Question Everything

Making sure schools have the right answers

The school year has ended and as parents you are either reflecting upon the year at your present school or preparing to move to a new posting in another country. Selecting a school for your family is one of the most important, yet difficult, decisions that you will make. This decision is made more difficult because you are often moving to unknown territory; have to make judgments under pressure of time and without significant data and information that is completely trustworthy. Of course, there are a number of reasons for choosing a school and every family has a different set of priorities. However, I have tried to identify a few areas of a school’s function and some related questions that as parents you could ask to gain a deeper understanding of the institution that you are entrusting with your child’s education.

First and foremost, a school must have highly effective teachers and this ingredient is far more important than any other factor. Researchers have slowly come to realize that a school’s effect on learning is nowhere near as significant as an individual teacher’s impact on learning, that an effective teacher brings value-added learning gains for years to come and that an ineffective teacher will have the reverse effect. Research has recently suggested that many teachers learn most and improve the most in their first few years of teaching and after that, learning either plateaus or stops. This is generally because schools do not focus enough upon creating a continuous professional learning environment through targeted professional development opportunities: teacher goal setting and providing time and expertise for coaching of teachers in their classrooms. The old proverb, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” is very applicable when choosing a school; a ramshackle school with good teachers should always be preferable to a school with wonderful facilities and ineffective teachers.

Questions to ask: How do you select your teachers? What standards do you use to evaluate teacher performance? How do you help your teachers’ professional growth? Do you use professional coaches to help your teachers develop their teaching skills? 

Clear Definition of Learning
Most schools will tell you they are good or great and refer to the organizational bestseller Good to Great by Jim Collins. For schools to move from good to great, the emphasis has to be clearly focused around learning. Today many international schools dazzle prospective parents with new technologies, 1:1 computer programs, state-of-the-art facilities, activities, uniform design, jazzy websites and so on. Some of these aspects are important but they are all peripheral to the highest priority for you as a parent, that is your child’s learning and how will you and the school know that your child has learned. If a school has defined learning and can explain what it regards as its learning principles then you have a set of criteria to refer to when you are observing and discussing your child’s progress as a learner. By making learning the key focus of the school it tells you a lot about where the energies of the teachers and administration at the school are going.

Questions to ask: Does your school have a definition of learning? Has your school defined its key learning principles? Do all teachers understand the importance of assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning? 

Teaching Pedagogy of the School
For many of us adults, our schooling focused on the learning of content and knowledge. Today the focus should be on learning how to use skills that access, interpret and create from the content and knowledge that is so freely available from the worldwide web. It is important that schools place a strong emphasis on students building enduring understandings through a constructivist approach built on clearly defined sets of skills that are embedded in subjects and reinforced through and across the curriculum from KG to Grade 12. By ensuring this systematic approach, students will be able to transfer learning to different learning scenarios which will prepare them to be problem solvers for the rest of their lives. Today the most relevant curricula are driven by concepts not content.

Questions to ask: Does your school have a prevalent teaching pedagogy/methodology that it encourages the teachers to follow? Do you have curricula that develop and encourage the concepts and skills that will be important for 21st century citizens? 

Mission and Vision
Remember that when you are choosing a school for your children, the school’s mission is their promise of what you will get from enrolling in that school. The vision is what they aspire to be or do with your children. Many schools have very fancy and complex missions and visions that promise they will create perfect global citizens who will change the world, but the question as a parent has to always be: How will I see that in my child? Does the school truly walk the talk with its mission and vision or are they just words on a website? When you are walking around the school, is the mission clearly visible? A school that has a review cycle for its mission and vision is one that is willing to reflect, discuss and accept change as a normal part of the development process of the school. In our rapidly changing world, modern schools have to be forward looking if they are going to serve their stakeholders effectively.

Questions to ask: Does your school have a Mission and Vision and how will that affect my child as a learner? Does the school use its Mission and Vision as a filter for decisions that are made? Does your school adhere to its Mission? When was the school’s Mission and Vision last reviewed? 

Educational Decision Makers
Unless the administrators who run the school are regularly in classrooms, they do not know what they are talking about. Imagine a sports coach who never attended games. At school, what happens daily in classrooms is the most important work and the decision makers need to be where the action is, to understand the learning going on, to see the challenges that students and teachers face, and to build meaningful relationships.

Question to ask: Is it normal for the school’s decision makers to visit classrooms? 

Voice of Stakeholders
Many schools believe that the educators are always right and that parents and students simply do not understand what is best. Today this is a misguided belief for a school and particularly so at international schools where we have a highly educated parent community that has enormous experience of what works elsewhere. You want a school where parents are seen as partners in the education process. Students are also very astute about what works and what doesn’t. So it is important that schools provide opportunities to listen to its stakeholders. Schools should be making good use of accrediting agencies that encourage honest self-reflection and provide good critical friendship advice from visiting experts. As parents, you should be looking for a school that is open and honest, does not spend all its time telling you how good it was, but instead focuses on how it is moving forward and improving its services.

Questions to ask: Do parents and students have a voice at the school? Is there a parent teacher organization? Is there an annual parent satisfaction survey? Are there student governance opportunities available throughout the school? Is the school accredited? 

*Adrian Watts is the Deputy Headmaster and Director of Academic Studies at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC). 

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