Trite questions, to be sure, but powerful nonetheless. How better to signal to their children that they care about education and are invested in their learning than this sort of thing?

Of course, those questions get old. Kids hear them too often, and they don't feel genuine. Parents feel silly asking the same question every day. And engagement in this sort of important conversation fades.

With all of this in mind, Will Richardson has written about the kinds of questions he hopes to ask his children this year, and offer 13 examples. His readers have offered dozens more in the comments. Together, they make an interesting collection.

But I'm not satisfied.

In fact, I am troubled.

I don't have a problem with any of the questions, I don't think. But taken in their totality they seem a bit thoughtful and random. Yes, they are good questions, but so what? What is goal of these questions? What are they meant to accomplish?

You see, I think that one of the great problems with American schooling is the muddle. We do many things, with not real focus on plan on the deeply meaningful long term goals. We do little things to satisfy everyone, but never really focus on what we want to accomplish. Taking a bunch of ideas and throwing them together does not necessarily make for a great combination. Too many cooks can spoil the soup, right?

I think that we see this in technology. Most tech companies design products with lots of features, to meet the needs of a broad swath of the potential market. More features, they seem to believe, leads to broader appeal. But like the big swiss army knife, american schools has gotten unwieldy and hard to use.

Apple has taken a different approach with its products. They often have fewer features, but a much greater sense of cohesiveness and purpose. More integrated, and even thoughtful. Never the only way to do a great product, but almost always a great product.

So, I am not saying that any of Will's questions are poor, or even any from his commenters. But I really do not know what they are seeking to accomplish. These questions have different goals and assumptions behind them. And my real issue with his post and the comments is that they are mindless of these issues, of the goals and assumptions that their questions represent.

What Did You Create Today?

What did you learn about fairness today?

What will you now do tomorrow because of what you did today?

What was the coolest/most interesting question someone else asked today?

These are great questions, as are the others in will's post and the comments. (Really, they are good questions. Go and read them.) I am not challenging that. But they have different goals. When it comes to education, we really do need to be mindful of goals, and make sure that what we do meets the goals we have in mind.

So, if parents goals are merely to have engaging conversations with their children about their school days, any of these questions might do. Switching among them might work, too. Yes, that is a worthy goal. But if parents want to reinforce some aspect of learning or schooling, encourage particular kinds of behaviors or habit of mind, selection from among these questions requires them to be more thoughtful.

And the exercise of uncovering the assumptions and goals of these questions would be a good way for any parent or PTA to get a hold on some of the hardest and most important questions in education.

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