The Inadvertent Dangers of Snowplow Schooling.

I stumbled across a great article in the New York Times this week titled How Parents are Robbing Their Children of Adulthood.  It was written in response to the college admission scandal that has swept up all kinds of high income Americans willing to do darn near anything to get their kids into the colleges of their choice.

Photo by Oscar Nilsson on Unsplash

In the article, authors Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwich argue that the people charged in the scandal had gone way beyond helicopter parenting:  

“Helicopter parenting, the practice of hovering anxiously near one’s children, monitoring their every activity, is so 20th century. Some affluent mothers and fathers now are more like snowplows: machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so they don’t have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities.”

Snowplow parenting is an awesome analogy, isn’t it? 

There really ARE, as Julie Lythcott-Haims — the former dean of freshmen at Stanford — argues later in the article,  parents who believe it is their job to prepare the road for their child instead of preparing their child for the road.  If you’ve spent any length of time working in schools, you’ve probably encountered parents chugging ahead like machines in order to clear obstacles — poor grades, difficult assignments, consequences for poor choices — from their children’s path.

But here’s what I’m wrestling with today:  Aren’t teachers and/or schools sometimes just as guilty of plowing obstacles out of the way for our students?

If I’m being honest, I know that is probably true in my classroom.

Here’s an example: I’m super flexible about deadlines and due dates with my students — willing to take work almost anytime.  My reasoning is that our kids live busy lives away from school — so expecting them to always hit every deadline feels unreasonable.  And given that there are seldom rigid deadlines in the professional world that I work in beyond school, it seems hypocritical to demand something different from my students.

Isn’t that a form of snowplow schooling?

Here’s another example:  When my kids are missing work, I do darn near everything to help them to finish the assignments that they haven’t completed.  I make extra copies of necessary materials.  I post reminders on our team’s message board.  I call students aside during my regular class period and point out times when they can come and work on the task.  I give up my lunch period almost every day to create space and time for students to get caught up.

And when a student earns a score on an assignment that they are unhappy with, I create a ton of different opportunities for them to rework those tasks and raise their grades.  Those opportunities range from reworking the original task to choosing from a list of two or three alternative activities that allow students to interact with the same content in a different way.  Several times per quarter, I regrade those tasks or score new work samples in an effort to give every kid as many chances as possible to demonstrate mastery and earn the marks that matter most to them.

Isn’t that a form of snowplow schooling?

Here’s one final example: In the back of my professional mind, I’m trying my durndest to figure out how to make personalized learning a reality.  I really see it as a goal of mine to do a better job of differentiating everything — both based on student interest and ability.  I beat myself up when my lessons are exclusively “one size fits all”, even though I am often overwhelmed by the incredible academic, social and economic diversity in each and every classroom.  I feel like a failure because I couldn’t find some lesson or strategy to engage every single kid in my classroom.

Isn’t that a form of snowplow schooling?

Now I get it:  This isn’t an “all or nothing” conversation.

Teachers can create a supportive environment for students AND help the kids in their classrooms to become independent, responsible learners all at the same time.  That’s the professional sweet spot that we all shoot for, isn’t it?

But I do think that some of the core practices that I believe in deeply — lots of reworks, flexible deadlines, differentiated lessons based on interest and ability — could inadvertently rob my students of life lessons that they will need in adulthood if I’m not careful.  My goal has to be to pair those practices with deliberate instruction in — and ongoing feedback around — the development of skills like project planning and scheduling and in work behaviors like punctuality and responsibility and determination to “go beyond the basics.”

Any of this make sense to you? 

What are you doing to maintain balance between preparing your classroom for your kids and preparing your kids for your classroom?  How are you ensuring that you aren’t leaning too far in either direction?


Related Radical Reads:

Waiting to be Torched. . .


Pushing Back the Flames. . .


Separating Work Behaviors from Academics


And I Repeat: I’m Not Preparing Kids for High School. . .


5 thoughts on “The Inadvertent Dangers of Snowplow Schooling.

  1. Patricia Scriffiny

    Thanks for your ideas here. I think they are important and worth exploring. I struggle with this at times too. Where is a good line between grace and license? In my more lucid moments, I know that if my structures and guardrails don’t serve the purpose of gradually changing behavior, but rather continuing it, then something is wrong. I don’t always see that effect because I’m not looking (or don’t want to see). But I know it is true.

  2. Matt Townsley

    Bill, you said, “But I do think that some of the core practices that I believe in deeply — lots of reworks, flexible deadlines, differentiated lessons based on interest and ability — could inadvertently rob my students of life lessons that they will need in adulthood if I’m not careful.”

    You know how much I believe in standards-based grading practices which includes permitting students to redo, reassess, etc. beyond the typical arbitrary deadlines for learning set in classrooms. At the core, I believe students learn at different rates, therefore I think our grading and assessment practices should mirror this ideal. In my mind, a better question might be how can teachers NOT use flexible deadlines given what we know about our learners? What is your gut reaction to this nudge?

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Matt,

      I totally believe in reworks. Have for a long time. For lots of reasons.

      But I really am struggling to find balance. One of the interesting trends that I have seen is kids who don’t bother to try at all on first attempts because they know that our school has a required rework policy. So they do the bare minimum and hope that it is good enough to earn a grade that they can be satisfied with. If so, win! If not, then they ask for a rework and try the second time around.

      I’m certain that’s not the initial reasoning behind rework policies — but it is a real side effect for many of my students.

      I’ve tried lots of things — requiring proof of practice before being able to tackle a demonstration of mastery, requiring lots of additional (and often harder) practice before a rework can be taken — but none of them seem to work and all of them result in tons more “assessing” for me.

      Not sure what the solution is — but I do know that there needs to be a solution because I’m working a helluva’ lot harder now, but I’m not sure that my students are.


  3. Sarah Rachelle Sprouse

    Can you share a copy of your work behaviors rubric? The links in the articles have not worked. We are moving towards SBG policies and are looking for something similar to include. Thank you.

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