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By James Clements, posted on 20th April 2020

Learning at home: What can we learn from teachers?

In a previous post, we’ve looked at some different ways of organising home learning, thinking about how we might structure the day.

Our decisions might be driven by our own deep-seated beliefs about how children learn best, or they might be down to what’s realistic in our own situation. You might have chosen to cover as much of the school curriculum as you can, or you might be doing some maths and English in the mornings, or you might be focusing on cooking, writing stories, reading aloud, and playing together.

However you decide to set up learning at home, you’ll want to make the time you have as useful as possible. My job means I’m lucky enough to visit schools all over the country and watch great teachers in the classroom – so here are a few things we might be able to learn from them when we’re helping our children with their learning.

1. Teach to the gaps

All children will have things that they are brilliant at and other things they find tricky. And, of course, they will probably want to spend more time doing things that they are good at than the things they find hard.

The job for us is to focus our limited time on the things that are going to help them the most. So, you might:

  • Ask your child which bits of the curriculum they find hard and spend a bit more time looking at those.
  • Look at the tricky bits at the start of the day, while their brains are fresh.
  • Keep celebrating success and reminding your child of the progress they’re making. Working hard at something difficult and then succeeding is one of the best experiences we can give children.

2. Don’t try and teach all day

You might have discovered this already, but children have a limited attention span and are only likely to be able to concentrate for so long. I know, who’d have imagined it?

In most classrooms, there’s a small section of explanation, perhaps followed by some questions to check they understand, and then time for discussion or independent practice. Even if you’re lucky enough to have all day to work with your children, that might not be the best way to organise things. Short bursts of new learning with plenty of breaks, time to work independently, and space for day-dreaming time are all important if things aren’t going to become a battle.

3. Remember that practice makes perfect

It usually takes some time and practice for us to become really proficient at something. That practice might happen straight after learning (‘Here’s how you find a quarter of the cubes. Now you try and find a quarter of these different amounts.’), but spacing out the practice over time can be even more useful.

So, if they learn to spell ‘necessary’ on Monday, we can ask them to write it again on Tuesday. And again on Wednesday. Then leave it for a day and ask them again on Friday. Then again next the Monday. Then again in two weeks. By spreading things out like this, learning is far more likely to become permanent.

4. Think in ‘moments of learning’

While this might sound like a phrase lifted from a New Age self-help book, it’s a really useful thing to bear in mind for learning at home. The fact is that not everything takes the same amount of time to learn. At school, lessons are the length they are so they can fit neatly into a timetable. At home, some things can be learnt quickly, while others might take a long time.

So, it might be quite quick to learn that animals without backbones are called invertebrates (although we might need to come back to the word itself a few times to make sure it sticks). Learning to use speech marks properly might take much longer, however. It might need to be explained several times, then re-explained when they come to use them in a story later in the week.

If they grasp something quickly, great, move onto the next thing. If they find it hard, don’t be afraid to keep chipping away, even if it takes much longer than you expected.

5. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple

When we’re explaining something to children, it helps to make the explanation as straightforward as possible, without giving them lots of other things to think about at the same time. Too much information in one go can overload them and mean that they end up not learning anything.

Complicated activities that require thinking about lots other things can take away from the main focus, too. If they’re learning how volcanoes work, then watching a film clip, reading a page in a book, talking about the process, or drawing a diagram together are all good ways of learning the science. Building a full working model of a volcano from papier-mâché might be a brilliant art or design-and-technology project, but it might not be the best way to teach science as the attention can soon shift from how volcanoes work to the model-making itself.

It’s always tempting to plan the whizzy, fun activities, but if we ask ‘What do I actually want them to learn?’ first, it can help us to choose the best way to explain something.

6. Use the power of elaboration

Like many professions, teaching has its own special terminology. And just like in other jobs, complicated names are often given to simple ideas.

Elaboration is one of those ideas. It simply means that one of the best ways of making sure that you understand something is to explain it to someone else. If we want to be sure our children have understood something, we could:

  • Ask them to go away and learn about something independently and then teach us about it later (which buys us a few moments of peace and quiet, too!).
  • Ask them to explain a concept to a younger sibling. Remind them they’ll need to use simple language and be really clear (which is a perfect way of making sure they understand the words and ideas).
  • Pause and ask them to summarise something you’ve just been reading together.
  • Write down a really clear explanation. This has the added benefit of practising their writing, too.

7. Don’t forget that we’re all human

Children aren’t learning robots and we can’t simply upload new information to them when it suits us. Learning is an emotional process and our feelings are bound to play a part in how successful learning at home will be.

Successful learning at home is bound to include:

  • Keeping things light and enjoyable as much as possible.
  • Building on your child’s interests and the things they want to learn about.
  • Being realistic about what we can achieve in the time we’ve got.
  • Celebrating success as often as we can.
  • Knowing when to stop for a break and come back to something later.

We might be able to learn some things from teachers at school, but when we’re organising learning at home we don’t have to be teachers. As parents, we have far more freedom and flexibility than schools to tailor what we do so it is right for our children.

Whether you feel confident managing learning at home or whether the whole thing is slightly nerve-wracking, remember that knowing your children is the most useful thing of all. And no one knows them better than you.