All week long I haven’t been able to stop thinking about a request that one of our parents made during our virtual “Parent Coffee”. Throughout this Distance Learning adventure, our Parent Coffees have provided space for the voices, opinions, perspectives and needs of our Primary School parent community. Each time, I leave with a page full of notes which lead to reflection, action and adjustments. But this time was different. This time my thinking was provoked – in a larger, more substantial way.
She was talking about how, inevitably, parents have taken on a bigger role in their children’s learning, and in most cases are now sharing in some of the roles and responsibilities that normally are fulfilled by teachers in face-to-face school. And as such, requested some help. Help that goes beyond what their children need to focus on and where to find resources and activities. Help more specifically focused on how to support their children in their learning; the pedagogical tips and tricks, us educators have in our back pocket when we are helping learners.
I’m sure parents at any school are likely overwhelmed at the prospect of taking more responsibility supporting their children’s learning. Now factor in what it must feel like to be a parent at a PYP school that is built on inquiry-based, concept-driven, agency supportive approaches to education. Wanting to help their child… but not being sure exactly how to do so.
We have to remember that most parents are not educators. They don’t have multiple degrees in education. They haven’t read endless books and blog posts. They don’t have resumes full of PD workshops. Understandably so, it’s our career – not theirs.
So how can we help? How can we share what we’ve learned through all those degrees, books and blogs, courses and workshops into something manageable and helpful that we can transfer over to them?
Here is my attempt. A pedagogy distilled. Condensed. Simplified.
Dedicated not only the wonderful parents at my school, but to all PYP parents around the world partnering with us during these difficult times to support their children.
1. Take an inquiry stance
Meet a question with a question. Often our first instinct when a child asks us a question is to provide an answer. But this approach can prevent a golden opportunity to have learners not only learn that thing, but also learn something about how to learn. So next time your child asks you a question (“How do you spell ….?” “How do you multiply fractions?” “What are the types of energy?”), no matter what the question is, instead of supplying the answer, try responding like this:
Great question! How could you find that out? What resource could you use to discover that? How could you figure that out?
Be prepared to inquire together. Sometimes, when you meet a question with a question, you get an “I don’t know”. That is an invitation to a great teachable moment! If your child doesn’t know how to find out on their own or what resource to use, you can step in as their partner and respond like this:
No problem! Let’s figure it out together. Maybe we can try this…. Have you ever used this… Let’s see if this resource has the answer….
This way you are still supporting them to figure out what they are trying to figure out, but along the way you’ve also helped develop their skill as an independent learner – so the next time, instead of needing to ask you, they might have some ways to figure it out on their own.
Ask the magic question – “What do you notice?”. No matter what subject, what area of learning, or what age – the secret ingredient to inquiry-based learning is asking learners to think about what they notice. Whether your child is learning their letters and looking at the letter “B”, or building their multiplication fluency by looking at a multiplication table, or developing their scientific knowledge by studying a model of a cell…. that one question works every time, and can always be followed up with “what else do you notice?” to probe for further thinking.
Don’t feel you have to be an expert, just be a learner. It is okay to not know something. In fact that presents an amazing opportunity to model your own approaches to learning. Feel confident to say, “I don’t know” or, “I have no idea”. Just make sure to follow it up with, “But now I want to know, so here is how I am going to find out!” or, “Let’s figure this out together!”
2. Support conceptual understanding
Value process. As often as possible get your child thinking beyond what they did and what they learned, and more about how they learned. Some great questions include:
How did you do that? Why did you do that? What strategy did you use? How did you learn that strategy? What steps did you take?
Harness the power of the key concepts. In the PYP we have 7 Key Concepts, that are secret ingredients to help learners think more deeply and understand… ANYTHING. The beauty of these key concepts, is they work for everything! You can apply these questions to any subject or area of learning. Whether your child is trying to learn about shapes… commas…. a historic figure…. a sports skill… sentence structure…. an art technique…. a water bottle! Anything. Here are the key concept questions you can ask your child at any time about anything they are learning:
What is it like? (Form)
How does it work? (Function)
How is it connected to other things? (Connection)
How does it change? (Change)
Why is it like that? Why is it the way it is? (Causation)
What are the different points of view? (Perspective)
What are our responsibilities? (Responsibility)
3. Prioritize Reflection
Get them thinking about their thinking. Similar to the Key Concept questions, there are two questions you can ask your child to help them think deeper, about whatever it is they are learning. Again – any subject, any topic. More specifically, they get children thinking about their thinking! Here are two magic questions to support learners deep understanding:
How do you know?
What makes you say that?
Whether they are showing you the solution to a math problem, discussing parts of a book they are reading, summarizing information, sharing their perspective on a world event… these questions have super powers!
4. Support your child’s agency
Invite and involve their voice. Don’t be afraid the let them express themselves. Give space for them to articulate what they like and don’t like about learning, and why that is. Listen to when they are advocating for what they need as learners. Listen for what they really care about and matters to them and try to understand and find ways to support it.
Respect and support their choices. Be aware of what choices you are making for your child, that they could probably be making themselves. Choices may include when they learn, where they learn, what they learn, and how they learn. Coach them to make informed choices, by making the decision making process explicit (What choice are you making for yourself?), then follow up with a reflection about how effective that choice was and whether it’s a good choice to be made again in the future (How did that choice work out for you? How do you know? What will you choose differently next time?).
Emphasize ownership. Sometimes learning can be something that gets misrepresented as something done to learners, or around learners. This creates a false sense that they are passively drifting through the process, and have no impact on their own learning. We want learners to know it’s their learning, they own it, they impact it. It is something done by them, for them, and we are the supporting actors. Use words and phrases that build that sense of ownership over their learning:
It’s your learning.
You’re in the driver’s seat.
Your learning, your choice.
5. Be purposeful with feedback.
Teach to fish, don’t give a fish. As much as possible, when you give feedback to your child, think about how to give advice that will go beyond that one moment. As teachers, we often use phrases like, “teach the writer, not the writing” to help us give tips that will impact that learner in a bigger, more sustainable way. Instead of just telling them how to fix something. Here are some examples of ways you can phrase that type of feedback:
“Readers…. (often go back an re-read what they don’t understand; share their opinion about what they read; break words into small chunks to help them sound it out etc.)
“Writers…. (read their writing outloud to themselves to try and find their mistakes; use capitals to show the reader a new sentence is starting; support their opinions with facts and evidence; add details to make their writing more interesting etc.)
“Mathematicians…. (double check their solutions for accuracy; use objects and drawings to help them solve problems; use short cuts and tricks called “algorithms”; use special words etc.)
This helps phrase feedback in a way that will help them in that moment, but also help them in that area beyond that moment as well. Feedback that not only fixes mistakes but helps them grow and develop as readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, historians, artists and athletes!
As PYP educators, we need to see this as more than a short-term investment. The time and energy we spend supporting parents who are looking for help in this area, will pay long-term dividends when life returns to normal and we have a coalition of parents who not only understand inquiry, concepts and agency – but have experience living it.
What other points of pedagogy could we share with our PYP parents?
How can we help them, help their children?
What tips and advice can we impart unto our parent community as they become pioneers of at-home pedagogy?
I love this! I also have seen this as an amazing opportunity to help the families understand the pedagogy of our program. I’ve been sending tips like this to my families each week. Tips for how to take an inquiry stance and also tips for working with readers, writers and mathematicians. Many parents also like to join in on my 1:1 conferences with their child. I’ve had so many families who are really appreciative of getting an opportunity to learn more about ‘how’ to teach their child. Like you said, they felt like fish out of water at the beginning! This has been an amazing opportunity for families to get to know the how’s and why’s of what we do (and for me to better understand ways I might be able to support families in the future!). Thank you for your continued inspiration – I always look forward to your posts!
Wow, Sarah! It seems like the parents in your class are lucky to have you coaching them in the ways they can help their children. I agree with you, these unwanted and unfortunate circumstances have elevated the need and impact of parent partnerships and the role of the wider learning community! I also think it’s great that you see this not only as a time for THEM to learn from us, but also for US the learn from them about the ways in which we can help and support their families. 👍🏻
Timely and useful. Very much enjoy your blog and send lots of PYP teachers to this site when I give workshops. Thanks for the great thoughts.