Keep calm and carry on learning – Part 7

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Equality of learning in lockdown …

In the seventh in a series of blog posts, Dr Verity Jones, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE, and Online Project Lead considers some of the challenges families from disadvantaged groups are facing in lockdown and what is needed to combat these inequalities.

Nine weeks in…

 … here in England things are changing. We’re now allowed to sit in a park and have a picnic. We can have as much exercise as we like and even go to garden centres. The first steps of returning to ‘normality’ are tentatively taking shape. However, the outlook for young people to return to schools and colleges is not on the horizon and our youth continue to be home schooled.

For some youngsters home schooling is working. Lessons are emailed in, downloaded and supported by parents and carers. However, there has been and continues to be a disproportionate impact of Covid19.

Home schooling has been dominated by online access. Week after week we welcome more organisations supporting online learning with free access to their resources, daily online activities and a social media frenzy of ideas to keep young people engaged while stuck at home. This blog has done its fair share of sharing such websites. But what about those who haven’t got access to the internet?

This week, the Good Law Project has argued that the reliance on online learning during lockdown is illegally disadvantaging some young learners who don’t have access to tablets and laptops and inadequate broadband. If hardware is available it may be shared by the family and pupils won’t have access to it for school work when they need it.

Add to this how greater numbers of lower income families, in what tend to be  more densely populated homes, are having to turn to food banks. Those pupils who would normally receive free school meals are having to negotiate new systems and pressures to ensure they have food.   In such circumstances it is not surprising that these groups have been the most harshly hit by the virus.

Covid19 has shown the reality of inequality in the UK.

Over the coming weeks it is essential that educational inequalities are addressed else the most vulnerable will become yet more vulnerable. But what intervention would work? Many schools are reporting distributing laptops and tablets to their most disadvantaged pupils, but this doesn’t ensure there is access to broadband or even electricity to support them.  This cannot be the answer.

Our most disadvantaged learners need a clear and supported educational strategy to ensure that the gap in achievement is not increased; every individual needs to be supported in order to meet their potential.

Reopening schools as soon as possible is not the answer.

It needs to be safe for both pupils and staff. Once back, the gaps need to be assessed and the curriculum adjusted. Reform is essential in order to rebalance teacher workload and improve the retention of our teachers so consistency can be maintained for our learners. Reform is essential to rethink the exams and assessments undertaken at all school stages and take account of the inequalities the pandemic has accentuated. We cannot just expect the gaps to grow and mind them.

Our education system needs to be right for all, not just for some. It is failing and will continue to fail if systematic change does not occur. 

Dr Verity Jones is Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Online Learning Project Lead and Acting Associate Head of Department for Learning, Teaching and Student Experience.

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Learning at home – what has previous educational research said?

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The closure of schools as a result of Covid 19 has led to many parents and carers having to take a greater role in their children’s education. Dr Jane Andrews, Associate Professor (Education) at UWE discusses a selection of published research articles which explore different aspects of learning at home for children in early years and primary education.

The arrival of Covid 19 has meant that home schooling or learning at home has been much discussed and there has been a sharing of ideas and experiences on social media and in news stories.  The stories have ranged from the serious, such as a consideration of the impact on children’s learning given different levels of parental time and access to resources, to the light-hearted, such as observations from parents or carers announcing “we’re having an INSET day today”. It is interesting to note that in his message to the French people about a partial return to normal living from 11th May, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, stated that the opening of nurseries and schools would be a priority. His rationale is a concern for children who do not have access to digital resources to continue their education at home who will be falling behind in their learning. The focus in France on children and their education at this time could lead us to pose questions such as:

  • what can parents or carers do to support their children’s learning at home?
  • what knowledge and resources are needed?
  • is learning with parents or carers the same or different from learning with peers and teachers?

No doubt there are many other questions besides these. However, long before this period of schools’ partial closure and children being given activities to do online or worksheets to complete at home, educational researchers have been exploring the roles of parents or carers in their children’s learning.

The purpose of this blog post is to provide a brief review and discussion of a selection of published research articles which address different dimensions of learning at home. The articles all refer to children in early years and primary education.

The full details of each article are given at the end of the blog post. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these articles in the comments section below this blog post and please share any articles or blog posts which have caught your attention at this time. You might wish to share your thoughts or research which looks at secondary age pupils and their learning out of school.

Learning with teachers or learning with parents and carers – same or different?  

In an article from 1998 Greenhough and Hughes reported on how parents or carers and teachers approached the task of listening to young children read (the children were aged between 5 and 7). Distinctive differences were noted between parents’ or carers’ and teachers’ ways of engaging with children as they read.  The researchers were careful not to judge which strategies were more effective but, rather, they teased out patterns of interaction evident in the transcripts of teachers and parents or carers talking to their children during reading. These patterns were possibly surprising. Parents or carers tended to focus their talk on helping children with decoding the words in the text. Teachers, on the other hand, used more “conversing”, a term used by the researchers to describe talking about the text as a whole, including linking the text with children’s own experiences. These different strategies might go against what we might expect. Wouldn’t we expect decoding and “getting it right” to be what’s done at school? Might we not imagine linking reading with shared life experiences to be more naturally done in the home environment?    

What might this research mean? The researchers suggest that it may be useful for children’s development as readers if parents or carers are supported in trying out a wider range of strategies when listening to their children read. The implication is that parents or carers would be better off not seeing themselves as “being the teacher” when listening to their child read. Instead, there are roles they can play which will be of benefit for children’s reading which also fit better with their relationship with their child. Chatting about texts and linking to shared experiences (e.g. talking about pictures and asking children about them) should not be undervalued or neglected when we are considering how to develop positive skills and dispositions in reading.

One-way traffic from school to home?

The next article I want to reflect on is by Jackie Marsh from 2003 and it explores the literacy practices (e.g. reading, imaginative play, mark making) of 3 and 4 year old children at home and compares whether these literacy practices overlap with the kinds of literacy activities and texts used at school. The first part of the article discusses a rich range of activities and engagement with text at home (as reported by parents) which all tended to revolve around popular culture and media texts e.g. play stimulated by TV programmes or characters from films such as Toy Story 2. Marsh’s discussion then moves onto considering the kinds of literacy activities these same children experienced when at nursery. The key difference appeared to be that the nursery was stocked with picture books which are described as “a canon of well-loved texts” but there were no popular culture books such as books based on Disney films or TV tie-in books. Does this difference matter? Jackie Marsh believes that it does and she suggests that children’s literacy experiences could be further supported if the texts they are familiar with and love at home could be acknowledged and included in their learning at nursery. The line of argument is that all literacy practices are valuable and should be shared across the settings of home and nursery. Conversely there is a message that educators should resist following a “one-way traffic” model of sending nursery books home without asking about or encouraging children to share what they engage with spontaneously in their homes.

The home as a learning environment

The final paper which I have been reflecting on recently comes from Iram Siraj-Blatchford who is known for her large scale, longitudinal studies into learning in the early years in homes and in early years settings and schools. The specific article I find fascinating was published in 2010 and explores the impact of children’s “home learning environment” on their later school achievement. This is a complex study but some key messages shine through regarding which activities are seen to be most beneficial for children and parents or carers to engage with at home.  The beneficial activities are (helpfully) simple ones and are as follows:

  • frequent story reading
  • trips to the library
  • playing with numbers
  • painting and drawing
  • being taught letters and numbers
  • singing songs
  • learning and reciting poems and rhymes

What can we conclude?

It is interesting to note that each of these 3 articles highlights how activities engaged with at home are very valuable for children’s learning in their own right. There is a value of a style of learning at home which is not just a mirror image of (teaching and) learning at school. Clearly we are in different times at the moment with enforced closure of schools and nurseries for many children, with parents and carers finding themselves leading or guiding learning at home and structuring the daily activities.

My concluding thought is that parents and carers should not necessarily feel they have to forget how they usually engage with their children and turn home life into a form of school. There will be continuing benefits for parents and carers to engage with their children in informal activities which they all want to give time to!

References

Greenhough, P. & Hughes, M. (1998) Parents’ and Teachers’ Interventions in Children’s Reading in British Educational Research Journal, 24/4, 383-398

Marsh, J. (2003) One-way Traffic? Connections between Literacy Practices at Home and in the Nursery in British Educational Research Journal, 29/3, 369-382

Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2010) Learning in the home and at school: how working class children ‘succeed against the odds’ in British Educational Research Journal, 36/3, 463-482

Photograph by Annie Spratt at Unsplash