As an ex primary school teacher and now in my university role, I often get asked by parents about educationally ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ things to do – how can I best teach my child at home? how much homework should he or she have? What about screen time … how much is too much? My child isn’t progressing at school, what should I do?
Prof Garry Falloon: "It’s just as important to understand how your child learns as it is to know what should be learnt".
There’s no doubt these are all important concerns for parents, but answering them is not easy. You may want to ask the question, "is there a right way to teach children?", but it’s my view that the question itself needs to be rethought. I’m sure we can all recall times in our own education where despite being ‘taught’ something, we didn’t learn anything. That is, what was taught did not make sense to us, or was not presented in a way that we could engage with and convert into useful knowledge.
Therefore, turning the question on its head to focus on learning I think is useful here. Put simply, teaching relates to inputs while learning relates to outputs, and as we all know, the former doesn’t necessarily lead to the latter! So, my new question would be something like this, ‘how can we best help children learn’? But this new question is no easier to answer.
Is your child a doer, listener or seer?
The bottom line is that children learn in different ways. What works for one, may not work for others. What we do know is that learning results from the various interactions and experiences we are exposed to – as we gather and assimilate information using our senses, building new, or adding to existing knowledge and understandings.
Screen time: most children have no trouble concentrating when it comes to spending time on digital devices.
Historical research points to individuals’ different learning preferences or ‘styles’ as being more or less effective in this process. These include kinaesthetic learners (‘doers’); aural learners (‘listeners’) and visual learners (‘seers’). More recently, ‘readers and writers’ has been added to the list, recognising those for whom text and writing appears to be most effective.
For parents, it’s just as important to understand how your child learns as it is to know what should be learnt. Observe your child closely. Spend time with them while they play. Take note of what seems to engage them the most - how they react to and interact with different stimuli, what generates high levels of concentration, how they respond to information delivered in different ways, and so on. This knowledge is useful for working out the best type of learning experiences to provide for your child, and telling your child’s teacher about your observations might also help them learn better in the classroom.
Of course, most children love digital devices and have no trouble concentrating when it comes to them! But increasingly research is telling us too much screen time can be detrimental for everyone, especially young children. However, I’m not so sure this can be exclusively defined by hours and minutes. It’s not just how long you spend on a device, it’s what you do while you are spending it. Appropriate use is a matter of quality, not just quantity – and devices are just one part of a balanced range of experiences children should be exposed to.
Expert teachers are seldom recognised
Thinking about this in relation to schools, one quickly realises the complex and demanding job teachers have. In their classrooms will be up to 30 (or more) students of hugely diverse abilities, backgrounds, experiences and learning needs - each with their own unique combination of preferences that somehow need to be accommodated. Of course, achieving this for every student is a very difficult task.
Experts: Teachers create programs rich in learing experiences to meet the needs and preferences of up to 30 students.
Through my research work in primary schools, I am privileged to work alongside some amazing teachers. Their principal concern is to do the best for their students, often in the most challenging of circumstances. These teachers know their students – what makes them tick, what turns them on - and off, what challenges them, when to step in, and when to leave them to solve problems themselves. They are expert ‘readers’ of their class. They avoid the ‘one size fits all’ approach. They are expert designers – thoughtfully crafting programs that include a variety of rich learning experiences to meet the needs and preferences of their students, enabling them to achieve and display their potential in different ways and forms. To me, this is quality teaching for quality learning.
We need more expert teachers, but unfortunately their skills are seldom recognised by education systems that almost exclusively define ‘learning success’ by standardised test scores.
Test scores are only part of the story
The digital tools we now have access to can help us here, by communicating evidence of different achievements in different ways. e-Portfolios, for example, allow students to curate and digitally share visual and text-based information on their achievements and progress in different areas, over time.
They can be very effective for communicating a more holistic picture of what students can do, and the progress they have made. While test scores are an important part of reporting the results of learning, they should not be the only part. If we really are serious about helping children learn better, we need to take a good look at how better learning is recognised.
Garry Falloon is a Professor of Digital Learning and Internationalisation Lead in the Department of Educational Studies.