Parent-child learning conversations in action

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Some schools are reducing teacher workload and boosting parental engagement by scrapping homework and moving to a system of ‘Learning Conversations’. Fiona Aubrey-Smith explains

Recently, I’ve been having very similar conversations with a number of schools about the frustrations of “homework”. They generally go along the lines of:

  • The teachers: “Yet more work and for what benefit?”
  • The children: “What! More writing?”
  • The parents: “It’s a battleground to get it done, and what’s the point?”

However, a few innovative approaches from other schools have tackled this cleverly – maximising learning time, reducing staff workload, avoiding pressurising families and, most importantly, extending children’s learning.

A great example has been to facilitate “Learning Conversations” between children and their families that run in parallel to what is happening during school time. The idea is simple, but effective. It completely replaces homework, has much more impact on children’s learning (and on your school’s parental engagement), and goes something like this...

Learning Conversations

First, when teachers plan for the week ahead, they identify as part of their normal planning the key learning themes. This might be life-cycle stages (science), 2D shapes and their properties (maths), repeating patterns (music), famous poems (English), multiple points of contact when balancing (PE), sequential thinking (computing), or what the Romans did for us (history).

Second, the teacher reviews their weekly planning and identifies which day each theme is going to be introduced. They then create one or two sentence prompts for children to continue their learning at home with their families. A list of these prompts is then produced as a separate document and made available to parents on the Monday ready for the week ahead. See the example printed below.

There are key rules for the Learning Conversations that make it different to traditional homework. First, all activities should be entirely verbal or practical – with the emphasis on either the child telling their families what they have learned in school (thus consolidating learning, revising facts or raising misconceptions), or opening up opportunities to extend what they have learned in school (debating key ideas, extending knowledge, utilising parent expertise, looking things up at home in books or online).

The emphasis is on extending and consolidating learning through thinking, not being dependent on writing, recording, making or producing.

Second, all activities should be no longer than 10 minutes, but be framed in such a way that if the child is particularly interested they could extend further (e.g. longer conversations, looking up areas of interest). This avoids pressure on family time, but facilitates children and their families extending learning.

Third, nothing should need marking, or require teachers to review “content”. This reduces teacher workload and importantly keeps the emphasis on this being about facilitating learning at home – rather than children doing stuff at home which they then have to “report back” to school (which suggests to children and families that learning only counts if it’s reported at school…).

Fourth, the activities should be sent home fresh each day (ideal), or sent home on a Monday as a list showing the activity for each day that week. The best way is via your school-home text or email service (give the school office your weekly list with your class name at the top). Or quick and easy ways of doing this in-class are either small slips of paper, or if you have a classroom on the playground having an easel or poster up with that day’s activity.

Fifth, encourage families to make these activities part of family time – great times for verbal learning conversations are over dinner, in the car or walking to/from school, during bath time, etc. This is a valuable contribution to improving the quality of family life for many children, and opens up all kinds of opportunities for developing relationships and increasing parental understanding, as well as supporting the child’s education. The activities are good stimuli for engaging conversations, and should not require specific time to be set aside (which traditional homework requires and which causes many problems between children and parents).

The key to this is making sure parents have quick access to the activities on the day that the children cover them – so that instead of parents asking “what did you do today?” and the child typically replying “nothing”, the parent can say: “As you’ve been learning about life-cycles today, could you teach me about what each of the stages are...”

The child replies, in the mantle of expert, naming the stages, and the parent has then learned about the child’s day, as well as the “homework” being completed. This strengthens the child’s learning through revision, as well as closing the gap between family engagement and the child’s education.

Sixth, where schools do this particularly well, they use home-school dialogue effectively, with parents just writing a note about what the child said/thought/did in the Learning Conversation activity – e.g. noting any difficulties or misconceptions, identifying any areas where the child seemed particularly knowledgeable, or where they had completely forgotten what was covered in school. This kind of informal feedback can be invaluable for the teacher when planning next steps in class.

Most schools used something similar to a Reading Diary to capture these notes to ensure dated, specific and short feedback from parents which kept any associated teacher workload to a minimum.

Some schools stapled the weekly list of Learning Conversation topics into the Reading Diary each Monday and replaced it the following Monday which avoided sheets getting lost. However, it is important to be clear at the outset that these are informal, verbal activities, and that this home-school written dialogue is optional.

The benefits

For the schools that have abolished traditional homework and undertaken this approach, it has been used across the whole school. The main benefits are:

  • For children: they don’t see it as homework and are glad to be able to engage with their families about what they are doing all day.
  • For families: they have specific prompts to open up dialogue with their children and find out more about their lives and learning.
  • For teachers: they have less preparation and marking.
  • For headteachers: they have reported that family engagement has risen and that relationships and dialogue between home and school have improved.

Other considerations

For children who have families with limited education themselves, this approach can be a great tool for gentle pastoral support. However, do ensure that the activities given are thoughtfully framed and supported with examples and answers. Some parents feel antagonised by their child if they feel expected to know something (e.g. they might not have great maths skills themselves).

For children who don’t have access to people beyond school who would be willing to engage, then peer partners within school can be a great alternative. Children of different ages love telling each other what they have been learning about and providing 10 minutes, perhaps even as part of play time, is one way to offer inclusivity for these children. Some schools also offer time within their after-school club or wrap-around care where adults or peers are available to do these activities.

For more and most able children, framing the activities as open-ended is a great way to encourage dialogue, and suggesting to parents that they ask questions such as “how do you know?” and “what if...” provides some easy extension without teachers needing to differentiate the activities themselves (to keep teacher workload to a minimum).

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a former school leader and now Doctoral researcher who facilitates a number of national networks. She sits on several MAT boards and is chair of governors at a maintained primary school. Email fionaaubreysmith@googlemail.com. Read her previous best practice pieces for Headteacher Update, at http://bit.ly/2IPHfe4


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