School’s in

Five Cambridge education experts share tips, free resources (and moral support) to help you make the most of home-schooling in lockdown.

Being a parent or carer can be challenging at the best of times, but as millions are discovering during COVID-19 lockdown, doing your job from home while attempting to teach children, is a whole new level of difficult.

According to polling conducted by The Sutton Trust, only 42% of British parents feel confident about teaching their children at home. Many have taken to sharing their anxieties on social media, in terms that range from mirth to total misery.

But while parents and carers can hardly be expected to become qualified teachers overnight, there is still plenty that they can do.

Here, five researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education – one of the largest centres for educational research and teacher training in the UK – offer simple ways in which anyone can support children’s education, regardless of their expertise.

Don’t worry about what you do (or don’t) know!
Any parent or carer can help a child to learn.

Ros McLellan, Senior Lecturer in Teacher Education & Development / Pedagogical Innovation

A 8-year-old living in southern Africa studies with her grandparents in the UK. Photography: Kate Chambers

An 8-year-old living in southern Africa studies with her grandparents in the UK. Photography: Kate Chambers

An 8-year-old living in southern Africa studies with her grandparents in the UK. Photography: Kate Chambers

Parents and carers don’t need a psychologist to tell them that children are innately curious, and from a young age will seek to explore their environments and ask questions. Home-schooling gives parents and carers the opportunity to get involved with this more.

Ros McLellan

Ros McLellan

Ros McLellan

According to Self-Determination Theory we all have a natural disposition to develop and flourish whatever our age, but for this to happen, three core needs have to be met:

  • Competence: Feeling effective when we interact with people, and experiencing opportunities to exercise and express our ideas, views and expertise.
  • Autonomy: Feeling that we are the origin, and source, of our own behaviour.
  • Relatedness: Feeling connected to others, caring for and being cared for by others, and having a sense of belonging both with other individuals and in our community.

So, to help young people to flourish, feel well and to be intrinsically motivated in their schoolwork, we have to think about whether these needs are being fulfilled. Are children being given activities that they feel competent with? Can they see themselves making progress? Do they feel like they are making choices for themselves? Do they feel others care?

This might sound like a daunting set of issues for anyone who doesn’t teach as their day job! But many parents and carers will meet these needs in children, in a less formal sense, every day. They will ask questions about what they are doing, praise progress while not criticising mistakes, and make it clear that those mistakes are part of learning – and that feeling frustrated is normal.

Parents and carers can also let children have choices in how to do things, and allow them a level of self-direction to follow their interests. And many, of course, already do show that they care and will be facilitating connections with friends and others through virtual learning.

The researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan sum this up as: Taking their perspective, encouraging initiation, supporting a sense of choice, and being responsive to their thoughts, questions and initiatives.

Any parent or carer can do that whatever their knowledge of the topics and activities their children are asked to undertake – and they may find the process a lot more fun than they imagined!

Don’t feel constrained by the curriculum:
This is an ideal time to do maths differently

Andreas Stylianides,
Professor of Mathematics Education

A five-year-old tackles a maths colouring puzzle with beans. Photography: Tom Almeroth-Williams

A five-year-old tackles a maths colouring puzzle with beans. Photography: Tom Almeroth-Williams

A five-year-old tackles a maths colouring puzzle with beans. Photography: Tom Almeroth-Williams

Given the context and the unprecedented challenges that everyone faces at the moment, the top priorities are pupils’ health and well-being. At the same time, we do want pupils to be able to engage productively with mathematics at home where possible, so that learning does not stop even while we are locked in.

Andreas Stylianides

Andreas Stylianides

Andreas Stylianides

Parents’ natural instinct may be to attempt to take on the role of ‘covering’ the formal school curriculum, guided by concerns about their children’s academic performance. This is an understandable tendency, but it should be considered in light of the fact that research has found that parental involvement in learning mathematics does not always correlate with improved performance.

Even parents who have the best of intentions don’t always have the impact that they would hope for on their children’s performance – sometimes they even have the opposite effect.

One reason for this is that parents, entirely understandably, do not always have the necessary skills and knowledge to be effective mentors in mathematics. For example, simply giving children the correct answer to a problem, or insisting that they use a specific method to solve it (usually one that the parents themselves favoured when they were at school), often does little to actually help a child’s understanding and ends up doing more harm than good from a learning perspective.

But this should not discourage parents from getting involved in their children’s learning of mathematics – rather, it should sound a note of caution about how to do it. Parents’ involvement can, but does not have to, revolve around the formal school curriculum.

The cancellation of national tests by the government means that parents and children have a unique opportunity to engage together, where possible, more freely with mathematics, and to explore and appreciate the richness of the subject in the context of inspiring activities that involve reasoning and problem-solving.

There are several online resources available designed to help families to do exactly that. The NRICH website, a collaborative project between the Faculties of Education and Mathematics here at the University of Cambridge, is just one place where parents looking to explore mathematics with their children in an exciting way that goes beyond the curriculum, could begin.

Enough of the worksheets and video learning:
There’s a world of children’s non-fiction out there waiting to be discovered

Karen Coats, Director of the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge

Reading in high style. Photography: Holly Tilbrook

Reading in high style. Photography: Holly Tilbrook

Reading in high style. Photography: Holly Tilbrook

So, suddenly you have to be an employee learning to work remotely, a parent who hasn’t spent long daylight hours alone with your kids for a while, and a personal tutor who never learned any actual techniques for teaching. You’d be forgiven for feeling a little out of your depth!

Karen Coats

Karen Coats

Karen Coats

But don’t panic, because every single one of us used to be an expert in learning stuff we were interested in – and so are your children. It’s something that all children naturally do, because their brains are hungry for novelty to drive their growth.

This is where the wonderful, but rather unsung, world of children’s nonfiction could be your saviour during the lockdown period.

While children’s novels get all the attention and the awards, children’s nonfiction is a world awaiting discovery, offering everything from cookbooks and how-to manuals, to histories and biographies that children and teens actually want to read. These books have no guaranteed market, so to sell, they have to be designed for pleasure reading. At the same time, they can enhance what your children are learning at school, or spawn new ideas for revision.

If worksheets and video lectures are getting to you, and driving your kids to despair, try some of these books instead. Many are beautifully written, thoroughly engrossing titles that you will want to read with your kids. You can find more on reading together here.

Choosing a good title requires not just knowing your children, but being aware of some concerns that are tied to their developmental age. Follow, rather than lead, by asking them what subjects they are interested in. This is not necessarily the same as what they are learning about; it’s more a question of what’s catching their attention at the moment.

It may be something that’s not in the curriculum at all, or something that they weren’t able to study at school more deeply before the teacher moved on. Search for books that focus on these topics.

Lists and reviews abound online, but some of my all-time favourites are explored in this article. Of course, these are only appetisers. Whatever age your child is, whatever they’re passionate about, there’s a book for that.

Playtime matters: Children learn all sorts of things by being given space, and different ways, to play

Paul Ramchandani,
LEGO Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning

Experimenting with eggs! Photography: Paul Holland

Experimenting with eggs! Photography: Paul Holland

Experimenting with eggs! Photography: Paul Holland

It was reassuring to hear that a head teacher had told parents to remember that home education was not the same as school education. Most parents are not teachers and can’t be expected to be as skilled or knowledgeable as teachers, who have many years of training and experience. But there are many other skills, and other knowledge, that parents can bring to the table.

Paul Ramchandani

Paul Ramchandani

Paul Ramchandani

Once we acknowledge that home education is going to be different, we can open our minds to different ways of learning. One key approach, which often gets overlooked, is play – and play and learning come in several varieties:

  • There are structured games, or play activities that you may make up, or be given to use, specifically to help your child to learn things. What you use will, obviously, depend on the age of your child.
  • There are less-structured activities, where you follow your child’s lead more and try to support, rather than direct them, in their learning. Some nice examples of this are the playful projects from Ollie Bray at the LEGO Foundation.
  • Then there are the unstructured times when children just play anyway, when they are free to enjoy toys and activities in a less guided way. You can help them to choose toys or games to play, but sometimes it’s good just to let them follow their own interests. Even in these moments of completely unstructured play, children are still learning and findings things out.

Research suggests that children benefit when they are exposed to a mix of these different levels and styles of play – all of the above combined can be helpful for children in learning different subjects, whether maths, art, science, music, reading, history, or something else altogether. And a balance of play in the room, and play online or through video games, is also helpful – each brings about different opportunities for learning.

There are, therefore, good reasons to make room for different types of play as part of children’s at-home learning. But it’s also about much more than learning itself: play also helps children to develop and maintain friendships, figure stuff out, and just have fun. Now, perhaps more than usual, a little fun is something that we all need!

Limited access to a home computer?
TV and radio can be good for you!

Joe Watson, research assistant, Cambridge Ed Tech Hub

Watching Maddie and Greg's 'Dino Week'. Photography: Paul Holland

Watching Maddie and Greg's 'Dino Week'. Photography: Paul Holland

Watching Maddie and Greg's 'Dino Week'. Photography: Paul Holland

More than a billion caregivers around the world are facing up to the stark (and scary) realisation that they have just become their children’s teachers. This could be particularly tough for those with children who have limited access to a home computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence that educational TV and radio have the potential to facilitate out-of-school learning as well. Around the world, these older styles of communication have been shown to have significant impacts on children’s learning outcomes.

Millions of viewers in low-income countries already rely on television programmes such as Sesame Street and Know Zone for a large part of their learning. Large numbers of children in these countries also listen to educational radio shows like Akili and Me, too. With their immediate accessibility, TV and radio could benefit many more out-of-school children in the weeks to come.

Despite the old adage that TV isn’t good for you, there is plenty of evidence that educational programmes can improve learning outcomes. Studies have frequently reported positive effects among learners who are both at pre-primary stages, and of school age. Radio education has also benefited children around the world who lack access to school. Research has shown that it remains one of the most cost-efficient, simple and immediate educational tools available, and, again, can help to support literacy and numeracy.

But the restrictions imposed as a result of COVID-19 extend beyond questions of attainment alone. School closures and lockdowns also limit children’s interactions with those of different capabilities, backgrounds and cultures.

TV and radio can help here, too, because educational programming has frequently helped children to understand differences and challenge discrimination. One well-known recent example was the introduction of a character with autism into Sesame Street.

Further information about how using different technologies can support out-of-school learning around the world can be found at the University of Cambridge EdTech Research and Innovation Hub’s dedicated COVID-19 response page.


You can access many more online resources from across the University of Cambridge and our Festival of Science partners right here

Photography: Tom Almeroth-Williams

Photography: Paul Holland

Photography: Helen Gage

Photography: Paul Holland