I first wish to state categorically that I fully support teachers; this article is in no way a criticism of teachers or schools. It’s merely a glimpse at some of the challenges faced by parents as they navigate the ongoing education of their offspring.
Let me explain what happened the other day. My youngest is nine years old, so her learning requires a fair amount of parental participation. Last week we had to learn how to read the time on an analogue clock. I was confused, as I remember teaching her this very thing during the first lockdown. So why were we doing it all over again?
Then it occurred to me that she may not have seen another analogue clock since. I don’t really like clocks and we don’t have any in the house (I prefer to live free from their tyrannical ticking; the digital cooker clock is the primary timepiece). So I found a wristwatch to help her to visualise an actual ticking clock, but it had Roman numerals – which didn’t help in the slightest.
In the end, she declared the whole thing to be “nothing short of witchcraft”. She didn’t understand why she needed to decipher the mysterious movements of two ever-moving hands, when she could simply access the information on a digital clock. I also struggled to find the relevance. Is the analogue clock about to be relegated to antiquity? Nothing more than an archaic attempt to organise humanity?
What other aspects of her learning might be surplus to requirements? Now that I’m the one doing the actual teaching, maybe it is time to prune back on the curriculum. Perhaps our time could be better spent? After all, those two hours of analogue witchcraft is time neither of us will ever get back.
The majority of parents are not teachers. I acknowledge that, until now I’d completely taken education for granted – happily sending my children off to learn all kinds of things within the classroom walls. But now this responsibility has come back to me and it’s overwhelming. This is not just a case of checking a few spellings or making a rocket out of toilet rolls. This is weeks of actual teaching. Taking a subject, explaining it, doing examples, reinforcing the knowledge and correcting mistakes.
We would all argue the necessity of a thorough grounding in mathematics, understanding the world around us as we learn about science and the ability to comprehend and express ideas through language. Yet what happens when the methodology and language of these subjects become so enmeshed in their own technicalities that it renders them incomprehensible?
Surely there are some things which we just do not need to know. For example, I don’t understand how my car works, but that doesn’t prevent me from driving. Michael Rosen recently criticised “fronted adverbials” in a letter printed in The Guardian. This is a term which has proven to be especially taxing to this new army of ‘supply teachers’. I would argue that, as parents, we have lost touch with the complexities of the primary school curriculum.
Returning to the lesson about the witchcraft clock, our first task was to watch a video. It discussed how we need to understand time in order to gauge how long a journey would take. Yet, I don’t believe that there is a parent or carer in the land who hasn’t repeatedly explained how long a journey’s going to take, especially when the destination is much anticipated. Surely this sort of learning is absorbed via everyday interaction?
Children are hardwired to soak up information and it’s bewildering to discover just how contradictory the present curriculum appears to be. On the one hand, children are expected to dismantle the English language down into its most basic and technical components. On the other hand, they’re treated as being entirely ignorant of even everyday processes. How can children hope to succeed within this educational framework?
The tension between these educational expectations further widens the gap between families and schools. Modern parents are alienated by a curriculum that teachers are finding harder to deliver in a meaningful manner.
And what about the frantic parental learning of IT skills? Yes, it’s true that smartphones are very clever at telling us whether it’s snowing in Peru today … but managing to negotiate the school apps and websites is quite another matter. How many of us have working printers? For, as much as we all want to go paperless, when it comes to primary school learning, having a hard copy of the worksheet is often the best way (nobody wants to spend half an hour laboriously copying out a full page of long multiplication!).
Directly editing digital documents is an option, but this requires the adult to download, save, edit, re-save and upload the document back onto the school page. This may be OK with a laptop or desktop, if you’re familiar with the process, but what if the child is working from a tablet, or even a phone? I cannot speak for everyone else, but I know my phone seems to have its own secret directory for saving documents – I can save things just fine, but can I find them? No.
There’s been no training for parents or grandparents on how to navigate this software and it can be very daunting. Lack of IT-confidence, combined with incomprehension of the subjects themselves, simply undermines the hard work that the teachers are putting in. It’s hard to ask for help, and for many people (myself included), it’s hard to admit that you don’t understand your child’s work. So, we try our best to go it alone, getting more and more disillusioned with every step.
The teachers at my primary school are doing outstanding work to reach as many families as they can at this difficult time. They do daily videos to introduce the work, and they have Zoom sessions available in case the children need to ask questions, or if they just want to wave at the friends for half an hour. The work is marked and returned promptly with helpful feedback. I could not ask for more.
Yet, with the best will in the world, many children are falling vastly behind (with, or without, laptops). Then I think about those fronted adverbials and wonder if falling behind is such a bad thing. A friend told me that she’s been homeschooling her grandchildren and has faced many challenges as she attempts to keep them motivated. Their favourite lesson is once they have ‘clocked off’ on a Friday and they all bake together. Then they learn the valuable skills of weighing, reading the recipe, learning about ingredients and safety in the kitchen.
Now, I don’t know about you, but just as I don’t understand how my car works, I’m also ignorant of the chemical processes that transform sugar, flour, butter and eggs into a tasty cake … but it’s never stopped me from baking and eating one. So perhaps this is the kind of mystical process that will inspire our children, allow them to move away from extended noun clauses and get involved in the most magical adventure of all … living in the real world.