Parents Are The First Teachers: A Discussion with Zaretta Hammond


Learn from Zaretta Hammond, a teacher educator, literacy advocate, and the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students, as she spotlights the important role parents play in a child’s education and ways in which parents are well-positioned to teach their children outside of a traditional classroom setting.

Q: The lessons from the science of learning and development are inherently hopeful. What are the strengths that young people and their communities are bringing to this crisis?

The science of learning reminds us that the brain is a learning machine. Parents are the first teachers that wire its learning ability. They may not think they understand the jargon of pedagogy, but if they taught their child to be socialized and potty trained, they know pedagogy. Particularly in collectivist cultures, the principles that grow out of the science of learning are integrated into daily life, information is passed down through an apprenticeship model: learning by doing and learning by making, with coaching and corrective feedback. All the things that we are touting as innovative processes are the natural learning environment for many of our diverse students.

Moving beyond the deficit ideology about certain groups of kids that’s out there allows us to actually see the assets parents bring already. For example, Alaskan Native clans have funds of knowledge around land management and engineering that have been passed down from one generation to another. This information has been shared orally unbroken for thousands of years. And not just stories, but real engineering information about how to create and use effective fishing methods for example. These are real cognitive assets that can be tapped to enhance learning. This is true in other indigenous communities as well. We see it everywhere. But, a persistent narrative of deficit thinking says “ ‘those parents’ don’t have enough skill to teach. So, if their children aren’t in school, they’re aren’t learning because we are not teaching them.”

We have to rethink what parents bring to the table and see them in a new light as partners. That starts with remembering that parents were a child’s first teachers. So how do we partner in a new way to help them do that? How do we reclaim and remember the natural learning that the brain does and that parents use daily to raise children to adulthood? And how do we leverage natural learning at home? This plays into the kind of malleability and plasticity that we know is there with the brain.

The crisis that has pushed some of us into home-based, distance learning, even though it takes us out of our regular classroom practice, is actually an opportunity for kids to consolidate what they already know and braid it together with their funds of knowledge from home and community to make more connections that will help them do deeper learning and increase comprehension. This makes learning sticky.

Now, this ability to braid the new with the known isn’t a passive, “worksheet” kind of thing. The science of learning actually says that when we mix new content with existing funds of knowledge on the brain’s working memory table, we get smarter. In my coaching of teachers, I’m always trying to help them make the practical connection to the principles behind the science of learning instead of feeling that information is abstract. Too often it gets reduced to one-off “brain-based” strategies, totally missing the opportunity to leverage it to drive equity.

Q: What’s one piece of concrete advice drawing from the science of learning and development that you would elevate for every educator or other adult supporting young people?

I think number one is to help people remember this information is not new, but it is getting more and more practical. We need to go back and reclaim our natural ability to learn new things. For example, we know the brain learns through failure and grappling, kind of like weight lifting. We need to give students language for talking about what they learn from their mistakes. Parents naturally help students learn from mistakes. Teachers need to become okay with productive struggle in the classroom and find ways to integrate these discussions about errors as information into distance learning situations. Without productive struggle, we know that the brain won’t learn. In order for kids to learn in a productive and successful way, there needs to be an aspect of struggle, a productive struggle, through the process of meaning-making or applying knowledge for a real purpose that pushes forward the learning process whether inside the classroom and outside of school while at home.

Q: What is the education issue that is around the corner that you hope people start addressing now? How would knowledge from the science of learning and development help us advance equity as we take it on?

I think the answer to this question is hiding in plain sight — we don’t take children seriously as learners. Too often, when trying to improve equitable outcomes, we focus on implementation of strategies across a school. When in reality, the science of learning tells us that the learner is the center of change because only the learner learns. If we don’t help students become the driver of their own learning — meaning improve their ability to take in new content, integrate it with what they already know so they reach new understanding, and build their ‘learn how to learn’ skills for self-propelled acceleration — then we are going to constantly be in this back and forth around equity. Kids are going to have learning loss because we have come to believe only the teacher can be the facilitator of learning. The science of learning tells us the person who’s actually taking in, grappling with, and chewing on the content being taught is learning. The teacher is only the facilitator of learning, not the giver of knowledge.

The analogy I like to use as a personal trainer, the personal trainer does not do your push ups for you when you go and write that fat check when you want to get fit. Because if they did your pushups or walked on the treadmill for you, even though that feels easier, come time to get in the new outfit or run that marathon, you’re gonna be pissed. You spent a lot of money and even though you had it easy, you did not reach your goal. It is the same thing with learners, and we see a lot of this over-scaffolding in the classroom from well-meaning teachers. And now when learners who are dependent on this scaffolding are at home for an extended period of time, they’re not able to do the same level of learning. In the long run, they don’t improve as learners. So we have to invest in the student as the primary unit of change, coaching them to be reflective about their learning and then acting on what they learned about their own moves. This is why formative assessment becomes so critical to engaging students in instructional conversation. We’re missing structures and routines to help the student think about, talk about, and change their learning moves.

Here’s a big equity issue we are missing with regard to the science of learning and teacher knowledge that gets in the way: We have come to mistake covering content for actual instruction. Another challenge is educators are getting distracted by internet connectivity as the primary equity issue surrounding distance learning. But, the reality is that learning doesn’t happen because a student is watching the teacher Zoom. The learning comes because maybe after her time on Zoom, the student is given something that is actually intellectually stimulating and challenging to do. So, for kids who are at home without internet access,, teachers could be put in a subscription-type inquiry box together that students can work on at home for two weeks. So rather than a packet, here’s a two week inquiry project, a nature journal for example. Or a math log. A word study project that includes intergenerational interviews about how words and phrases evolved across the decades. The ideas are endless.

So, what gets in the way of reimagining what type of learning is possible at home? We have so much deficit thinking about what’s possible and what’s not for certain groups of kids and families. We hear well-meaning White educators say about students of color and English learners, “Oh those kids can’t learn without a lot of supports around them; they don’t have resources at home.” Why do we continue to say these things and believe these things when the science of learning tells us otherwise? We’ve got to change the narrative. And I think when we look at the science of learning through an equity lens and how it plays out in diverse communities, it allows us to see that there is a history and a tradition of rigorous learning in communities that have been historically marginalized but that have continued to prioritize learning despite this marginalization and oppression.

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