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.

Getting to the heart of service learning

"Anyone can slap paint on a wall..."

In the second of two postings, regular Insights blogger Brian Keeley looks at the benefits and challenges of service learning.

If you follow education, you’ll know that somebody somewhere is always banging on about The Next Big Thing. It’s easy to become sceptical – I mean, how did any of us ever learn to read or write before the invention of the Smart Board?

That’s why I was a little worried when, in a previous posting, I noted that service learning – which combines academic learning with volunteering – is  “one of the fastest growing educational initiatives”. Might it be just another new fad? Probably not. For one thing, service learning isn’t really all that new – the idea’s been around since at least the early 20th century. And even though the last few years have seen a big upsurge of interest in it, that enthusiasm appears to be based on solid experience of its usefulness in education. As Andrew Furco noted in a recent OECD report, even though academic studies in this area are still relatively limited, there’s evidence to show that young people really do gain from service learning in terms of their educational, social and intellectual development.

At one level, applying knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world challenges can help students to appreciate that what they’re learning “has meaning and relevance to their lives outside school,” as Andrew notes. Studies show other benefits, too, including increased motivation for learning, fewer disciplinary problems, better attendance and lower drop-out rates.

But before getting too excited about all these great results, it’s important to note a few qualifiers. Firstly, simply launching a programme – any programme – is no guarantee of success. “As some scholars have suggested, it is the overall quality and meaningful character of the experience that matters most,” writes Andrew.

“Quality” covers a wide area, including the duration and intensity of programmes; the establishment of real partnerships with local communities; and the balance between the “service” side of activities and the “learning” side. If it’s to bring these two sides of the equation together, service learning needs to be more than just a synonym for “volunteering”. Instead, it needs to coherently integrate service with academic learning. For example, designing a school garden can draw on academic subjects like engineering and human and plant biology; delivering the garden’s produce to people in the community can involve civics, social studies and even economics.

Ensuring that programmes are meaningful to students is also a challenge. One person with plenty of experience in this area is Annabel Smith, who has worked in service learning around the world. She readily acknowledges that programmes can fail to connect with students: “If you don’t do this properly, you can make kids not want to engage,” she told me when I met her at Mara-a-Pula in Botswana, a school with a long record in service learning. “It’s better not to start if you’re not going to do it properly.”

She believes it’s essential that schools communicate that they’re serious about service learning to students. “Young people are very astute about what adults really attach value to,” she says. In response, schools need to apply long-term thinking to the design of programmes, and how students progress through them; otherwise, she says, “there’s a danger of ‘hit and run’”.

She’s critical of some of the approaches to record keeping in service learning: “Don’t count hours!” she warns. Instead, she says, schools could ask students to keep “experiential passports” that record not how much they’ve done but what they’ve done. Students, she believes, also need to be given space to reflect on what they’re learning. One reason for closely tying service to learning is that it allows discussion to go beyond simply bemoaning the plight of the poor and instead provides a “knowledge framework to hang feelings on”.

Indeed, Annabel sees discussion and reflection as being at the heart of service learning: “Anyone can slap paint on a wall, and there’s probably no shortage of workers who’d happily be paid to do just that,” she says. “What is valuable about these programmes is not the product, not the paint on the wall, but the conversation that emerges over that paint.”

Find out more

The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice (OECD, 2010)

OECD work on education

OECD educationtoday blog

Chinese students learn from PISA

Andreas Schleicher talks to Chinese students

Today’s post comes from Rachel Chen, Jessica Na and Darren Yang, three students at Peking University High School’s International Division, which recently hosted a visit by the head of the OECD’s PISA programme, Andreas Schleicher.

Following Shanghai’s success in PISA last year, the student-assessment programme became much better known in China, and many journalists now want to know more about it. To answer some of their questions, Andreas Schleicher, the head of PISA, recently visited the International Division of Peking University High School and held a press conference.

First, however, Mr. Schleicher arrived at the kitchen of our International Division and had breakfast with some of us students. We were all excited about his visit and got up early to wait for him. Mr. Schleicher was a tall and amiable man. He was curious about our experiences as students here, so he asked us a lot of questions such as “How did you choose your courses?” and “What do you do in your free time?”. We were so absorbed in the conversation that we barely ate.

After breakfast, Mr. Schleicher attended the conference, where he showed he had a lot of thoughts on education. We were really impressed by two points he made.

The first was that as the world develops, getting knowledge becomes easier. So, the ability we should foster is not only how to collect knowledge, but how to select knowledge that is true and useful to us and apply it to solve problems. For instance, nowadays, most students know how to use computers and collect knowledge on the Internet; they can use it to get the answer to a math question if they want. However, students may find different answers on the Internet, and they need to think about which one is the right one. Most students can do that, but not so many can really use the math knowledge they’ve got to solve real-life problems.

The second point is that learning should be life-long. In other words, school is just the beginning of learning. Nowadays, a lot of people stop learning once they leave school, which is a sad thing to say. Educators can change this by motivating students instead of forcing them to learn, because only students who are motivated can keep learning in their lives. For example, if a teacher shows students how enjoyable reading is, some students will become interested in reading and will read more by themselves. Eventually it will become a life-long habit.

Mr. Schleicher thought China’s education didn’t do well on motivating its students, but he did think that the serious attitude of China’s government toward education is laudable. Though there are still some problems with China’ education system, he is glad to see the effort that China’s government had put in to solving the problems.

Mr. Schleicher’s visit made us think more on education. We feel lucky to study in a school where the teachers motivate and encourage us, and where the resources for learning are abundant. We hope we will be able to go on learning all the way through our lives and be successful.

Find out more

Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education – Shanghai

OECD Educationtoday blog