School's Out: A Conversation with Young Learners and Parents

Q&A   10 October 2018
By Suyash Agrawal and Keyonna Griffin and Monica Griffin and Leah Hanley and Candice Longnecker and Sai Narain

 

I believe the role of the parent is still the same in this future society because you’re always responsible for the education of your children.

Monica Griffin
Parent from Mississippi

On October 8th, five educators published School’s Out—an invitation for communities “to explore how profoundly we need to alter our perspective on the meaning, feel, and delivery of learning.” To showcase the diversity of education stakeholders you are likely to find in your own community, we have conducted three robust conversations with community and organization leaders, young learners and parents, and educators. Each conversation revolves around the question: What if school did not exist? What would you create?

Our second conversation was with three learners and three parents representing a diversity of perspectives: Suyash Agrawal (Young Learner from New Jersey), Keyonna Griffin (Young Learner from Mississippi), Monica Griffin (Parent from Mississippi), Leah Hanley (Young Learner from California), Candice Longnecker (Parent from Alabama), and Sai Narain (Parent from California). 


Q : If school was no longer the place you went to get your learning experiences, how would you like your day and learning to be structured?

Suyash: I feel like I would go to a mentor or join an apprentice program. Depending on what I wanted to do with my life and what craft I wanted to learn, I would go to an expert and they would train me. Personally, I want to be a stockbroker or financial broker, so I would train under a stock or financial expert, and they would show me how their day-to-day life goes. I would assist with their work, so I’d be better prepared for that career.

I’d also spend some time with older people who’ve experienced more in life and would be able to better prepare me for whatever comes my way—teach me all these aspects of life that school really doesn’t teach you.

Keyonna: I think I would try to learn all of life’s lessons. Maybe spend a couple of days with a mentor and other days getting tutoring sessions.

Leah: As a college student who’s already graduated high school, I would naturally fall into the workforce. But, if I was still in high school, I’d want to find internships that aligned with the things I’m interested in, like sociology and education.

All my life, I’ve looked to my education community for role models. I’ve always worked really hard to develop personal relationships with my teachers, professors, and advisers. I think if all of a sudden school was eliminated, I’d still search for some kind of older figure with experience—be it in a subject that I’m interested or not—that’d be able to provide me with advice and guidance.

I’d also just want to touch on mental health and finding someone that I feel comfortable talking to. They would likely be someone older than me and who has advice they can share, whether it’s just a therapist or a human being that I trust.

Q: Parents, after listening to the young learners’ answers, what role could you see playing in providing your own children access to those types of mentorship opportunities?

Candice: I think this is very dependent on the age of your child. It’s going to look very different depending on what each child needs. I believe my ninth-grader could seek out similar mentorship opportunities as were just suggested. But, it looks very different for my fourth-grader and seventh-grader. They are still in a place where I feel like they need a little more hands-on approach than just a mentor to guide them in their passion.

Honestly, as a parent, there’s also a level of panic, “Wow that would be my job, I’d have to make sure that my child was getting what they need at every single level.” I love what Leah said about the emotional health because, as a parent, “Amen!”

Sai: For me, you have to teach kids to ask the right questions so they can get what they really need. I would probably look to give my kids a lot of different experiences, so they can discover their own set of interests and passion. When I was growing up, I had very few options that I could channel my energy into and pursue, and I feel like today there’s so many different opportunities, so giving them enough exposure is important.

Candice is right, it’s hard to know when to let go and when to pull back, and I think that’s really the job of the parent—knowing when to let go and how much to let go.

Monica: I agree with Candice that when you’re considering this, you have to consider the ages of all the scholars involved. Of course, the older kids can go out and be mentored to start certain careers and follow certain educational goals, but your younger kids cannot. However, I believe the role of the parent is still the same in this future society because you’re always responsible for the education of your children.

School being done away with is a very challenging thought for me because we also have to look into safeguarding our children. There may also be expenses some parents can’t afford. There are a lot of things that will definitely have to be considered when we look at this approach.

 

I think it’s really nice how we as learners can see a parent’s perspective on this. It’s helping me rethink and maybe redefine the entire plan I had.

Suyash Agrawal
Young Learner from New Jersey

Leah: I didn’t even think about the idea that no school means all ages, even children who are four years old. I made this assumption that everyone would be able to find a mentor and that’s not how it works at all.

Suyash: I made the same exact assumption, and I think it’s really nice how we as learners can see a parent’s perspective on this. It’s helping me rethink and maybe redefine the entire plan I had.

Candice: I love the idea of rethinking education. I didn’t love it in the beginning, but I’ve come to really appreciate it. However, I do think part of the challenge in all of this is what we were just discussing. You have to really take the big ideas and look at them logistically for every single child.

What does this disruption look like in each environment at each age? What do the learners need at each specific point in their lives? After answering those questions, I think we can start disrupting education, but we can’t disrupt it all with a one-size-fits-all approach.

We came into a brand-new district, Pike Road Schools, and we were going to disrupt the traditional system. It has really been an awesome experiment, though I hate to say “experiment” because it’s our children. We’ve watched how you can’t really do certain things with an eighth-grader that you’d do with a first-grader. They’re just totally different people, different minds, different abilities, and things like that.

Another thing that I would like to bring up given my background in social work is that I think school is a necessary evil. I say that because it has become a babysitter for a lot of needs in our country. We need school to provide childcare. How do you change everything when we have an entire population who wouldn’t have to ability to find their children mentors? What about those who are doing their best to simply pay the bills?

Q: What would need to be true in this “no school” society, so we avoid creating another inequitable system? What might be possible if school funding went directly to each learner or learner’s family, rather than a school?

Candice: I thought about this a lot. California is a nice example where homeschooling parents receive money to ensure their children have opportunities.

Monica: My question is: How do we ensure funding will be provided to all learners regardless of background? Also, what does that subject my household to, now that the government is giving me some type of funding? When we begin speaking about money and government funding, I get really sketchy because once the government provides you with something, then they want something. I like to keep my information private, so that’s one thing that sticks out to me.

Sai: I think developing an equity model is probably the toughest with respect to funding. At the end of the day, it comes down to the people who decide where the money goes, and not all people think the same way or apply the same rules. When money goes to the district, they’re supposed to spend equally in each school, but I know that’s not the case. There are many factors that weigh into how schools are funded by each individual district.

Candice: As a parent I think, “Wow, I’d be hiring a lot of tutors!” Mostly because if I were to imagine it like you described, I imagine using that money to give my kids opportunities that I want them to have right now. I want them to travel; I want them to explore; I want them to see different things in our own state and maybe other states, too. But, at the end of the day, I’m going to need somebody to help my son with trigonometry and algebra because it’s not going to be me.

Sai: This way of rethinking school funding might create a certain level of personalization, but maybe that is not the personalization the kid needs. Rather, it’s the personalization the parents think their kid needs. Creating an accountability system of how the funds are used might not solve things either, as those rules might not be for what each individual learner needs.

 

The person who should decide your personal education should be you, the learner. I think it’s very important for us to take our own paths and learn the things we would like to learn.

Keyonna Griffin
Young Learner from Mississippi

Leah: When you think about personalized learning without any kind of regulation, parents will be putting that towards what they think is right for their child. As someone who comes from a personalized mastery school, I was able to identify what learning style worked best for me. This conversation has me reflecting about how I came to know my preferred style of learning by first learning in ways that didn’t work and gaining insight from others around me.

If school is eliminated and we become individualized—working one-on-one with our tutors or with our parents—it wouldn’t look like a community. That could pose completely separate issues in terms of personalization and kids not knowing what works for them because they’re being fed info from only one source—an authority figure. This has me notice something I think we missed earlier—how much we actually learned from people who are the same age as us.

Candice: One thing I appreciate that’s been brought up, considering how divided our country is right now, is how easy it would be to stay in your own bubble, where you can just stay with others who think like you.

One thing I appreciate and love about public school is that it’s giving my kids the opportunity to see people that don’t come from the same place, look like the way they look, or learn the way they learn. If you took that away, that would be another element I would have to be so aware of as a parent.

Leah: The way you look to the people that surround you is totally an invisible factor that’s not considered the same way we’re considering financial resources, regulation, or even equality. The people around you and the way they influence you is not something we notice so much, unless we actually dig deep into the subject.

Suyash: I completely agree. The community aspect of school is something I haven’t really thought of but now that I think of it, I get to learn from all the kids near me, I get to learn how to interact with different people—people with different learning styles, backgrounds, and passions. That’s something you’re going to take with you for the rest of your life. You’ll always be interacting with people who are different than you.

Q: Who do you think should decide your education path?

Keyonna: The person who should decide your personal education should be you, the learner. I think it’s very important for us to take our own paths and learn the things we would like to learn. If I’m not learning what I want to learn, then, I lose concentration and just stop trying. I can’t just let it be beaten into my head. It’d be way better to take my own path and learn what I like to learn.

I think it still matters to learn the basics of math, history, reading, and writing, but you need to have your own curriculum—your own learning plan—that includes things you would enjoy that won’t throw you off and that you won’t forget easily.

Leah: I’d completely agree. The learners should decide how they learn.

Suyash: I completely agree, too.

Monica: Initially, I thought I would totally disagree with what Keyonna just shared. In some ways, I feel like I’m the parent and I should say what you learn. But, then again, there’s some truth to what she is pointing to. If it’s not something that interests the child, then they don’t care for it. It’s important to learn the basics, but after listening to my own daughter, I feel like “Ok, yeah, maybe we should give the child some say in it.”

Suyash: I feel like parents should have a stronger say in what path you’ll take in the beginning of your education journey, but as you grow up and you’re exposed to more and more things, I guess the responsibility should shift over to the learner. Once you get to a certain age, it’s time for you to chart your own course and that’s where you start taking over as a learner.

Leah: Yes, it requires exposure. Students would need to be exposed to things in order to start creating their own paths.

 

The one question that has been on my mind the last few months is what does great parenting look like? I feel like we never ask ourselves that.

Sai Narain
Parent from California

Sai: The thing that caught my attention in what Keyonna said is that personalization is more about giving the child the freedom to progress at their own pace, to learn how much they want to learn, to give that fundamental basis for reading, writing, and math, but then they may go deeper in one particular area than the other. It’s about giving them the freedom to express themselves and be heard.

The way Keyonna’s mom, Monica, reacted to Keyonna’s response was awesome because I have these conversations with my kid all the time. My second-grade son will come home and say something totally random, but it will be something that makes me really think. I have to constantly remind myself I’m not him and I have to be willing to learn from him. His experiences, in this day and age, are different from the experiences I went through. There’s a constant reminder that, “Ok, I’m a dad, now’s the time to be a listener and not a preacher.” Don’t tell your kid what he needs to know, listen to what he has to tell you. I think that’s personalization.

Candice: I love that! At Pike Road Schools, teachers are not called teachers, they’re called “lead learners.” In the beginning I was like “Are you kidding me?” But, now that I’ve been a part of it, I think there’s a kind of openness that comes about when you see your teacher as someone who’s learning with you and learning about you.

Q: What new questions have shown up for you as this conversation has unfolded?

Sai: Design39Campus was founded around two questions: What does great learning look like, and what does great teaching look like? Those two questions were sent out to the community, and the community’s responses drove the design of the school.

That said, the one question that has been on my mind the last few months is what does great parenting look like? I feel like we never ask ourselves that. I almost feel we don’t want to ask ourselves.

Candice: If we didn’t have schools, that would really call into question what my parenting looks like. As a parent, nothing makes me panic more than the thought of taking away school. It’s all on me if that’s the case. I love what Sai just said because this “no school” question makes me think, “Oh wow, I’d have to step up my parenting game!” If I’m being honest, I put a lot of it on the schools.

Monica: Oh my God, I so love Candice, she’s really saying what we’re thinking!

Leah: I think it’s really important to acknowledge that no matter what answer we come up with—what great parenting looks like, what great teaching looks like, what great learning looks like—it has to look different with every single situation.

It doesn’t matter how similar our backgrounds are, every person is different. Therefore, every parent-child or teacher-student pairing is going to be different. If we’re going to try to work towards solving that question, we need to be comfortable with the fact it’s not going to be the same everywhere or anywhere.

Q: Given your experience taking the leap to a learner-centered environment, what would you say to other parents who have been presented with a similar opportunity for their children? What have you learned during the transition that might make other parents more comfortable making the leap themselves?

Candice: This is a hard one for me because it was something I was nervous about and I’ve come around to it. I remember somebody saying, “How much do you remember from your experiences as a student in your traditional classroom growing up?” When they said that, it really dawned on me that I don’t know how much I remember. I don’t remember a lot! Keyonna spoke earlier about not remembering and having to then go back and do it again, and again, and again because it never really sank in.

I feel like the things I remember from my own education were the things I had a hands-on experience with. It took things to a deeper level where it connected, and I think what we’re trying to give these learners is experiences where it connects on a deeper level. I realized I would want that for my kids. I didn’t want them to have to keep learning the same thing over, and over, and over each year because they never really learned it.

Leah: As someone who just graduated from an entire life in a learner-centered environment, I think I can confidently say that not only do I feel as if I’m going to remember the majority of the things that I learned and especially the way I learned them, but I’ve also already seen myself applying those skills in college.

Monica: I think it’s hard to explain the plan or the process to a new parent. I would point out to them that this is not anything you can lose in. Right now, the traditional model is struggling, so I think we’re at a point where we are willing to try just about anything. However, one of the great things about personalized learning at McComb is that there is no homework! It may have irked me for the first month or two because I’m so used to homework, but personalized learning takes care of all of that “extra” learning in school.

Another thing is grades. A lot of parents expect a certain grade to show up on a report card, but in a personalized school, it’s not the same grade that you would see on a traditional report card. It causes a lot of confusion among parents until it is really explained. Overall, I don’t think it could be a loss. I think it’s worth the shot.

 

Taking away scores makes parents panic, and they don’t know what to do. We’ve been programmed that the score is everything. We need to disrupt that, but you have to come up with something in place of traditional scores that is consistent.

Candice Longnecker
Parent from Alabama

Keyonna: To point out another factor, your child determines whether or not they remember this information they’re being taught. In a traditional environment, teachers have to drill information into our heads, and we decide whether or not we want to keep what they’re giving us. So, the question is, does your child actually want to learn? If they don’t, then personalized learning won’t work for them either. It’s not a thing of “Oh, traditional learning is bad, it won’t work so we’ll go to personalized learning, and it’ll work.” The kid determines it, too.

Suyash: Agreed, and given that, I think it’s important to touch the passions of every child. That’s what will really determine whether or not they decide to retain the information that you’re giving them. I’m currently in an extremely traditional school system where the only things that matter are GPA, SAT scores, and AP tests. That’s all that students talk about. At that point, it’s not really about the learning anymore. It’s about “How can I increase my grade? How can we share answers?” Kids don’t really care. They’re not excited.

There’s a question that all students ask: “Why should I care?” You hear it in every class, and we don’t get a satisfactory answer to that. In some classes we see it but in other classes we don’t understand the purpose of what we’re being taught, so we choose not to retain it. It’s busy work, and it’s frustrating. It feels like things that we don’t care about are being forced into our heads. But, any time I go through lessons I feel really passionate about, I’ll remember the material year after year.

Candice: I love what Suyash said. How it’s not about the learning, it’s about the scores at his traditional school. I would hope that most parents would say, “I really do care about the learning, I absolutely care about the learning. I want my child to be in an environment where it’s learning-rich.”

The Achilles’ heel with personalized learning, is when the parent asks: “How do I know my child is learning?” That’s where I think we fall short. Taking away scores makes parents panic, and they don’t know what to do. What the parent wants to know is that their child is learning, and they want to see that. We’ve been programmed that the score is everything. We need to disrupt that, but you have to come up with something in place of traditional scores that is consistent.

Sai: One, I would tell parents: no pain, no gain. Two, I would tell parents to just talk to your kid for a few minutes, and you’ll know whether you should make the change. At the end of the day, education is a very personal choice.

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