The “latest thing” in education

You may have noticed that, over time, educational fads and standards change. Every five years or so, someone will publish a research paper which purports to prove that a new approach to teaching, or a new curriculum, will totally transform education. As a result, you’ll see your local school system sending all the teachers off for professional development, the curriculum will be revamped, and new books will appear.

It’s sold with, “Don’t worry, parents, this is the latest and best approach and your kids will thrive in the new environment.” And for a year or two, the new approach does show some advantages. Then it turns out that the teachers discover that the new methods aren’t the solution to all educational problems, and the school system goes looking for a new approach.

For example, I have an Algebra I textbook that I used in eighth grade, in 1960. When I haul it out to help tutor a child in basic algebra, they inevitably say, “I understand what that book is telling me, why can’t we use that book?” I point out that the book is considered old-fashioned and difficult, and that the school wants to use the most modern methods. When I said this to one of my students, she looked at the book and said, “I’d rather have a book I can understand than a book that can’t explain anything.”

There’s a groundswell of commentary on public education lately, driven by what political voices are calling Critical Race Theory, saying that CRT is being taught in K-12. It’s not. What’s been known for decades as Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is being taught, and that’s a positive thing. Let me explain why, and how this confusion sprang up.

One of the results of the pandemic was that parents got a first-hand look at what their students were being taught. Instead of just making sure that their kids did their homework, now parents were in the same room when education was being delivered. Parents think that they ought to understand what their children are being taught – after all, parents were children once, and they remember what they were taught.

Well, actually, they don’t. Years ago, when I took a course in Adolescent Development, my professor had us read The Catcher in the Rye, which I had read in 10th grade. I was flabbergasted. This wasn’t the book I had read 20 years before, not at all.

The point is that whatever you learn, read, or experience is colored by all that you bring to the experience. When I was 15 years old reading Catcher, I was absolutely convinced that my parents had no clue about what I was going through, and I was totally on the side of the main character. When I was 40 and had taught for 20 years, I’m looking at the book as a description of what happens when a teenager responds impulsively to attempts to help them mature.

What parents don’t always understand is that children don’t respond to what happens in the classroom in the same way that they, the parents, would do.

Let’s look at that present-day example of the “latest thing” in education … that isn’t. Social and  Emotional Learning (SEL) is a topic that’s caught the eye of parents, but it’s being conflated with CRT, which is only taught at the university level, usually to pre-law or political science majors.

SEL has been around for a long time, and is simply an attempt to help kids learn that not everyone is the same, and we need to give people space to grow and be themselves. The idea behind SEL is that people are different, and that’s what makes each of us a unique individual. This approach has been used as a basis for anti-bullying education, as well as helping children learn to treat others with respect. Educational research has reported that the use of this approach has helped many children succeed in school by teaching skills in listening and critical thinking.

Research indicates that children who are exposed to SEL at a young age will be more mentally healthy and academically successful as they grow up because they’re making decisions for themselves. I’m guessing that parents are concerned that their children are being taught to be independent, and perhaps think in ways with which the parents don’t agree. Parents need to try to remember what their own childhood was like. They didn’t always agree with their parents either, but learned to hide their thoughts so they wouldn’t get in trouble.

When my son was in elementary school, I can remember being bothered by some of what he was being taught – I wouldn’t have taught math that way – but I trusted the teachers to know their business. His math skills are excellent, even if he wasn’t taught the way I would have done it. You have to trust what the teachers are doing. Find out what the school hopes your child will accomplish with this program, don’t just complain because you think you know what’s going on.

Because so many children were home last year, parents got the idea that they were in charge of their children’s education. Unless you home school your child, that’s not true. If you see a program you don’t approve of, or think has no place in the classroom, ask the school to tell you what they hope to accomplish with this material.

If you’re still concerned, ask the school to provide an expert to talk to concerned parents. I’ve done that a lot myself when I go to single-sex schools to present professional development programs to teachers, by giving a “parent talk” about the benefits of single-sex education, and answering parents’ questions.

So, don’t assume that a program is either inappropriate or unnecessary. And definitely don’t just take the word of someone in a NextDoor or Facebook Group about what’s happening in your local schools, or schools across the nation.

Schools work long and hard to develop curricula and programs designed to meet the needs of all of their students. Talk to your kids’ teachers, and school administration, and also your local school board. I think you’ll find that schools are doing their best, and they are more than willing to help parents understand the purpose of their child’s education.