8 Questions Parents Ask Progressive Teachers

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responsibility comes with choice

In a recent Twitter conversation about how useless traditional homework is, someone wondered how parents react to a no-homework policy. This is one of the many questions parents ask progressive teachers that can be confounding and cause stress for educators.

Parents are key players in education. They have many valid concerns about what is happening at their children’s school and in their classrooms. They wonder about the decisions teachers make, and some struggle to comprehend the methods teachers use.

For many years, I disliked parents and I hated talking to them. In fact, I avoided talking to my students’ parents whenever possible. I was the expert, and I didn’t want to be second-guessed. At least this is how I felt for the first 10 years of my teaching career.

Then, I became a parent, and my entire perspective changed. As I held my infant son one evening, I thought about his education. I wondered if I’d want him to have a teacher like me. Realizing that I didn’t was a sad, if eye-opening, revelation.

It struck me that the questions parents ask teachers are not designed, in every case, to second-guess strategies. Parents want what’s best for their children, and they often have no idea what that is, when it comes to teaching and learning. They hope teachers are, indeed, professionals.

That night, more than a decade old, I decided that I would stop holding parents in contempt, and I would start answering their questions.

It’s important to note that this was at a time when I was transitioning to a more progressive classroom and eliminating many traditional methods–nightly homework, worksheets, and traditional grades, among others. For teachers anchored to outdated practice, you might face different questions.

8 questions parents ask progressive teachers and how to answer them

Question: Why don’t you assign nightly homework? Doesn’t my child need practice?

Answer: We reside in a project-based classroom, and your child is always working toward a longterm goal. These aren’t the kinds of activities that require practice; they require deep dives, reading, and creativity. Your child will likely choose to work on her time, because she’s engaged in the project. There’s not much research to support l rote memory practice.

Question: If I don’t have a workbook with directions, how can I help?

Answer: The best thing you can do is ask questions like, “What are you doing? What is your plan? Where will you go next? Why are you doing it this way? Did you consider this instead?” These questions set the tone that parents value the child’s opinion and strategies. They encourage learning far more than directives like, “Do your homework!”

Question: How will my child learn responsibility without nightly homework?

Answer: Homework doesn’t teach responsibility. If I tell a child, “You must do this, and it must be done at this time or you receive a zero,” what choice does the child have? Responsibility comes with choice–not ultimatums. Students who choose to work outside of class, because they want to complete tasks in order to demonstrate learning or because they want feedback from teachers or peers, learn responsibility.

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Question: Why don’t you put grades on my child’s work?

Answer: Grades are punitive, and learning can’t be measured.

Question: So, how do you know if my child learns, if there are no points on his papers and projects?

Answer: I observe carefully. I talk to him. I ask questions about what he’s done, and I invite him to ask me questions and to explain why he did something. There is no easier way in the world to know if a chid learns than to ask, “What do you understand?” and “What is still not clear?” A number will never tell you this.

Question: My child says you have no rules in class. Doesn’t she need structure?

Answer: We have simple guidelines for conduct. We respect one another and interact appropriately. We talk about boundaries, and students learn to respect these boundaries which, in turn, helps them learn responsibility. In most cases, structure inhibits learning and creativity. A little chaos sparks engagement and curiosity.

Question: If there are no grades and no penalties for late or missing work, what will motivate my child to complete projects?

Answer: A desire to learn and to demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills. Kids want to learn; it’s innate. However, when we restrict their ability to learn, by assigning repetitive, boring activities, interest wanes. This is typically followed by punishment: If you don’t complete this worksheet, you receive a zero. This inhibits the desire to learn even more, because students see learning as a chore, built on rewards and consequences. I will provide inspiring, entertaining, thought-provoking opportunities to learn for your child. He won’t need the threat of grades or penalties. He’ll want to learn, because he’ll see joy in it.

Question: Can my child still do well on standardized tests, in this kind of class?

Answer: Your child will become an independent learner, and kids who love to learn and enjoy demonstrating their skills always outperform their traditional class peers on standardized tests.

Parents will have many more questions for progressive teachers, because parents are used to traditional education–structure, lecture, worksheets, tests, and grades.

When teachers make dramatic changes in how teaching and learning is done, parents are confused, so parents ask questions.

It took me a very long time to realize that part of the job is helping parents understand what motivates us. When they know that we have their children’s best interest at heart, parents are rarely upset with the answers.

What questions do you get that weren’t addressed here. Let’s sift through them together and be better communicators this school year.

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series -- books and other series that provide right-now solutions for teachers and learners. Mark is the author or publisher of dozens of books, including Bestseller Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Join more than 150,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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