You Can't Teach What You Don't Know

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We're trained to say, "Children first!" I used to say it, too. It's become a kind of mantra. But really, it's putting the cart before the horse. If we are to educate our children well, I believe it should be "Parents and teachers first!": first in the line of responsibility, first to have the abilities and the capacities to work with and do well by children.

This is not about ungenerously looking out for the welfare of grownups when we should be thinking about children. Actually, when we say, "Children first," it sounds nice but it's based on the wrong-headed assumption that adults already know and have what they need in order to teach children.

This is not necessarily so. Many adults today feel overwhelmed by the complexity, the sense of change, and the speed of daily life. It's clear that many parents have a hard time acting like parents.

Maybe adults just don't get made the way we thought they were made in the old days--automatically responsible, with common sense, wisdom, and mature judgment.

Or maybe adults in the old days didn't need to be all that wise. But, today, they do. While it's a softer world in some ways, it's a harder world in which to raise and educate children. Virtually everyone I know who has grown children says, "I'm glad I don't have to raise children these days."

There seems to be agreement that there's an erosion of what used to be "rules." We're inundated by rampant commercialism and celebrity hype. There's a sleaze pollution, like dirty air, swirling all about us. It's hard to protect our children, and it's very discouraging for adults.

Teachers and parents, more than before, need more strength, more commitment, more capacity as grownups. To have this strength, adults need support, encouragement, and specific help, inside and outside the classroom.

I know this from the teacher and parent groups I work with across the nation. There is a sense of helplessness, even among well-educated parents and teachers. There is a fear and there is frustration about children's education. If only worry could do the job, we'd be fine. Instead it takes personal and professional adult competencies. That's why I say, "Parents and teachers first."

Recently, when some dismal teacher-test scores were released in Massachusetts, there arose a cry in our collective media consciousness: "Teachers can't teach what they do not know!" And there was a national nodding of heads in agreement.

This concern isn't just about reading and math. We make major assumptions about teachers' abilities well beyond test scores. We expect that teachers can design effective homework assignments. We expect that they can talk knowledgeably with parents. We expect a lot ... and we usually don't provide the training for it.

Take, for example, the homely, everyday business of homework and the advice given to parents. This advice takes a myriad of complex adult competencies to use. Here's some picked at random from a typical list:

  • Set aside a study place and a regular study time. (This assumes that parents know how to organize their own lives.)
  • Enforce the idea that homework takes highest priority over other activities. (This assumes that parents communicate to children the importance of a good education.)
  • Present and enforce meaningful consequences for when homework is not completed. (This assumes that parents know how to discipline children in constructive ways.)
  • Motivate children to do a good job on their homework. (This assumes that parents have strategies that can turn bored students into excited ones.)
  • Build children's confidence in themselves as good students. (This assumes that parents themselves have a strong sense of themselves as learners.)
  • Encourage children to go beyond their typical homework to look up more words and take the next steps in the assignments. (This assumes that parents demonstrate learning initiative in their own lives.)
  • Help children set goals about their assignments and how much effort it will take to do well. (This assumes that parents are experienced goal-setters in their own lives.)
  • Talk with the teachers if there are problems about homework. Is it too easy? Too hard? Not enough? Too much? (This assumes that parents have sufficient self-confidence to have this kind of discussion with teachers.)

That's just for starters. The advice given to teachers sounds easy as well, but it's very hard to do. Among the recommendations: Communicate with parents; motivate kids; teach good study habits; make assignments focused and clear; set good rules and stick to them.

Just because we give people good advice does not mean this advice will be taken.

Those of us in the field produce long lists of studies, readings, and advice. For over 30 years, I have been among the list-makers and advice-givers. But it was not until I set about creating a comprehensive skills-development program in 1987 that I began to understand more about what adults need in order to make use of all the data and the models--no matter how good these are.

Even in the age of computers, education is still a person-to-person connection.

Adults need to feel able to take advice, even good advice. They need the confidence and the initiative and the common sense, among other attributes, that enable them to benefit from advice. And children, to be effective learners, need adults who exhibit these competencies.

That is why my work has focused on meeting the needs of adults and children, rather than on the administrative structure of schools. The changes I seek are personal changes. These in turn create the learning relationships that build and sustain educational achievement. The role of the adult is the vital key.

Parents and teachers both are under attack today as never before. We're told that adults are letting kids down, not doing our job, et cetera. As educators, we know more about children, more about learning. We know more about what we, and especially parents, are supposed to do. But just because we know more doesn't mean that we are using what we've learned. When it comes to education, the ability to use what we know doesn't always come naturally.

In an era when the education headlines focus on test scores and technology (the two T's), we still have to focus on the big R: relationships. It's all very well to spotlight test scores. But to build test scores, we first build people, kids and adults included. I am not talking about vapid self-esteem concepts, but specific competencies every one of us can learn. Education is a very human, very "messy" enterprise. Even in the age of computers, it's still a person-to-person connection.

Last year, the initial report from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health assessed the key variables in children's overall health and reported unequivocally that "connectedness to family and to school" is the major determiner. ("Drugs Are Easy To Get at School, Teens Say," Sept. 17, 1997.) How do we build this connectedness? We do it by putting parents and teachers first, so that basic relationships build the safety net for student learning.

To complete the tasks of their profession, educators today have a remarkable group of programs to choose among. In fact, there is such choice and such variety that it's often hard to know where to start. I'd like to suggest three criteria. Whatever programs we select, including those for academ- ics and technology, need to:

  • Simultaneously build the capacities of adults while building the abilities of the children.
  • Remember the importance of relationships between the institution of school and the individual student and family. Use programs and strategies that provide specific, practical ways for families to build children's connections to schools.
  • Focus on the real "basics" of education today: creating ongoing capacities and competencies for learning; and have the patience and commitment it takes, not just for more-immediate, better test scores, but to help children and their educating adults become stronger learners for longer lives.

We can no longer ignore the needs of teaching adults. We all live longer. We keep learning longer. Student capacities for learning are built by parents and teachers whose own capacities for learning are extended and reinforced. That's what putting parents and teachers first is all about--meeting children's needs in the most basic way of all.

Dorothy Rich is the founder and president of the nonprofit Home and School Institute in Washington. She is the author of MegaSkills and the developer of the MegaSkills teacher training programs. Her book MegaSkills Moments for Teachers is available this fall from the National Education Association.

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Pages 38, 40

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as You Can't Teach What You Don't Know
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