Dr Sarah Charles, Head of the Institute of Education at the University of Derby

Stressed about structure when home schooling? 

In the quest to prevent stagnation, or indeed regression of learning, teachers across the nation have spent endless hours on the production and distribution of physical learning packs or are planning, developing and delivering online learning content to support home learning/schooling.

A quick scan of social media sites highlights that teachers are not alone in this quest and a vast number of celebrities and companies are also pumping out content to engage learners of all ages.

However, whilst good intentions underpin this drive of the production of educational materials, this is causing some parents / care-givers to suffer overload with many reporting that they are now feeling overwhelmed and stressed about what resources to use.

This is compounded further by conflicting messages, from an array of educationalists, regarding expectations of the number of hours children should spend on learning tasks and the organisation of these. But for parents / care-givers who are, themselves, trying to work from home, how realistic are these suggestions?

Autonomous learning

While the need for home-schooling prevails, parents/care-givers are likely to employ a number of approaches. The first approach aligns itself to the principles of autonomous learning.

Here, parents/care-givers will pass the responsibility of learning over to their children – children deciding their own learning, completed within their own time frames, resonating with Plato’s ‘Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness but direct them to what amuses their minds’.

Advocates of this approach argue that the emphasis here is very much on learning rather than teaching-the role of the parent educator being to support, advise and encourage rather than to direct, determine or test.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking this an easy approach to learning at home.

This is not a ‘leave them to their own devices’ approach or ‘let them watch TV all day’ approach. To be effective, a level of support is still needed, as are resources, and children need to possess the desire to learn, be self-motivated, need to be disciplined, resourceful and organised – let them investigate, explore, create.

Structured educational approach

Other parents/care-givers will implement a more structured home-schooling/learning approach which mirrors the formal education system to which most child will return. Within this system, the usual structure of a school day is followed, with children undertaking distinct curriculum subject learning designed around a timetable. 

As discussed in my previous blog, most children respond well to structure and routine.

However, if you do follow this structured approach to home-schooling/learning some flexibility is still needed. Avoid over managing learning time.

Even if you formulate a timetable, be prepared for some activities take longer than anticipated and be prepared for learning to spark new lines of enquiry/learning that your children may wish to explore. Allow for spontaneity, all learning is important not just that which was planned or intended.

What is the role you are playing as a parent / care-giver?

Be aware of your role within this structure and how much time you are spending explaining things or talking. Avoid cognitive overload, don’t give too much information or too many instructions at the same time. Chunk explanations down into small, bite sized pieces. The key here is for you to let them do the majority of the talking and to let them engage in active learning not be passive recipients of knowledge.

Think about the types of questions you are asking. Avoid asking too many closed questions which require the basic recall of facts. Ask questions which seek rich descriptions, analysis, interpretation and application of new knowledge in different situations.

Keep learning practical, purposeful and varied. Develop life skills. However, never underestimate the importance of play, for all ages. Downtime is essential for everyone in the household.

In reality, a balanced mix of the two approaches will afford children a positive learning experience, where they feel part of the process.

Trust your instincts

You have been your child’s primary educator since birth, you can do this – don’t over think it, go with your instinct about what is right for your child. Be kind to yourself and your children.

Be realistic about what you can all achieve, each day, and accept that some days will be productive learning experiences while others will not.

Remember, this is likely to be a marathon not a 100m sprint.

Dr Sarah Charles, Head of the Institute of Education at the University of Derby

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