Parenting, Data & Outcomes

I tweeted over the weekend that we learned last week that SPL was accepted into the Mandarin Immersion program at Ohlone Elementary School for next year. It’s a huge development for us — it’s why we moved to Palo Alto a few months ago, and something we didn’t really expect to happen, given that the odds were stacked against.

So we were pretty overjoyed about it, and still are. Of course, like in any endeavor, you celebrate and move on, and now we’re puzzling over any number of implications and next steps.

As we’ve been talking about it with other parents, everyone has been hugely supportive and congratulatory, and ask how we’re feeling about it. And as we’ve been answering, what’s become clear to me is this: parenting is a series of decisions that could have profound implications years from now that you have no way of really, truly understanding now. There’s an unfortunate lack of data on what works in education generally, let alone in language immersion programs.

(Although it’s important to say this: we know a LOT more about what works in education than we actually use in practice. Lots and lots of reasons for this: many are industry structural, many are cultural — we have a lot to learn about best practices in teaching still, in a data-and-outcome-oriented way — but it would be a big step to be able to use what we DO know.)

In the case of SPL and Mandarin, we really are excited about it, and SPL is, too. But it’s very hard to tell what it will mean in the long term. It’s been really clear so far that learning Chinese and English at the same time (since he was about 3) has been challenging, and that it’s affected the order of his skill development (in particular in terms of reading and writing, since he’s learning a couple of very different systems simultaneously). There’s some new research that suggests that in general, dual-language learners develop more slowly in terms of reading & writing until about 4th grade, at which point they catch up and develop normally. There’s other literature that suggests that kids who grow up bilingual have better executive function as adults, presumably because their brains become good at making snap decisions on which language to use in any given situation.

But in truth, who the hell knows? The data sets we have on this stuff are vanishingly small. As I wrote about Ohlone, in our experience there just aren’t any other schools that are constructivist and whole child and Mandarin immersion — so the data we have to look at is really just the 4 classes that have come before us. So we’ll see.

I’m not saying we haven’t worked the angles on this. Like so many of our friends, we can be a little, um…detail-obsessed and maybe even have OCD tendencies. And since Kathy’s a teacher, you might imagine that we’ve done a lot of thinking and talking about this with lots of friends and educators. And so we have good feelings about it, based on pretty good reasoning.

In that way, parenting is sort of like trying to operate a startup. You never have nearly the information you need to make decisions; and lots of times when you’re trying to make certain decisions you not only don’t even understand the implications of what you’re deciding, but often don’t even really understand the data that you think you do.

So now we’re off to the races. Will SPL embrace his Chinese over the years? Will he work in China 20 years from now? Will he reject it like so many kids reject piano lessons? How will it affect the way he thinks, the way he looks at the world, the way he makes his own way?

We don’t know — we’ve really got no idea at all. But that’s sort of the mystery and the magic of it. We’ll learn as we go. Nobody’s seen this particular movie before, and that’ll make it challenging, and interesting, and human.

One comment

  1. Hi John!
    Chloe, my now-9-year-old had just the delay you mentioned (although her sisters did not). She had a reading delay. But, the first two weeks into third grade, she began reading above her grade level (Little Women was her first real book!). My girls are in French immersion. Not sure how that delay might differ for a pictographic language.

    I highly recommend you read Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram. I am a big believer in honoring the delay, and not trying to power through it.

    I know you are probably swamped with contacts, but I would love to catch up sometime.

    All my best,