Thursday, June 15, 2017

Enriching Education: Improving School Performance

So many measures of American children’s learning in school have come up with depressing findings. When the discussion turns to ideas for improving American education, it’s almost entirely about what our educators should be doing differently to increase our children’s learning, with changes proposed in adult-controlled policies and practices such as teacher training, curricula, tests, and homework. Yet it’s clearly not working: The U.S. is ranked #25 in education rankings behind countries such as Singapore and China.
The Drive to Learn: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about Raising Students Who Excel (Rowman & Littlefield, June 2017) by Cornelius N. Grove, Ed.D. argues that our children’s poor learning cannot be totally the fault of educators. Our children are active participants in classrooms.  If there’s a problem with how well our children are learning, then the children must be part of the solution.
The key messages found in The Drive to Learn include:
  • America’s education problems are due, in part, to how our children respond to teaching
  • Our children are part of the problem, so they must be part of the solution.  Reforms that address only the adult-controlled aspects of education can never fully yield the desired solutions
  • Solutions for individual children exist at the family level; solutions depend on parenting style, especially how parents interact with children about their school learning
  • Parents who want academic excellence for their children can learn from East Asian parents.
I had a chance to interview Dr. Grove to learn more.


1. Why is it important to look at the child’s role in education?

Within any K-12 public or charter school, one finds a variety of active participants: administrators, department chairs, faculty members, staff members, teacher aides, …and children. Which among all of these participants is in school specifically for the purpose of learning new skills and knowledge? Only one: the children.

     If we’re concerned that the children aren’t learning well enough, why would we ignore the children while seeking explanations by examining the values, attitudes, policies, and procedures of all the other participants? It’s the children who aren’t learning well enough.  So shouldn’t they be examined together with all the adults?

     Yes, some attention has been paid to the children, largely along the lines of whether they are able to learn if they come from poverty-stricken and/or chaotic homes, if English isn’t their native language, and so forth. All of that is relevant and important. But that’s not what I’m addressing in The Drive to Learn.

     I’m addressing the extent to which American children from every background come to school with an inner “receptivity to learning.” Because if their receptivity to learning is low, it’s going to be all the harder for those adults, day after day, to successfully educate them. Could this be an underlying reason why decades of school reform efforts have failed to bring about transformational change?

     The children are part of the problem, so they must be part of the solution.

     Finally, it’s interesting to wonder why, until I wrote this book, the children have not been seen as contributing to the problem and to its solution. What does this reveal about Americans’ assumptions about children and their abilities? My review of anthropological research suggests that it’s about the degree to which we are willing to give genuine responsibility to children, not only for learning but in life.

2. How can parents encourage better educational performance of their children?

The Drive to Learn begins as a review of anthropological research to answer this question: “Why are American children less receptive to classroom learning than East Asian children?” The closer we come to the answer, the more the evidence points to differences in the roles of children in American and East Asian families.

     Families. Even extended families. It’s not solely about parents, although of course parents are important. The question posed by Motherhood Moment invites me to list several specific steps that parents can take.  nd to some extent I can do that. But it’s misleading. My review of the research enabled me to grasp that it’s much less about specific parental actions, much more about how extended families conceive of the role of learning in family and community life.

     East Asians respond at an emotional level to the idea of, and to the activities of, academic learning. Like Americans, they “get” that much of what’s learned in school will have practical application in careers and in everyday living. But that’s not what’s most important for East Asians. They also believe that knowledge – the kinds of knowledge learned in school – will make them a better human being, more capable of contributing in constructive ways to the family, the community, and the nation. This belief pervades East Asian culture. It is a conscious belief that motivates behavior. It provides them with an emotion-infused drive to learn.

     Such an all-pervasive system of beliefs can’t be condensed into a list of ways for parents to encourage a child. For when those beliefs are shared by everyone in the extended family and the community, a child’s motivation to study hard is intrinsic. American parents’ encouragement can, at best, apply motivation that’s extrinsic.

     In Chapter 10 of my book, I address myself to parents who are willing to change their family’s culture in order to make it far more likely that their child will excel academically. To those parents I suggest “Seven Commitments to Your Child.” For an example of one of those seven, visit and scroll down to the chapter entitled “So What Should We Do?”

3. How can teachers work with parents to maintain high expectations?

In The Drive to Learn, I say almost nothing about teachers or any other type of educator or policy-maker. A characteristic of American school reform is that it looks only for changes that educators can make, never for changes that children can make. A specific goal of my book is to redress that stark imbalance.

     But my familiarity with the comparative research extends beyond children and families include differences in East Asian and American educational practice. I’m aware that, here in the U.S., it’s taken as common sense that teachers and parents should unite in maintaining high expectations for the quantity and quality of each child’s learning. Motherhood Moment’s question invites me to offer some fresh, East Asian, ideas for approaches to parent-teacher collaboration. 

     That’s hard to do. East Asian and American educators don’t work from similar playbooks. Their differences exist on multiple levels, including the matter of teachers’ and parents’ responsibilities. In East Asia, teachers’ responsibilities are clustered tightly around (a) delivering excellent lessons and (b) helping to insure that students become good human beings. It is not part of East Asian teachers’ responsibilities to encourage students’ creativity and self-expression, to bolster their self-esteem, to protect them from too much homework, to tailor lessons to fit students’ interests or “learning styles,” or to motivate them to want to learn.

     Motivation to want to learn: That’s what East Asian students bring with them into the classroom.  It’s not an outcome of a parent-teacher pact. It’s an intrinsic family- and culture-based drive to learn that’s (a) deeply rooted in each student’s emotional make-up, (b) satisfied by her teacher’s delivery of excellent lessons, and (c) supported by her parents’ direct participation in the learning process by means of coaching, training, drilling, and extra homework assignments. 

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