Thursday, January 24, 2008

Education by Intention, Not Default:

by Ellen Taussig

By the time children turn 18, they will have spent 10 percent of their lives at school. As powerful an influence as school can be, the other 90 percent of students' lives will be affected by lessons they learn outside of school. This ratio strongly suggests that the total education of a child will be most successful if it is a joint venture between parents and teachers. In both worlds, this venture can be guided by intention -- or left to the effects of a "default" culture.
Independent schools can offer an environment that allows the partnership between families and teachers to flourish. Their small size allows them to create intentional learning cultures in which all aspects of a child's education, from academics to ethical attitudes, can be carefully guided. Discerning parents can select a culture that mirrors their own values, and they can remain in close touch with the school to reinforce those values in both worlds.

Creating an Intentional Culture
Education does not happen in a vacuum. Rather, it mirrors the values of a culture. But American society today is not a single, unified culture. We are too young -- a mere 250 years, or so -- and we are highly multicultural in broad and complex ways.
Because we lack a common national culture that guides education, good schools must create intentional cultures. Of course they must offer a high quality, even visionary curriculum; but they also must create a total learning environment and community that fosters inclusiveness and respect among all members -- student to student, student to teacher, and teacher to student. The school must provide appropriate rigor for learning, but also engender joy in learning. It must be a place where students discover that integrity in thought and action are as important as the subject matter they learn in class.

In such an environment, students learn best and feel inspired and confident enough to initiate activities. They may organize their peers to refurbish migrant worker camps, reach out to fellow students in need through mentoring programs, build Habitat for Humanity teams, or create a series of Harry Potter skits adapted for their school at weekly assemblies.
A critical aspect of our intentional school culture involves building community and fostering respect within that community. This must be predicated on a clear philosophy of behavior, such as "Courtesy and Common Sense." When everyone in the community understands the common philosophy--families, teachers, and students-- it becomes the norm to practice those ideals. Other ways to build community include a common lunch program in which everyone, including teachers, share the same food each day, and regular Community Meetings during which the whole school shares work, performances, and information.

Families Select a School With a Culture that Mirrors Their Own
A clearly defined, intentional school culture provides a micro culture that may match that of a family, in contrast to the otherwise undefined culture of the larger society, what I call the default culture.

Too young and complex to have a unified culture, America is comprised of many microcultures. A microculture embraces a set of values that guide decisions about the important areas of life, including parenting and education. This is clearly seen in religious microcultures, whether among Catholics, fundamentalist Christians, Hasidic Jews, or Muslims, where decisions about education are inextricably linked to passing on the religion. Other microcultures may be found among new groups of immigrants, who retain their strong family connections and values, or among families with legacies in an occupation, such as generations of family-owned businesses or law practices.
Microcultures also exist on a smaller scale. On almost any given block in America, each house or apartment may reflect a specific culture. Religion may play an important role in one household or none at all; children may be raised with formal etiquette such as addressing adults by last name, or not. Dinner may or may not be eaten together on a regular basis.

If a microculture engenders respect for education, elders, and the work ethic, its children will take those values to school with them. These values will provide the context within which the child will function. If the school culture mirrors those same values, a true joint venture between parents and the school will result. This is the ideal.

Recent research about the success of children in school points to the level of education of parents as a key indicator. The 11% of children in America's independent schools, whether religious (10%) or non-sectarian (1%), usually come from families whose parents are well-educated, or whose parents have ambitions for their children to be well-educated. The likelihood that these parents will guide their children's lives with intention and provide an identifiable culture at home is high. As part of the process, they will search out a school with a culture similar to their own. This is the basis for a successful relationship between school and home.

The Alternative: The Default Culture
All of us are subject to the default culture. The difference between those who are or are not part of a microculture is in differing abilities to assess, discriminate, or reject the messages that come from the default culture. That culture is inescapable: it assaults us as we walk or drive down the street from signs; when we open any commercial print publication; when we listen to the radio or TV; when we attend movies. But most importantly, it streams into our lives over the Internet, mixed in with the positive information the web also provides. The default culture is often suffused with consumerism and with the underbelly of life.

We all are affected by these messages. But without the filter of cultural values, children are especially vulnerable and can be endangered by the negative contents of the default culture. Just as education and parenting by intent cross class, educational, and ethnic lines, so do the effects of the default culture. During the 90 percent of their lives that children spend outside of school, the default culture can be a powerful educational influence.

What a successful joint venture between families and schools accomplishes is to give children the ability to navigate the default culture safely. Simply because a website exists that allows children to post cruel rumors about others does not mean that this behavior is right. Families and teachers must make this clear, and connect this value to a guiding philosophy. If a child hears the same explanation at home and at school, she will be empowered to decline negative behaviors.
Because the world we live in lacks a clear culture in which education takes place, it is more important than ever for today's families to be intentional about their children's education, and to prevent it from becoming a casualty of the default culture. Although independent school families may be more engaged than many others, it is important that all American parents make this choice, and work to shape the culture of the school their children attend.

About the author
Ellen Taussig is co-founder and Head ofof School of The Northwest School in Seattle, WA, an independent college-preparatory school serving 446 students in grades 6-12, including international students. In her 36 years as a professional educator in both public and independent schools in California and Washington, she has been a teacher and administrator. As a second generation American, she is particularly interested in the relationship between culture and education. Contact her at



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