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A Conversation About Children and Education

A Guide for Conscious Parenting by Cornelius Grove

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Both parents and teachers alike play a huge role in a child’s education. Is it possible to raise students who will excel? I talk to Cornelius Grove Ed.D. about his research, the connection between parenting and a child’s perception of education, and how the formation of an educational attitude in childhood affects one’s future well-being and mental health.

Cornelius, can you tell us a bit about your background to introduce yourself?

After gaining a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Johns Hopkins University, I taught high school in New York for four years.  I enjoyed that, but I wanted to try being a writer.  So I got into educational publishing for a few years.  Then, after two years sojourning in Portugal and travelling in Europe and Africa with my wife, I entered Columbia University and earned a Doctorate in Education.  For my dissertation, I researched the cross-cultural obstacles faced by immigrant Portuguese students in a Massachusetts school district.

That research proved so fascinating that it set the course for my subsequent career as a scholar.  At three universities (one in Beijing), I designed and taught courses about the impact of cross-cultural factors in classrooms.  I began contributing to the literature in this field.  I’m most proud of the fact that, a few years ago, two new encyclopedias asked me to write their entries on “Pedagogy Across Cultures.”  And I began writing books on this topic.

I should add that, in 1990, I founded a global business consultancy and, together with a wonderful partner, managed it across 31 nations for 31 years.

When did you realise that education was your passion?

Even though my mother was a teacher and my father was a superintendent, I didn’t intend to get into education.  Life throws curve balls sometimes, and I found myself teaching high school history.  The history was interesting, but what I really enjoyed was the students!  Since I did not want to advance into administration (I had seen up close and personal what my dad had to put up with), and I loved to write, I detoured into educational publishing.

It was after those two years living and travelling abroad, and especially after completing my dissertation, that I gained a “passion” – not for education per se, but for understanding what happens when cross-cultural factors turn up in classrooms.  More broadly, it’s a passion for understanding how cultural and historical factors affect children’s capacity for learning.

In your opinion, how does the formation of an educational attitude in childhood affect one’s future wellbeing and mental health?  Do you think there is a connection between parenting and a child’s perception of education?

Few people would disagree that one’s basic attitudes and values are formed during early childhood and that one of the strongest formative factors is one’s parents.  Parents have attitudes and values related to education, and to a considerable extent, those are inculcated in their children.  Depending on a complex array of historical, economic, and cultural forces in the society, those attitudes will impact, to some extent, the child’s future wellbeing.

Writing The Drive to Learn convinced me there’s a strong connection between parenting and the child’s perception of, and capacity to excel (or not) at, academic classroom learning.

You are the author of the book The Drive to Learn. Briefly, what is it about, and what is the aim of the book?

The Drive to Learn is about parenting of young children in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.  First, it states this: youngsters in these countries are more receptive to classroom learning than their American peers; this is an attitude they bring from home.  Then my book asks simply: Why do children in these areas come to school with this attitude?

The aim of my book is to explore the explanations that researchers have developed to account for the openness of youngsters in the Asia Pacific Region (the study area) to classroom learning.  What is going on in their homes?  How are their parents dealing with infants and children?  What are the cultural values and historical traditions that shape parents’ thought and action?

What, specifically, does your book explore?

Since the late 1960s, students from different nations periodically have been given exams that gauge their mastery of academic subjects; the scores of the different national groups are then compared.  These exams are generally known as “international comparative tests.”  The principal one is PISA, Program for International Student Assessment.

These tests have been given for over 50 years.  On every test, students from the study area have scored at or near the top of the international comparisons.  On every test, students from the U.S. have scored somewhere in the middle of the pack. This needs explaining.

Fifty years ago, researchers began visiting the study area to figure out why students there were consistently besting their American peers.  The researchers studied not only teaching but also parenting.  Hundreds of studies have been completed; their research reports all are publicly available.  These are the reports I consulted to write The Drive to Learn (about parenting in the study area) and its sister volume, A Mirror for Americans (about teaching in the study area).

Can you give us your opinion on what the main features of parenting in these countries are?

Parents often view their infant as an unformed being whose abilities are malleable via their intentional guiding and shaping.  They often think of their growing infant as an apprentice or novice who is learning the family’s ways and values so that she can eventually support and represent it to outsiders.  To fit into family and community, each youngster needs deliberate instruction from her elders.

Thus, parenting approach in these areas is supervisory.  Their role is to authoritatively mold their child’s values, behavior, skills, knowledge, and capacity to excel.  Fulfilling this role is how parents express their love, which their child comes to understand – and value.

Due to historical factors, a supremely important virtue in most families in the study area is academic excellence, i.e., mastery of learning from books and teachers.  So parents mold their child in that direction, expecting and guiding her to study with great perseverance.

The distinction we make between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivation is weak in the study area.  The culture there is group-oriented, so families – even extended families – tend to be strongly unified.  What a family desires is what each member desires: academic excellence.

I personally believe that parents do not worry about their child’s self-esteem.  (Researchers in Taiwan to study self-esteem found that locals didn’t have a word for it!)  What matters is not how good a child feels about herself but how well she attains various goals.  Parents coach and train their child to attain excellence.  If what Americans call “self-esteem” results, that’s OK.

What behavioural and attitude related patterns that you highlight during your research would you recommend to parents from other countries?

I know that many American parents will have little willingness or, as a practical matter, little opportunity to adopt the patterns of many parents from the study area.  Nevertheless, it is these patterns in the study area that, to a considerable extent, account for academic excellence in the area.

Parents govern their child’s use of time, ensuring that most of her waking hours are devoted to academic learning (and perhaps to other learning, such as musical artistry).

Some parents buy their own copies of their child’s textbooks, which they then study one step ahead.  Then they discuss the material with the child, ensuring her understanding.

Some parents take steps to ensure that the child learns more than the teacher expects.  They purchase workbooks to enable the child to learn material before it’s covered in class!

Parents take an interest in the teachers to whom their child has been assigned.  Parents might object to a teacher who, instead of focusing on subject mastery, mainly shows an interest in “drawing out pupils’ unique abilities” or “having a lot of fun in our classroom.”

Regarding their child’s school learning, what role do parents in the study area adopt?

Remember that the parenting approach in these countries is supervisory.  So in terms of their child’s school learning, they have scant interest in serving merely as a cheerleader or self-esteem booster.  Instead, most adopt a role resembling that of an athletic coach and trainer.  They actively take steps to ensure that their child knows how to master academic subjects.  It’s common for parents in the study area to participate with their child in studying, actually sitting side-by-side with her to ensure her grasp of the material (as illustrated by the photo). 

From the perspective of someone in the study area, who is responsible for a child’s learning?

Here in the U.S., after a youngster enters the first grade, most parents begin pulling back from taking the lion’s share of responsibility for her learning.  That role, they assume, now belongs to their child’s teachers.  The parents remain very much involved, but in the roles of protector, facilitator, cheerleader, and esteem-maintainer.  And the level of performance that most parents hope for is “proficiency,” which sounds good but is well below “mastery.”

During the years when a child in these countries is a toddler, a pre-schooler, and a pupil up through the elementary and middle-school years, her parents continuously assume that the lion’s share of responsibility for her learning belongs jointly to them and their child.  Their roles are those of protector, supervisor, coach, and trainer.  The time and effort they put into supporting their child’s learning is much greater than that of most American parents.

You say that children in the study area put the emotional drive into learning.  Can you please explain this?

A Chinese-American scholar at Harvard compared what comes to mind for Americans and Chinese people when they think about “learning.”  Among the most common thoughts for Americans were the words study, teach, think, read, discover, understand, library, and brain.

Among the most common thoughts for Chinese (translated into English) were these imperative sentences: “Keep on learning as long as you live.”  “Make a firm resolution to study.”  “Study as if thirsting or hungering.”  And “Take great pains to study.”

The scholar found that, for Americans, learning is expected to have practical outcomes such as improving one’s job prospects and earning more money.  These are real advantages, but one’s motivation to attain them tends to be much more cognitive than deeply emotional.  Learning is approached as a task with a beginning, a lengthy middle, and an end.

For the Chinese, learning is expected to lead to greater personal perfection, understood to mean greater ability to contribute positively to family, friends, colleagues, and community.  Learning increases one’s social virtue, which tends to engender an emotion-driven drive and explains why it’s important to people in the study area to “keep on learning as long as you live.”

How do parents in the study area respond if their child’s learning is not going well?

If a child in these areas brings home a poor test grade, her parents’ response is not to soothe her self-esteem or tell her to pay more attention in class.  Their response is to participate with her in diagnosing what, exactly, she hadn’t understood and then to ensure that she thoroughly learns the misunderstood material.  Self-esteem is earned through mastery.

From the perspective of someone in the study area, what is the main purpose of learning at school?

Most Americans regard school learning as likely to lead to personally beneficial practical outcomes.  Most people in the study area regard school learning similarly – but that is not its main purpose.  For them, academic learning is assumed to increase their virtue in terms of, first, the usefulness of their contributions to their most important ingroups, and second, the increased honor and respect – “face” – their learning attainments bring to their family. 

To whom would you recommend this book?

The Drive to Learn, only 138 text pages in length, will be of interest to

  • parents, grandparents, and other caretakers of young children, including parents-to-be;
  • influencers of parents such as authors, advisers, pediatricians, and parenting advocates;
  • teachers and other educators who work with younger children, including home-schoolers;
  • citizens who share my deep concern about the faltering outcomes of American schools.

Where can our readers order your book?

This book has its own website – TheDriveToLearn.info – and the book can be ordered there. In addition, it is available from all the usual online sites where people routinely order books.

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