Supporting your child’s learning at school from home
“What did you do at school today?”
More than almost any other question asked to me and my peers from parents at the beginning of a school year is ‘What can I do to help my child learn’ or variants thereof. Unfortunately, whether you are the parent of a four year old or a fifteen year old the exchange above is no doubt familiar. It is the default response to such a question. How am I? I’m ok. How was my day? It was alright. What did I do? Not much. Being a young newly qualified teacher myself, I have firm memories of such conversations with my own parents throughout school, and only now have begun to see the un-helpfulness of my manners. Not only for how rarely it must have satisfied my parents’ curiosities, but also as to how little credit it gave my teachers.
Now experiencing first-hand the knife-edge which is creating an interesting, engaging and creative curriculum whilst simultaneously ensuring quality links to the National Requirements, it would certainly be down-heartening to say the least to have all that is remembered for the sweat and toil of planning to be ‘Nothing really’. And, yet, I know no matter how hard I try, no matter what new-fangled tactics I use and hip and happening my planning; no matter how much ICT is shoehorned into a day or how much drama or games are played, there will always be days when a child will respond exactly in this way.
The possible reasons for this are many, and surely no two children would share the exact same ones, and so pondering the psychology may be as futile as it seems impossible. This is especially apparent when we consider what, in fact, is the more important question. This is, of course, what can we do about this apparent apathy? How can the feeling of being engaged in learning be brought forward to the home environment, and then how can these skills be transferred back into school? Unfortunately, such as is the nature of human beings let alone children, the necessary tactics which apply to one child may be completely different than those which apply to another. At first discovering an ultimate cure-all for bridging the gap between school-based learning and home seems as impossible a goal as deciphering the reason for the existence of the gap to begin with, but not all is lost.
A teacher’s planning has been shifting continuously over the years from the whole class to the individual pupil, and quite rightly so. Individual Education Profiles and the ever increasingly popular buzzword of ‘differentiation’ have encouraged a class to be seen as a room full of individuals each with their own needs, talents and input to provide to the learning of the day. In this regard the children’s learning at school should endeavour to be tailor made for that child. A child in the class who is fascinated by dinosaurs will associate more with and potentially learn more from activities with a dinosaur theme than, say, a pirate theme, and vice versa. Of course, in a classroom environment, there may be the need for the ultimatum: Pirate or Dinosaur? And therefore one day’s lesson may by necessity be more accessible to some children than others. In this case it is the parents’ job which appears easier. The parent of the child will have the best knowledge of what will enthral their child, and in this case the judgement of the parent is paramount. If the child has been learning with Pirates all day when they really want to learning with Dinosaurs, then attempting to cement the knowledge learned with Pirates, too, at home, is not going to have much of an impact. Instead, the parent will know exactly how to get their child interested, and can approach with a far more focused ideal.
THE WORLD IS INTERESTING
This is where I bring up what I believe is the single most key feature which will play a part in linking the learning at home and the learning at school: interest. Curiosity, regardless of how many cats it has been claimed to have killed, is a wonderful thing in a child of any age. Indeed, curiosity can be seen as the polar opposite of the apathy thought to have been witnessed in the mock conversations portrayed at the beginning of this article. It is the spark which urges us all to learn. It is, at its heart, the truest want to learn: the desire to know more of the world.
Research may sound like a scary word, especially coming from an Early Years specialist who is claiming it is a sensible subject to use with a class of rising fives. Indeed, the curriculum itself does not put much if any specific emphasis on research until Key Stage Two, and to many the word conjures in the mind thoughts of late nights poring over textbooks with copious amounts of coffee or energy drinks. This hardly seems the sort of thing to encourage in five year olds.
However, every time you have watched a film and wanted to find out what the name of that actor was, what films he had been in; every time you hear half a song lyric and want to know to what it belongs; every time you have typed a query into Google or a name into Wikipedia: this is research: this is you finding a subject that interests you and your own innate curiosity demanding you learn more. Moreover, I will bet you remember better those seemingly random factoids which arose from your own initiative than much of what you were forced to learn in formal education.
This, surely is the crux of the matter and what is at the heart of everything said so far. A child is unlikely to want to learn to read to discover what colour mat Sam sat on today. If, however, a two year old wants more than anything to discover more about dinosaurs, then nothing is going to stop them until they have learned to read and pronounce Tuojiangosaurus and then drawn you a labelled diagram of its skull.
YOUR CHILD’S WORLD
Not everything will be interesting to a five year old or a fifteen year old anymore than everything is interesting to a thirty year old or a fifty year old. But something will be. The world is amazing, whether it be mechanics or nature or outer space, something will grab your child’s attention. Finding that thing will lead to all kinds of wonderful learning experiences. As parents, you have the wonderful advantage of watching your child grow, year after year, and your relationship with that child will be greater than any teacher. As you may have guessed from this article, my ‘interesting thing’ growing up was dinosaurs. My parents saw this, and everything else built from it. I learned to read so I could learn more about them. I learned to use libraries and computers to enhance my knowledge. I learned about public transport travelling to the Natural History Museum, and safety lessons so I could be trusted to traverse the great building at my own pace, taking in the exhibits. Gross motor skills in playing T-Rex with my brother, and fine motor skills in playing Jurassic Park on the Playstation.
None of this had any bearing on the subjects I was taught in school. Dinosaurs were not and (sadly) are still not specifically part of the curriculum. But that didn’t and doesn’t matter. I didn’t just learn about Dinosaurs at home; I learned to learn at home. That same way I researched of my own accord with my parents’ support was now applicable to everything I ever did or will do at school. No longer a chore, research becomes fun, whatever the topic, being bitten by the bug of curiosity. My parents kept in contact with my teachers, and together my personal curriculum was able to build upon my interests and skills. My learning at home was supporting my learning at school.
LET YOUR CHILD FIND THE WORLD INTERESTING IN THEIR WAY.
As parents, you may never get any more than ‘Not much’ in reply to your questions about your child’s day at school, and this is fine. You may have had the best day at work ever, but you might not want to take it home with you. There is nothing wrong with separating these worlds. You still want to support your child’s learning; of course you do. You want the best for your child, for them to achieve. To do this you need not worry about matching word for word the current relevant curriculum area. Of course, homework is an important part of revising subjects discretely, and I am in no way suggesting that it should be ignored. I am, however, saying that rattling out the times tables for four hours a night is hardly going to be supporting and encouraging that spark your child feels for that special something: that thing your child longs to learn about more than anything: that thing which will provide the self-sufficiency and skills which will be applicable to everything they will face in school and in adult life. Unless that thing is times tables. In which case, rattle away.
So, when parents ask me what they can best do to support their children’s learning at home, this is what I tell them. Keep your child interested, independent and engaged. Read with them. Help them to research what interests them using books and ICT. Take them to museums they will enjoy and find interesting. Encourage that spark of curiosity at home, and it will shine in school, no matter their age.