The Antidote to the Tiger Mother Syndrome – Feb 2012

3 Mar

In January 2011, Amy Chua, a Professor of Law at Yale University, published The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where she espoused a philosophy of unrelenting pressure, drive, motivation, organization and planning from parents as the best way to help children achieve lofty goals. According to Prof. Chua this rigorous ‘Chinese’ parenting model effectively moulds children into tenacious achievers through a focus on academic results whereas more ‘Western’ parenting, through a focus on process and praise is much more likely to produce unmotivated, low achieving, complacent children.

Unfortunately there is a fatal flaw in this argument and it is simply that the more you do for your children the less they learn to do for themselves.

Through my own work with over 150,000 students, parents and teachers world-wide, and through helping bring up my own four children, I have discovered that there are a set of key skills that every student needs, whether at school or university, to achieve academic success. The problem with the Tiger Mother philosophy is that it is the parent who is practicing the key learning skills, not the student. Many children these days grow up learning how to achieve by working to someone else’s regime of study rather than their own and in spite of gaining academic success are not learning how to learn for themselves. Through over-supporting our children to achieve goals we may well be making them more helpless and when they need to be able to learn for themselves, when they are in the workforce, striving for financial success, maybe they won’t know how to.

The last thing we need to do for our children, in my opinion, is to motivate them, the most important lesson they need to learn is how to motivate themselves. The same goes for time management, goal setting, planning their study, organising their resources, researching… etc. These are the skills of the life-long learner that all our children need to have to be able to succeed in the world of today and in the world of tomorrow.

It is not the Tiger Mothers who are to blame of course, they simply occur as a response to an exam based schooling system that assesses content knowledge as a measure of a student’s ability to learn. When the emphasis of schooling changes from content to process and when students are assessed as to their competence in learning skills, rather than their retained knowledge, then we will have a revolution in education.

Luckily, that revolution is just around the corner and we as parents must be ready to take advantage of it.

In every class I have run in the last 18 months I have asked the students “how many of you have a web-capable phone?”. The answer I get (from 15 year old students or older) has steadily increased from about 5% 18 months ago to roughly 80% today – in every school whether state sponsored or private, whether in high SE areas or low. How long will it be, do you think, before 100% of children in senior classes at school have a web-capable phone – that they’re not allowed to use? How long will it be before your children have 24/7 access to high-speed broadband? And are you aware of the number of websites there are out there with brilliant ways for your children to learn every school subject you could possibly imagine?

The revolution in education involves teachers abandoning ‘transmission’ teaching and adopting principles of guided inquiry learning. Teachers teaching the skills of good learning using their particular subject matter as the ‘meat’ to work the skills on. Students utilising net-capable devices, working in small groups, accessing subject-based websites, practising the skills of searching, selecting, verifying, validating and corroborating information as well as the skills of collaboration and communication. In this scenario, teaching becomes about guiding the students on a pathway of enquiry to achieve very specific measurable content and subject based learning outcomes. Helping the students to ask the right questions but never providing the answers.

What this new type of teaching is not about is teachers using the internet as just one more textbook. When every student has got access to all the information in the world 24/7 then the most marketable skills will be the skills of good learning. How to find the right information, process it well, extract what you need and move on having learnt something new. These are the skills of the self-regulated learner and in order to become self-regulated learners children need to be put in the position of practicing the regulation of their own learning. This is where the Tiger Mother idea breaks down because the mothers themselves become the ones with the brilliant learning skills and the children become more passive in their learning – just doing what they are told, when, where and how they are told.

The best students in the world, those who achieve the highest marks in all their assessments, all have one characteristic in common, the deliberate use of a variety of learning strategies.  In other words they treat learning as a process requiring many different techniques and strategies depending on the subject and the context . They actively seek out options for every stage of the learning process, they try out different things and they notice what works and what doesn’t. To do this the best students are continuously engaged with both the subject matter they are learning and the processes they are using to learn that subject matter. They view any learning failure as a failure of process rather than that of the individual, they find better processes and apply them, they reflect on the results and they continually improve the success of their learning efforts.

These students have brilliant learning skills. To gain these skills they need to be directly taught these skills and then have the opportunity to practice and hone them. They do not get this practice by us doing it for them.

The key strategy for parents then, has to be to teach your children the skills of good learning, or find someone else who will do so. In my experience most available tutors focus very much on the content of their subject rather than the processes of learning their subject but if you can find one who teaches learning skills then that would be useful. If not just use your own experience. When you have to learn something new for your work or your sport or your recreation, how do you do it? Start with mental preparation and work from there, describe what you do, try to analyse it as a skill, break it down into its component parts and teach your children those. Think in terms of what your strategies are for common problems and describe how you get yourself to:

– overcome procrastination?

– plan your goals and manage your time?

– keep yourself motivated when you are doing something you don’t want to do?

– overcome challenges?

– find resources?

– process information?

– remember what you need to?

– handle pressure?

– work hard?

Teach them how, get them to practice and help them to use those skills in their own learning for school and exams.

These are some of the skills our children need to learn, to mastery level, in order to succeed. Focus on these, they will pay off with great short and long-term dividends for your children.

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