Lockdown teaching and learning: A quick guide for families

Written by: Sean Harris & Sara Davidson | Published:
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Wonderful teacher mr gadd who rang well after 5 to find out how Claude was doing, amazing but I ...

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Feeling daunted by the return to remote teaching? In this two-part series Sara Davidson and Sean Harris look at some of the basic research-informed principles that can help teachers and parents to navigate learning at home. In part two they offer advice for parents/carers

While remote education know-how has increased exponentially over the course of the last year, teachers and parents alike may still feel that blended learning is outside of their comfort zone for many reasons. In these two articles we want to dissect what the research says about effective approaches. We now look at ways in which parents and carers can apply the principles of learning into the home environment. To read the first article in the series, aimed at teaching staff, click here.


Reboot their brain

Teachers are in the business of learning and because of teacher-researchers we now know even more about effective ways to help children learn. However, parents and carers also have a vital role to play in supporting children in managing and computing learning.

Evidence tell us that pupils should encounter new concepts and content on at least two to three occasions before they can really begin to learn it (Karpicke, 2009). Some studies have shown that the most effective teachers understand the value of practice and may start lessons with a five to eight-minute review of what has been previously learned.

Rosenshine (2012) writes, “some teachers reviewed vocabulary, events or previously learned concepts … these teachers provided additional practice on facts and skills that were needed for recall to become automatic”.

As such, while we may not see ourselves as qualified teachers, there are some practical and helpful actionable steps that parents and carers can take to help children review their learning:

  • Ask your child to talk you through aspects of their learning, including that which they have struggled with. It isn’t about providing the answers, but instead this helps you take a note of what they are struggling with so you can communicate this with teachers in school.
  • Ask your child to review two to three concepts or skills that have been practised as part of virtual learning at home. Invite them to teach you about these skills and allow them to be the expert.
  • Invite teachers to share with you the concepts that they want your child to overlearn so that you are aware which topics your child needs to spend more time on. Practice makes permanent – don’t worry about your child learning the same content again and again!


Question, question, question

Questions are a key tool for every parent and educator and you don’t need to be an expert educator to start using expert questions. Professor Dylan Wiliam talks about how effective teachers make use of “hinge questions” to deepen learning (2015).

A hinge question is used by a teacher when a child reaches the “hinge” point in their learning. Usually students’ responses then provide the teacher with valuable evidence about what the children understood, what they struggled with and what the teacher may need to do next.

Teachers are not expecting your house to be filled with hinge-questions, but questions and considerations like those below could be beneficial to help deepen your child’s learning:

  • Ask your child to provide a 60-second summary of something that they have learned from the day or around a given topic.
  • Ask your child to design a multiple-choice quiz based on something they have learned and then get them to test you on it. Repeat it back to them and test them on it a few days later to help the learning stick.
  • Cut an A4 piece of paper into squares. Ask your child to write key words on one side and the definition on the other. Then test your child on the word or definition for five to six-minute sessions to help the learning stick.
  • You could also make use of binary questions (these are the questions that usually require a yes or no answer). Two options are: Do you agree with the statement that… (chose something from their learning resource)? Do you think you will remember this tomorrow?


Megabite their learning

One of the most important concepts for teachers in the modern classroom is that of cognitive load theory (Sweller, 1998). Prof Wiliam has described this as the “single most important thing for teachers to know” (see Shibli & West, 2018).

Research has shown that your child’s learning will be more effective when the information is made more manageable and put into bite-sized chunks or segments. In doing this, it means that your child’s brain is not over-loaded with content, new activities and information all in one go. Your school may assign some amazing activities for your children to do, but this does not mean that they should all be done in one sitting.

Similarly, research has shown that learning in collaboration with others can be really effective if it is done properly. If learning tasks are shared with peers, siblings or even parents then this can help spread the cognitive processes and manage the learning (Kirschner et al 2009).

Consider the following when helping to facilitate home learning for your child and supporting their teachers:

  • Manage the activity schedule for your child and co-design an outline timetable for the day. This will help your child to know what new topics they will access and when. Be mindful of them doing too much in one sitting.
  • Spend a little time at the end of a day reviewing what they are due to learn the next day or recap with them for 10 minutes what learning tasks they did in the day.
  • Make a cup of coffee and take 10 minutes to review any teacher explanations in the resources for subjects you know your child is struggling with. This will mean you are able to more clearly explain it. If in doubt, YouTube et al are filled with some great examples of teachers explaining new concepts.
  • If you are concerned that your child is not able to manage the learning, then speak to their teacher. Remember, teachers are still adjusting to these uncharted times and will appreciate your expertise, as you know your child better than anybody else.


Unplug the distractions

On a similar note to cognitive load theory is the topic of distractions. In the modern world we talk a lot about multi-tasking, but our brains are never actually focusing on two tasks simultaneously, instead they are splitting the focus between the two different tasks. Split attention can be detrimental to quality, memory and the accuracy of instruction. Wood et al (2011) note how attempting to engage in two non-related tasks at once can have a detrimental impact on learning too.

If you want a really interesting example of this then look into the work of Simons and Chabris and their research into inattentional blindness (1999). It is maybe why some of us choose to turn the radio down in our car when we are looking for certain directions.

While you may not have a school classroom annex built onto your apartment or house, you do have control over your home and it can be equally important. Distractions in the home environment can contribute to cognitive overload and split attention, both of which can affect your child’s learning. For example, electronic devices and mobile phones are no doubt a much-needed accessory to some children, but they can also get in the way of learning. Some research has suggested that the actual presence of a mobile phone can even divert our attention, even if we are not looking at it (Hyman et al, 2009).

Consider the following to help support your child’s learning environment:

  • Cutting out additional noise: Your child may tell you that listening to music aids their learning, but it is probably diverting their attention. Consider how often they do this.
  • Create a designated space away from screens or excess noise for your child to focus on some reading or part of their learning.
  • Build time in the day for them to get fresh air and healthy eating. Challenge them to put their phones away, or to only have these at designated times so that they are not having their attention diverted (by social media and messages).


Circuit-break the day

Above all, build in breaks for you and your child throughout this academic year and throughout every day your child ends up home learning. There is a reason why schools have break times and timetables – it isn’t just to keep children occupied!

Consider this ABC of routine home learning to help boost your child’s wellbeing and learning:

  • Access outdoors: A 15-minute break in the garden or a brief walk down the street can make all of the difference.
  • Bites to eat: Remember to build time in for healthy snacks to keep your children nourished and to feed their minds.
  • Comedy and chats: In the current climate, it is essential that we act as circuit breakers for the anxiety, frustration and sadness that will inevitably affect so many children and families. It is imperative to encourage laughter and positive thinking for your child. A well-timed YouTube cat video or telling a child-friendly joke can set the right tone and mindset.


Further reading

You can find more advice for home schooling in this earlier article that Sean Harris wrote for Headteacher Update last year (March, 2020).


  • Sean Harris is a postdoctoral researcher investigating school-based poverty-proofing of curriculums and a teacher at Bede Academy in Northumberland.
  • Sara Davidson is principal lecturer for ITT at Teesside University and a former strategic lead for education with Middlesbrough Local Authority.


Further information & reading

  • Hyman et al: Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone, Applied Cognitive Psychology (24), 2009.
  • Karpicke: Metacognitive Control and Strategy Selection: Deciding to practice retrieval during learning; American Psychological Association, 2009: https://bit.ly/37Ovguo
  • Kirschner, Paas & Kirschner: A Cognitive Load Approach to Collaborative Learning: United brains for complex tasks, Educational Psychology Review (21, 1), 2009: https://bit.ly/2B0kfKz
  • Rosenshine: Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know, American Educator, Spring 2012: http://bit.ly/2ZpbIqW
  • Shibli & West: Cognitive Load Theory and its application in the classroom, Impact, Chartered College of Teaching, February 2018: http://bit.ly/3eFMwVU
  • Simons & Chabris: Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception (28), 1999: https://bit.ly/2LmGr6L
  • Sweller: Cognitive load during problem-solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science (12,2), 1988.
  • Wiliam: Designing Great Hinge Questions, Educational Leadership, September 2015: http://bit.ly/2K7emjk
  • Wood et al: Examining the impact of off task multi asking with technology on real-time classroom learning, Computers & Education (58), 2011: https://bit.ly/3seWlkh


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Wonderful teacher mr gadd who rang well after 5 to find out how Claude was doing, amazing but I think they are lonely miss everything their last year was going to be . Thank heavens for kings it’s an impossible year but what can anyone do
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