I was reminded the other day of a piece that Elsa Lee and I wrote back in 2008: Intergenerational Learning: the case of school to home transfer.
This was written when there was something of a vogue for getting children to take instructions home to their parents in order to change their behaviours. Sadly, this notion has not completely gone away. On the back of some work for British Gas, Elsa and I set out to set out some of the issues, ethical and practical, around this notion. Here's what we wrote:
1. Teachers and schools are well practised in helping young people develop a wide range of awareness, understanding and skills. This is, after all, their core purpose. They obviously achieve these goals through what they teach, but they also do it through how they teach, seeking effective ways of interesting, motivating and engaging young people.
2. In addition to this, how the school is organised is important because this is also an effective way of helping young people learn key social skills and attitudes where the workings of the school mirror the values that it would like the young people to develop: for example, around inter-personal, democratic and citizenship skills, and issues of care, respect and tolerance.
3. Involving young people in the way the school is run and managed can be an effective motivator and a source of learning; for example, schools councils. Giving young people responsibility in a school’s efforts to reduce its waste and energy use, for example, is increasingly common. The way that schools interact with young people’s families is important here as the more positive these are, the more likely it is that parents will be able to support their children’s learning.
4. Excellent teaching and effective schools can also have an effect beyond young people themselves, reaching parents, the wider family group, and perhaps even others in the community. This can happen if the young people routinely talk to adults about what they're doing at school, and also if they bring challenging tasks and activities home that they can involve their families in. In this way there is potential for the work that schools do to have an impact well beyond the classroom, for example, in reducing the amount of energy families use and the amount of waste they produce.
5. The idea that schools are key to resolving environmental issues is not new, and neither is the idea that families might be influenced as well – for example, through changing practice in the home around energy, water and waste, in consumer choices around food, trade and transport. and in putting pressure on business, commerce and local authorities to change practices. If young people really can influence what families do, then schools are an obvious place from which to start.
6. There have been several studies that have investigated the use of environmental education programmes in schools to influence wider society, and these report that there can be a significant level of school-to-home transfer. However, it seems clear that the following conditions have to be in place:
– the family has to value education, and be supportive of the school’s attempts to teach their children
– a culture of communication and discussion exists within the family which includes talking about what goes on at school
– young people are used to doing school tasks at home, and parents are able and willing to help in this
– the environment is an appropriate topic of conversation in the home
– parents are interested in the issues, receptive to the message, and not being afraid of being taught by their children.
7. It could be that the current climate of awareness of sustainability issues arising from increased media interest and policy activity will render these conditions easier to meet in that the family is now more fertile ground for children to raise issues in. Ironically, if this is the case, the less children would need to do it. A corollary might be that moralising from government and NGOs increasingly annoys some parents. Whatever the reality, it is likely that the more this outreach to families is needed, the less likely it is to be effective.
8. To be effective, children will need to go prepared to engage their families and they will need careful briefing. All of which suggests that, in order to increase the effectiveness of school to home transfer,
– the young people need to be seen not as mere message passers, but as individuals who can engage others in considering the issues
– this engagement is more likely to occur where there is a task to be completed which involves parents and others, for example, assisting the child’s data collection, helping to prepare a survey or make a presentation, etc.
9. There are ethical issues to bear in mind. The prime business of schools is not to instruct (or educate) families, friends and neighbours, and any such outreach should be a spin-off from helping young people develop a nuanced and critical understanding of issues. Then there’s the safety of the young people to consider; not all children live in circumstances where attempting outreach is wise, and they should not be placed in a position caught between strongly felt and competing school and parental values.
We summarised all this in this way:
- Intergenerational learning is possible although never straightforward, and the potential for it will vary very widely from family to family.
- Family learning will be more effective when young people engage with adults in structured tasks that are appropriate, realistic and meaningful to all concerned.
- Young people need careful preparation for any role they play, and the inherent ethical issues need to be acted on.
- Whatever happens needs to be seen as part of an individual’s own education where the their learning (as opposed to their ‘teaching’ of others) is paramount.
- The goal of behaviour change cannot sensibly be seen in isolation from wider learning goals.
I am continually surprised by how many people suppose that such school-home transfer is a straightforward process. I suspect that they have forgotten what it was to be a child.