Wujiang Taihu International School Parents Day

 

LECTURE BY PETER SENGE
2009.1.15
 
You represent families of these children; you are all every bit as important as the teachers. Part of what happens in the modern world, is that the children go off to school and leave their homes, as it happens here at Taihu. It happens at all schools, in a way. The huge difference between the world of the school and the world that the child lives in is a gap that we pay little attention to. So I’d like to start off a process that I hope will become a part of this community and it involves all of us thinking together and talking with one another about'what makes a great school’ and'what are the challenges about creating a great school’. I will ask some questions and I’m going to invite you to talk with one another and maybe the kids can even share with us. The first question is: How do I know a good school? What do I see, hear or feel that makes me feel that this is a good school? 
 
We had a meeting last night with the teachers and asked them what they felt about everything and all the challenges that they faced. All the teachers individually said that the most meaningful aspect for them is the happiness of the children and that the children really love the school. So if it’s ok then I’ll just give some of my own thoughts and reflections on this, having worked with many schools over the last 15years. First off I believe that all the difficulties faced by schools, all around the world, come from not being very clear about their purpose. A simple example of what I mean by this is when you start to substitute tests and test scores for real purpose. Tests are not unimportant, it’s an important tool, but it’s only a tool, not a statement of purpose. And if I look at the efforts of creating innovative schools all around the world, there is one theme that comes up again and again in the best of these schools;'what does it mean to grow and develop as a human being?’ What does it mean to develop a sense of your own purpose? What does it mean to develop a capacity of caring for other people, genuinely? What does it take to be effective and to actually accomplish things, and particularly together, not just on your own? 
 
That’s what we see here in the teamwork activities; something that’s been widely missing in American schools for a long time. So when you talked about aspiration, it’s really the first principle I’ve experienced;'learners learn what learners want to learn’. Not what teachers want them to learn. Learners learn what they, themselves, want to learn. So how does a human being develop their own sense of aspiration, which lifts them and orients them? There’s a second purpose though, which I think sometimes is even more subtle. And I think we miss the first purpose often, but the second we don’t even think about explicitly. It’s a very powerful force implicitly.'School is the primary institution that conserves culture’. It’s a complicated matter, because that can be a way of saying that schools should never change, schools should always be the way it used to be. In my experience that is most of the time the force that does operate. Parents have an idea of what school should be, based on their experience in school, so in that sense schools don’t innovate, they don’t create something really new. So there is a real dilemma, a real paradox. How can school conserve culture and how can school also create something new for a different world? We do not live in the world of 50 years ago or 100 years ago or 500 years ago, we live in the world of today. So how can you both conserve and innovate? These children will live in a world that we cannot even imagine. The world 50 years from now will be very different from the world that you and I grew up in. So I leave you with one thought on this, because I think a lot of what you’ve said and what draws you to this school is something about the deepest aspects of traditional Chinese culture. It’s got to do with the roots. If we can connect with the roots, then the tree can grow in many directions. You cannot control where the tree grows, but you can make sure the roots are healthy. So somehow this paradox has to be embraced. To ignore what we truly want to conserve leaves school with no cultural orientation. 
 
Two purposes that I can see is:'to grow human beings’ and'to create healthy societies’ for the future, not for the past. 
 
Now if I can come back to where I’ve started, this raises very important challenges for you and I as parents. How do we become good partners to the school?
 
My own criticism to most of us as parents is'we send our kids to school and then we turn our backs and walk away’. We say:'you educators, you teachers, it’s your responsibility. I’m to busy, I have too many messages to answer, I have too much business to do’. On the other hand, this also raises dilemmas, because as an active, engaged parent, I will see some things that are effective and clear and good, but other things that I’m concerned about. That’s natural; if I’m really engaged, I will see things that are really working and things that I’m concerned about. How do I deal with my concerns? What do we do in a situation like that? How can we be a partner? How would we be effective? 
 
This school needs parents as partners. Larry said that before and if you read that first section of the book, it says right there'a healthy community has parents as partners’. Teachers are not easy to reach sometimes. If you have a problem at home, what do you do about it? It’s not an easy solution. Frankly, kids are very smart though. If they think that they can get away with doing anything differently at home than what they’re doing at school, they will. So here at the school, one of the things that I observed is that the kids work together a lot, so it tends to keep them on track if they see what each other are doing. There’s a lot of peer pressure, which is very healthy I believe. A lot of them have the sense that somebody else is doing something, so they also have to do it. I’m sure that’s how a lot of work actually gets done; it’s not just the teachers. It’s their peers and their expectations they have for each other. It’s a very healthy social arrangement, but those are the kids that are not at home. It’s the perfect example of an interface. The interface between an innovative school and us as parents is a very big challenge. 
 
So all I can really offer as advice is a reminder; first, this is new, it’s a new school with new teachers and people running the school who have created it from the beginning. Compassion and understanding is very important! But, when you see something that you are concerned about, find somebody that you can talk to, find a teacher to talk to. It’s very important for us as parents to engage as active parents. One of the things that is very important to us is that the parents are not just trying to get rid of their kids, the kids are now gone. You are the parents; you have a crucial role in how they develop as human beings. They know it and they look to you. You have to build your own sense of'how to I partner with these teachers? Be patient, but don’t give up. 
 
I can give you one more small suggestion, but I think many of you already do it instinctively. Your children are also your teachers. We don’t just shape our children like a box of wood, they come into our lives and also teach us. One feeling I had this morning and this afternoon, watching the kids, was how for each of us as parents, aunts, uncles, grand parents; this is also an opportunity for us to learn, for us to get connected to our deep cultural knowledge. China has a wonderful gift to give the world, if we all can connect to this deep knowledge. It’s a wonderful thing to have your kids in a school where they learn things that you also want to learn. Thank you very much.