A group of parents sat in my office, desperately requesting help.
“You have to teach us to add,” one of the mothers (the CFO of a large company) pleaded.
“We have no idea how to help our children do their homework.”
These Year 3 parents had been confronted with three-digit addition using the expanded column method in the national curriculum for England.
Partitioning the numbers, writing them out in columns to the side and then recombining the answers seemed like an inefficient, complex and baffling technique.
“Why don’t you just teach them to add in columns?” This was a common refrain from parents, both at my previous school in Italy and the current school where I work in Spain.
Teaching the parents
As many international schools will be doing curricula that differ from the host country, parents are often in the dark about the methods used and the philosophy behind them.
Whether it is the process by which young learners acquire additional languages, the way English phonics and spelling are taught, or the dreaded expanded addition or grid multiplication, families from different educational systems may lack information about what students are doing.
So how can schools help bridge this gap and get parents up to speed with how they are learning?
One idea I’ve found particularly useful is parent curriculum workshops.
This was an idea I started in Italy and now use in Spain, whereby parents are invited to the school to see how and why we teach maths (or, indeed, other subjects).
Generally, this takes the form of a 60-90-minute session of learning experiences and discussion. This could be run by a curriculum or subject coordinator, depending on the audience, or a senior management team member. Parents who attend the workshops invariably have a deeper appreciation for the methodology and teaching in the school.
This greater understanding manifests itself by resulting in fewer meetings about curriculum; parents also feel more secure to support maths, language acquisition and reading at home.
How to make it work well
It may sound simple on the surface but after delivering several of these workshops (some successful, some less so), I have identified the factors that led to the most positive experiences that, if anyone else is keen to try something similar, would do well to think about ahead of the first event.
1. Be clear about the objectives
It’s important to make it clear to parents what the work is and what it isn’t. They won’t learn everything, so ensure they are clear about what will be covered to manage expectations.
2. Think carefully about logistics
This may include the language of instruction and the time and place of delivery. If language is an issue, and you are targeting the host community, will a bilingual teacher deliver the workshop, or will you provide a translation?
Choosing a time when parents are available is important, too; scheduling workshops in the afternoon before pick-up is often a good time if workshops are in person.
3. Use practical activities as the basis for the learning theory
While theory and philosophy are important, sharing objectives via practical activities helps parents understand the work in practice. As they experience the “how” of the lesson, you can build in the “why”. Workshops, rather than presentations, are effective.
4. Have shorter, regular workshops
Ninety minutes is a good length. It allows for a deep exploration of one theme or idea, without being overwhelming. Focusing the workshop on one key stage or one process will help this. It is important here to tailor this to your school population.
In Italy, where we had several hundred students, we arranged separate maths and language workshops by key stage, whereas, in Spain, at a smaller school, this would not really have been feasible.
Instead, the maths workshop focused on addition throughout the national curriculum. Though we covered a broad topic, limiting the scope to only addition, it was still possible to impart all of the important aspects of the national curriculum – processes that build understanding before efficiency, mastery, reasoning, mental maths strategies and how to teach one objective at various levels of depth.
5. What should parents come away with?
It is worthwhile thinking quite carefully about what the motivation for the workshop is, and what this would look like as a learning objective.
Will parents have a greater understanding of the philosophy behind the national curriculum and be reassured that their child is being challenged?
Is the goal an awareness of how to perform division by chunking, grid multiplication or using addition to solve subtraction sums? Will parents be able to read with their children more confidently and with greater depth? Making these objectives explicit will help guide the workshop.
Involving parents in curriculum workshops empowers them and helps them help their children. It also strengthens the bond between school and home.
When families are more informed as to not only what schools are doing but why, it pre-empts concerns and questions, and allows everyone to pull together in the same direction.
Jennie Devine is an international headteacher who has worked in Italy, Colombia and Ecuador. She is currently head of primary at the Montessori School Almeria