Everything is Different Now: Parenting for Powerful Learning

A TechCrunch article gave me pause, I looked out the airplane window from 34,000 feet and thought about how much the world has changed since I became a parent 30 years ago. Don Henley came up in a retro mix singing Everything is Different Now. Serendipity strikes again!

In the old days, the primary educational duties for parents were reading to your kid and making sure they got into a good school. There was a high level of trust and respect for external authorities –you assumed that teachers and principals knew best and operated with the best interest of your son or daughter in mind.

My first indication that this simple formula may not work out was when, like the opening scene from Most Likely to Succeed (screened at #SXSWedu and reviewed here) my daughter called BS on her traditional school, desks in rows and obedience focused culture. That, and the explosion of the World Wide Web were early indications of a high involvement learning adventure.

Compared to 1994, there are a lot more learning options–which presents a myriad of opportunities and can also yield complex decision making for parents. Instead of an education decision every couple years, it seems like parents are asked to make learning decisions every 10 minutes. (Katherine Prince said she feels like she needs a learning sherpa.) This exponential increase in learning decisions was the impetus for the #SmartParents series.

Just think of all the innovations introduced in the last 30 years: email, ATMs, flat panel displays, GPS, social networks, and a pill for whatever ails you. All of this change can be boiled down to three important ways that the parental role of first teacher has changed.

Broader aims. In the old days, if your kid got into college they could probably find a job. These days it’s not just about grades, SAT scores, and college admissions–the level of young adult underemployment and debt suggests that bargain is broken.

“What I find shocking is that schools aren’t preparing our kids for life in the 21st Century. Surrounded by innovation, our education system is stuck in the 19th Century,” said Ted Dintersmith, producer of Most Likely to Succeed. “The skills and capabilities our kids need going forward are either ignored or outright trampled.” Ted’s movie outlines the broken bargain of a traditional college prep education and employability.

College-bound aspirations are great but it’s character that young people develop that is most important to their success in life. Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, said, ” We don’t teach the most important skills,” a list that includes “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.” (See Bonnie Lathram’s post on 8 Noncognitive Competencies for College and Career Readiness.)

Some school districts have recognized the need for the dispositions of initiative and perseverance. For example, Virginia Beach City Public Schools wants their graduates to be:

  • Critical and creative thinkers, innovators, and problem solvers;
  • Effective communicators and collaborators; and
  • Globally aware, independent, responsible learners and citizens.

Reading, writing, and problem solving remain important–but they’re not enough. What is even more important is creativity and initiative to take on new problems and opportunities. Helping your son or daughter embrace these broader goals requires conversation about experiences and work product. Helping children assemble a digital portfolio of artifacts can be a good way for them to track their growth on these broader aims.

Sheltered mobility. It seems like kids these days demand more mobility–more social activities and more sporting events resulting in a lot more driving around. Selective club sports start earlier and impose more pressure to pick one around age 13 rather than encouraging well-rounded participation.

We navigated the beginning of this activity frenzy in the 90’s by giving the kids cell phones when they hit middle school (and we relied on paper maps and print outs of MapQuest directions). The single function devices improved our family logistics and came with an intended use case–a far cry from the powerful multi-function computer that are today’s smartphones. Online hazards and patterns of over-consumption make it more important than ever for parents to set clear rules and monitor online activity.

While many children demand more mobility, there is a lot less unsupervised play and less unstructured summer roaming. Given rational safety concerns, most kids are more sheltered and scheduled and less like to explore and learn independence. Kids need to be safe, but it’s also important to create loosely structured opportunities to explore and create. (See the Geve Tully TED talk on 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kid Do).

More options. There has been a linear increase in formal education options and an exponential explosion of informal learning options.

  • Early: Reading to and with early learners remains critically important. But in addition to books, there are about 100,000 early learning mobile apps including exciting and creating activities. Making sense of the options is daunting. Managing screen time is challenging. (See research on screen time.)
  • Middle: The new first question for middle grade homework is, “Did you Google it?” In middle school the math and science get tougher, fortunately there are many new ways to learn including open resources like Khan AcademyPowerMyLearning, and Gooru.
  • High school: In some states, high school offerings aren’t limited to the school down the street, they include online options and college credit opportunities. Some options set students up for selective colleges, some options create a rapid and affordable path through college, and some options prepare students for careers. It’s never been more important to help young people build a high school and beyond plan which is informed and updated by interests, aptitudes, and opportunities.
  • HigherEd options. The bad news is that most post-secondary education is more expensive than ever. The good news is that there are more options. Instead of a one shot deal, young people should plan on learning for life if they want to maintain competitive earning potential. Technical career pathways that combine earning and learning offer comparable earning potential to many white collar jobs (see Scott’s story).

Our daughters were in the first generation to benefit from computer learning games, cell phones, and the ability to build a high school transcript including online and college courses. Fifteen years later, the level of learning options has expanded dramatically for most young people. That’s great, but it requires a whole new level of vigilance on the part of parents.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation offers a useful template for student-centered learning opportunities suggesting learners should have some control over path, pace, and place.

Some Things Never Change. The next song in the mix was Sara Evans’ Some Things Never Change. As fast as things are changing, there are some things about parenting are as true as ever.

The first job of a parent is to make the link between love and learning. In his best seller, A Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck defines love as extending yourself to serve another person’s growth.

The role of parent as Chief Growth Officer starts with making learning a priority and providing strong support. Adjusting the balance of positive pressure and support as the learner matures and becomes more independent is key. The “student in the driver’s seat” is a useful metaphor for parents serving as learning guides that builds off of Nellie Mae’s framework. (See Nancy Weinstein on parents as chief advocates.)

After making learning a priority, the most important thing a parent can do it to make family life a learning experience. That occasionally includes trips to new places but, more importantly, it’s about making the home a place where the family has conversations around a dinner table.


This blog is part of our Smart Parents Series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. We would love to have your voice in the Smart Parents conversations. To contribute a blog, ask a question, or for more information, email Bonnie Lathram with the subject “Smart Parents.” For more information about the project see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leslie Silverman

Great post, Tom, on many levels. Thank you for writing an insightful piece and sharing such great ideas and resources. I especially struggle with the increase in technology (and how this impacts social skills) and while we are on the low-usage end in our family, I realize I will not be able to hold on to that for long. Thanks again and I will pass on to others.

Steven Troy

Well, what surprises me---among so many other things---is that you could be so enthusiastic about the ideas of Ted Dintersmith, the "venture capitalist" who took a pinch of his vast fortune to finance the documentary "Most Likely to Succeed" and also completely ignore what Dintersmith says about testing, competition, rankings and the general reliance on standardized test numerics as a means of "educating" or assessing how well the student, or the school is performing. He justifiably and thoroughly trashes that horny canard---the one that, ironically, is the entire linchpin of so-called "education reform" and the source of new, vast wealth and power for companies like Pearson and individuals like Joel Klein among others.

How can you possibly defend the odious CCSS, the PAARC and SBAC, the assessment of student, teacher and school based on test scores that even the creator stresses shouldn't be used for that purpose?

The contradictions in your own arguments are beginning to be more and more obvious. No wonder the public---parents like me with NO teachers ever in the immediate or extended family and who used to be quite critical of public education---are beginning to push back. And this is only the beginning; just wait and see what happens if you continue to press your insistence on charter "schools", vouchers (a.k.a. "scholarships"), teacher scapegoating and TTBTB (Testing To Beat The Band).

Are you going to keep pushing this specious, self-serving agenda, Tom? Or are you going to see the light and do the right thing by joining we public school parents who want this destructive, anti-public education to STOP?


Tom Vander Ark

Sorry you're frustrated, I am too for many of the same reasons....but that will take a blog to fully explain.

I made the first grant to High Tech High--even before it was open--in an effort to spread experiences like those depicted in Ted's movie. I was involved in helping to launch 1200 schools with similar aspirations. My interest remains focused on helping more students experience powerful learning and graduate reading for college and careers.

As noted last year, there is an underlying premise to this blog:
1.Excellence and equity in education is the most important issue for the American economy and society; even more so for developing economies.
2.Expanding access to high quality learning experiences requires innovation particularly new learning tools and formats.
3.Learning online holds great promise for improved productivity and expanded access; new school formats that blend online learning and onsite support and application have the potential to prepare more kids for the idea economy.
4.Blended learning environments leverage great teachers and improve working conditions and career options.
5.Producing and scaling innovation requires focused investment suggesting an important and complementary role for the private sector; most important advances will be the result of public-private partnerships.
6.Expanding opportunities for education entrepreneurs and the ability to approach old problems in new ways requires more sophisticated advocacy, particularly the use of new media to amplify impact.

Bruce Kendall

I call this Academic Parenting...

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.