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Wrapped in cellophane

Unravelling specialization in education

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Our children have been wrapped in cellophane by well-meaning adults; they have been carefully and overzealously protected from the unpleasant. Now they can no longer be." —Alice Dagliesh, author


When Dagliesh wrote these words in 1941—the key to this date lies her choice of cellophane as a metaphor for protective envelopment—she was criticizing a traditional approach that parents and educators of my parents' generation were beginning to question. By contrast, many of the parents with whom I deal are the age of my own children, as are many of my staff, and how they, and we, approach the task of articulating and practising a philosophy of education, lies at the heart of what can be a collaborative or a contentious relationship. There is a paradox at the heart of the attitudes that permeate contemporary home-school relationships. This is a generation, at a point in our culture, marked by increasingly narrow specialization and a dependence on experts. And yet, there is also confidence in personal evaluation, in researching things for yourself—and what a wealth of resources are a keystroke away—in the right to question, the right to be answered, a broad application of informed consent and the consumer's entitlement.

These parents demand expertise, want full value, but do not defer to it. On one hand, educators are experts. On the other hand, our larger culture believes that the role of the specialist, the expert, is anti-democratic or worse, now rendered irrelevant for the 21st century digital world.

A second paradox arises in our response. We want parent support, not just appreciation or the implied support of enrolment and donations, but reinforcement of school values and performance at home. And yet we want full control over our policies and operations, strict boundaries to keep parents from intruding in our field of expertise.

We can overcome mutual misunderstanding and territoriality in search of a collaborative, constructive partnership from which children can only benefit. The progressive school of the 21st century aims to make parents our partners, in order to fulfill our responsibility to their children and ours.

The profession of teaching like other professions from engineering to medicine, is entered only after a rigorous education, in competitive programs, and licensed by a governing body that superintends ethical conduct as well as qualification. Our qualifications bring the expectation that we will conduct, keep abreast of and implement best practices. But education is also deeply personal: We all have our own experiences of education, and our own criticisms of it, and it affects our children. While demanding that we are up-to-date and informed, parents are naturally suspicious of offering their children as laboratory mice, and, in some ways at least, deeply conservative, clinging to time-honoured and familiar methods.

The exponential growth of knowledge and the ready accessibility of information have affected education much as they have affected medicine. Dr. Don Melady, a Toronto emergency physician, speaks of himself and his colleagues as resources, living databases. According to Melady, consulting a specialist is not so different from consulting published opinion and research results.

"The patient has questions, and seeks possible answers. There is no guarantee that my answers will be the same as another expert's, or better," he says. "An informed patient is more likely to make a wise decision, and to be satisfied with that decision."

Just as patients once used to hand decision-making over to their doctors, so parents used to delegate responsibility for their children's education to the school authorities. The parents' task was to send their children to the best school they could—usually defined by the best record of post-secondary admission to desirable universities—and to put up a united front with the school in all matters of discipline, academic standards and demands, reinforcing the authority of teachers and principals by their own respect for that authority.

But a curious thing has happened during the past 50 years. In the teaching profession, as in medicine, there has been an explosion of new knowledge, and an attendant drive towards specialization. In place of the generalist, we have those who hold one or two subjects as teachables; and specialist training leads to additional qualifications—not only in a variety of traditional subject fields, from language to music, but also in English-as-a-second-language, principalship, guidance and special education. That is, we no longer accept interest or talent as a sufficient qualification for work in these areas. We are beginning to see that there is a large and distinct body of specialist knowledge that the able practitioner should possess.

So, you would think, the new generation of highly qualified and specialist teachers and administrators would wield even greater authority than their generalist predecessors. But in fact, at the same time parents admit and demand that these specialists hold advanced expertise, they are no longer willing passively to follow a specialist's judgment or to turn over their decision-making to the specialist. They seek evaluation and recommendation of a course of action, but they are comparing these results with their own research, experience and the recommendations of other experts.

In medicine, there is a principle of informed consent; that prior to participation in a medical trial or procedure the patient is fully informed of the possible risks, benefits and consequences. This principle has become as important in education as in medicine. As you might expect, parents who enrol their children in private schools are particularly active in seeking information and exercising the right to consent. They are aware of themselves as consumers, who are paying a premium for the education of their children.

They tend as a group to hold a higher than average level of education, and many are themselves professionals. They are ambitious for their children, and see a superior education as a path to success. And in exercising the choice of a private school, they see themselves as informed consumers by definition.

We educators can feel a bit squeezed. We are not only expected to engage in the ongoing pursuit of expertise, to critique, revise and innovate in our practise, but to instruct the new generation of consumer parents on our choices, to justify, perhaps to convince or even sell. We find we are dressed in only a little brief authority, and that our students' parents have strong critical opinions on everything from the assigned math text to a perceived bias in our curriculum towards great books or eurocentrism.

We feel particularly squeezed because we have not fully accepted either our new expertise or the possibilities inherent in these changes in parental attitudes. We are in education, after all, because we believe that we have something to teach. If we know more about the way our minds work and develop, about how we learn and how we should teach, if we know more about the individual subjects taught, and about their application and cross-fertilization, maybe we should be teaching that too, not viewing it as the esoteric knowledge of a priestly caste. If we believe that education is the foundation of democracy, perhaps we should admit that parents too are stakeholders, and have the right to share what we know. Further, it is possible that we are wrong-headed if we seek to impose our ideas rather than build support for them. Perhaps we are even limiting our own potential for growth, change, adaptation, in rejecting feedback.

The model of sacerdotal authority is old-fashioned and anti-democratic. It runs counter to our expressed aims in fitting our students for productive participation in a rapidly changing world. How can we inculcate the values and qualities most necessary for success if we are ourselves inflexible, dogmatic and authoritarian?

Our school is built on progressive principles: Freedom of expression, creativity, collaboration and a commitment to social justice. Why should it make teachers uncomfortable to invite the parents of students to share their opinions, to suggest new approaches or constructive changes, to work with us in mentoring their children, fostering their acquisition of knowledge?

The 21st century educator rejects the notion of knowledge as a fixed body of established fact, of teaching as pouring those facts into the empty vessels of her pupils' minds, of equating respect with submission. We have unwrapped the cellophane that once preserved our students from adult reality and from academic and political controversy. Perhaps we should stop trying to wrap ourselves in cellophane and discover what parents want in education, what they have to teach us.

—Meg Fox & Seth Halvorson

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