Parents Come to Learn

Wednesday Explorations for Parents, New in Summer 2010

ATDP parents have long reported how much they learn each summer as their children answer, “what did you learn in class today?” Topics addressed in that day’s learning give rise to many wonderful conversations. We all take joy in seeing parents’ faces as their children explain how in their Rocky Reefs class, they began with the word “bicycle” and used what they knew about that word to figure out what a “bi-valve” is. This is one way in which parents come to ATDP to learn—and we haven’t even reached Secondary Division conversations covering Krebs Cycle to negative space to calculating the area under the curve. We call this delightful process “student-initiated parent learning.”

Additionally, from the program’s earliest days, there has always been “parent-initiated parent learning.” Such learning includes procedural questions about the program as well many, many personal conversations between parents and teachers, or with head counselor Prof. Beverly Vandiver, or faculty director Prof. Frank Worrell, or me. To our experience, parents’ questions are authentic and important. The eagerly sought answers to those questions tend to be complex and require the due attention that ATDP parents give.

This past summer, we acknowledged that parents’ questions fall into certain categories. They tend to be about academic and social development, general or specific issues around subject matter or about meeting particular needs of individual students. At the same time, we hope to transmit certain skills and knowledge to ATDP parents. Consequently, Wednesday Explorations for Parents were inaugurated at Elementary and Secondary Divisions in summer 2010. This opportunity to work with ATDP’s counseling and school psychology staff, together with a supportive group of parents, was a great success.

To those unable to participate, we say, “Jump right in!” This is where parents, counselors, and researchers left off in some of their most enriching conversations about your students’ learning:

Q: How do I know when my child has mastered the material?

Parents in Dr. Adena Young’s mathematics thinking and learning workshops kept returning to: “How do you know when you know the math you’re learning and when you don’t know it?” These questions permitted outstanding conversations around testing one’s own thinking, problem solving, and metacognition. When the conversation addressed placement testing and admission to ATDP’s accelerated math courses, at least one parent in each section stated vigorously and with certainty that their child knew the material very well, but just didn’t perform well on tests.

The test used by ATDP and most school districts is a readiness test, asking students to show that they are performing at a level sufficient to function well in the subsequent math class. Because of the fast pace of the program—18 meetings cover the material of 182 school-year meetings—simple proficiency is not enough: ATDP accelerated math students must show that their readiness places them at a mastery level. To show why the placement policy is necessary, Young shared with parents a decade’s worth of the program’s own research data showing that the best warning sign that a student is unprepared for the course was a low score on the readiness test. A high score did not always promise an A in the course; well-prepared students who opt not to do their work in a timely manner are unlikely to perform to a high standard in their class. However, students who are ill-prepared for the demands of the course will be unable to keep pace and are certain to have a negative experience.

As we aim to please, when one parent remained unconvinced, insisting that the student “knows this material ‘cold,'” Young offered to meet separately with the parent and student to review the placement test. The outcome of the meeting was instructive for this parent and for this student. I’ve included the story here because it is also instructive to the larger group of parents who seek ways of monitoring their children’s learning.

Young and the student reviewed the test aloud, but with paper and pencil, and calculator, in hand. Young asked the student to talk through and perform selected problems—both correctly completed and incorrectly completed ones. Problems that covered material the student had mastered were easy for the student to explain. The student was well able to discuss choices and strategies used to solve the problem. In problems that were incorrect due to calculation errors, the student was able to error spot and error correct. But on the ones the student had understood incorrectly, the student was neither able to identify the error made nor to provide a clear approach to a solution.

While instructing a student to talk though a problem to identify a strategy for solving the problem is certainly a useful monitoring technique for parents, it is many times more useful to the student who learns to include this approach in his/her learning routine.

Q: Is my child spending enough time studying?

Perhaps the largest number of concerns voiced by ATDP parents at the Wednesday Exploration on active learning centered on a seeming lack of connection between the time their sons and daughters spent studying and the results that “studying” yielded.

This is the wrong question. The right question is, “How should my child be spending his or her study time?”

Upon considering the ways in which their children spent their study time, the majority of parents concluded that their children were taking a passive approach to their studies. The presentation given by head counselor Prof. Beverly shed light on why passive learning can’t be considered learning. Her lively (active ;) ) presentation and the engaging conversation among participants resulted in a clear understanding of the sign-posts of active learning, as well of the signals of passive learning.

I invite you to take a look at the ways in which we have presented to ATDP Secondary Division students the whys, wherefores, and how-tos of active learning.

Navigational Issues in Choppy Waters
from “doesn’t follow through” to “bossy child” to “no social life”

The range of questions in these areas, contrary to parents’ expectations, was predictable to the presenters at both the Secondary and Elementary Division Explorations. Much to the relief of the parents participating, most of their concerns were shared by many of the other parents present. Within each division’s Explorations, there were parents present with children of varying ages, so that parents of younger students received a great deal of encouragement from parents of older students, who provided first-person accounts of successfully tackling difficult situations and deep concerns. Of course the conversation and the presentations also addressed persistent, chronic, problems.

In both sets of Explorations, some parents were very concerned that their children did not have enough friends “for a child of their age.” Prof. Vandiver cited research findings that hopefully allayed parents’ fears. Vandiver said that so long as a child has one age mate with whom he or she has a connection, parents should not worry. Of course, other parents’ concerns centered on children who might have too many friends, ones who might not be sufficiently focused on the demands of academic achievement. Vandiver stressed the need for clear rules in the home and the importance of clear, predictable, consequences when rules are breeched.

Many concerns came down to problems of clear, effective communication. While the specific behaviors in question manifested themselves differently at different stages in children’s development, they centered on the difference between what parents intended to communicate and how the child’s reacted. Of course, the reverse is equally true. Prof. Vandiver recommended Hiam G. Ginott’s book Between Parent and Child. [In my office, I have the 2003 edition, updated by Alice Ginott and H. Wallace Goddard—but at home, I have the Macmillan 1965 edition, which I consider the “real” one. Either way, it’s must-read for all parents, as are Between Parent and Teenager and Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers.]

Parents let us know how much they enjoyed the opportunity to share their thoughts, experiences, and concerns with the presenters and how much they felt they had benefitted from the wisdom shared by other parents. Thanks to all who participated, and we look forward to continuing these productive conversations into Summer 2011!