It takes a village to educate a child

Reva starts to assemble a team of friends and relatives to help home-school her son.

Photo: BanksPhotos/iStockphoto

We’ve all heard the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” — and it certainly takes a village to educate one. Which is why I’ve been thinking a great deal about losing out on the network of professional educators that comes with staying within a formal school system.

However, two news items that I’ve read recently have changed my thinking on this — for the better.

Like many parents, I’ve always viewed my children’s educational success (or lack of) as primarily the result of what happens in the classroom and through the efforts of a particular teacher. This is not just a shifting of responsibility but also because I know from personal experience the long-term impact that a great teacher can have on a student.

But research now shows that it’s really what’s happening at home that actually clinches a student’s academic success, irrespective of what’s going on in the classroom.

The report “Back to School: How parent involvement affects student achievement” examined why some students thrive at taking the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests (which are used to compare students in OECD countries) and others floundered. The decisive factor was parental involvement that included monitoring homework, rewarding efforts, “talking up” college or university — and, most importantly, reading to the child.

As one New York Times columnist pointed out, “There is nothing more valuable than great classroom instruction. But let’s stop putting the whole burden on teachers. We also need better parents. Better parents can make every teacher more effective.”

Fair enough, parents should probably do more. But if you’re a working solo parent, a dual career family (which more than 70 percent of Canadians are) and have more than one child, this might not be so easy on a day-to-day basis, regardless of good intentions (and, yes, I speak from personal experience here).

Enter the “Education Tribe” or “Parent-Led Team” — a group of seven to 10 adults invested in helping guide your child’s education, shifting the burden beyond just the classroom teacher and their immediate family.

I recently came across this concept in The Minds Of Boys, Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind In School and Life (but it applies equally well to daughters).

According to author Michael Gurian, the professionalization or “industrialization” of the classroom eliminated the traditional roles that grandparents, apprenticeships and mentors had in the lives and education of children. Instead, “we now have a model with lots of kids and one teacher per classroom, who is supposed to be the parent, mentor, grandparent, instructor and everything else to all these young minds.” (p. 30)

To counter this, he recommends that parents organize a learning tribe of trusted individuals that are involved and invested in helping the child navigate through their years of formal education. In addition to extended family, he suggests formally asking tutors, coaches, clergy or other faith-based leaders, neighbours and close friends to join the team.

The idea is that if a friend is an engineer, he or she can be involved in building science projects with your child; a grandparent can read and discuss books and another member might be the trusted advisor for school-related issues. Gurian also suggests that families come together to swap each other in and out of the “tribe” based on people’s expertise, abilities and needs.

I’ll be honest, I have a hard time imagining anyone beyond family playing this role, but if it were possible to create this kind of “tribe” I can also see how the experience would be both more enjoyable (a break from parents!) and more effective (third parties also seem to get better results from my children).

I’m not really sure how you go about asking someone to “join your education tribe” but I’ll definitely keep you posted as I attempt to find people who might be interested in an arrangement like this.

Do you rely on family or friends to help support your child’s education? What tips or suggestions do you have on making an arrangement like this work?