8 Ways Educators Help Parents Promote Powerful Learning

We spent a year listening to parents and reading their stories that took shape in blogs on The Huffington Post and GettingSmart.com. From what we read and heard from parents through our year long investigation, they recognize it’s a changing world and they want to make sure their children learn at their own pace and in ways that promote anytime, anywhere learning. They also want their children to have a strong sense of their own agency and effectiveness and possess strong social and emotional skills.

The blogs in our series, along with commentary from education experts, are part of our new book Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning, in partnership with The Nellie Mae Education Foundation. The ideas expressed in the blog series and book represent our best thinking, along with the inspirational stories from parents, about the path forward.

Much has been written on the topic of parent engagement in schools. While we definitely advocate for stronger parent engagement (and the research suggests parent involvement does matter), we believe that the ways in which schools operate, and what EdLeaders do to engage parents, can greatly assist in engaging and promoting powerful learning. Parents and educators working together with students creates a level of support that doesn’t always happen when adults work hard separately and in silos. Communication reigns supreme, and in the right combination, parents, students, teachers and EdLeaders can all play a role in creating powerful learning experiences.

There’s a lot that parents can do at home to promote student-centered learning, but it would be a lot easier if schools addressed these four things:

  • Build their plan. Every student should have an individual learning plan, one co-constructed by the learner, a teacher/advisor, and the parent/guardian. The plan should include learning goals, anticipate learning choices, identify the kinds of experiences that work best for the learner, and connect the learner to helpful supports.
  • Determine their pace. Students that need more time to master a skill should get it. That doesn’t mean repeating a grade; it does mean real-time support when and where they need it. Students should be able to move at their own pace. That may mean finishing a grade or course early and moving on. The shift to competency-based education will be challenging for most schools but learning to accommodate individual pacing is a good place to start.
  • Find their place. Online learning (with a teacher at a distance) and informal learning options are exploding. Schools need to stay abreast of expanding options and help learners and parents make informed choices. As schools adopt competency-based learning, it will become easier for students to learn anywhere, demonstrate their learning, and move on.
  • Support their path. Teachers, advisors and parents can put learners in the driver’s seat by allowing them to customize projects and assignments. Schools and parents should work together to expose middle and high school grade students to a variety of work settings and postsecondary options.

The Smart Parents blog series taught us four lessons about parenting for powerful learning. Schools can help parents be:

  • Informed. Regular communication about learning goals and progress helps parent support learning at home. Online on-demand access to information is best, and mobile applications are getting better at supporting this requirement.
  • Involved. Provide specific tips on how parents can support or extend learning. Identify field trips, work and service experience, and reading lists for learners.
  • Intentional. Share tips for developing a growth mindset. Help parents be thoughtful about being involved in learning without being a helicopter parent.
  • Inspirational. Learning opportunities have never been better but it has never been more important to be a parent, to limit screen time, to monitor peer groups, to inspire curiosity and to support smart risk taking. A few tips and nudges from a teacher can inspire a parent to do more and be more than they had imagined.

Every child deserves at least one person at home and one person at school that knows and cares about them as a learner. School leaders have a unique opportunity to bring to light information and to engage parents in a dialogue about what is best for all students.

Student-centered learning in the digital era represents the path forward. We call for an illumination of the conversation and a collaboration between educators, parents and students around a holistic approach to learning, one in which the student has ownership and a directed plan with support from teachers and parents. This is increasingly possible through exemplars as noted in our book and also from technological capabilities that create unprecedented learning opportunities.

Edleaders can help parents get on board through discussion and genuine opportunities to engage in student learning. The start of the school year can create dialogue among EdLeaders and teachers. Questions that can spark conversations and thinking:

  • How are parents involved in their child’s education? Are they coming in regularly and participating in genuine parent-teacher conversations for and with their kids that help drive and encourage student-centered learning?
  • Do they understand how their children are being assessed? Can parents read and understand the reporting system and/or assessment system?
  • Are parents getting phone calls from educators?
  • Are parents being given the opportunity to mentor their own kids and/or other kids in the school?
  • Is their genuine collaboration and communication occurring between home and school?
  • What school work and/or projects might create genuine and authentic parent and student collaboration?
  • What opportunities and/or ways can the school promote and invite parent participation at assemblies, at other student gatherings and at parent nights?
  • How are parents invited to the school to participate and provide genuine feedback at project nights and/or student exhibitions of learning?
  • How does what is on the wall/in the office/in the classroom invite and welcome and/or inhibit parent involvement?
  • To what degree is parent involvement a priority and what would it look like if that was indeed the priority? What does it mean to the school staff to have parents involved? Is it a hassle or a genuine partnership?

Parents especially need the “good news” phone call that lets them know that there is an adult at the school that knows their children well.

As we look to the new school year, we must recognize that parents have a strong desire to be advocates for their children, in partnership with teachers and EdLeaders. We can have schools that celebrate the uniqueness of individual children and the collaboration of parents and teachers in support of personalized and student-centered learning. The path forward and beyond exists, and is inspired by over 60 parents represented in our new book. The reality that we live in an era of change is undeniable. Parents and educators should work together; learning that is student-centered is becoming infinitely more powerful when supported at home and at school.

This blog is part of our Smart Parents blog series and book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning in partnership with The Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information, please see our Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning page and other blogs in the series:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Tony B

Tom, I'm and educator and parent and believe in developing the culture and establishing a climate for learning. It takes a "whole village" to make that happen. This means student must be surrounded and influenced by teachers, parents, relatives, neighbors, businesses and more who are advocates of life long learning. To promote this is everything, to model it for a student is genuine but to teach it is pure and unselfish.

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