One of the questions I see asked most often in parenting forums these days is some variation on:
“I’m worried about my child’s socialization now that it looks like daycares, preschools and schools have been closed for several months and will likely remain closed for several more months. Can someone please tell me if I really do need to worry about what the complete lack of socialization with other children will do to my [only] child?”
So we’ll take a look at that, and then we’ll go on to take a look at the other kinds of socialization that happen in school that you may not have even realized happens until we dig into the research on it.
I also let you know about a new Pandemic Pods ‘in a box’ course. A lot of parents are thinking of forming what are being called Pandemic Pods – a small group of children who are working together either in some kind of parent care exchange or with a hired teacher/tutor.
As I’m sure you can imagine, there are a host of ways to set up these pods in a way that exacerbate existing inequalities that pervade the public school system. And there are also ways to set them up that might actually help us to begin to overcome some of these issues. Listen in to learn how!
Click here to read the full transcript
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.
Today’s podcast episode is on the topic of socialization, because one of the questions I’m seeing most often in parenting forums these days runs along the lines of “I’m worried about my child’s socialization now that it looks like daycares, preschools and schools have been closed for several months and will likely remain closed for several more months. Can someone please tell me if I really do need to worry about what the complete lack of socialization with other children will do to my only child?” So that’s the main topic for our conversation today.
But I also wanted to let you know about some other resources I’ve been putting together for parents who are struggling to cope right now, and this episode is related to those as well.
You might have already seen that I have a course called The Confident Homeschooler, which gives you all the information you need to decide whether homeschooling could be right for your child and your family. It’s based on scientific research, as everything I do is, but it’s not huge and indigestible. It’s a series of short videos that you could binge-watch in an evening or two, and it gives you everything you need to make a decision about whether homeschooling can really work for you
- whether you’ll need a curriculum, and if so, how to choose one;
- how to use your child’s interests to develop their intrinsic love of learning,
- the social and emotional learning that will enable your child’s success when they return to school,
- overcoming problems like working with children of different ages,
- and ways to assess your children’s learning so you can feel confident they are keeping up with academic standards, if you decide that’s important to you.
If you want to find out more about The Confident Homeschooler you can do that at yourparentingmojo.com/confidenthomeschooler.
But with many districts announcing that they are moving to remote-only learning for at least the first part of the fall semester, many parents are no longer in a position where they’re choosing whether homeschooling is right for them, they’re doing some form of it whether they want to or not. And parents are panicking. They’re panicking about their children’s learning, and whether their children are somehow going to ‘fall behind’ if they can’t make attending school two days a week work, or if they already know from what happened in Spring that their child just isn’t going to be able to sit in front of Zoom calls for even an hour each day.
Parents who are in this position are starting to form what are being called Pandemic Pods, and if you haven’t heard of these yet then you will most likely be hearing more about them soon. They pretty much exploded over social media just last weekend here in the Bay Area, and I expect they’ll move outward from there to other places where schools are closed. So a Pandemic Pod is a small group of families that are getting together to support their child’s development and learning in some way. Exactly how that will be done depends on the age of the children; for younger children this might essentially be a nanny share arrangement. For older ones there would be some aspect of supporting the children’s learning, and this can vary from learning about things the children are interested in to making sure the children complete every assignment sent home by the school district and ensuring readiness for the next grade of learning when school reopens.
On the first day people were talking about Pandemic Pods there was a huge rush to form them. And then the very next day, it seemed like people realized the social justice considerations of what are essentially networks of affluent parents, who are often but not always white, either withdrawing their child from school or providing this extra tutoring to ensure their child stays on track with the school-provided learning objectives. And there are other considerations like how many families you’ll work with, and whether each family is comfortable really socially isolating so the pod’s potential for exposure is minimized, and whether the children will wear masks all day every day, and whether the caregiver or tutor will wear a mask inside your house all day every day.
But I do believe there are ways to set pods up that address many of these logistical issues, as well as the social justice considerations, for two reasons. I think there can be a bit of a reflexive cry of “public schools are the most equitable arrangement possible, and Pandemic Pods reek of white privilege.” We’ll get to the public schools issue in a bit, so let’s take the privilege aspect first. If white people are using their networks to identify resources that not everyone can access then that’s a classic case of what’s called Opportunity Hoarding, which we discussed in depth in the episode on white privilege in schools. If white people are forming pods and then reaching out to parents of non-dominant cultures and inviting them in to ‘sprinkle a little diversity on top’ primarily for the benefit of our own child then we’re basically just perpetuating white supremacy.
(And if this is the first time you’re hearing this phrase ‘people of non-dominant cultures,’ then it’s a term I use to avoid centering whiteness, and to recognize the power imbalance inherent in systemic racism.)
But there are ways to form these pods that don’t do that. A Pandemic Pod doesn’t inherently perpetuate white supremacy. The way the pod is formed CAN do that, or can NOT do that. So if a white parent reaches out to people of non-dominant cultures, maybe parents of other children at the white family’s school, or maybe through a local church and asks what resources parents need access to, then you can open a conversation. What you may well find is that while you are feeling overwhelmed and panicked because this is the first time our social systems have really completely failed us, that families of non-dominant cultures have robust support systems that have thus far flown under the radar. So if you ask them what they need, a group of families might already have a long-standing support system and ask you to purchase wifi access for them, and then encourage you not to engage further with them, thank you very much. They might be deeply suspicious of your motives, as, frankly, I probably would be too if I were them. But it’s possible that by starting a conversation about what they’re seeing and what are their needs, and what you’re seeing and what are your needs, that you’ll be able to open up a space that is truly inclusive, not just tokenistically inclusive.
By making the needs of others at least as important as your own needs, and even centering their needs above yours, you’re doing the real work of dismantling white supremacy here. This is really it. You’re listening to the needs of people of non-dominant cultures, and you’re acting on them not out of a sense of duty and obligation and white saviorism, but because your survival and your child’s survival are wrapped up in their survival and their child’s survival. You will sink or swim together. This is the work Black people are asking us to do to dismantle the systems that have given us so much power and privilege for so many years.
So if you’d like more information on how to form a pandemic pod, from whether you should start one in the first place, to way more of these social justice considerations, to the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask the other families participating, how to identify a caregiver or tutor and what to ask them in an interview, to what the children should be learning and how to know if they are learning, to minimizing costs, then my new Pandemic Pod ‘in a box’ course is for you. You can learn more and sign up today at yourparentingmojo.com/pandemicpods.
Now I do want to come back to this issue of public schools being the most equitable arrangement possible for children, and the idea that if we aren’t supporting public schools then we aren’t doing anti-racist work because it’s intimately connected to the idea of socialization.
I think when many parents are thinking of the issue of socialization they’re thinking about it at one level, as I was as well before I started looking into it, so we’ll start there before we go deeper. We’re thinking about the interactions our children are missing out on with other children, and whether that’s a big deal to their development. And fortunately for us, that’s actually a relatively easy question to answer. So maybe this will be a super short episode and we’ll call it done? But come on; I know you know me better than that!
So when we think about this issue of socialization with other children, and whether not being able to be around other children for a long time is problematic, we can say that in many cases the answer here is ‘no.’ I’m thinking back to our episode on the concept of Self-Reg®, which is the term that Dr. Stuart Shanker coined, and which is ““a powerful method for understanding stress and managing tension and energy, which are key to enhancing self-regulation in children, youth and adults of all ages. Decades of research have shown that optimal self-regulation is the foundation for healthy human development, adaptive coping skills, positive parenting, learning, safe and caring schools, and vibrant communities.”
In that episode we looked at a lot of research on childhood stressors, and specifically at some definitions published by the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, which distinguishes between three types of stress:
A positive stress response is “a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.
A Tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.
And a Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.
While we can see that daycares and schools being closed for a long period of time doesn’t exactly fit the time-limited criteria of the positive stress response, if our child is at home with at least one loving parent, then the stress of not being able to see their friends is not likely to be harmful to the child. Of course, this may not be the case if being at home exposes the child to things like domestic violence or caregivers who regularly humiliate the child, or other types of situations that we know are traumatic, and remove children from the sources of support they may have had in school.
The other side of this high-level question is that even when the child seems happy and reasonably well adjusted, are they missing out on some kind of skill building that they can only get by being around other children in daycare or school. I do wish I could remember where I read it, but I do recall seeing someone somewhere explain what a strange idea it is that we put all the people in our ‘village’ who are the same age, and who lack social skills, and we put them all together with the smallest possible number of adults we can and expect the children to learn social skills.
We do know that children can effectively learn skills like manners and sharing from their parents and caregivers, so just because your child isn’t around other children doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to learn these skills. And there’s no research indicating that children who aren’t around big groups of other children for extended periods come to some kind of developmental harm because we just wouldn’t have made it as a species if we needed this. All children enjoy play and create opportunities to play when they can, even when it isn’t culturally sanctioned. But they don’t have to have large groups of friends to learn how to play. They can learn with siblings, or with parents spending a bit of time with them each day, and by themselves, and with one or two other children occasionally if you’re able to do that.
That said, if your child is extroverted and gets energy from a lot of social contact with others, and especially if you’re an introvert and need more quiet time, or if your child has a condition like autism that makes social contact with others important and that person simply cannot be you 100% of the time, then absolutely you can look for a friend or a small group of friends to co-isolate with to slightly expand your social bubble and give yourself a break. But it’s possible that it isn’t contact with people their own age is actually the critical factor, and rather it’s just contact with other people that’s the important ingredient, and so having a teen or another adult or even a grandparent spend time with the child could also be beneficial.
But let’s dig a little deeper into this, and ask ourselves what we *really* mean by socialization. And we can start to get at this tangentially by asking why it matter so much that our children have the experience of being around others. What are we trying to do by doing this? We’re trying to give them experiences with other children, and also with other adults – the teachers, with a goal of giving them skills to succeed in the world. And what kinds of skills do they need to learn to succeed in the world? Basically, they need to learn the skills to understand what it means to move around in a world that is dominated by white norms.
Now I need to give a hat tip here to early childhood education consultant Ijumaa Jordan, whom I heard interviewed on the Pre-K Teach & Play podcast which is hosted by Dr. Kristie Pretti-Frontczak. I already had a bit of background knowledge on how whiteness is the assumed norm in most situations in the world – we can see this when a news reporter refers to a white man as a ‘man,’ and a Black man as a ‘Black man’ – because whiteness is the assumed norm, the reporter didn’t need to mention the white man’s race. That’s just one tiny example, but it shows how when a group of white people are together, it’s a space that is assumed to be neutral. Race isn’t an issue. Race only becomes an issue when someone of another race comes into the space, or when a white person finds themselves in a room full of people of other races.
In this podcast episode, Ijumaa Jordan talks about how dominant white culture shows up in preschool classrooms. One way this happens is through time; where you show up at a certain time (which is called ‘being on time’), and then things happen in a linear sequence that functions as a schedule. In other places, and Jordan gives the Caribbean as an example, that time is more circular and based on relationships, and things don’t happen until the right people get there. In our classrooms we might start at 9am, and 10:00 is group time, and 11:00 is outside time, and at 11:25 we start transitioning to washing hands, and at noon everyone has to sit down and eat their lunch. There’s no space for anyone who doesn’t feel like going outside that day, or isn’t hungry at noon, to do anything different. And when we’re talking about children of non-dominant cultures, the teacher will then sometimes say “they come from such chaotic homes…” and frame it up as preschool training the child to do something the parents have failed to do, which is to accept a view of time that is used by white culture. Some things do run on time, and we need to be ready for them. But this is my interjection here; the majority of the schedules we thrust on our children we do because it makes our lives easier. We might tell ourselves that our children ‘do better’ when they are on a schedule, and by that we usually mean that they are more compliant, and that the behavior they show when they’re on a schedule might be easier for us to cope with. But maybe it’s possible that another schedule would work better for them than the one we arbitrarily impose, or maybe they really don’t need as much of a schedule as we think they do.
This idea of scheduling becomes problematic in a couple of ways. Firstly if we’re looking at federally or state-funded programs like Head Start then those programs tend to require that parents show up with their children by a certain time, and if you’re regularly late then you get written up and you could potentially lose access to the services that you rely on to take care of your child while you work. So there’s not much flexibility there to account for whatever reality you’re facing with getting your kids out the door that morning. And you might say ‘well, if there were really mostly white kids in the school, does it even matter if we use this highly scheduled approach?’ and Ijumaa Jordan says yes it does, because we’re teaching our children the dominant narrative, that the white way of viewing time is the right way to view time.
Another way white norms show up is around being quiet. There’s a pretty clear white cultural norm around being quiet. I haven’t been to church in a long time, but I used to go when I was young and you sit quietly in your pew and listen unless it’s time to sing, in which case you sing but not too loudly, and you’re always singing along with the other people in church following the same melody which really sounds more like a dirge. And I’ve seen videos of Black people in church and they’re calling out during the sermon to say they agree with what the pastor is saying, and they’re singing joyfully and making real music, not just this simple little melody that you hear in the white church. And this idea carries through to school as well. We reward children who can sit crisscross applesauce and keep their hands to themselves and be quiet and wait their turn, and anyone who calls out or sings the song in a different way is most definitely not rewarded. We don’t ever ask why we reward sitting quietly and being still and waiting your turn; we just do it without questioning it. And why do we do it? Well, we do it because it makes life easier for the preschool teachers today, and we do it because it gets children ready for school. Kindergarten teachers tell us that they actually don’t care if our children can read and write when they get to kindergarten, as long as they can sit still and pay attention. So because we have this one way of teaching children when they get to kindergarten which relies on the child being able to sit still and pay attention in a specific way, before their bodies are mostly ready to do it, we have to start training them to do it in preschool. And instead of questioning whether the way children learn in school is the right way – which, I would argue, we have a lot of room to improve on – we push this dominant cultural norm down the pipe instead.
So this interview with Ijumaa Jordan got me thinking – what else is there like this? What other kinds of issues do we think of as socialization, and which are actually socialization of white dominant cultural norms?
Language is one obvious way that this happens. I read one fascinating paper by Dr. Liz Hollingworth at the University of Iowa, who did a series of classroom observations and interviews with a teacher and her students after one of her Black students called the teacher racist. The teacher decided to change the way she taught by adding multicultural children’s books that brought race to the foreground, but as I think often happens in these kinds of situations, the actual discussions around the books themselves still normalized whiteness. The teacher normalized whiteness by describing “the way you and I talk,” and when she said “you,” she meant all of the members of her class, even the ones who have self-identified as a race other than white. The teacher used “they” to mean the Black characters in the book they are reading who speak in a dialect that is not like the teacher’s, but is actually one that is used by the Black and some of the multiracial students in class on the playground. Even though this teacher’s stated purpose is to increase tolerance of racial differences in her community, she sees school as a place where race is neutral, and whiteness is normalized.
The teacher verbally reinforces this idea in subtle ways that I think the students probably do perceive and respond to. So when the Black student says that the characters in the story might speak in a certain way because they haven’t been to school, the teacher repeats what he says with no additional comment. Then she calls on another student and repeats his comment, and adds to it to indicate that he was more on the ‘right track’ than the Black student. This process silences the child who presents an argument that is at odds with the teacher’s interpretation, and yet does so in a way that almost makes it seem as though the teacher is listening and taking the idea on board. Throughout the exploration of this book, the teacher kept a pretty tight control over what was discussed and how it was discussed, by using typical classroom tools like the use of questions to guide and direct the class, while students were permitted to ask clarifying questions but not guide the course of the discussion. The teacher controlled who spoke and for how long, as well as the available interpretations of the text. She made these decisions not based on what we know about best practices in discussing race, but based on a balance between knowing that she needed to discuss race but feeling a deep discomfort with doing so.
I wish the study had included a survey of the students’ attitudes toward tolerance before and after this unit, because from all of the studies I’ve read on this subject, it’s most likely that nothing changed here at all and that the person who was challenged most in the entire thing was the teacher. And of course, this is one teacher discussing one book with one class, and we can’t possibly generalize just this experience. But we do know that this approach was not rooted in what we currently believe to be best practices, and that it is likely to be the kind of discussion that most commonly occurs in schools today when the issue of race is raised.
Another way language is used in the classroom is in Show and Tell. Show-and-tell is a ubiquitous feature in classrooms in the United States, although I didn’t grow up with it so I’ll describe it for listeners who are living elsewhere – basically the teacher invites students to bring objects from home and to sit in a circle when they’re young and talk about their objects. When they get older the teacher might designate a single student to bring an object on a given day and the student will give a longer presentation about it. These show-and-tell sessions are described by all manner of organizations as being critical to learning. The textbook company Scholastic has a blog that says “Show and tell sets the stage for children to become comfortable when speaking in public. When presenting during show and tell, students are expected to talk about a variety of topics, organize their thoughts and convey main ideas, all of which are skills I use as an adult in my job.”
The Illinois Early Learning Project says “Children as young as one year can benefit from show and tell if the teachers or parents who are facilitating it have appropriate expectations.” When children become toddlers, they begin to listen more and take pride in their abilities. Show and Tell should encourage children to listen, follow directions, and make choices. In the preschool years, this website says the teacher should “Repeat rules such as ‘one person speaks at a time’ before Show and Tell and remind the children when necessary throughout the activity.”
I was really surprised to see an English website called Edu-quip describing show and tell, because I have no recollection of ever participating in this. The site says:
And maybe by now you’re starting to see some of the problems with show and tell. Showing off prized possessions is an invitation for the teacher and students to judge the appropriateness of what the child brought. And they do judge! Anything that doesn’t fit within gendered norms is shot down by the other students. The children in my daughter’s preschool class were prohibited from bringing branded toys like Disney characters to show and tell. I’m not sure what would have happened if a child had showed up with one, but teachers in general tend to express their disapproval through the kinds of questions they ask and don’t ask, and how much encouragement they offer, and whether they cut the child off early. So the child will know if their prized possession is acceptable or not. It also promotes a materialistic culture where things are prized above all else – an attitude that’s necessary if we’re going to keep our capitalist machine running.
Not all children want to be the center of attention! This is a trait that’s highly valued in an individualistic society, and is actively discouraged in interdependent cultures. Why should the audience sit still and listen thoroughly? If they don’t understand something, why shouldn’t they ask for clarification? There are some fascinating anthropological studies of storytelling in Black families reporting that very young children develop the ability to ‘hold’ an audience in part by being heckled by adults if their story isn’t good enough.
I would think that far from giving students the ability to make friends, show and tell divides them more than it unites them. It sets up competitions to bring the best object, to give the best presentation, and to gain the teacher’s approval. The fact that we see show and tell as an unquestionably positive component of the school learning experience reflects, once again, the norm of whiteness in schools.
Another way that whiteness pervades schools at all levels is in the types of knowledge that are valued, and to continue on our theme of topics related to language, schools privilege written knowledge over oral knowledge. So classrooms are filled with books, and teachers read books to students, and encourage them to learn to write and to read, so they can become consumers of this written knowledge.
When was the last time you ever heard from your child that your teacher told your child a story that didn’t come from a book? Or if the teacher is so embedded in white culture that they find storytelling extremely difficult, as I do myself, when was the last time you heard that they invited someone into the classroom who IS an expert storyteller to share stories with the classroom about their own lives or figures or events that are meaningful to their culture? We did a series of episodes a while back on storytelling, and we learned how many Black families have an incredibly rich culture of storytelling where even preschoolers can tell a story with multiple narrative arcs and captivate an audience. I contrast that with the stories my daughter tells, which doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while she’ll make up something about how one of the bugs she has in the back yard as pets was playing a guitar when she went out to put them to bed, and the story usually takes the form “this happened, then this happened, then this happened, and it was really funny!”. My daughter isn’t reading anywhere near fluently yet, but she can write all of the letters and some simple words, and this kind of knowledge is valued and celebrated in schools – I know this because examples of it would come home in the portfolio of materials that the school gathers up and presents to us at the end of the year. Because these skills are valued, it doesn’t matter if her stories are simple and unsophisticated. But if you’re a Black child who can tell incredible stories but you can’t read anything or write any letters yet then all of a sudden you’re a candidate for remedial intervention, simply because the school doesn’t value the assets you do bring.
Linked to the idea of writing over oral expertise is the privileging of history over memory, because history is written down while memories are usually conveyed in oral format. Now memories can certainly fade, but history is written by the victors and the victors get to re-write the version of it that they want to remember – if they want to remember anything at all. There’s a big thing going around on social media at the moment where middle-aged people are finding out about the mob attack by white people on Black homes and businesses in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that happened in 1921. This event was called the Tulsa Race Riot at the time, apparently because calling it a riot meant that insurance companies didn’t have to pay benefits to the Black families whose homes and businesses were destroyed. It’s more commonly known today as the Tulsa Race Massacre. I grew up in England and we studied European history on the premise that there wasn’t enough American history to make it worth studying, but Americans who grew up here and went through school here are just now discovering that this major event happened and they never knew about it because it wasn’t recorded in written form in their textbooks. I believe a big part of the problem here is the centralized curriculum which allows a relatively few people to determine what everyone else should know. If teachers were allowed to co-create the curriculum with students, and decide together what should be learned and known, then even the white students in Tulsa most certainly would know about these events, and students in other locations would learn about their own local civil rights heroes and activists, at the same time as they connect to the idea that there were thousands more of these individuals working in other communities across the country. This would help to counter the idea that my daughter came home from preschool with at age 4 on Martin Luther King Day, when she learned something about how the country had a problem but a woman sat on a bus and now everything is alright.
I read a fascinating paper by Dr. Radhika Viruru at Texas A&M university that unpacks the primary importance we give to language. She begins the paper: “Growing up in India, one of the ideas that shaped my way of viewing the world was the (unspoken) rule that language was for the unimportant things in life. If something really mattered, it was unlikely that it would ever be spoken aloud. These messages would be conveyed in ambiguous and layered ways, using symbols that had nothing to do with the written or the spoken word. Language seemed to play only a limited role in the relationships one had with other human beings.” She goes on to give an example of meeting the mother of a student called Vashnavi who had really, really struggled to settle in at the beginning of the school year.
Dr. Viruru says: “When I had an opportunity to talk to Vaishnavi’s mother, I commented to her about how well she had settled down. All Vaishnavi’s mother said was, ‘It took her 3 weeks, she is really exceptional’, but her face said a lot more. It is difficult to describe how a look can communicate so much but in her face, one could read all the emotion, and many other unnamed feelings, that had seemed absent. As was often the case, I felt like I had committed some kind of obscene act by imposing speech in a situation where it did not belong. At that moment, it felt like an act of almost unspeakable brutality and violence to force language into situations where it was entirely inadequate. The satisfaction of having understood what was really going on seemed an act of irresponsibility when compared to the sense of violating the codes by which people function.”
Dr. Viruru goes on to describe how teachers would create positive relationships with the students by carrying the youngest ones around on their hips, just going about their duties, and not talking specifically to the child they were holding. At lunchtime, each teacher had her own particular group of children who wanted her to feed them their lunch, and they would refuse to sit or be fed by others. The teachers and students had created relationships through these actions, not through language.
Here in the U.S. we classify children by the language they seem able to use or choose to use and if this doesn’t line up with standards we set we classify them as in need of remedial attention – think of the 30 million word gap research, which puts the blame for children’s inadequate language performance squarely on parental shoulders. We are essentially telling children that using language is ‘good’ communication, and other forms of communication are not. We even deny children the right to not answer a question, so silence becomes an act of resistance to parental (and teacher’s) power. We as adults use language to describe and understand young children, rather than entering into an equal relationship with them that respects their existence as human beings who can never be completely understood.
Here in the U.S., the lack of use of language is seen as a clear deficit. Schools and other organizations set up to ‘help’ children see the gap in test score outcomes between Black and Latinx students on the low end, and white and Asian students on the high end, and essentially say “OK, well, clearly being in school isn’t helping these children to succeed, so we need to reach them earlier with services to help them do well in school and for their parents to improve their own parenting skills.” If we think back to our recent interview with Dr. john powell, we see a clear sense of ‘othering’ here – there’s the idea that the white way is the norm. If your children do well based on that norm, as children of Asian-American parents often do, then there’s no need for any special interventions and you can keep doing what you like. But if you don’t meet the standards of the white norm then there’s something defective in you and the way you’re raising your children. It goes without question that the norm is value-neutral, and it’s the deviation from that norm that’s the problem that needs to be fixed. We try to find ways to steer families toward services we think they need, without ever seeking to understand the ways they already negotiate and maneuver through the racialized environment of school. We present reading as some kind of universal need, which really is only a need because it’s an efficient way to convey information to children when you’re trying to minimize the number of adults who have to come into contact with that child to increase class sizes and make education cheaper.
There’s no place for anyone to question why reading is a universal need by a certain age, because the ‘experts’ have deemed when a child should be reading and how fluently, and anyone who can’t do this is singled out for special services regardless of the context or culture in which the child sits. This language of needs hides the concept of power behind it, which is to say that the teachers, and the administrators, and the psychologists are the experts on your child, and what your child should be doing by when, and the knowledge you hold as a parent is at best irrelevant, and at worst is harming your child by holding them back and preventing them from success in school.
I found one case study of how a reading program was implemented in a school. It’s called Accelerated Reader, and apparently it’s used in over 65,000 schools in the U.S. The program doesn’t actually provide any books, but instead sells multiple choice tests about books that the school has or purchases to make sure the children can answer a certain percentage of questions correctly, at which point they are awarded points and allowed to move up to the next level. The students aren’t allowed to choose what they wanted to read, but were told what to read next by a ‘readability formula,’ although apparently these formulas are known as ‘rubber rulers’ due to their lack of accuracy. But Accelerated Reading has been deemed scientifically valid and is endorsed by No Child Left Behind, so schools continue to use it.
The school in this case study created a rewards system to incentivize students to read, so each book was worth a certain number of points and you couldn’t earn points for reading a book that wasn’t included in the program. Students had to meet or surpass a points goal to be invited to a monthly ice cream party, a process which completely ignored the diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and experiences present within an individual grade level. Students who read shorter, lower level books were awarded fewer points, and so were less likely to get the ice cream.
The program also promoted racial segregation by honoring practices that favor whites. It set up a competitive system that exacerbated the ways in which white culture ruled the school. It fostered independence and individualism, and negated the culturally relevant values of students of non-dominant cultures like collectivism, collaboration, kinship, and interdependence. Most of the books for which the multiple choice tests were available featured white characters, and the students noticed that ones featuring “diverse” characters essentially mostly just looked like ‘colored white folk.’ So the children of non-dominant cultures didn’t see people who looked like them being depicted in authentic ways through the materials they were reading either.
The program affected students’ sense of efficacy as well. One child, Gabriel, was excited to read the new Harry Potter book but when he got to the library he found that he couldn’t borrow it because he was in the red dot band, and Harry Potter wasn’t a red dot book. Ten days later he had borrowed it from somewhere else and took the multiple choice test for it. The paper recounts the conversation Gabriel had with the teaching assistant in the class:
Gabriel: 80% on Harry Potter!
TA: I’m gonna have to delete these points.
TA: …you’re reading outside of your color again?
Gabriel: But I passed the test and I like Harry Potter a lot.
TA: Don’t you talk back to me! Now sit down and get a red [dot] book.
The students would compare the number of points they were earning per book with others in the class, and associated that with their own competence at reading. A person was a ‘good’ reader when they could read books worth 10 points each and could pass the test for the book, and the ability to decode the words and read fluently and understand the meaning of the book were irrelevant. The kindergarten level books were perceived by many students as being the most difficult ones, because the stories were so simple they didn’t make sense, which meant the student basically had to memorize the book to be able to pass the test. And nobody ever thought to ask if the student enjoyed the book!
And the more we look for these kinds of issues, the more we find. When we look at classroom management practices, I’ve seen the research that talks about how classroom management originated in factory management practices, and that the goal of classroom management – and school more generally, actually, is to prepare children to take their places in a capitalist society. But when I took another look I found a paper which noted that “most historians situate modern management as emerging in the United States with the development of the railroad system in the mid 1800s. Yet by this time, 38,000 managers were already managing four million slaves in the United States. White people justified taking the land that had been used by Native Americans, and enslaving people from Africa, because they had cast themselves as “uniquely fit to manage land and labour.” White people used biological determinism, religion, and stereotype to “explain” how the races were different (although these categories had fuzzy boundaries so managers could pit workers against each other. Managing enslaved people required their absolute obedience – the managers thought and planned, while workers, who were enslaved, implemented. We can thus draw a line from the management of enslaved people on plantations through factories to the classroom management practices still used in schools today.
Returning to the classroom, the professors who wrote the paper on this topic say their students – particularly those who plan to teach in low-income, urban schools with ethnically diverse populations, feel as though they have to control unwieldy students before they can teach their lesson, because otherwise the students can’t and won’t learn. In other words, a key component of classroom management is motivating children to learn. But why do we need to motivate students to learn? It’s because a centralized curriculum takes a topic that is irrelevant to everyone, breaks it apart into its smallest component, and requires that the child learn these irrelevant tiny components in just the right sequence. Educational theorist John Dewey likens the learning that takes place in management-based educational environments to students either choosing to find intellectual stimulation in the routine and process of schooling, or simply choosing to feign interest over the consequence of punishment.
Through this process behavior, not learning, becomes the primary product of the classroom and the teacher is evaluated on their ability to control students’ behavior and direct them in learning tasks. To paraphrase Alfie Kohn, we remove all control from teachers to choose what they teach and how they teach it, and then we hold them accountable for the results. We end up getting caught in the dehumanizing rhetoric and practices of neoliberalism – we structure classrooms to better serve the needs and demands of global capitalism, rather than the needs and demands of students.
White people like things to feel organized and under control, and I think this is one reason why teachers get preoccupied by classroom management – because management is seen as the precursor to learning. It’s like the anecdote from a paper by Dr. Susan Engel that I’ve mentioned probably a number of times on the show by now, where she was looking at children’s curiosity in the classroom. She actually had to completely change her study because she thought she would find decreasing levels of curiosity in children as they got older and more indoctrinated into the school system where the teacher asks the questions and not the students, but she found they basically stopped asking questions once they got into kindergarten. So in this paper she describes a classroom that has been divided into groups who had been given a set of materials to explore how the ancient Egyptians had invented wheels for transportation to carry stones for the pyramids. Each group had a worksheet that included step by step instructions on what to do, and the teacher wandered around encouraging the groups and reminding them to answer the questions on the worksheet. One group seemed to have forgotten the worksheet and was trying to figure out different ways to use the equipment. When the teacher noticed this “she called out to the group, over the heads of her students, in a loud clear voice for all to hear, “Ok, kids. Enough of that. I’ll give you time to experiment at recess. This is time for science.”
Where I’m going with this is the idea that children learn as much if not more in the spaces between the lessons than they do from the lessons themselves. We try as hard as we possibly can to tame the chaos, and to put a stop to anything that looks like it isn’t part of the curriculum, and by managing behavior, and by setting expectations for what learning looks like and rewarding that, but the real learning is happening in between these spaces. We’re uncomfortable with this chaos because we like things to be linear and controlled and organized, but that’s a failure of our ways of thinking. If instead we could learn how to embrace the messiness behind these unified narratives of what success looks like and how to achieve it, then maybe we could also welcome what used to be just annoying and uncomfortable noise at the margins, which was being made by people who had been marginalized and excluded by our attempts to calm the chaos.
We have this idea that everything learned has to be taught, and an adult – either the parent or the teacher – needs to be the one to teach it. But people learn in all kinds of ways that don’t require lesson plans to make the learning happen, or testing to make sure it happened. Children learn from interactions beyond the nuclear family, and not just through the serve-and-return kind of conversation with their parents that’s promoted as some kind of ideal, and through reading the cereal box as well as books, and simply to function in their daily lives. What if instead of having the teacher be the person who needs to maintain control, and to teach the curriculum, that instead the teacher was viewed as a co-creator of knowledge? That we should support the teacher in developing expertise in connecting students to resources, and helping the students to answer their own questions, and being comfortable with not knowing all the answers?
Let’s think about those answers, and about learning, and knowledge. When we think about knowledge, and especially knowledge created through scientific research, we typically think of something that is value-free. That is, the highest form of knowledge is created when the researcher’s personal or cultural characteristics have no influence over the knowledge – in other words, the knowledge is objective. But no knowledge is really objective, even when it’s created through scientific methods. I came to grips with this in my former career as a sustainability consultant. There has been a long-running debate in that community about how to communicate the environmental impacts of products and services to consumers. Some organizations want consumers to know about the relative impacts of the products and services they use, while others say that consumers could never understand these issues in all of their complexity and no information is better than bad information.
So how would this play out? Well let’s say we’re trying to decide between two packs of chocolate chip cookies and Brand A has an environmental impact score of 90 out of 100 where 100 is the best possible score, while Brand B has a score of 80 out of 100. Seems like we should choose Brand A, right? But behind those simple and seemingly value-neutral numbers are a whole host of decisions that went into a tool called Life Cycle Assessment, and doing these assessments was actually what I used to do for a living.
So we have these two numbers on the packages, and both packages say the numbers are results of a life cycle assessment, which sounds awfully scientific, so we figure the score that’s closest to 100 is the best one.
But maybe Brand B includes the tiny fraction of the gas in your tank that it takes for you to get the cookies home, and makes some estimate about whether you are recycling or throwing the packet in the trash. Brand A says “well we can’t know anything about that, so we won’t include it.” That’s a value judgement.
Maybe Brand A says “Well, we don’t think water pollution is that important of an issue in cookie manufacturing, so we’re not going to report that information.” Brand B thinks water pollution IS important, and chooses to include it, and it reduces Brand B’s overall score by 20%. That’s a value judgement about what’s important. Is Brand A still better?
Brand A outsources its chocolate chip manufacturing, and doesn’t have a great relationship with the supplier, so they choose to use industry-average data even though they know they get chocolate chips really cheaply and the chances that there’s *something* untoward going on in the supply chain are high. Brand B makes its chocolate chips in-house and has accurate data, which show a higher-than-average environmental impact. The decision to use industry-average data is a value decision. Is Brand A still better?
These are just a few of the hundreds of decisions that go into this kind of scientific study, and we haven’t even looked at the social implications of these manufacturing decisions. Behind these apparently value-neutral number on the cookie packages were a whole host of decisions that were impacted by the researchers’ experience and education and biases. And this is what we call science. This apparently value-free tool of science turns out to be absolutely riddled with value judgements. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – but it’s a bad thing when we don’t understand what are those value judgements and when we pretend that science is value-free.
The same thing happens in the psychological research when scientists think it’s fine to do research on white children and then extrapolate the results as if they were applicable to everyone, or not take into account the ways that different children play before saying that the way Black children play with toys represents less high quality play than the way White children play, or ask leading questions of Mexican immigrant mothers like “How important is English literacy to your child under 5?”. These are all issues we’ve discussed on the show, and there have been many more besides. The judgements that go into the study methods, the data analysis, and even the overarching research question that’s being asked in the first place all have value judgements behind them. Dr. James Banks, who has studied this issue, says: “Often the researchers themselves are unaware of how their personal experiences and positions within society influence the knowledge they produce,” and he cites the feminist scholar Dr. Lorraine Code who says we need to ask:
“Out of whose subjectivity has this ideal of objectivity grown? Whose standpoint, whose values does it represent? The point of the questions is to discover how subjective and objective conditions together produce knowledge, values, and epistemology. It is neither to reject objectivity not to glorify subjectivity in its stead. Knowledge is neither value-free nor value-neutral; the processes that produce it are themselves value-laden; and these values are open to evaluation.”
And this shows up in school as well. Dr. Banks describes five different types of knowledge, and he relates them in a diagram that I’ll describe to you as I go, and I’ll put a picture of it in the references if that would help you. Four of the five types of knowledge appear on one level, and these are popular knowledge, mainstream knowledge, personal and cultural knowledge, and transformative academic knowledge. Popular knowledge are the facts, concepts, and interpretations that are institutionalized in the mass media and other institutions that are part of pop culture. Examples include the old movie How the West Was Won, and Dances with Wolves, both of which present narratives about how white people interacted with Native Americans from a white-centric perspective. Mainstream knowledge is the concepts, paradigms, theories, and explanations that constitute traditional western-centric knowledge in history, and in the behavioral and social sciences (and I would argue that this happens in many other fields as well). So the White historian Ulrich Phillips wrote a book in 1918 called American Negro Slavery which was basically an apology for Southern slave-holders, and which dominated the way Black slavery was interpreted until his views were challenged in the 1950s. The (white) historian Frederick Jackson Turner described America as a thinly populated wilderness when Europeans arrived even though more recent historians now criticize this view, Turner’s concept of the American West is still influential in curriculum and textbooks today. So these two kinds of knowledge are the middle two of the four, and these are the ONLY two that feed into school knowledge, which sits underneath them.
School knowledge consists of the facts, concepts, and generalizations presented in textbooks, teachers’ guides, and other forms of media designed for school use, and also includes the teacher’s mediation and interpretation of that knowledge. School knowledge is most heavily influenced by mainstream academic knowledge and popular knowledge.
Let’s look at the other two kinds of knowledge too, the first of which is Personal and Cultural Knowledge. Personal and cultural knowledge is the concepts, explanations, and interpretations that students create from personal experiences in their homes, families, and community cultures. An example of that is the understanding that many Black and Latinx students have that highly individualistic, competitive behavior is needed to succeed in school, but will not be sanctioned by many adults and peers in their cultural communities. Another example would be the personal narratives of elders, and traditional stories that have been handed down through generations. In many communities these are a source of wisdom and messages about how to be in this culture, but in white culture these are cute and interesting but ultimately pretty irrelevant to school knowledge.
The final kind of knowledge is transformative academic knowledge, which are the facts, concepts, paradigms, themes, and explanations that challenge mainstream academic knowledge and expand and substantially revise established canons, paradigms, theories, explanations, and research methods. When transformative academic paradigms replace mainstream ones, a scientific revolution has occurred, although this doesn’t happen very often. Most of the time, transformative academic paradigms coexist with established ones. This idea is particularly relevant to us because transformative academic knowledge does not feed into school knowledge. So we have the idea that Western civilization started with the Greeks, which is part of school knowledge. But some African scholars have located the roots of the important aspects of Greek culture in ancient Egypt and Phoenicia. White scholars can produce transformative knowledge as well, like Dr. Martin Bernal’s work which uses evidence from linguistics, archaeology and ancient documents to substantiate the claim that when Greek culture was born, the people of the Aegean borrowed, adapted, or had thrust upon them deities and language, technologies, and architectures, notions of justice and polis” from Egypt and Phoenicia. Being white doesn’t mean your ideas will automatically be accepted – if it’s far enough outside the mainstream, it’s probably not going to have much impact on school knowledge.
So what implications does this have for schools? Well, when knowledge is related to power, and groups with the most power within a society often construct knowledge that maintains their power and protects their interests. No matter how thoughtful and logical the transformative academic knowledge is, when it comes up against political and economic power the transformative knowledge is ignored or actively silenced. Because the kinds of knowledge that end up being part of school knowledge are usually produced by white people, white norms end up being perpetuated in schools. Because personal and cultural knowledge is seen as mostly irrelevant to school knowledge, personal and cultural knowledge doesn’t influence school knowledge. And because transformative knowledge is often produced by people outside the mainstream, whose skin color is often (but not always) different from people who are in the mainstream, that doesn’t influence school knowledge either. This is how school knowledge ends up perpetuating white ideals.
And finally, if we take a step outward from the children themselves, we see that schools tend to have a certain view of how parents should participate in their children’s learning. Parents should make sure homework gets done, volunteer in the classroom, provide financial support when it’s requested, and show up at school for parent-teacher conferences – but preferably not at other times, because school is the teachers’ and administrators’ turf. When parents don’t participate in their children’s learning they are often labeled as ‘hard to reach,’ and their absences from these specific methods of participation is lamented as a sign that these parents ‘don’t care’ about their child’s education. Teachers and administrators don’t consider the variety of reasons why parents might not want to or even be able to come to school – from parent teacher conferences being scheduled while the parent is at work, or in the evenings when there’s no public transportation or alternative childcare available. Parents of non-dominant cultures may have had traumatic experiences of their own in school, and just reentering a school building can retrigger these old injuries. Or maybe supporting a child’s learning just looks way different in their culture. I remember an anecdote from a paper I read years ago describing a school that put up a display of children’s school work in a supermarket somewhere in England. One mother, who I think was described as either being from India or being British-Indian, and who had never been inside the school before, and whom teachers had described as ‘hard to reach,’ took different family members to visit the display three times over the course of a week to show them what the child was doing in school.
But when research on parental participation in schools involves sending out a questionnaire to parents asking them whether they help with homework, whether they do other educational activities with their child, whether they volunteer in the classroom, whether they go to parent-teacher conferences, and whether they ever talk with the teacher on the phone, and then rates how effective the parents feel and asks teachers to estimate how involved parents are, are completely grounded in a white-centered view of what parental involvement should look like.
We look at issues like racism and patriarchy in our society and we think “these things are too big to fix.” The challenge just seems insurmountable. Teachers may look at schools and think “the system is already set. I need to figure out how to function in that system and the best way to do that is for me to have as much control over as many aspects of it as I can.” Parents may look at their current situation trying to figure out how to balance work and school next semester and think “this seems impossible. There should be safety nets.” And they’re right. There should be safety nets. And also, we get to make choices about how we want to be in this world. We get to decide whether we’re going to rush around and panic and form pods with our friends who look like us and hire a teacher who looks like us and make sure our children are fully prepared for the next grade level on-time.
Or we can take this extraordinary opportunity to slow down. The school system that bound us is no longer functioning in the same way that it did, so we don’t have to break that mold. The mold is already broken. We can take this opportunity to begin reimagining what learning could look like. I’m not naïve enough to argue that pandemic pods are the panacea to all of our problems. They’re not. But they will give us an opportunity to experiment on a small scale. They’ll give us a chance to begin the anti-racist work that isn’t possible in schools where every single thing our child learns is learned through a lens of white supremacy. They’ll give us a chance to reimagine what learning looks like when it isn’t confined by a curriculum. They’ll give us a chance to share what we’re learning and fail and start again and iterate, and maybe build a new school system that’s actually responsive to our needs, rather than deeming that children who don’t fit into the system as it’s defined have failed, and are failures. So if you want support in figuring out how to set up a pod that works on these issues, head on over to yourparentingmojo.com/pandemicpods. You’ll find all the information you need there about the course. And once again, the course isn’t designed to have you spend three months pondering these issues before you start doing something. The information is actionable and there are templates you can use to talk with families so you’re discussing the kinds of issues that are important to you, and for interviewing a teacher or caregiver, and a sample contract for your teacher or caregiver you can modify so you don’t have to start from scratch, and ways to tell that your child is learning, and so much more. So you can find that at yourparentingmojo.com/pandemicpods, and all of the references for today’s episode can be found at yourparentingmojo.com/schoolsocialization
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About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.