Jacque studies the period when students transition to middle school, and specifically, the extent to which schools try to support the young adolescent interest in autonomy. Hence, my interview with Jacque focused on this developmental stage.
I would advise parents to look at whether teachers in the school have an opportunity get to know students well, both in formal and informal ways. Unfortunately, middle schools tend to be bureaucratic and rigid and teachers don’t get to interact with students outside of their classrooms. And this is the opposite of what students need. At this age, students are developing their identities and learning how to maintain good relationships with non-familial adults. These important developmental processes don’t emerge around the home environment.
In traditional societies teens would interact with aunts and uncles, parents of their friends, coaches, ministers. We live in a more global society where families may be more isolated, so these important relationships don’t occur naturally. Which is why schools are the last place that remains for adolescents to form these relationships. Students desperately want to discuss topics that matter to them with other adults. So teachers need to be able to get to know more about their students, to understand the whole person, and not only the student in the context of the subject they are teaching.
What do we know from the years of research on the impact of schools on students?
Not much. We have learned that all kids can learn and succeed, but that it often doesn’t happen. We don’t know how to train teachers to teach kids who aren’t motivated to learn. Teachers are not good at diagnosing why a child isn’t motivated: is it due to some challenges at home, peer problems, or cognitive differences? We need to help teachers to come up with appropriate individualized approaches to each child.
This said, schools are extremely important and play a role in development that cannot be achieved easily at home. Specifically, students learn to interact with peers. They gain awareness of broader worlds. Schools provide an opportunity to interact with people who are vastly different from the people at home. These things are very important in a democratic society. Our society lets people make decisions about how they are going to be governed. To do this well, we need to know and understand all kinds of people, learn things our parents may not know. This is why I’m not a fan of home-schooling.
What is one finding that surprised you the most in your research on school influences on development?
How complicated everything is! For example, in our studies we follow teachers and kids over time. I would identify a teacher who is terrific at bringing all kids along and reducing learning disparities among students. But then I’ll look at the same teachers next year and this effect disappears. And I don’t know why. We know something was going on that involved whole cast of characters, but not more than that.
What surprised you the most about being a mother?
I have two kids and five grandkids. I expected to make more of a difference in how they turned out to be, but from the time they were born, they were their own little persons. So different from what I had envisioned I would shape them to be, and also so different from each other, even though they have the same mom and dad. I was surprised to see that I had much less influence than I thought parents have. It’s very humbling.