Like many schools, we are spending a lot of time with new families at the moment, especially in those cases where subject options have changes over the long break. Conversations about appropriate courses, between teachers, students and parents often foreground interesting different approaches to home-school relationships. I came across an interesting way of thinking about this. Inspired by an interesting 1992 paper, I think it’s helpful to consider three models.
The Paternalistic model is the model whereby ‘school knows best’; it assumes that there are shared objective values to guide us in the best interests of the student and that all decisions will be made by school, and then communicated to parents. While this may have once been a possible model, it is no longer a viable approach for most international school. I remember my GCSE French teacher changing my A level choice of Physics to French ‘on my behalf’ – that is, without asking me. We have come on a long way; not least because we recognize the value of student autonomy and aspiration.
A natural alternative model is the Informative model whereby the educational experts lay out all the options to the students and parents, who then have full autonomy over any choices, in full knowledge of the likely outcomes. This blue pill or red pill? approach is easy and appropriate when choices are clear, costs of mistakes are low, and when people have clear preferences. For some students, a choice between subjects they are equally good at may be such a case. But many choices are not so simple. How, for example, do we support decision making when student and parents feel differently? Or when students and teachers have wildly different understandings of current student aptitudes for subjects? Or when parental University aspirations seem unrealistic to school? It’s not enough to lay out the facts, because the facts are contested.
So that leads us to a third model, the one I suggest we adopt – the Interpretative model. Our role is neither to decide, nor to abdicate from the decision-making process. Our role is to help students and families decide what they want. So if students wish to do courses for which they have so-far shown little enthusiasm we will neither forbid nor simply accept; we will start a conversation and ask why this is suddenly attractive. When students wish to take a course where we have concerns about their capacities to succeed, we ask ‘what’s your thinking in choosing this course? Why is it important to you?’. So what we are doing is trying to understand the students’ values perspectives, and then provide information in response to that. Often we find that where there are conflicting values (e.g. the desire to follow certain courses against certain career aspirations) the conversation centres around questions like ‘how much and what are you prepared to compromise for what you want?’ and ‘what strategies might help you succeed? How can we help?’
Opening a conversation, rather than following policy, leads to lengthy conversations. But these are important matters, and they deserve the time. Our role here is not decision-maker, nor simply technical expert. It is more like an adviser, friend or, you will be relieved to hear, teacher.