Home-schooling. Once again during this pandemic, the term everywhere.
But it’s a poor description of what parents and teachers ought to be doing together to help children to learn at home while primary schools have to be closed to most of them.
Why? Because primary schools are complicated organisations, and they work in a very specific way. You’ll remember some of that from your own school days. There are lessons and breaks, classrooms and desks, rules and rewards, teachers and learners.
It’s like that for some very important, but quite practical reasons. Every teacher has to manage the learning of a class of around thirty children, all at the same time. There’s a really full curriculum that every teacher has to teach, and every child has to be taught, and there are never enough resources to go around.
What’s more – and this is really important – each learner in the class is completely different from every other learner, with her own ideas about how she wants to learn, what she wants to learn about, and how she wants to turn out.
And the teachers? They’ve been carefully trained to work inside that strange organisation called school, and all of them are used to managing that class of children and planning learning for them.
Good teachers – and there are many – know just how to plan a lesson so that every child learns from it. The best ones can tweak a lesson as it’s happening, so that nobody gets left behind. Like other professionals, teachers use a precise technical vocabulary to describe what they do, and their own jargon, too, when they talk among themselves.
Now, though, they’re learning as they go, modifying their skills at short notice to teach their class at a distance, through you, an already busy parent.
Perhaps, by now, you’re beginning to see why home-schooling isn’t the term we should be choosing to use for what children, parents, and teachers are trying to achieve just now.
It’s not schooling, and neither should it be. Home-learning might be a better way to describe it, because home isn’t school, and that’s a distinction that teachers must become aware of when they send out work, and parents must acknowledge when they set out to help their child to learn.
During this latest lockdown, I’ve been lucky enough to see some examples of learning materials sent out by a different primary schools to support home-learning.
In all of them, it’s easy to see that teachers are working hard to keep children’s interest, even though school closure is a serious and difficult thing to get to grips with.
In all the material that I’ve seen, there are opportunities for those important online face-to-face sessions with the teacher, and there are engaging and interesting ideas for activities, too – making a model, doing a survey, using the Internet to find out about things, for example.
But just as can happen back in school, there are a lot of worksheets, too, and sometimes instructions for parents read more like school lesson plans than helpful guidance for worried mums and dads.
So, what can teachers and parents do to make the job of home-learning easier?
For teachers, the first step is to acknowledge that most parents are not professional educators. They have to fit your work around the thousand and one other things they have to do to keep their family together, but, in spite of that, they’ll still try hard to do what you’re asking, and feel guilty if they think they’ve fallen short.
The upshot should be that less is more. Give fewer directions, but more ideas, fewer worksheets, but more open-ended activities, less “let’s pretend that your kitchen table is a school desk.” and more “what can you learn from what’s going on at home?”.
And for parents? First of all, stop worrying. If you’re unsure about anything, only connect. Use whatever channels the school has set up, to contact them with your questions. Ask about anything that puzzles you, share your ideas, check that you’re going the right way.
You can take a lot of control of how you tackle home-learning materials, too. All good teachers know that it’s talk that promotes learning. Those precious, focused conversations between adult and child open doors to good learning that worksheets and written exercises simply can’t unlock.
So, go ahead. If you find the volume of what’s coming home from school overwhelming, or if there are too many worksheets and not enough ideas for activities, look at them carefully and change them, or even cut them down if you have to.
See if you can work out what skill it is that the teacher wants your child to learn. Once you know that, you can think up your own learning activities for that same skill and use those instead. Is there a daunting sheet of multiplication problems, for example?
Do something real together instead. Scale up a recipe, work out how long it’s going to be before you need to buy more bath-bubbles, or how many trees you’ll have to chop down to make the blocks you need for a wall in the Minecraft computer game.
Nothing horrible will happen if you decide to approach the home-learning in a different way or cut some of it out. But do capture what you have helped your child to achieve and send it in to school – photograph making that cake, video that discovery walk, record the poem you composed together. That way, your child’s teacher will have the keys to plan your child’s next steps in learning.
We all hope that it won’t be long until schools open their doors to all children again. Until then, above all, keep this quote of Lev Vygotsky’s in your mind: “Language is the tool of tools.”
Talk about learning with your child.