Published November 21, 2021 & February 21, 2023
As we leave the house together, masks on, hand in hand, it’s all of a three-minute walk for us as I take my son to school! We realize how lucky we are to live so nearby and not have to endure the stress of a traffic-filled ‘school run’ every morning and afternoon. Every morning in our quartier in Bordeaux where we live (just as across France and elsewhere) parents gather on the street around a (now socially distanced) school doorway, where you hand over your child. Teachers and administrators take over the care and control of your child’s learning until you get them back 8 hours later. Rarely are parents allowed to even cross the threshold, let alone engage in a specific discussion over the direction of their child’s learning.
In my weekly Future Learning Design podcast, I speak with amazing individuals asking big questions about the future of education and schooling. In this episode, I spoke with Matt Barnes, from The Education Game about the role that parents do, could, and should play in the education process.
Matt Barnes: I would say that it’s really quite odd to me that parents aren’t factored more centrally. I mean, I think part of it is my own background. I used to manage pediatric medical practices. And so in that environment, the parent is always in charge. We have to ask the parent, can we touch your child? Can we talk to your child alone? Can we give them this medicine? Can we poke them with this needle? We ask for everything, but in education, it’s the exact opposite. They’d never asked the parent; they never inquire about what the parents are seeing and their concerns.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite where the school oftentimes actively discourages the parent from being involved… I think that actually is a fundamental problem with why we are where we are.
Tim Logan: I liked the question that you posed: How can parents improve their child’s educational journey regardless of the functioning of their school? So I guess, the question is what are the responsibilities or the limits of that role in your view — the way that parents can be involved regardless of the school, but hopefully in collaboration with the school in an ideal scenario.
Matt Barnes: Yes. I would say that ideally it’s in collaboration, but I would even change that language of collaboration. Again, from my work in the medical environment, I would say that the parent has to be the head coach. They have to be in charge because the parent is the one that’s going to suffer the most if the child doesn’t do well. Likewise, the parent will celebrate the most, if their child becomes an independent and healthy functioning adult. No actor in the school is going to feel that pain. So as a result, that responsibility needs to be set with the parent.
Now I’m sure we’ll get into how parents have a hard time dealing with that, but I’m actually advocating for this shifting of ownership. I don’t want it to be a partnership. I want the parent to be the head coach and the school to come alongside the parent as the experts around education.
Tim Logan: So what are the significant differences between using that analogy compared with the current general expectation of the way you were involved in your child’s learning? Of course, we all care as parents about how our kids are doing at school and are involved to some extent in their learning progress. But what would be the tangible differences for you in framing a parent as ‘head coach’?
Matt Barnes: When I talk about the head coach, first and foremost, they are strategic. They have a vision that they’re trying to achieve, and then they work backward from that vision. So the responsibility, the burden, and the privilege of shepherding a child or a ‘team’ fall on the head coach, right?
A head coach can’t blame the assistant coaches if things aren’t working right. It’s their responsibility. But head coaches also can fire their assistant coaches if it’s not working out. I’ve had many conversations as recently as this morning, like literally 10 minutes ago, a parent said their child is going back into the school environment.
Tim Logan: Yeah, where’s the child in that equation, right? Because clearly there’s a lot of talk about ‘child-centered’ education and, focusing on personalized learning pathways that children are driving and self-regulating their own learning. So where is the child in that coaching model?
Matt Barnes: So I have an image that I’ll try to verbally describe called the leadership learning curve. So when a child is born, they have zero authority or autonomy to do anything. So therefore the parent has 100% responsibility for directing that child’s learning. Now, at some point in the teen years, that child ideally should have maybe 99% ownership of their own learning. And the parent now drops down to the role of an advisor, a coach. Between birth and those teenage years though, there’s the transition.
So in the early years of the child’s life the parent still has the majority of the influence over what the child is learning, when they’re going to bed, all these things, right? But the ideal model is that the parents slowly and intentionally shift ownership to the child, and shift the responsibility of where the child wants to go from the parent’s view to the child’s view.
But if we think about a traditional school, however, the school maintains 90%, maybe 95% ownership of the child’s learning until they graduate and then it drops to zero and the student has to suddenly go from having someone else doing all of the deciding of what goals they will have, what their plans for learning will be, evaluation of learning, et cetera.
They have to go from zero to a 100% in a very short period of time. That is not realistic and it’s not fair for the child. So I would argue that the schools are actually inhibiting a child’s ability to take ownership of their own learning.
Listen to the rest of the interview on the above player or on the Future Learning Design podcast.
Matt Barnes is the co-founder of The Education Game. Matt believes that “normal” is broken in traditionally structured schools and wants to make a future-ready parent-driven learning model the new normal. Over 25 years, Matt has distributed $500m in philanthropy, led an education reform nonprofit, served on nine educational boards from pre-K to university, and coached thousands of parents on education system navigation. He is the father of three teens who were educated in alternative models. Tim Logan is an experienced school leader and curriculum designer, with a passion for connecting and facilitating global networks of innovative educators. As well as being a member of the BU Agile Innovation Lab, Tim works with the world’s top international schools, as part of Notosh strategic design consultancy, and produces the “ground-breaking” podcast, Future Learning Design.