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BLOG: Note to Educators — Keep Moving Forward [The Parent Diaries]

Part 3 of a 3-part series from the Blog of Hope Katz Gibbs
The Parent Diaries: How to help your child succeed in school — without going insane
April 29, 2008

During a recent conversation with author Dan Pink (pictured here), Peter Noonan, the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in the Fairfax County Public Schools, talked about the future of public education. In Part 1 of their conversation (posted April 9), they talked about Pink’s new manga graphic novel, “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko.” In Part 2 (posted April 16), they talk about what life — and school — might be like when their own young children graduate from high school in the year 2020. In this final segment, Pink and Noonan discuss what it will take to get all educators to focus on the future …

Peter Noonan: Increasingly, it is becoming clear that there are two things that really impact how well a child will do in school—and probably in life: the parent’s income level and the parent’s education level.

Since we can’t control either of those, what keeps us going is the ability to see the future and think about what is important. In Fairfax, more than a third of our students are either English as second language learners, in the special education program, and / or in poverty. We’re working hard with that group to try to bring them up.

Dan Pink: As a self-proclaimed non-educator, speaking to an experienced educator, I’d ask you this: how would you do that in the current system?

Peter Noonan: Excellent question, and one we are really wrestling with for we are traveling down the road of creating a whole team initiative — that means we’re teaching science, technology, engineering and math by means of career and technical education. Options for kids include classes in auto tech, beautician school, and engineering and physics, as well.

We’re also looking to do something similar on the humanities side by incorporating English and Social Studies classes into the program. In time, there will be other subjects and professions that we target, but this is our initial foray into this completely interdisciplinary approach and its very new. And for some educators, it is scary because it is so new.

Dan Pink: I think that approach makes good sense because again, in the so-called real world, problems come at you not as a math problem or a science problem but as just a problem. Yet, there’s this kind of cabining of these disciplines and in fact everything’s connected.

You see this interestingly at the college level. There has been in the last 25 years something like a four fold increase in interdisciplinary majors in college level because college students are looking at the world and saying “Wow, these academic courses don’t match this world.”

If they want to go into biology, for instance, there are so many ethical issues to deal with that you need a background in philosophy or ethics, or you’re going to have a very difficult time untangling some of the knots.

So you have this kid saying I want to be a biologist but I need to major in biology and in philosophy because all of these things are ethical issues and I’m finding philosophy makes me a better biologist. So I think we’ll continue to see more customization at the college level.

Peter Noonan: I think that’s exactly where we’ll begin to see customize in education take hold, and we’ll try to pick up as much as we possibly can within our system—probably first at the high school level.

Dan Pink: I wonder if this current generation will demand that things change. Or maybe, but on the other hand, they might take a very segmented view of things and say, listen, while I’m in school, here’s the school rules, I’m just going to go through the motions, do what I need to do to get by, and then I’m going to go off and do what I really want to do like go on FaceBook, play computer games, do my blog—all these things that I really want to do that school doesn’t allow me to do. I’m not really going to rebel in any dramatic way, I’m just going to play by the rules here and then go to a different spear and play by my own set of rules.

Peter Noonan: That’s very creative thinking.

Dan Pink: Or its schizophrenic, depending on your point of view. But it’s what we do already as a society. I do my religion here, my work there, school here. Its just further compartmentalization, and I think that’s the whole reason why we have to think about how to create that interdisciplinary approach and show kids the interconnectedness of the world and of school and of what they are doing in creating that relevance. And thought: How much writing across the curriculum are you doing? That might help.

Peter Noonan: We’re doing a lot of non-fiction writing now, which is sort of a new world for us. In the last five years it has taken hold, and I think it is promising because its providing opportunity for kids to write technically and to look at things from a historical perspective. They might be writing manuals, and the like.

Dan Pink: It’s also a good test of the mastery of the material to be able to write about a certain topic. I think about my chemistry class in high school and I got As for one reason only: I figured out that basically if you get more or less the right answer on your lab report, and you do it neatly, you’re going to be okay.

If the teacher had ever said “Alright Pink, what I need you to do is sort of write a paragraph of what an ion is,” or “I need you to write a paragraph about how I came up with…” it would have been over. There’s no way I had no mastery of the material. It was just always very good at delivering to authority figures what they wanted, in the form that they want it. And I’m reasonably good at math so the arithmetic part of it I could figure out pretty well, and that’s all you needed.

Peter Noonan: We’re starting to see more of that, I fear, and so we’ve been trying to counter it. We use a tool called interactive notebooks, where kids are actually journaling about the experiences they are having as they learn the material. It makes them look at things at from different perspectives. So they’re writing about math, social studies, and science. I think that’s all positive, and if it’s successful it will help us come up with more creative solutions in the future.

We’re also taking a first stab at building a customized learning plan for each kid so we can see where they are academically at different passage points: 3rd grade, 6th grade, 8th grade and 12th grade. So as a parent, you’ll know how your child is progressing.

Dan Pink: I think it’s important to look at education from the perspective of a parent. I mean, does the average parent really care about the school or school system? In some abstract sense surely you care about whether your school is testing well. It’s a marker telling you the teachers and principal and administrators are doing the right things. It’s also a marker for your property values.

But as a parent I definitely want to know how is my kid is progressing. And I would want to know more than every three years. And, I would want to be part of the decision making process if the child isn’t doing well.

Peter Noonan: Some of what we’d look at would be measured based on a national norm or national average, and some of it would be based on and how well the child did this year as compared to last year. That’s the most important thing to the parents, I believe.

Dan Pink: And if you were brought into that conversation as a parent and say “alright, we’re going to meet at the beginning of this year, we’re going to establish some goals for Eliza. What are your thoughts, here are my thoughts as a teacher, and Eliza what do you think?” Then you’ll put it into a learning plan and at the end of the year we’re going to look at it to see did Eliza meet her goals?

Peter Noonan: Right, and as long as Eliza is brought into the process and has a part of setting goals and how to reach them—then the parents largely butt out, not entirely but largely, and the teacher ends up creating a very customized way to help the student meet her goals. It’s a demanding task for the teacher, especially in a class of 30-35 students. The next trick for us cause we’ve to refocus on what’s most important and figure out ways to engage kids more personally.

Dan Pink: Yeah, I can see that. I do think there is a class bias where that kind of customization won’t work for the less well off kids and I think that’s garbage. I think in many ways it’s more urgent.

Peter Noonan: I would agree. The kids that don’t have parents to act as strong advocates for them need that kind of personalized approach.

Dan Pink: That is a very good way to put it. I never thought of it that way, but it’s also the case when it comes to the healthcare system. My wife had some serious problems with pre-term labor, and when you’re afraid you might have a baby at 21 weeks and your doped up on all kinds of drugs—you’re not making clear decisions. You have to have your pain-in-the-ass husband there asking questions.

I think a lesson for all families is that when one person has a serious medical issue you need another person there to operate as an advocate. Now, again, there’s a class bias there because A: its about time, and B: it’s some measure of education.

So, if I had a medical problem I’m going to be very fine having my Yale trained lawyer wife advocate for me. But someone whose wife has to work the late shift or someone whose wife is working 14 hours a day or doesn’t have a college education—that guy is going to have difficulties.

The same thing is true with education. These kids don’t have an advocate. And they need one.

Peter Noonan: Thank you very much for your time, Dan. It has been very interesting to hear your take on education. I’ll look forward to reading your manga book, and to trying to get our students to write one, too.

Dan Pink: It was my pleasure. Good luck to you!


More Blog: The Parent Diaries Articles

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