There’s a vintage piece of market research about how we make our choices as consumers. Stop a bunch of people in the street and ask them how they like their coffee, and the overwhelming majority will say the same thing: strong, black with a powerful aroma. Follow those same people home and watch how they make their coffee. The chances are that it’ll be weak and milky. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the coffee shops in Seattle made it cool to ask for a weak, milky coffee by calling it a latté.
This disjuncture, between our stated wishes and our actions, doesn’t just apply to coffee preferences. As an observer of “parent evenings” in the U.K., I see one parent after another speak the language of black coffee. The talk is of grades, targets, revision strategies, or homework compliance. Talk to those same parents outside the intimidating atmosphere of what many Australian parents call “the five-minute speed dating exercise” and the conversations have a very different, latté-like tone: Are their kids happy? Do they make friends easily? Are they speaking much in class? Have they experienced bullying?
Beyond the “sausage sizzle”
I’m lucky enough to work in schools around the world, and it was this universal dissatisfaction with these encounters between parents, teachers and students – often amounting to little more than a performance review of a disgruntled employee – that convinced me there had to be a better way.
In most countries, it seems that the input of parents into the culture-building of schools too often fails to rise above what Australians call the “sausage sizzle”: primarily, organizing or participating in occasional fundraising social events. This seems to be a great opportunity missed. I have long maintained that the biggest underutilized resource, that schools ignore at their peril, is the skillset within its parent body. Here you’ll find senior executives, skilled craftsmen and women, artists, community lynchpins – yet how often are those skills woven into student’s learning experiences?
In an attempt to recast the concept of parental engagement, I put together a series of workshops that would bring teachers and parents together to get beyond speed-dating and black-coffee conversations, so that deep learning conversations could take place. In the first parent workshop I led, in Canberra, as part of a national tour sponsored by the Australian Parents Council, I asked discrete groups of teachers and parents to brainstorm ways that stronger partnerships could be built. The teacher group suggested weekly newsletters and social media tools to update parents on their child’s progress – strategies to inform, not involve. The parents had other ideas: they saw themselves as potential reading coaches, classroom assistants, assessors of student presentations of learning, field trip organizers. There was no denying their desire to be in the thick of all things learning.
I’ve observed this divergence – not to say gulf – in ideas for deepening parental engagement in several countries. From hypercities like New Delhi to rural communities in England and Ireland, I’ve felt the same urgency from parents, no longer content to be supporting from the sidelines, asking instead to be active players.
How should the teaching profession respond? I’d suggest a number of ways forward.
First, we should see this call for greater parent participation as an opportunity, not a threat. I’m not being naive here. We’ve all encountered parents who seem to view schools as little more than child-minding provision, the salve for all of society’s ills, or the reason why their child missed out on that Nobel Prize. But the majority of parents well understand the pressures schools operate under, and – here’s the kicker – really want to better understand this thing we call learning. Get a bunch of parents in a room, ask them to identify the design principles of their “dream school” or show them videos of direct instruction/inquiry-based learning in action, and two things inevitably happen: they realize how complex the task of teaching 25 kids with widely differing needs actually is; and second, they become immersed in deep learning conversations.
I once spoke with an inspiring school principal who voiced a frustration commonly shared by school leaders: “The biggest obstacle we face, when trying to innovate, is parental perceptions of what ‘school’ is supposed to look like. They have a mental model from when they attended, and they find it hard to see it any other way.” I spoke to a highly successful parent in Gurgaon, in India, who appeared to confirm the problem: “I know the traditional model of an Indian school classroom is not going to survive the 21st century, but I came from a small village, and now I work for a multinational corporation – it must have worked for me!”
So, resistance to change is often greater in schools serving wealthier populations. But when I ask school principals what they’ve done to involve parents in discussions around the imperative to change, the response is almost always “not much.” And here’s the rub: if we want to redesign schools for the unique challenges that our kids will face, we can’t do it without getting parents involved in the conversations.
Does it count?
Part of those discussions, I would suggest, needs to be around what is meant by “parental involvement.” Most parents feel that the best way they can support their child’s attainment in school is through interventions associated with being a good parent: reading to them, helping with homework, attending PTA meetings, monitoring their test prep, and so forth. The confusing reality is that there is no clear evidence to show that any of these things work.
The seminal work on parental involvement, The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s,  concluded that what seems to improve test scores in one context (say, parents discussing school experiences with Hispanic children) had a negative effect in another (parents of Black kids doing exactly the same thing). Authors Harris and Robinson also demolished the homework myth (helping kids do their homework usually has a negative effect on test scores) and the “Tiger Mom” illusion (there’s no evidence to show that Asian parents value education any more than other ethnic groups). The researchers did find evidence to support some parenting strategies: regularly talking about post-school aspirations appears to have a positive correlation with better attendance and attainment, and regularly reading to children before they start going to school has an obvious impact upon language development. Other than that though? Not so much.
It’s hard to overestimate how counter-intuitive the evidence appears. Having parents engaged in their child’s learning must be a good thing, right? Not if you equate success with academic scores. However, there are many other reasons for advocating greater parental involvement – and many other forms it can take.
Despite the confusing and even discouraging evidence they uncovered, even the Broken Compass authors wanted to see greater parental participation.
Speaking in an interview for Maclean’s in 2013, Keith Robinson argued that:
“Effective parental involvement might, in fact, be in reach, but we are stuck in conventional ways of thinking about parents’ roles. What we need in this country is the next step – explaining to educators and parents that parents matter on a much more intangible, abstract level. That has to do with their effectiveness in communicating to their children how essential education is to the kids’ lives.”
Perhaps part of the problem was hinted at in another study. In a qualitative study of school-parent relationships in the U.K., Alma Harris and Janet Goodall concluded:
“It is clear that powerful social and economic factors still prevent many parents from fully participating in schooling. The research showed that schools rather than parents are often ‘hard to reach.’ The research also found that while parents, teachers and pupils tend to agree that parental engagement is a ‘good thing,’ they also hold very different views about the purpose of engaging parents.”
The Broken Compass conclusion was that parents shouldn’t worry about volunteering or observing in a classroom, but should focus instead on “stage setting”: a theatrical term meaning to create the right environment for the actors (teachers) to perform. But I would argue that parents want to, and should, be on the stage, not passively supporting from the wings.
It may not boost test scores but it could have a number of other, vital, benefits:
- Our children will need to be learning throughout their lives – the coming economic models of employment demand it. In What’s The Point Of School? Guy Claxton writes, “In a complicated, fast-changing world the intelligent path is to let go of being a Knower and embrace being a Learner… We must all, adults as much as young people, stay open and flexible, ‘expect the unexpected’ and keep learning.” Seeing their parents deeply engaged in learning conversations and helping to set the educational direction of their school, will reinforce this notion for students.
- Community building is an essential responsibility for schools, and this goes far beyond encouraging parents to organize fundraising events. It could be about putting on courses in community leadership for single mothers, or having parents work the school garden or teach cycling or swimming – as happens at Hilltop Public School in Sydney, Australia. Or it could be about advisory teachers at High Tech High Schools in San Diego having dinner with their students’ parents. Or it could be the involvement of parents and community members as panel members at XP School in Doncaster, England, when students reflect as metacognitive learners during “Passage Presentations” marking significant milestones. Or it could be the kinds of workshops that I, and others like me, facilitate to engage parents in deep conversations about the kind of learning they want to see for their kids. The focus of these encounters is perhaps less important than their symbolism. They say, “We see you, and you belong here – let’s figure this out together.” Almost all schools speak of parents as primary educators. Comparatively, few of them practice it.
- Involving parents helps to re-cast them in the eyes of their children. Seeing one’s parent as a valued member of a school community, bringing their professional expertise or physical labour to support other children’s learning, can be a formative experience. For too many children, the only time they see their parent guardian talking to teachers and principals is when they’re in trouble.
Power to the people?
There is, however, an even bigger potential gain to be had from an equal, and genuine, partnership between schools and parents, and I sincerely believe its time has come. For those of us who believe that politically-driven education “reform” is a poor substitute for educator-led system transformation, who preach the urgency to re-think schooling so that it can be future-facing, we must ruefully accept that there isn’t a secretary of state for education anywhere in the developed world who will listen and act purely upon the guidance of professional educators. As the U.K.’s former education boss, Michael Gove, observed during the divisive Brexit campaign, “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”
But they will listen to parents, because parents vote, in large numbers. And parents really care about their children’s education. What’s more, parents are becoming more vocal, more autonomous about ensuring that their children get an education worth having. In growing numbers, they are withdrawing their children from anxiety-inducing, relentless testing regimes; more of them are even taking the difficult decision to homeschool their kids. In many countries parents are demanding more from their politicians, and from their schools. If we’re being honest, most educators would have to accept that they’ve not done a great job in getting parents onside and tapping into parent power. But that’s beginning to shift. We’re realizing that if we want to see an education revolution, we need to work more closely alongside parents.
One leading voice in education, Sir Ken Robinson, is aiming his next book squarely at the parent readership. I was lucky enough to meet with Ken recently and asked why he felt the time is now right to mobilize parents:
“The people we have to engage with are parents. When I started working on the book, I asked parents on Twitter and Facebook what their biggest concerns were about education. I had literally hundreds of responses within half an hour. It was just like lancing a boil. The narrative is changing in education, because the world around it is changing so much. And it’s been happening for a long time: the falling value of university degrees, the costs of getting them; the whole political economy of education is shifting, and parents are sensing it… There are forces for change that we’re not inventing, we’re just trying to account for them. (Parents are) the audience that we haven’t been able to get through to yet. We need to get better at getting the message across.”
We do, indeed.
There may be scant evidence to support greater parental engagement as a means to improving test scores. There is, however, a social and, I would suggest, a moral imperative for us to re-visit our perceptions of parents as partners in learning. Put bluntly, we need them much more than they need us. By thinking beyond their role as mere “stage setters,” we can not only significantly enhance the learning experiences of our students, we can tap into their enormous political influence and power to help bring about the transformation of schooling, and future-ready students.
Photo: Anne-Sophie Hudon-Bienvenue
First published in Education Canada, December 2017
 The Broken Compass: Parental involvement with children’s education, K. Robinson and A. Harris (Harvard University Press, 2014).
 Alma Harris and Janet Goodall, “Do Parents Know They Matter? Engaging all parents in learning,” Educational Research 50, no. 3 (2008).
 G. Claxton, What’s The Point Of School? (OneWorld Publications, 2008).