Let’s read them a story! Helping your children succeed in school

“Reading is neither a mother’s nor a father’s job; it should be a joy to both”

Today’s post is from Anne-Lise Prigent, the editor in charge of education publications at OECD Publishing

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” said Mark Twain. Well, watching a film like Race to Nowhere makes you think Twain was right. The film describes schools miserably unable to prepare young Americans to become “healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens”.

What went wrong? The schools portrayed are obsessed by success, but ironically they fail students. The pressure is such that the students’ only aim is to pass exams. Students are caught aboard a runaway train and use any means available to cope with the madness of the system. These include cheating, taking stimulants and tranquilisers, or even inflicting harm upon themselves. They don’t learn but merely memorize, regurgitate and forget. A student sighed with relief after her final exam: “Phew… I’ll never have to speak French again!”.

The audience with whom I saw this documentary at the American University of Paris was shocked. These parents, teachers and school leaders felt that the film mirrored their own experience, in France and elsewhere. Too much stress, not enough learning. Although the film dealt with the upper 2% of the American education system (so-called “elite schools”), the uneasiness it captured was apparently felt by many.

Shouldn’t education help us live and work in today’s (and tomorrow’s) world? The film’s drained (rather than trained) students finally arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired. Some have to take remedial classes when they enter college. A lawyer observed that the recent interns and new employees in her firm did not try to understand what the issues were and how to tackle them. Their only question was: “How many paragraphs should I write?”.

This is hardly the 21st century skill set education is supposed to deliver: creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration. Through creativity (which comes first), we hope to find brand new ways of addressing economic, societal and personal problems. Schools should nurture creativity and innovation – and not just in the Arts. However, according to Ken Robinson: “our approaches to education are stifling some of the most important capacities that young people now need to make their way in the increasingly demanding world of the 21st century – the powers of creative thinking”.

How schools can adapt to the 21st century is a crucial and complex issue, dealt with in an outstanding OECD publication: Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century. However, education does not only happen in the classroom. It starts – and continues – at home.

How can parents help their children succeed in school? How can they best help them acquire 21st century skills? Let’s Read them a Story: The Parent Factor in Education is based on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results and it shows that our involvement as parents is essential for children throughout their school years and beyond.

This attractive little book (which features exquisite New Yorker cartoons) will reassure parents: it is never too early and never too late to get involved in your children’s education. And it does not take a PhD to help your children succeed. Simple things go a long way, genuine interest is all it takes (quality rather than quantity). Show them you care, get involved!

First, let’s read them a story! Children who were read to when very young are better readers at fifteen (even compared to children with similar socio-economic backgrounds). As children enter primary school, some activities will help them become better (and happier) readers: activities that emphasize the value of reading and using words in context (e.g. reading books, talking about what mum/dad has done) rather than activities that treat words and letters as isolated units (e.g. playing with alphabet toys). Set an example by reading yourself – be it novels, newspapers or magazines. Volunteer for extra-curricular activities or at the library. And… eat meals with your children around a table.

Students are never too old to benefit from your engagement as a parent. “Fifteen-year-olds whose parents show an active interest in their lives and thoughts are more proficient in reading.” Discuss how well your children are doing at school or just spend time talking with them. Engage in debates about current affairs, books, films, etc. PISA data shows that students whose parents discuss social and political issues with them perform better than students whose parents do not. This also helps raise their awareness of effective learning strategies, e.g. how to summarise information. Last but not least, these discussions encourage students to develop informed opinions and become critical thinkers.

Children whose parents are involved in their education in these ways tend to be “more receptive to language”. They are also more likely to plan, set goals, initiate and follow-through in their projects. Having acquired these skills, they have learned something essential: how to learn – at school and well beyond.

Learning how to learn is key, and so is the joy that goes with it. What was striking in Race to Nowhere was the students’ utter absence of enjoyment. Don’t children need to play, explore and discover? The great pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott believed that playing serves as the basis for creativity and the discovery of the self and was the key to emotional and psychological well-being. He described all human culture (not only the arts, but also politics, economics, philosophy and culture) as highly developed forms of playing. Yet he warned: playing cannot happen when a person feels acute pressure to perform and it cannot involve too much anxiety. Feeling alive and real in one’s mind and body is what allows people to be close to others and creative. Let’s not lose this on the way as we rush ahead regardless.

Useful links

Read Marilyn Achiron’s article on “The Parent Factor in Education” at the OECD educationtoday blog

On 25th  September, the American Library in Paris is organizing an evening with Francesca Borgonovi of the OECD PISA programme and author and journalist Peter Gumbel whose latest book On achève bien les écoliers (“They shoot schoolkids, don’t they?”) looks at the French education system.

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4 comments to “Let’s read them a story! Helping your children succeed in school”

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  1. Rachel - 08/08/2012 Reply

    While I agree in principle with the ideas expressed here, I’m disappointed by the causal link implied between parenting styles, especially specific activities, and children’s academic performances. I would be interested in reading any definitive studies that these activities will make children better students. Even holding all other known variables constant, there are other explanations for why these students may be better readers – for example, they have inherited a “reading” gene, which presents itself only in readaloud skills as parents. At best, the information here demonstrates a strong correlation between those parents who engage in the above-listed activities and student outcomes.

    Suggesting that certain types of parenting behavior, when applied in a prescriptive way, may lead to increased success for one’s children only adds to household stress by potentially increasing parent guilt, further structuring time between children and adults, and linking performance to playful activities. The key to success may not be that these activities occur in homes with successful readers, but that they occur naturally or playfully without external pressures reminding parents to do them.

    That said, I celebrate the opportunity to have fun with my children and hope this article inspires many hours of playful interaction.

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