Coronavirus: A realistic approach to home learning

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As millions of school children – and their parents – knuckle down to home schooling, Dorothy Lepkowska looks at the advice for schools and teachers on how to set work and what the expectations should (and should not) be

All over the country teachers, pupils and parents find themselves in an unprecedented situation. Parents are being expected to provide some form of home tuition, under the expert guidance of schools, which themselves are still facing the challenges of opening for the children of frontline workers.

A three-phase plan

We are in this for the long-haul, with many predicting that schools will be in a state of partial closure until the end of the summer term at least.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association for School and College Leaders, said schools needed to approach the organisation of home-based and in-school learning, in three phases.

“In phase 1 we need to get ourselves to Easter and provide some semblance of education for two groups of pupils: the children of key workers and ‘vulnerable’ pupils. The latter include the children of key workers, as well as those with Education, Health and Care Plans, who receive free school meals, who have special needs, and those who you would worry about leaving in their homes for days and weeks on end.”

Mr Barton said phase 2 might involve keeping provision going over Easter, which was “wholly uncharted territory” and schools would need to be mindful of the respite both staff and students would need at this time.
Phase 3, which will come after Easter, would see the need to develop “a more joined-up form of provision, with collaboration across schools and colleges, strategically deploying teachers, teaching assistants and other staff with a programme of learning that we have had more time to plan”.

He added: “If that sounds vague, it’s because it is. But my guess is that local headteacher groups, or their existing locality partnerships, will try to work together to create a sustainable service for children and young people.”

SecEd has published further advice for schools on what in-school provision might look like for eligible pupils still attending school (SecEd, 2020a).

Home education

When it comes to those pupils now learning from home, schools appear to have taken various approaches to setting work for students to do at home, ranging from setting work daily that can be downloaded and printed out as worksheets, to organising a timetable resembling that of a typical school day, to using digital conferencing platforms for face-to-face interactions between the teacher and students.

Previous articles for SecEd have considered effective approaches to learning at home during the crisis (SecEd, 2020b) and we have also published a compendium of technology resources to support home learning (SecEd, 2020c).

Of course, technology has huge possibilities for aiding home learning, and hundreds of tech companies have offered their resources and services free-of-charge for the duration of the shutdown.

These include school VLEs and school apps on which work is set and can be submitted, to engaging “whizz-bang” tools that offer learning through games, quizzes and simple experiments and can be accessed on home devices.

Learners’ access to this myriad of edtech resources will vary, however, and schools need to be mindful of what is possible. Communication with families is key.

Rose Luckin, professor of learner centred design at the UCL Knowledge Lab and founding director of EDUCATE, a global digital accelerator for edtech companies, urged caution: “There are great things that can be done with technology, especially that driven by artificial intelligence, which can provide engaging individualised education for students of all ages.

“However, not every area of the country has stable and reliable broadband connectivity, and the availability of laptop, desktop and smart devices also vary from one home to another. Over-reliance on technology can disadvantage young people who come from less well-off backgrounds. Furthermore, schools – especially primaries – may also not have the technical support to make this work effectively.

“So, schools need to think carefully about relying too much on these tools.”

The role of the teacher

Peter Taylor, deputy head for teaching, learning and CPD at Levenshulme High School, in Manchester, said the school was mindful of finding “a model of equity that works for who should be here in person, and who should work remotely”.

He added: “Our VLE has always been a key teaching and learning tool and continues to be that. We have been working hard to upload further and accessible content but have stressed also the importance of ‘instructional teacher’ guidance and to consider the way in which we can evolve/develop as we go through this phase – the use of technology, for example, using video blogs to accompany content as another level of guidance for students.

“We will be adding a wellbeing area to the VLE to support students and family alongside learning, with apps that offer help and support in these circumstances.”

Mr Taylor said one of the challenges was to ensure that vulnerable children, who did not fall into the official categories of needing to be at school, were catered for in terms of access to services and home visits as a way of support.

A flexible approach

Former teacher Professor Helena Gillespie, an online educator at the University of East Anglia, said schools needed to be mindful that learning online and independently was a skill that children and young people would not learn overnight.

She said that offering “small, bite-sized” pieces of work of around half-an-hour in length, up to a total of two hours work during the day was ideal for many students, especially primary pupils.

For all students, she said that it was best “to try to get into a routine for everyone as soon as possible” and that we should not expect children and young people to “do a full school day of learning independently”.

And not all children would have a conducive environment at home and might be sharing space with home-working parents and siblings of different ages, she added. Likewise, schools need to remember that many parents were having to manage working from home alongside helping and supporting their children with their school work.

So flexibility and understanding is key. And let us not forget that young people will also need time to keep in touch with their friends, via video conferencing and social platforms, and that home learning is also an opportunity to spend time doing arts and crafts, cooking and learning life-skills with parents.

Sue Cowley, a teacher trainer and author of Road School: Learning through exploration and experience, said: “Some parents will appreciate a routine, and by all means send out a timetable and offer them resources and/or lessons, but bear in mind that other parents will not have the capacity to cope with insisting that their children do work just at this moment. Make it clear that everything you send home is completely optional and is an offer of help rather than in any way compulsory.

“It will do children absolutely no harm to direct their own learning for a while. We need to get our priorities in order. It’s essential that we do not put additional pressure on families, just because we feel like we should be doing something. It will not be sustainable either for families or for teachers to try and achieve ‘school but at home’. Most parents will be perfectly able to figure out what their own children need at this difficult time. Pause, go slow, take a deep breath, and help them stay calm.”

The uncertainty that marked the week prior to the government’s decision to shut down schools, and the measures heads and governors needed to take to prepare for that eventuality, means that most will have had little chance to consult with parents about how best they can support them during this time. They might now find families are contacting them for advice and guidance.

Ellie Bedford, who has home-educated her daughters, aged 11 and 13, said: “Every family is different and some work better with routine, while others will need to be more fluid because of their circumstances. Every family will have to find its own rhythm, and this might take a couple of weeks. There shouldn’t be any pressure for them to ‘get it right’ from the start.

“It will also take children a while to get used to being in a non-institutional setting, but this should get easier in time. It is a huge shift in dynamics for everybody.”

Ms Bedford urged schools to be cautious of trying to replicate a school timetable for home. “It’s not realistic to aim for a 9am to 3pm school schedule,” she said. “There are no distractions at home, no moving from classroom to classroom or waiting for the teacher to come around to the child if they need help. You have more time to help them directly. A full day’s work can be achieved in just a couple of hours.

“Lots of families do well with little routine but might like some structured work from the school to do in the morning, leaving afternoons free for creative time and children to pursue their own interests.”
Indulging children’s own interests, for example by setting a choice of themed or project work, is less likely to need heavy input from parents or carers.

“It’s a good opportunity to encourage self-learning. It is amazing what young people can do, without help and heavy input, if they have an interest in something. They quickly and naturally become independent learners.

“It also a great opportunity to explore the arts, learn an instrument, learn to sew or bake, using YouTube. All of this counts as education and helps to foster a love of learning.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

Further information

  • SecEd: Coronavirus: Provision and teaching in school during the crisis, March 23, 2020a: https://bit.ly/2y5nXkp
  • SecEd: Coronavirus: Supporting families and pupils learning from home, March 21, 2020b: https://bit.ly/39eBJho
  • SecEd: Coronavirus: Home education resources for schools, teachers and parents, March 24, 2020c: https://bit.ly/3dmVyXb


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