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Sunday, August 9, 2020

What Parents Want from Schools in the 21st Century?


Parents are important stakeholders in the school eco-system. In one-on-one conversations with few focus groups we elicited their thoughts on what they wanted their children to learn at school. The response was interesting and eye-opening.

Parents want their children to gain the ability to get along with others and be responsible. They wanted their children to be tolerant of people’s differences, to become problem solvers and to be creative. These parent responses were no big surprise to us or our team; we have heard this before. What did surprise us, however, was not a single parent mentioned anything about academics. Not one.

Some believe it is because of the rising instances of abuse against children and their safety. These incidents have rattled parents and educators alike and have forced them into thinking beyond the basic three Rs – reading, writing, and arithmetic. Parents are increasingly becoming highly concerned about their child’s physical and emotional safety at school than they are engrossed in academics.

In hindsight, it is clear that these trends were beginning to sway well before the onset of the 21st century and they were not unique to our school alone. In fact, it is interesting to cite the shift tracked by University of Michigan sociologist Duane Alwin, who was comparing ‘modern’ data to data collected in the 1920s. Alwin noted that in the 1920s, parents emphasized obedience, conformity, respect and good manners as being top traits they desired in their children. But by early 1990s, what parents desired ever more from their children was the ability to think for themselves, to take responsibility for their lives, to show initiative, and to be tolerant of diversity. Basically, these were the same type of things our school parents were requesting. (Source: Psychology Today, October 1988)

What do you suppose was behind the shift in parents’ thinking?

Alwin concluded that the changing global economy was at the heart of the shift. “It’s an increasingly complex world,” he said. “Parents want their children to succeed in it, to survive in it. They know that good jobs require to be able to think for yourself.” He added that parents themselves have become more educated and able to think on their own feet, and wanted that same level of empowerment to be passed on to their children.

Nearly three-decades have passed since Alwin reported his findings and we have now crossed into the 21st century. If anything, the need for young people to be more self-reliant and responsible has increased exponentially. And the trend is global.

In Asia, for example, where several countries have shifted almost overnight from being mere assemblers and exporters of technology to heavy users of technology – especially among the cyber-savvy youth – vast cultural transformations have taken place. Wages have increased, working hours have increased the number of mothers in the workforce have increased, and a whole array of western influences have swept in: clothing, fast food culture and mindset.

Asian parents have become legitimately concerned about their children’s education with an emphasis on four areas:


  • Parents want their children to be tolerant of people’s differences, to become problem solvers and to learn to be creative.

  • Surveys point out the importance of problem solving, teamwork and collaboration, self-direction, leadership, creativity, and global awareness in relation to some of the more traditional subjects such as math and science.

  • Ethics and social responsibility were almost invisible from the field of education but are now taking centre stage, thanks to the rising numbers of abuse against children and their safety.

  1. Technology: parents want their children more versed in technology
  2. Global Skills: parents recognize the global nature of their new world and want their children prepared to meet the world, including knowing how to work with people of diverse backgrounds
  3. Analytical and Life Skills: parents want their students able to get beyond factual knowledge by gaining strong analytical, creativity, and team skills
  4. Asian Values: while parents want their children to be astute in each of these first three areas, they know that all three carry potential downsides. These downsides are a cause for panic among parents, for example, the downsides of technology such as addictions to games or pornography. The sole concern of parents regarding children manifesting plurality within themselves is rejecting traditional values. The common thread of concern is the loss or weakening of “Asian Values”- promulgated in the late 20th century by some Asian to counter Western political doctrines such as human rights, democracy and capitalism.

What parents are experiencing in Asia is being felt by parents everywhere. It is a global Tsunami. One hears parents echoing the same issues: “The world has changed. I want my child to keep up with technology, to be more creative, to make better decisions, and to be better able to team with people of varied backgrounds. At the same time, I want them to be good, honest, well-mannered, self-directed, respectful, disciplined, and honorable citizens.”

Another reflection of what is heard from the parents is found in a study of American adult attitudes on education commissioned by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and titled Beyond the Three Rs. (See table below). What borders on “stunning” is where adults rated as a nine or ten on a ten-point scale the importance of such subjects as problem solving, teamwork and collaboration, self-direction, leadership, creativity, and global awareness in relation to some of the more traditional subjects such as math and science.

Adult Attitudes in Education:

% who rank this skill as a 9 or 10 in importance on a scale of 0 to 10.
Reading comprehension 75
Computer and technology skills 71
Critical thinking and problem-solving skills 69
Ethics and social responsibility 62
Written communications 58
Teamwork and collaboration 57
Oral communications 56
Lifelong learning and self-direction 50
Mathematics 48
Leadership 44
Creativity and innovation 43
Media literacy 42
Global awareness 42
Science (biology, chemistry, and physics) 38
(Source: The Partnership for 21st Century Skills – sponsored Survey of American Adult Attitudes Toward Education, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Peter D. Hart Research Associates.)

In the same data, note where “ethics and social responsibility” is ranked. In this regard, it is interesting to note that  character education was almost missing from school curriculum.  The prevailing attitude was “The values are to be taught at home; they are not the school’s business.” Most people still agree that parents shoulder primary responsibility for teaching ethics and social responsibility. But in too many cases that simply is not happening.

These insights speak volumes about what parents want from a school in todays’ times and serve as a checklist of expectations for schools to curate their offerings.

(Starting with this issue we are featuring issues that affect all stakeholders in the school firmament.)

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