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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Why Parents Negotiate: Understanding School as a Complex Transaction

Once upon a time, a customer walked into a well-respected restaurant and sat down to eat. Looking down at the menu, the customer raised an eyebrow in surprise and immediately called the waiter over to his table. Yes, he knew that this was a vegetarian establishment, but he still wanted to know why his roast beef wasn't on the menu.

Once upon another time, a guest checked into a hotel. Upon entering the room, she was shocked to find that the colour on the walls was light blue instead of her preferred shade of white. Back at the reception desk to lodge her complaint, the guest told the manager that she would keep the room but only on condition that she received a 50% discount for the inconvenience.

Once upon a final time, an art lover commissioned a painting for his home. He agrees on a fee and the artist gets to work. The painting is beautiful and is exactly what the art lover is hoping for. But when the artist asks for payment, the art lover informs him that he has changed his mind and will only pay a portion of what he owes because he would rather spend the remaining money on an upcoming ski trip.

If any of us happened to be onlookers or passers by in any of these circumstances, I dare say that most of us would conclude that something was wrong with each scenario. We simply don't live in a world where it makes sense to want beef in a vegetarian restaurant; where hotel guests can expect their rooms to be painted their favourite colour; or where we can simply refrain from paying what we owe because we decide to go skiing instead.

The only exception to these rules of commerce, however, appears to be schools.

How many times have we known it to be the case that, despite our best efforts to explain the kind of educational programme that we offer, a parent will come in to complain that we are not teaching their child in the way they would prefer? How many times do they come into school to explain to us that "long division" should be taught when a child is x (where x is any age between 5 and 10)? How many times have some parents even decided that they will not pay the school fee after all, just because, if they do, they won't be able to afford that additional vacation?

Expressed like this, it's hard to imagine that this happens. But it does, every day, in schools all around the world.

So, I started to ask myself Why? Why have we got ourselves into a position where the experience of school is an entirely negotiated transaction? Why are the rules of engagement more like what you'd find in an ancient bazaar than a modern-day high street?

For the sake of opening up a conversation, one possible line of thought is to consider the possibility that while most transactions are simple, schools are complex.

An image of a payment transaction

A restaurant provides us with a meal in exchange for money. Similarly, a hotel provides us with a place to stay for the night and, once we've enjoyed their services, we pay the bill at the end. 

When it comes to school, however, two (complicating) factors come into play: (a) the fact that the buyer of the service is not the user, and (b) the fact that the transaction takes place over many years as opposed to an evening or two. 

A parent chooses a school on behalf of their child and - unlike the student who enjoys the service provided - remains in a constant state of oversight for, in most cases, several years. 

The equivalent would be if I walked into a restaurant with a friend and chose their meal each night for 15 years, yet never tasting the food that was served. In this circumstance, it would perhaps be inevitable that I always take the role of the critical onlooker as opposed to the engaged experiencer.

The transaction is also complex (just to add a little more complexity to the argument) because the alternative to this paid service, in many parts of the world, is free. So imagine I'm back in that restaurant, looking on at the meal from afar, but all the time knowing that the establishment next door is also serving food with no (obvious) bill at the end. It is no wonder that I might occasionally wonder where the additional value is coming from.

This line of thought, of course, is not to condone the sometimes bad behaviour of parents who can appear to be unreasonable in their demands. Yet, by stopping for a moment to think about the complex nature of this transaction, we might just begin to open up a different kind of conversation right from the outset.

After all, every day, parents are purchasing a product, a version of which is free down the road; a product that they will never personally use; that will likely be as expensive as their home, and take up to 15 years to pay off.

Now that's complicated, and deserves more thought than we typically give it.

Photo by Jonas Leupe on Unsplash.


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Kevin Bartlett
Kevin Bartlett
May 11

A couple of supportive thoughts, my saffron-shod friend:

  1. We would reduce the problem if we intentionally reduced the complexity of schools, (this will sound self-serving) as the CGC has, with, for example, its simple shared definition of learning and the clarity and consistency of its Portrait of a Learner.

  2. We would further reduce the problem if we completely re-thought the learning conversation with parents. No more evenings of sit'n'git + Q&A. Instead, evenings of relationship-building and deep sense-making conversations using the same learning systems we use with their kids. Fullan,' Information without relationships is never knowledge'.

In other words, in YC language (I think 🤔 ), if we shift the parent experience from transactional to transformational.


Mary Langford
Mary Langford
May 05

For me it is all about the school mission, which needs to be clear, 'reasonable' (not overly aspirational) and shared by all of the stakeholders. Then it needs to be clearly front and present in the schools promotional literature. Then the Admissions conversation needs to begin with the mission. Once that is establish and accepted, negotiations can begin...managing expectations and discussions within the context of the mission! I mean, if you go to a Thai restaurant and expect to order ravioli, expect to be disappointed.

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