“There is an important distinction between preparing your child for the road ahead…and preparing the road ahead for your child.”
As our children head back to school, our attention as parents inevitably turns to some critical questions: Will they be happy? How can we help them be successful? How much do we let them “go it on their own?”
The answers are not easy, and they depend as much on the age and individual nature of the child as anything else.
Nevertheless, educational researchers increasingly agree on some basic ingredients in helping our children become, in the words of Park Tudor’s mission statement, “balanced, confident, and resourceful lifelong learners.” Indeed, from Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck to popular author Daniel Pink to educational leaders Paul Tough and Howard Gardner (all of whom our faculty and staff have read over the past four summers as part of our goal of staying abreast with the most recent thinking in education), an emerging consensus is helping us as parents navigate between the Scylla of over-parenting and the Charybdis of an overly hands-off approach.
Below, then, is some of the best thinking distilled from these various authors.
Focus on inputs as much (or even more) as outputs
While it is natural to focus on the end product—grades; standardized test scores; the result of the most recent soccer game—it is perhaps even more important to pay attention to the efforts and preparation that go into those tasks. As Carol Dweck explains in her pathbreaking book Mindset, young people are most successful when the primary emphasis is on the hard work and discipline they apply to their courses, rather than the grades they achieve. Somewhat counter-intuitively, she finds that “fixating on the final result (the grade) or praising students for being ‘smart’ can actually lead to underperformance—as students begin to internalize that their success stems from some innate quality, most notably natural intelligence, rather than the efforts they put into their studies.” Moreover, as Daniel Pink explains in his pathbreaking book Drive, extrinsic motivators likes trophies, rewards for good behavior, and, yes, even grades, can actually “demotivate people by conditioning them to make their efforts contingent on external rewards, rather than the intrinsic satisfaction of a job well done.”
This is not to say, of course, that grades, or keeping score in games, or championing success is somehow wrong. Far from it. Instead, the lessons from cognitive research simply suggest that focus on inputs, rather than outputs, leads to even better performance and happiness in young people. This is why, for example, we have deemphasized “marble parties” and other extrinsic rewards for our youngest students.
Embrace success…and failure
Basic common sense suggests that success in an endeavor is important to a person’s growth and satisfaction. But, interestingly, recent research makes it clear that failure is critical as well. In his work How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough explains that “young people simply must be allowed to try, and fail, in order to achieve the success and creativity that we cherish.” He goes on to describe the “risk-averse child: the one who, for fear of failing, never tries at all. Or who always seeks the right or ‘known’ answer because they are far safer than trying the unknown.”
This has critical significance in teaching and learning…and in parenting. All of us—teachers, administrators, parents—wince when our children struggle on a project or get frustrated with the lack of positive results. But, no matter how difficult, we as parents need to embrace these periods of struggle and value the opportunities for our children to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again. So the next time your child leaves her homework at school and asks you to return late at night to retrieve it, you might consider telling them instead to live with the consequences! Programmatically, this approach also explains our increasing focus on innovation and design thinking at all levels: both are built on trial and error and ‘prototyping’ (and failing) before building the final product.
But lest one think that the above researchers (or we as parents or educators) have “gone soft” and are espousing some “new-age approach to education,” all in fact share a common belief in the importance of foundational skills and content. As Howard Gardner explains in his book Five Minds for the Future, “there is no doubt about it: sustained effort and a strong mastery of ‘the basics’ matters….” In his dual-meaning of the term, “a disciplined mind” implies both a “process that is arduous” and an education that is “founded on time-honored principles.” Interestingly, he identifies four essential steps in achieving a disciplined mind:
- Focus on the essential topics or concepts in an area.
- Spend a significant amount of time on them.
- Approach the information in a number of ways.
- Give students ample opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways.
To that end, last year we created in grades 6-12—the grades in which a ‘discipline-based’ education becomes most pronounced—“curriculum overviews” that identify the key concepts and assessments at each course level. Moreover, we have piloted a series of summer curricular programs—the Ernst and Young Integrated Business Program; the summer “Southern Studies” course; and the new Humanities 9 class—designed to let students dive even more deeply into areas of particular interest. It also explains why Park Tudor will continue to focus on our “core curriculum” to ensure that students have the foundational skills and knowledge they need.
At Park Tudor, our vision is both simple and wildly aspirational:
As all of us—students, parents, teachers, staff and administrators—travel this road together, it is worth remembering that it can get a bit bumpy at times….And that in preparing our children for the road ahead, we would do well to resist the temptation to prepare the road ahead for our children.
By Peter Kraft, Associate Head of School for Academic Affairs