Parents teaching from home amid COVID-19 face steep learning curve

Opinion piece by ACARA CEO, David de Carvalho, published by News Corp on 7 April 2020


Across the world, as COVID-19 takes hold, authorities face difficult choices where they have to weigh which options are the least bad. Probably the most high-profile issue of this kind in Australia is school closures. 

Whether schools close, or stay open, or are ‘pupil-free’, many parents of school-age children are now dealing with a new reality, trying to keep their children engaged in learning while not having the professional skills that trained teachers bring to that complex and vitally important task.

Government education departments, Catholic school systems and independent schools have been working with remarkable speed and intensity to put in place or ramp up online learning mechanisms to help. They are preparing high-quality learning materials, linked to the Australian Curriculum, which help parents to keep their children engaged in learning under these most unusual circumstances.

Many parents are managing well. Many aren’t. Early on, there was a YouTube video doing the rounds of a mother (not in Australia) venting about the difficulties she was understandably experiencing in trying to meet the diverse educational needs of her four children – something she is not trained to do. A meme on social media declared, “A lot of parents are about to discover that the teacher wasn’t the problem after all”.

At the same time, private enterprises have also been racing to either (depending on your perspective) support parents in a time of need, or seize a unique marketing opportunity to ‘get the foot in the door’ –  like their predecessors, those door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen who played up parents’ anxieties about children’s education. 

The spontaneous emergence of online mutual support networks for parents is another development that is likely to be a mixed blessing. It’s wonderful to see parents supporting one another with suggestions for this resource or that, but quality control is likely to be an issue. 

So perhaps this is a good time, as most states move into school holiday mode, to take a step back, focus on the bigger picture, gather one’s thoughts and think about the long game.

First, we need to make a distinction between ‘homeschooling’ and what most parents are now trying to do. Homeschooling is a legally recognised and regulated activity, when parents teach their children the full curriculum, Monday to Friday during standard term time. Homeschooling is a long-term schooling option that requires considerable planning to satisfy the requirements for registration by jurisdictional education authorities.

This not what most parents need to do now. The main task is to provide their children with a safe and supportive environment where learning can take place. The next task is to provide them with opportunities to continue their learning, recognising that they shouldn’t be trying to replicate the work done by professional teachers.

Second, we need to recognise that for many parents, this would be hard enough even under ‘normal’ circumstances, but when you are also trying to work from home or are trying to cope with recently having lost a job, there is an additional degree of difficulty. 

Third, it is important to acknowledge that schools themselves are on a steep learning curve here. This is uncharted territory, and coming up with plans and curriculum support material and online learning tools to help parents in ways that take account of diverse home circumstances is not straightforward.  Mechanisms for online learning will improve over time.

So it’s best that we focus on what is essential learning. The word ‘essential’ is getting a good work-out at the moment. Essential services, essential travel, essential meetings. What is it that is essential to learn right now? 

Much of the current focus on learning is about core content knowledge and the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy in particular. This is appropriate. The Australian Curriculum also includes general capabilities such as Ethical Understanding, Intercultural Understanding, and Personal and Social Capability, and these times offer plenty of opportunities. We are learning that much of what we thought was essential isn’t really so.

We are learning that things we often don’t think of as essential are actually vitally important: virtues like self-restraint, self-awareness, ingenuity, courage and compassion. The word ‘essential’ comes from the Latin ‘esse’, meaning ‘to be’. What is ‘essential’ has to do with our being. Human beings have an innate sense of wonder. We’re made for learning and for collaboration. Teachers and parents are now collaborating more than ever for children’s learning. Both groups are learning how to do this better. It’s a work in progress.