THE TWO ENDS OF A BRIDGE
Learning is an
all-encompassing idea while education is learning with-rules. So education is a
subset of learning while within education lies schooling. Parents and teachers
often have very different experiences of school and of parenting, says DR.
JANET GOODALL. It’s vital, therefore, that school staff work in partnership
with parents and that means listening as well as talking.
A lecturer in Educational Leadership and Management, Dr. JANET GOODALL, presently teaching at the University of Bath, has worked on issues, such as school federations, evaluation of continuing professional development in schools, workforce reform, and a multisector project looking at organisations exceeding expectations in education, sport, and business. Dr. Janet’s most recent work, Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Parental Engagement in Children’s Learning, explores how academic or cultural gap between children from different backgrounds can be narrowed by supporting parents’ engagement with learning. Another of her key works is a Toolkit for Parental Engagement. “Almost all parents want the best for their children and so do almost all teachers. If we start from that point, we have a joint idea to build on, to form a partnership between
schools and families,” says Dr. JANET in an interview with K. G. Sreenivas.
To set the tone for our discussion, Dr. Janet Goodall, shall we begin from the beginning. In the context of parental involvement, or the lack of it, in a child’s learning life, where does learning begin and end?
I believe that learning starts at the very least at birth, though there is some thought that it can happen before that time… Children, babies are learning from their very first days; they can recognise faces certainly by the time they are three months old and perhaps earlier. And of course, parents are first on the scene and there throughout a child’s learning. I’m not sure about the phrase, “Parents are the first educators of their children” because while that’s undoubtedly true, the phrase gives the impression that at some point parents stop being educators of their children and I don’t think that’s the case.
I would see learning as an all encompassing idea — we all learn, all the time, from birth to death. Education I think is learning with- rules, in some way — so it’s a subset of learning. Learning to play a musical instrument as well as
learning maths – these are instances of education. Within education (so still a subset of learning) is schooling. Parents are deeply involved in children’s learning, often involved in their education and at best, also involved in the learning that takes place in schools. As I’ve said elsewhere, I think we can get caught up in other things in schools, but it’s important that everything comes back to this idea of learning.
I’ve suggested to schools and some have taken this on, that at the end of every meeting, or in every discussion, the question is asked, “How does this relate to learning?” and “How does this support learning?”
In the light of your extensive research in the area and your recommendations to the Department for Education UK, what are those salient axioms, if you will, that worked in the UK context with reference to cultural, community, and institutional challenges? How did it work really?
In terms of ideas that are important, I think the following:
That, almost all parents want the best for their children—and so do almost all teachers. If we start from that point, we have a joint idea to build on, to form a partnership between schools and families.
That, a lot of what is important about parental engagement with children — discussion, listening, shared reading — happens away from school and is often not known to school staff. It’s important that we begin to highlight what parents are already doing, and let parents know how valuable this is.
That, many parents are unsure of how to help their children. Being unsure doesn’t mean that they are uninterested — any more than a child who is unsure of something in the classroom is uninterested. With the child, we support them and help them to learn — we need to use those skills to support parents. It’s ok not to know the answer…
That, parents and teachers often have very different experiences of school and of parenting. School staff often assume that everyone knows that”, “everyone does that” when this is not the case. A case in point is the importance of simple things such as singing nursery rhymes (important for early literacy), reading books over and over and over again, simple things that help develop muscles ready for writing (such as stirring cake batter, or writing on the bath walls with shaving cream). Not all parents know that these things are helpful to their children.
That, it’s vital that school staff work in partnership with parents and that means listening as well as talking. We know this very well about students — we listen to them, we work with them, we scaffold their learning. We treat things they don’t know as opportunities to learn. But all too often, school’s relationships with parents are about giving (and sometimes receiving) information, rather than supporting learning.
That, parents may also not realise how much staff care about the children they work with — often because parents’ memories of their schooling are not happy ones. Sometimes, it’s worth saying something quite simple, such as, “I’m worried about your son/daughter — what you can tell me that will help me to help them?”
And that, there are challenges to parental engagement, both for parents and for schools. Parents may lack confidence in how to help their children, many parents lack the time to engage very much, and in dealing with schools, often face issues with transport and child care. Parents may also be facing a myriad of other issues: financial issues, mental and physical challenges, care for other members of the family. Parents’ experience of schooling themselves may mean that they are unwilling, or unable to come into school. School staff faces issues of overwork and often have had little or no training about parental engagement and how to support it.
We need to work together to try to overcome some of these challenges — and sometimes the answer is to do less, but do it better; sometimes the answer is a wise use of technology; often the answer is to ask questions — asking parents what support they need and how can we provide it?
Parental engagement is obviously serious business. The Manchester Transition Project, POKES (Supporting Parents on Kids Education in Schools), FAST (Families and Schools Together), and SAAF (Strong African American Families Program) have been some of the most successful projects in the UK. With reference to those pioneering projects, Dr. Janet, could you shed light on the experiential lessons drawn thereof on the question of developing a coherent yet culturally sensitive and meaningful parental engagement strategy?
One of the things that come through from a number of these projects is the importance of seeing parents as partners in children’s learning. In the FAST project, for example, staffs comes to know the parents as they share the time and meal with them; in other projects, parents and staff meet and come to know each other in different ways.
Just as a teacher needs to know their students, they also need to know about their families and what is important to them, and how to support them. And one of the better ways of doing that is to ask them — talk to parents, find out what they want and need. Not all parents will be receptive, particularly not at the beginning of a journey, but first steps are important.
So, do you think parental engagement in the context of school-home links needs an institutional framework? Alternatively, like any institutional framework that can, at times, stifle its very purpose, can such an arrangement address the key obstacles to engagement, such as time, cost, language, literacy, not to mention, a lack of confidence on the part of some of the parents?
I don’t think we need a framework, for two main reasons:
First, because it can then be seen as a box ticking exercise, “Oh, we’ve done that, we’ve done parental engagement for this year” — but it’s not that sort of thing, just as one has not “done” teaching for the year, until the year is over.
Secondly, and more importantly, because “parents” is a catch-all term for an incredibly wide variety of people — some of whom are not parents, but grandparents, uncles, aunts, carers, and other adults who care for children. There’s no one, set way of supporting them because there are so many different parents (just as no one approach to teaching “works” with all students). There are some basics: operate from a position of respect, partnership, and care for the child. But after that, the key words would be, adapt, adapt, adapt. And the same is true of “staff” or “teachers”.
That isn’t to say, though, that institutions per se should not be involved. The research has shown fairly clearly that the most effective programmes in school are led from the top, by senior management — if senior members of the school or setting place a high priority on parental engagement, then activities have a much better chance of success.
And I think it’s important that schools look closely at their existing policies, to see how they relate to parents and families. Often, parents are mentioned only in places such as the uniform or behaviour or homework policies. Since we know that the home learning environment is vital, if we want our young people to do as well as they can, parents and families need to be an important part of our teaching and learning policies as well.
Everything in a school should come back to learning, should be centred on learning — and that learning should be understood to be taking place in and out of the school itself.
There is often an unstated customer service- provider-product relationship that defines the triad of the parent, the child, and institution, in that, the institution is expected to deliver a finished product because the parent has paid up a substantial sum as fee and has little time anyway to devote to schooling or learning matters of the child. There it ends. How do we usher in a paradigm change?
I very much like the analogy of the gym, which I took from a friend — you can pay as much money as you like to a gym, but unless you go there, and do the exercise, you won’t get fit.
It’s the same with learning — we can pay as much money as we like to schools and universities, but that’s not the process of learning. If we want our children to learn, to succeed, we need to metaphorically go to the gym, we have to be involved.
You refer to how parental engagement does not always mean quite the same thing to parents and schools and that how activities parents value as “engaging with their children’s learning are neither recognised nor acknowledged by schools”. How do we work around it and build common ground?
I think it’s a two-way street. The first is for parents to realise how important what they are already doing is, and what more they might do to support their children. The second is for schools, and school staff, to realise the importance of learning that goes on outside of the home.
I should say that often, teachers have had little way of finding out about this, as it’s often not covered in their training — we need to supply that information and training for them.
The foundation for the common ground is simply that both parents and staff want the best for the children in their care. And that best will be much easier to attain if families and schools are able to work in partnership.
Finally, how and when do children’s agency matter or figure in the dialectics of parenting and schooling? Many children complain about a lack of agency in the choices and decisions made on their behalf either by school or by parent.
Here, we’re moving out of my area of research and into another, which I agree is vital, but on which I’m not able to speak to the research as well. But I agree that children’s voice is incredibly important, and becomes more so as they grow — as I’ve said elsewhere, one of the jobs of parenting is to allow children to grow into independent adults (although the value put on independence can vary by culture), and to do that, we need to allow them to become independent —and that means taking account of what they are saying