For parents' day at schools to work, students need to take a leading role
With mid-term exams done and dusted at most secondary schools, it won't be long before parents' day rolls around.
Indeed, the half-year mark is the perfect time for the two parties that have the students' best interests at heart to come together and exchange thoughts on how to foster their personal growth and academic development.
Some children have put in praiseworthy efforts and the recognition of their teacher and parents means a lot to them.
Others may have a few blemishes here and there but there's hope for change with us backing them up. Parents' day illustrates the importance of home-school cooperation. The idea is brilliant.
But deep down I cannot help having second thoughts. True, my past experience of parents' days was mostly positive. In a calm atmosphere, with a report card between us, the parents and I face each other and have deep and sincere conversations about the teenager we both cherish. But where is the student?
Needless to say, they know themselves best and without their input, how fruitful could these lengthy conversations be?
After all, marks may to a certain extent, tell us the strengths and weaknesses in study of a student, but they do not shed light on what actions the students volunteer to take to hone their study skills or the targets they will commit themselves to achieve.
My opinions and advice, although derived from experience and well-intentioned, are largely based on my daily observations of the students, who may not agree or be comfortable with my views. (Sometimes after parents' days, some students have come to me and grumbled: "Mr Tam, I'm not what you think!")
With minimal involvement of students, parents' day at best serves as an opportunity for teachers and parents to complement each other's knowledge of the student.
If you think the parent-teacher conference will give students many insights and have a huge impact on them, well, that is very optimistic.
If parents and teacher maintain their dominant roles in the meeting and the student sits in and gives an opinion only when invited, parents' day will remain an event of little meaning to them. Parents' day must undergo a profound transition so that students, not teachers, are in charge.
This idea has actually been adopted since the 1990s by most schools in the US, where parents' day is in the format of student-led conferences, with parents being the audience and teachers the facilitators.
During the meeting, students present their learning progress to their parents, showing them a portfolio comprising a selection of their work over the year that illustrates their fortes and shortcomings.
Students also reflect on the goals that they have set for themselves at the beginning of the term and decide whether there should be any adjustment.
The discussion is mainly directed by students, and teachers only facilitate the conversation by answering questions and commenting when appropriate. Prior to parents' day, to ensure that the students are on track and up to the task, teachers would talk to them and offer help if needed.
Compared with traditional teacher-led conferences, student-led conferences clearly have the edge. Evaluation of learning is more meaningful if based on actual work and not merely numbers. Students improve their communication skills as they have to lead the solemn conference. A capacity for self-reflection, which is most important in both study and work, is fostered.
However, none of these things compares to getting the message across to students that they are accountable for their own learning.
We have long complained that students nowadays don't care about their studies. But what can we expect when we have been occupying the driving seat of their learning since they were toddlers?
It is time for parents and teachers to sit back, have faith in the children and let them own their learning. Student-led conferences, where students set the agenda, may provide the spark both sides need.
All embrace the existence of parents' day but few question its effectiveness. A switch of the protagonist may do the magic.
Vito Tam is an English teacher at a local secondary school