Resourced Learning

I’m almost finished with the springtime cycle of parent-teacher conferences. This is a part of my job which I really enjoy. Meeting parents provides that rare opportunity to communicate in person how marvelous and amazing my students, their children, are. It’s a chance to share my specific observations and to hear particular concerns or questions.

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One parent said at the end of our talk, “You really know my son, you really do.” A compliment of the highest order. This is what I am here for.

I ask myself ‘How do I know this child? How do I get to know each child?”

First of all, I have the benefit of frequency. I see students between 2-4 times per week, depending on the grade level. That’s a lot of contact time. Time is a resource.

Next, I teach in an environment in which although there is relatively high turnover in our student body (about 1/3 on average per year), I often get to teach or at least see many children over the course of a few years. I get to participate in their development. Shared history is a resource.

I spend time observing students. As the years have gone by, I have stepped back from extensive direct instruction and encouraged more student-led and independent activities. Besides cultivating a culture of choice and self-direction, these opportunities allow me to stop and look, to study and analyze student behaviors. Children reveal a great deal about themselves their tendencies during these times. Creating space for observation is a resource.

In my PE classes, I am who I am. My students get to know me in a unique and deeply individual fashion. The multiple filters and mental models each child brings to our encounters shapes the development of our relationships in unimaginable and hard to document ways. When I teach I show a ridiculous number of behaviors, emotions, capabilities which all reach students differently. Over time, kids develop ideas about who I am and what I represent to them. And these ideas are constantly being updated, revised and reworked to accommodate new input and fresh perspectives. Awareness of dynamic, evolving relationships is a resource.

Above all, my students share themselves with me. They talk to me, they ask questions, they run wild with their peers and hang back by the water fountains. They buddy up quickly or pace around the margins, they shout out their favorites and broadcast their dislikes. In everything they do, they are tireless communicators. And it’s not that I understand everything they are saying, offering or demonstrating at the time. Rather, I take their input into account when attempting to grasp their intentions and determine how best to meet their needs.

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Students compel my curiosity and I learn. I learn about them. I learn from them. I learn through them. This is how I get to know my students: I open myself to what they can teach me.

When we look for resources in teaching, we tend to bypass our students.

What if we recognized our students as the most precious resources available to us in developing our teaching and learning?

What if we learned to ask students more often about what they know and understand about the world so far?

What if students were in the habit of being able to tell us who they are before we rush to categorize and file them?

Imagine a world where “the educated” believed that their mission was to stoke the fires of curiosity wherever they went and see the potential for learning in everything that came their way.

Imagine then how well resourced education would be.

Speaking Digital PD

I recently held a workshop entitled: Navigating The Blogosphere and Social Media for Professional Growth. It’s a long title for a few simple ideas. I designed this 90 minute session as an interactive, experience-sharing and question-growing learning event and that’s mostly what it turned out to be according to participant feedback. I’m glad about that.

While part of my aim was to encourage participants to seek out social media opportunities to grow their professional practice and connections, I found that there was more I wanted to say. So often in promoting digital tools in education spaces, we emphasize all the things we can get from them: lesson plans, snappy ideas, old wine in new bottles, new wine in virtual bottles and on and on. There is no doubt much to be had, to be consumed, to be added to our overflowing professional plates.

At the same time, there is a piece that is so often ignored or hardly mentioned: the potency of our contribution. Yes, bloggers will tell you to blog, and that others can benefit from your hearing your story. This is true and frequently shared. The missing piece, however lies not simply adding to the jumble of voices but to take an active part in creating and sustaining community. That means finding ways to acknowledge the voices you respect,  giving credit where it is due, providing feedback and links which may benefit others. I summed up this idea in the slide below: “Go for what you crave, stay to make the space a richer one.” Show up on social media and be an example of positive digital citizenship: be kind, be thoughtful, be you. Make social media spaces better by being a good human.

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The other point I wanted to emphasize with regard to social media use is that only you know (and will find out) what (and how much) is good for you and your aims (recognizing, too, that this will shift and change over time). Resist the pressure to try all platforms or to be everywhere at once. Let those impulses die a quick death. Instead, find the things that you find useful, do those and skip the rest. If Pinterest works for you in your private life, it may be a tremendous resource for your classroom or office needs. On the other hand, if you feel especially comfortable with Facebook, why not seek out like-minded groups there to begin your journey into education conversations in the digital sphere? Start somewhere and go from there.

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If our goal is to encourage and empower colleagues, students, parents, administrators and policy makers to engage in education conversations on various channels, we need to think about how we welcome them into spaces which are new to them but territory to us. In that process we also need to break open our ideas about what PD is and can be. This is as true for us as it is for the systems we inhabit and sustain.

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I don’t consider myself a digital evangelist. I do consider myself an active member of the commons who appreciates and uses digital tools. This distinction matters to me. And that is what I aim to share with colleagues when I find myself speaking digital.

 

High Frequency Ed Reform

100 High Frequency Education Reform Words

by @edifiedlistener

December 2015

School district policy administration teachers
parents partnership staff development priority
achievement gap deficit thinking undermine
classroom effectiveness curriculum delivery require
adjustment overhaul reform education failure
charter no excuse high expectation
Federal spending local tax base
standard mandate taxpayer money distribute
research bid best practice culture
excellence evidence choice data education
tenure profession concern lack resources
innovation technology advanced intermediate standardized
test salary expense political accountability
rules security low income discipline
suspension faculty evaluation value added
measure retention public collaboration observation
duty due diligence calendar contact
days high poverty budget cost
efficient schedule graduation rate college
career readiness pay attention student

 

Who We Are Is Often What We Teach

While perusing my Twitter feed for info and inspiration I came across this post by Debbie Donsky: The Mantras of School Principals and Shaming Helicopter Parents. She talks about being a principal dealing with angry parents and how she consistently reminds herself that their behavior is coming from a place of love. That even as those parents may be threatening and intimidating, they are in that moment very likely also feeling powerless – to protect, help or cope with their child’s behavior or situation. This struck a chord with me on many levels: as a teacher who has been the bearer of bad news to parents, as a parent who has been told that their child is lacking and requires a dramatic intervention, and also as an aspiring school leader.

I was so moved, that I wrote this in response:

Thank you for this wonderfully insightful piece. It highlights the core of what I think makes teaching so very challenging, humbling and also rewarding: who we are is often what we teach. Implicitly and explicitly. Intentionally and unwittingly. Today, tomorrow, yesterday, again and again.

Every time that I recognize a situation as a problem, I go on a hunt. And I have choices in what to hunt for and how I will go about it. I can be on the lookout for someone or something to blame. I can also try looking at the situation itself, not only from my perspective but from the perspective of the others involved. The latter is a decidedly more complex, time and labor intensive kind of hunt. It’s hard and the results are not always readily visible or apparent. What you describe in your piece is an attempt to take a chance on the second kind of hunt. You encourage us to look not only at the other in judgment but to also look in the mirror.

What I continue to find at once troubling and affirming in my teaching is there is so much work I have to do on myself — on being, on becoming and also changing myself. This is the work that is never ending. It is precisely the work which also allows us to grow with and alongside our students. It is the work which allows us to partner meaningfully with parents and colleagues. This is the work for which there are no certificates or degrees and the criteria for success keep shifting case by case.

For this reason I feel utterly uplifted by your post in which you describe what this work can look like and where it can lead us — to a place of understanding and cooperation; exactly in the face of turmoil when it certainly feels a lot safer to lay blame and run up the high road. And of all things, LOVE! Who dares talk about love in our day-to-day educational interactions, especially in connection with parents? Remembering and centering love as a source and motor for a whole range of behaviors is not necessarily the professional practice we are taught to employ. Yet we need this capacity to see, witness, understand and also work with evidence of love in so many aspects of our lives in schools. Thank you so much for the rich reminder of the tools we have at our disposal to learn, understand, empathize and therefore also educate.

I had been off my writing rhythm for a while and was certainly feeling it. Donsky’s thought- and emotion-provoking piece brought me back to life, in a manner of speaking. When a message resonates deeply, I almost have no alternative than to write what is on my mind and heart. I want to think more about where love fits into the curriculum of who I am whenever and and wherever I may be teaching (or not).

Humanity Rant or Why #PeopleAreWorthIt

The Washington Post headline says this:

Education
If you want your children to succeed, teach them to share in kindergarten
The opening sentences establish the following:

Kindergartners who share, cooperate and are helpful are more likely to have a college degree and a job 20 years later than children who lack those social skills, according to a new study.

Kids who get along well with others also are less likely to have substance-abuse problems and run-ins with the law.

The research, which involved tracking nearly 800 students for two decades, suggests that specific social-emotional skills among young children can be powerful predictors for success later in life.

The research was set up as follows:

“The study is based on data collected beginning in 1991 at schools in Nashville, Seattle, rural Pennsylvania and Durham, N.C. Teachers of 753 kindergartners were asked to rate each student’s skill level in eight areas: …

Each teacher was asked to assess how well each statement described the child on a 5-point scale: “Not at all (0),” “A little (1),” “Moderately well (2),” “Well (3)” and “Very well (4).”

Researchers then tracked those students for two decades, using police records, reports from parents and self-reports from the children.”

And all of these findings of course support the conclusion that quality pre-school really matters and that if we invest there, we can further improve student outcomes: “It does offer the promise that if we can help kids get to this place by 5, that it will be sustaining,” he [a director at a nationally recognized university research institute for  Early Education] said. “You don’t have to worry that it is going to unravel.”

I am so tired of these studies and the reporting of these studies which would love to have us believe that there is a magic solution; a key strategy we’ve overlooked but urgently need to reassert. That more funding and resources should flow in this direction instead of that one. I am so tired of experts commenting in ways which inflate the reported research with false significance. The wherewithal to comment about how correlation is not causation fails me. Enough of the false assumptions that ‘if we would finally focus on X, we could really improve Y’ in isolation from the systems in which all these things work!  I am so done with this approach of trying to explain the world.  I do not plan to read the study and find the holes in the fly-by, sensationalist reporting but I do want to pause and say that I have had my fill.

In a different post, Diane Ravitch lends space to the arguments of NYT columnist, Joe Noccera and his discovery of research by an MIT professor, Zeynep Ton.

“Joe Nocera heard a radically sensible idea from a professor at MIT named Zeynep Ton. She said that instead of cutting costs to the bone, employers should “provide employees a decent living, which includes not just pay but also a sense of purpose and empowerment at work.” This strategy “can be every bit as profitable as companies that strive to keep their labor costs low by paying the minimum wage with no benefits. Maybe even more profitable. Getting there requires companies to adopt what Ton calls “human-centered operations strategies,” which she acknowledges is “neither quick nor easy.” But it’s worth it, she says, both for the companies and for the country. Surely, she’s right.”

To read on is to learn that Ton’s research performed in the retail sector supports the idea that companies can benefit (i.e. boost their profit margin) by actually taking good care of their employees rather than treating them like disposables. And Ravitch suggests that Ed reformers could take some cues from these findings.

Why do we still require so much instruction on these points?  That is my main question. What failure of understanding prevents us from creating communities and organizations that serve the interests of many rather than of the very few? What fears keep us from meeting the social-emotional needs of our students without reams of data which demonstrate the benefits for achievement outcomes? When did it become so damn counter-cultural for us to educate our children with kindness and warmth? At what stage did we begin to view employee well-being and satisfaction as a wasteful and unnecessary expense?

Can we assume that these company CEOs and their supporting management in Ton’s research failed to learn to share in Kindergarten? Of course not! They are the ones with lucrative jobs and high levels of academic attainment. They learned well how to get along with others and most likely enjoyed a host of privileges throughout their school and work careers. The operating systems smile upon these sons and daughters of positive social adjustment. (And their likely well adjusted economic and social backgrounds.)

I get so weary when we employ academia to tell us what our moral and human responsibilities should be: to respect each others’ humanity, to connect our self-interest with the positive welfare of the commons. And to understand that we are all, yes all, better for it when we share more rather than less, provide support rather than strip it away.

One of my twitter colleagues and friends supports the hashtag #peopleareworthit. His name is Kris Giere and he consistently invokes this phrase. I see now why it needs to show up every day, several times a day. We need these reminders. We desperately need to be reminded of our capacity to do good in the world, to make someone’s day easier, nicer, more worthwhile in simple and complex ways. We have this capacity and more of this needs to show in the world. Wherever you can make a positive contribution be it a smile, a tweet, a show of gratitude, a donation – do that. Show your humanity, model kindness, stand up for fairness, lend a hand where it is needed.

We shouldn’t require research to tell us how and why these actions are good and that #peopleareworthit.  We also need to do more than play nice. We need to apply our intelligence in moving past the rhetoric into concrete action, no matter how seemingly small and local. Start somewhere, start now, start because caring shouldn’t need to take a number and wait to be called on. Thankfully, I have found so many positive models both online and off, locally and globally. And I see that I have much more work to do – on myself, in my communities of belonging and beyond. This is one more start.

 

In Deep Water With Audrey and Tressie

As an educator there are plenty of reasons to be on Twitter or to engage on other social media platforms. I’m a PE teacher finishing up a year’s hiatus from the classroom and looking forward to getting back into the routine of working with real children.

That said, my intellectual excursions this year have taken me far beyond my classroom and the practice of teaching. Through extensive and very eclectic reading I’ve ventured into territories that may or may not have to do with education directly. What has happened is that my choices have become more political. In the opinions I seek, the analyses I read, the topics addressed reflect a deliberately more politicized interest. So when I do read about K-12 classroom practice or recent trends in ed-tech for instance, a filter I have added is political perspective – where is the author coming from? What factors may be contributing to this person’s take on the subject? How might this person’s perspective change and influence mine? What I have found is that reading in areas where I feel to some extent “out of my depth” has worked wonders in allowing me to zero in on what my core beliefs and concerns are when it comes to education.

Two authors who regularly challenge me to start treading in the deep end of my beliefs about education are Audrey Watters and Tressie McMillan Cottam. This week they appear to have double teamed on the intersecting topics of technology, education, markets and privacy.
First, Audrey goes to town with this talk given at a panel at the International Society of Technology and Education (ISTE) conference last week: Is It Time To Give Up On Computers in Schools?
Provocative? Yes, quite and by design. Her talk was published on hybridpedagogy.com. She says:

Sure, there are subversive features of the computer; but I think the computer’s features also involve neoliberalism, late stage capitalism, imperialism, libertarianism, and environmental destruction. They now involve high stakes investment by the global 1% — it’s going to be a $60 billion market by 2018, we’re told. Computers involve the systematic de-funding and dismantling of a public school system and a devaluation of human labor. They involve the consolidation of corporate and governmental power. They are designed by white men for white men. They involve scientific management. They involve widespread surveillance and, for many students, a more efficient school-to-prison pipeline —

Further she suggests:

We gaze glassy-eyed at the new features in the latest hardware and software — it’s always about the latest app, and yet we know there’s nothing new there; instead we must stare critically at the belief systems that are embedded in these tools.

It happens often when I read Audrey’s work that I am called to attention in a visceral way. Her tone is not alarmist, yet her message is alarming if you dare to sit with the implications of all that she is saying. She speaks to a much deeper question than “should I use Firefox instead of Chrome?” (Which is where many K-12 tech conversations are happening) Rather, she asserts that our homegrown brands of social and economic inequalities are not only baked into the tools we use but likely reinforce and exacerbate them.

If we want schools to be democratizing, then we need to stop and consider how computers are likely to entrench the very opposite. Unless we stop them.

Then I came across Tressie McMillan Cottam’s remarks prepared for a recently held panel discussion: “New Topics in Social Computing: Data and Education.”
Tressie is a sociologist who, in my mind, has moved mountains in the area of public scholarship. Her high profile Twitter account has helped promote the visibility of accessible scholarly writing happening both within and outside the academy. Delving into the broad area of “Data and Education” she asks the reader to get clear with what we mean by “privacy” in this context:

What if privacy is euphemism for individualism, the politically correct cousin of rational actor theories that drive markets that is fundamentally at odds with even the idea of school as a public good? If that is possible (and, I of course, think it is not only possible but the case at hand), then how can we talk about students’ privacy while preserving the integrity of data to observe and measure inequality? I suppose that is where I am on current debates about privacy and data in K-12: are we talking about everyone’s privacy or are we talking about new ways to mask injustice? Do you get to a Brown v. Board when schools that are also businesses own school data? I suspect not, because the rules governing data are different in markets than they are in public trusts.

To grasp what we are dealing with means that we will have to unpack our firmly held beliefs about what is at stake:

I question the assumptions about privacy that seem to be the only way we currently have to talk about how deeply enmeshed schools are in markets. Can we talk about privacy in a way that is about justice rather than individualism? If we cannot then privacy may be as big a threat to students as data mining because they are two heads of the same beast.

In agreeing with Audrey’s call to rid our schools of computers she remarks:

I would add: give up on computers and get up on politics. Computers can be fine. Computers are politics. Personalized learning may be fine. Personalized learning is politics. Apps are fine. Apps are politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Unless and until that is the conversation, then tech is most likely a politics at odd with my own.

So there’s that political thing: connecting the things I do, use, and promote to their effect on me, on others, our our collective existence and making decisions about my actions based on the outcomes I say I want. If I say I want a more just world, what am I doing to support and promote that? How does it show in my voting behavior, in my media consumption, in the way I choose to raise and educate my children, in the friends I keep, in the organizations I endorse and those I decry? Those are political questions, just as they can be deeply existential questions. The choices I make as an individual do not happen in a vacuum. They occur and have implications in and for my surroundings and also express views and beliefs that relate to those surroundings. This why reading Audrey Watters and Tressie McMillan Cottam has become so important for me. Both point to intersection after intersection where individual decisions collide or overlap with societal assumptions and outcomes.

It’s dizzying and disorienting to do this kind of reading on a regular basis. Feeling “out of my depth” comes at a price. I finally understand that smh is shorthand for ‘shaking my head’, but often I am too bewildered to do even that. Being confronted with how much I don’t know is not nearly as trying and uncomfortable as recognizing how little thought I have given to some very central facets of my daily existence. Tressie and Audrey take me there and what I choose to do with these fresh insights is entirely up to me. I feel like I may be getting a little wiser, gaining a bit more nuance in my political views, stretching my critical thinking muscles a little further.

Tressie’s concluding sentences trigger a peculiar response in me: I think about weightlifting:

 I believe education is a human right when education is broadly defined as the right to know and be. Period. I believe schooling can still do education but it cannot do it and be a market. Information symmetry is at odds with most market relationships and schools have to be about information symmetrically produced, accessed and imagined. Schools can be valuable to markets without becoming them. I believe there is such a thing as a social category that subsumes markets to societies. I believe those are political choices and only effected by social action. 

“Schools can be valuable to markets without becoming them.” That feels to me as though a weight has been lifted – off of my shoulders, somehow. There’s that blessed moment of recognition: “yeah, that’s what I wanted to say.” So there’s some comfort.

At the same time, “schooling can still do education but it cannot do it and be a market” which is where so much neoliberal rhetoric and policy is leading us: to education systems as markets -There’s the weight bearing down on me, on us; the likelihood of freeing ourselves shrinking before our eyes. Unless of course we wake up and see that we in fact have choices. We can lift the weight. We needn’t simply succumb to it because it’s heavy and makes us incredibly drowsy.

Audrey and Tressie are here to wake us up. And K-12 educators, this is a conversation we need to be in on. Not only listening but dialoguing. This is how we build critical thinking into our curricula and lesson plans: we do it ourselves. Regularly. We wade into the deep waters and have our beliefs challenged. Readings like these provide necessary starting points.

“Hort” – Why Austrian After-School Care Rocks

image via Pixabay.com CC

image via Pixabay.com CC

In Austria, primary school (Volksschule) is a four year affair. Children are taught in grades one through four by the same homeroom teacher and the school day typically lasts four to five hours. When school ends at 12 or 1pm, students either go home or attend some form of after school care known as Hort.

The Hort may or may not be housed in the same building as the school. For my oldest son, his Hort group was one of three housed in an adjacent building  along with two or three all-day Kindergarten groups for children ages 3-6. My youngest son, now finishing up first grade, walks along with several classmates to his Hort about a quarter mile from his school. His Hort group shares the building with two Kindergarten groups and three other Hort groups. Through the City of Vienna, parents may apply to have their children attend Hort and if both parents are employed, a spot is guaranteed. There are also private Hort groups around town and parents who are looking for part time solutions (i.e., only a couple of days per week or early pick up) may take advantage of these options. In terms of expense, public Hort costs about 200 Euros per month and is available at a reduced rate for low-income families and families with more than one child. Lunch and afternoon snacks are included.  Hort usually stays open until 5:30pm (as was also true for Kindergarten when they were younger) and also offers care during the summer months with reduced staff.

Throughout this year, I have thought often of what it is about Hort that I find so appealing.  My oldest loved it, often more than school, and his younger brother seems similarly enthusiastic. Considering that this is where children can spend up to 15 to 20 hours of their school week, that degree of happiness and satisfaction can go a long way. Before I came to Austria and enrolled my first child in public Kindergarten and then school, I didn’t know what Hort was. I had perhaps heard the term but lacked context to give it real meaning. As both his father and I were working full-time, there was no question that he would attend a Hort after school.

Here’s what happens in Hort: children are assigned to multi-aged groups of 20-25 where there are two adult teachers. The students receive lunch, have some break time, then there is a study period of about an hour for children to complete homework assignments. After that there are varied options: free play indoors or out, structured and unstructured arts and crafts projects. Currently Hort is decidedly low-tech. Options for play are hands-on, no screens. When I arrive in the house I am always struck by the liveliness and noise level. Kids are up and about, moving between groups. There are play areas outside the group rooms used by both Hort kids and kindergartners.

When I pick up my 7 year old in the afternoons he is often busy building, drawing, crafting one thing or another. Or I find him outside playing soccer or digging in the sand or jumping rope. The kids he plays with come from a variety of backgrounds Turkish, Nigerian, Austrian, Slovak and British, and they do not all attend the same primary school. He has friends who are in 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades as well as good friends from his homeroom. Many live in fairly close proximity to the Hort and school, so that it’s common to run into families at the local shopping center during the week or on weekends.  Having my child attend school and Hort in our neighborhood has an added bonus: I have a fresh sense of  neighborliness – the positive feeling I derive from seeing people whom I know live and work and go to school in a small geographic area accompanied by a desire to show kindness and good will towards those people. Even in this big city, I enjoy a feeling of community which is tied directly to my child’s school and his Hort. I never knew how much I would appreciate this quality in my adult life as I do now.

As I have spent so much time this year reading at length about K-12 education in North America, it has enabled me to look at  Hort and Volksschule with different eyes, not only as a parent but as an observer of education systems. What appears to work well for kids? What is different or unique about this approach to schooling primary students?

Hort is separate from school and falls under a different arm of city administration. It’s purpose is after-school care. In the same sense as Kindergarten is a form of early child care. This division from school is an important one. It is a division which allows Hort to become a place where school children get to master being children: How to get along with kids of different ages and types, how to negotiate participation in play in multiple forms, how to deal with adults who set limits and also encourage independence, and how to make friends and keep them. The supervising adults are trained specifically for guiding this age group in this context: a huge emphasis is placed on social-emotional learning. During the homework hour Hort instructors encourage children to assist each other and offer deeper support where needed. More specifically, the Hort instructors know and understand the value of play in the lives of their charges. They encourage, facilitate, moderate and welcome play and it shows. The role they are allowed to take on for their students means that they can become trust partners in a different way from the classroom teacher.  Similar to a classroom teacher, they observe, build relationships, offer guidance and clear parameters, and take an active interest in their students but they do not grade the child’s academic progress or behaviors.

This is not about competing agendas between school and Hort. On the contrary, the structures complement each other quite well. Kids can enjoy Hort and school, experience success and challenge in both environments. It is the combination that strikes me as a winning option. My child’s academic success seems hardly jeopardized by fewer hours of “seat time” at school. Rather his natural curiosity and creativity receive an extra boost by time spent among different peers with the freedom to engage in far more choice activities. And he’s happy when I pick him up. Our kids need all of these elements.

As North American PK-12 education continues its steady pursuit of higher academic standards at younger and younger ages, I worry that we may be stealing more from our children in the short and long term than they or we could possibly hope to gain. Shrinking opportunities for free play, punishment for children and schools which are deemed failing, ongoing devaluation of teacher expertise in policy formulation and implementation – common themes in North American PK-12 discussion,  these all contribute to my fear of harm to children in such systems. The Austrian public education system certainly has its own set of weaknesses, yet there are parts of the system which make a lot of sense to me as a parent and as an educator. Hort as an institution is one of those parts the system can be proud of.