Over the past few weeks I have been approached by a number of Mums who have expressed an ongoing concern for the well-being of their children attending school. They want to hear how we came to the conclusion to home-school our children and the advantages and challenges associated with our new found lifestyle. While the usual themes come up in the conversation, such as ‘how do you cover the curriculum, how do you ensure your kids socialise’ etc, there is one theme that has me quite stumped. I say that I get approached by Mums, because this theme is about how best to convince their husbands to consider an alternative option to mainstream schooling.
These Mums share with me their partners’ responses when they have discussed their concerns they have around their children’s declining happiness in attending school. Sore tummies, disengagement, sadness, tears and inevitable school refusal identified by the Mums are seen by their partners as just ‘a part of being at school’. Certainly when we first discussed with family members our decision to remove our daughter from school, the typical response was “isn’t that the point of school? No one actually wants to be at school?”
Why is this so? Why do, particularly grown men, accept without question the occurrence of being miserable at school? As if some kind of rite of passage, you have not truly experienced childhood until you have woken up with a sore tummy or headache, or simply wished day after day that you didn’t have to go to school. I say particularly grown men, as this is the part that astounds me most. School statistics feature boys highly in areas of ‘underachievement’ or those with identified behaviour problems. ‘Reluctant writers’ are more often than not, boys. Those referred to services such as Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour, or the Severe Behaviour Team, are more often than not, boys. It is boys who find it hard to sit still on the mat. Boys that find school ‘boring’. But astoundingly as men and fathers, they are the ones reluctant to address why their children are bored or disengaged in school.
If school is to be a place that inspires and creates life-long learners, as our New Zealand Curriculum outlines in its vision statement, then complacency around disengagement should not occur. Reluctance and anxiety around going to school should not be seen as a rite of passage, but a true indication that the system is not working for all children. While homeschooling is not for everyone, school environments that are motivating, engaging and inspiring should be. We should not require our children to ‘harden up’ to the rigors of the institution of school, but rather look to what needs to change in order to best meet the needs of all our students.
Ken Robinson outlines in his TED talk the power of ‘alternative’ education. Many of these reluctant or disengaged learners inevitably end up in such programs if left to remain reluctant over time. He highlights how these programs are successful as they are often individualized, tailored to student interests and passions, developmentally appropriate and flexible in their delivery and structure. He questions, if they are so successful, why do we call them ‘alternative’? Homeschooling is one such alternative. But so are alternatives that directly result in parents calling into question some of the basic institutionalized practices that remain in our school programs today. Having children seated for inappropriate lengths of time. Testing and assessments that are used for purposes other than to inform planning the next step in a child’s learning journey. Discipline practices that are antiquated and ineffective. Setting work for children that is developmentally inappropriate or simply not relevant. The list can go on.
In today’s modern learning environment, now more than ever, with a little creative thinking as a school and a lot of courage and determination, students can have much more of a voice in their learning journey. And while budgetary constraints, high class sizes and inappropriate expectations from the Ministry of Education all impact on a teacher’s ability to design such programs, much of what is possible is in the hands of the teacher themselves.
So perhaps it is time, as parents, to ask ourselves if it is really ok for our children to be reluctant, unhappy and disengaged in school? Is this what we really want for our children? Or do we want our children to be truly empowered to take charge of their own learning, to realise and connect with their interests and passions and be curious about the world around them? To become capable and confident young adults that can contribute to society, without a cynical hangover from their time in school?
If so, then we as parents need to work hard to understand what is being asked of our children that is creating this reluctance, and what we can do to assist schools to better respond to our children’s learning needs. And perhaps those who truly understand what it feels like to be miserable or disconnected with their learning should lead the way in doing this. Dads need to take it upon themselves to learn more about their children’s reluctance and begin to understand that this is not what childhood happiness should be about. Our children only get one shot at a childhood full of joy and discovery, curiosity and adventure. What we learn with joy, we remember and can apply to future contexts. If a students time in school does not inspire this, then parents need to be asking loudly – why?