Watching my son experience school

My son is 18.  That means he’s finishing his senior year in a public high school, and preparing to head off to a college or university this fall.

I’ve played a close part in his education since his birth.  As Owain approaches this major transition in his life, I wanted to share some observations about his experience of schooling.  Consider this a snapshot of one American student in 2017, a micro-portrait of Generation Z, from the massively biased perspective of his father.

I’m going to try to be analytical here, and hold back oceanic waves of emotion.

He despises homework.  Homework is a source of agony, even in this final year of high school.  There is very little thrill in completion or in successfully overcoming an obstacle.  He struggles mightily to complete assignments at school or elsewhere (public library, on the bus) so that the work doesn’t follow him home.  He wants to preserve home time for himself.  The flipped classroom isn’t a crazy experiment for him, but simply a good thing.

He’s skeptical about the possibility of going to a Vermont college or university.  Not because of being too close or too far from us, his parents, but mostly because his experience of Vermont cell phone and internet connectivity is so awful that he dreads four more years of bad online experience. (Readers can get a sense of the state of affairs from these posts) . This is a big issue for him.

He doesn’t idolize his favorite teachers, at least not to us.   A good teacher or class experience is something he’ll rarely mention.  Some teachers describe Owain giving a great presentation or impressing his classmates, and that will be the first time we’ve heard of it.  Instead, he describes bad experiences in epic detail, and remembers them for years.  He’s a tough audience.

He has become deeply opposed to literature classes.  On his own he reads constantly, and always has, but feels that academic lit is mostly about dwelling on depressing, frustrating, and upsetting readings.

When he struggles with homework he turns to us, his parents, for help.  He always has.  Recently it’s been bittersweet to see him advance past our respective academic abilities, especially in math or science or Python that we don’t recall.

Sometimes he struggles with technology issues, as when working on a digital video, trying to use some courseware, or fighting through Windows laptop issues.  We do our best… and there we see the digital divide yawning wide.  Ceredwyn and I can do a decent amount of tech support, because of our respective life experiences and professional work. We also own some technology (laptops, tablets, XBox…) so Owain has grown up with access to tools and toys.  We’re not necessarily typical parents.  How do young people fare when their parents lack these skills?  When do they give up?  Moreover, how do they do when the home lacks hardware and/or bandwidth?  (These are rhetorical questions.) We have had to drive across the county to get him sufficient speeds for some assignments.

Owain with a LEM

Owain expects teachers to communicate digitally, and is scathing when he feels they fail on that score.  He’s not pleased when teachers and staff use email, Google Docs, etc.; he just assumes they will.  If they don’t, or use the tech in an insufficient way, he mutters or rants about “technophobes” and “old people” and “Vermont.”

He communicates with classmates more online than in person, I think.  Google Chat seems to be the preferred venue, although I don’t pry. He can’t text from home (see my earlier notes about Vermont), but happily texts when his phone gets signal.

Google Docs is his leading writing medium for class work, far more than desktop word processing.  He’s fully accustomed to sharing docs with readers and working with their feedback therein.

The open web is his research space.  I can’t think of a time when he’s used a commercial database, although he does like Amazon Kindle ebooks.  He’s aware of the politics, and isn’t entirely confident in his search abilities.

Grades matter to him a great deal.  He stresses deeply about exams, projects, and tests.  He fears the results might not be accurate, especially if they overstate his actual abilities.

Libraries are sources of connectivity, computing, and also media (books, DVDs).  They are familiar spaces for him.  He prefers the public library to the school one.

Owain N7 jacketOutside of class resources are important in Owain’s schooling.  In high school he has spent significant time in “learning lab”, an after-class paracurricular center staffed by experts in the sciences and humanities.

He always listens to music or plays videos when working.  He has a staggeringly vast YouTube playlist that he relies on, plus a bevy of favored video creators.  He’ll play media on a tablet when working on a laptop.

I think he separates learning from school.  He rarely describes learning in school.  Instead, he views school as work, a set of tasks set by authorities usually without sufficient context.  He fights to raise his passions (space, history, technology) in classes.  He learns informally from books, YouTube, websites, and some games.  That’s a different category than “school”.

I’m not sure how these behaviors and attitudes will change when he goes away to college.

If he does homework in his dorm room, will that space be less of a home for him?  Or will he seek out other spaces for assignments?  I can imagine him taking advantage of peer tutors and teaching and learning centers.

Will a professor rock his world and become a mentor?  Will he rethink the university as a place of learning, rather than onerous work?

He might start using his phone for voice calls.  He usually avoids speaking on phones, mobile or landline, but that could change if he lives in a campus with solid cell coverage and/or misses us.

After Owain leaves Ripton Ceredwyn and I are planning on moving.  If we successfully land in a high-speed location, perhaps we’ll start using video or message services to stay in touch with our son.  Maybe we’ll turn to texting each other.

As an educator and research I’ve tried not to rely heavily on my children as study subjects.  I don’t want to speak of them too much, despite my urgent desire to do so every hour, because I’d prefer to stick to evidence where I’m not so biased.  But I wanted to share this sketch now, partly as a memory aid for our family’s future, and also as a tiny view into education in 2017.


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28 Responses to Watching my son experience school

  1. beulah888 says:

    He sounds ok to me. No problem there. Space, History, Technology=Astronaut? 🙂

  2. Greg Diment says:

    What has been his college search process? Beyond tech connectivity, what does he value in the next phase of his education and how has he sought to evaluate his choices?

    • It’s been tricky.
      He’s had a hard time imagining higher ed for himself. It’s been difficult to draw lines between what he wants to do and how to get there.
      Part of the problem is local school support. Both of my children had a hard time working with them.

      • laurion says:

        Some things never change. My own high school counselor more or less handed me a catalog of schools and left me to my own devices. I always saw myself going to college, but got very little help from the local schools on how to get there. I lucked out and found something that made me happy (after a rocky academic start and a change of major….), and I wish Owain the best of luck as well.

  3. Todd Conaway says:

    Thanks Bryan. I appreciate the wonder and challenge you have with schooling and children. And most especially, your children. Five months ago our daughter left the small village of Clarkdale, Arizona for New York City. NYU to be exact. Beyond the physical distance, and worry, there are the million other things parents ponder when a kid gets to that age of possible departure. It is the hardest work I have ever done!

    I have no advice.

    Except maybe what I am most learning these days about me, and the notion of school. Here is what I am most thinking. I think 🙂

    I have too long looked at schooling as a separate enterprise from living. And I have known better! I know all the language and phrases that say that is the truth. “Learning is experience,” right? Yet somehow, I still see school as this distinct experience that lasts only a certain number of years and occurs in certain locations. I want to change MY language around school/learning to fit into all the possibilities that life/living offers. I am hoping that by learning to understand that her moment to moment journey is, and has always been, what is most valuable, I will come to know that it is our very “life” that I am always thinking about, not schooling. And maybe I will worry less.

    But I doubt it 🙂

  4. Jon says:


    In reading your post I was surprised (though maybe I should not have been) at the similarities with my daughters experiences and views. Like Owain she despises doing homework at home and goes out of her way to avoid it. She arrives at school an hour before classes each day to get a head start on the day or finish up things she could not get done in study hall. She also is not a fan of high school literature classes and sees the reading as pointless though she grasps them better than I ever remember doing. However, she is an avid reader of many things fictional and non-fictional. As with Owain grades are of vital importance and woe is the teacher that does not have the days exam graded and recorded in Blackboard by sundown. The huge YouTube playlist is also something we are familiar with in our home though most of her time is spent on Tumblr and fan fic sites (writing and reading). And Google Apps are the only tools used to do school work.

    I find the similarities very interesting. Her concerns for a college are that it have a strong science program and strong study abroad program. For now two schools are on the list of ones she will submit an application.

  5. John Gould says:

    Great narrative of your son Owain’s school experience. Going to share this with my doctoral students as they begin their first week of a design studio to rethink the possibilities for new learning environments for the future. We need more voices from our children’s experiences within the present structure of our K-12 schools and for that matter higher education. Thanks for sharing with us!

    • Todd Conaway says:

      Hi John,
      It is helpful to hear a trusted colleague describe the challenges of education. Bryan helps me keep my eyes on the stars while not ignoring my feet 🙂

      “We need more voices from our children’s experiences within the present structure of our K-12 schools ” I made this in 2011 talking about my kids experiences a couple of years before. So like in 2009 this was happening. Imagine what is possible today! I use it with faculty to share what is possible.

    • My pleasure, John. Can you share their reactions?

  6. Billy Pritchard says:

    Bryan — His experience sounds a lot like my current students and the college students I used to teach. Learning is only cool as long as the teacher is genuine and gives them wiggle room to explore things they like. There’s also a sense that teachers give them homework and projects just because that’s what their teachers did. I have a lot of thoughts on this, but I have to get back to grading. Sad to hear that he’s fairly disaffected from the American education system. More saddened that the American education system is often tone deaf to the needs and desires of students.

  7. Your observations certainly seem on track. I just hope Owain finds a university where he is comfortable, that was what ended up being most important for our children.

  8. laurion says:

    I see a -lot- of students at my University turning to the library as a space to do homework, to avoid ‘polluting’ their dorm space and to preserve that as their home and their social space. The quick access to media and resources is beneficial, but I think the coffee shop has as much to offer the student working their way through their physics work or drafting up their term paper. I was a college student when computers were ubiquitous, but the internet was new, and laptops were the exception. The library then had no coffee shop, no ubiquitous wifi, no mobile devices in every backpack or even for checkout from the circulation desk. The library then was a place to do research, or to find quiet isolation, or you’d stop in the computer lab to check email. The traffic patterns are very different. The available technologies and amenities are different. And above all, the students are different. Your microportrait captures a lot of those embedded shifts.

  9. Great narrative here, and one I am familiar with. My 21-year-old did not really like high school and concerned for his future, we basically forced him to go to a nearby state school. That didn’t work out either and he dropped/flunked out after a little over a year. He’s now thinking about moving to Europe, working on a farm and embedding himself in a socialist society.

    My daughter, who is also a senior this year, likes learning, but has not enjoyed certain aspects of school, but has generally liked school. But she’s been at a private school where there’s more than just lip service to learning. But . . . there’s still too much homework, too little understanding of learning as a science and more. She’s off to California next year to a small school where I hope she’ll continue to explore learning.

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