Back to school

This is a very personal post.  From a different side of the learning fence.  It’s about the challenge I face as a parent at the beginning of the new school year.

I have two kids, 8 and 10, who are very happy in their schools.  They have great classmates and so far – OK it’s only day four! – getting ready for school in the morning is a happy and positive affair.

They go to local Spanish schools following a traditional curriculum taught in a pretty traditional fashion.  Rote learning, memorization, accuracy and constant testing is at the basis of the teaching philosophy.  That’s not the full picture of course.  Individual teachers and their individual approaches bring a breath of fresh air, they look for creativity where they can, but the kids still end up filling pages and pages of activity books and worksheets, ticking the correct answers, counting the mistakes , being graded once a month.

This is their day to day learning reality. And I find myself having to support it.  Even on day three my 8 year old daughter already had to memorise (verbatim) a punctuation rule.  And I helped her.  Of course we discussed the how and the why and the where – the bigger picture as it were – but in the end she insisted on being tested, on repeating the rule word for word.  She was only happy when she could parrot it comfortably and confidently.

Don’t get me wrong – I think memorization and rules have a role to play in learning – I’m just worried that the over-riding philosophy, the message about learning, that’s coming across is one of pleasing the tester, ticking the boxes, getting things right, which brings me to my question and personal challenge (a repeated, yearly, constant challenge but one that changes and shifts all the time as the kids get older, as the “learning” load increases):

How can parents help bridge the gap between traditional schooling and creative learning? 

I guess it’s mainly an attitude, a mindset, letting them explore and learn on their own terms, in their own time, offer opportunities, be there to discuss questions … but that takes time, and once they’ve finished the worksheets and the memorizing all they really want to do is take it easy, which is fair enough, right?  But still … I wonder … am I doing enough?

I wonder if any of you are facing the same situation?  I guess I’m not really looking for easy solutions, just airing a quandary …

But it does lead me to another question, related to another aspect of learning/teaching and my day-to-day life and that’s constantly present in my mind at the moment:

How can published materials help bridge the gap between a static syllabus and the dynamic process of language learning?  

Now that’s a biggie … and one I’m going to be coming back to, but not in this post!

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20 Responses to Back to school

  1. Pingback: Back to school | Creativity in ELT |

  2. Tony Gurr says:


    That is a “biggie” – wise move 😉

    Thank you for the “personal tone” in this post – sometimes we forget that it these kinds of personal narratives that can really help us grow as “professionals” too. I remember days like this myself (my big, little girl is now 22 – and away at uni in London) – the problem was they got fewer and farther between as she moved through primary, into middle and then onto high school. It was a pity watching her grow to really dislike school (Uni saved the day, by the way – and she is much happier now) 😉

    I’m not sure if textbooks can bridge the gap (they too are static – but this seems set to change) -parents can (by remembering what schools forget sometimes – our kids need choice, challenge and collaboration) 😉


    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Tony, thanks for taking the time to comment!
      Enjoyed some good learning time today – my son taught me how to do long division the Spanish way – steep learning curve for me 😉 – in preparation to be tested tomorrow (!) but we had fun. My daughter sat down after dinner and worked on a storybook she’s co-authoring with a friend at school 😉
      As for the other question – it’s one I’m squaring up to at the moment – and with a little trepidation to say the least – I think, want to believe, that a static text can offer dynamic directions, can be a starting point or a springboard if taken as it was intended … I don’t know, that’s what I’m pondering at the moment and hoping to look at it close up in a couple of blog posts some time soon.
      In the meantime I’m really enjoying the LEARNacy posts. Was definitely part of what spurred me on to publish this post 🙂
      Thanks again,

  3. Daniel says:

    Hi Ceri,
    It sounds as if what you’re doing in those after-school chats – engaging with the kids on the things that they’re doing, listening to them, being willing (and keen) to learn from them – is a good thing. How many of us parents make the time to get involved in that way with school work? I’m going to take a leaf out of your book and try to be there for my daughter more academically.
    P.S Thanks for tweet about Malta – fun so far :o)

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Dan!
      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. You’re already there so much for your daughter, you’re one of my role models! 🙂
      Early days of term it’s easy, we’re all fresh and enthusiastic, then things get in the way, homework for the kids, deadlines for us, life in general. Finding the time without cramping their R&R – that’s the difficult one I think. And the balance between shoring up and supporting the system in school, and experimenting and experiencing other ways of learning. I guess it’s a constant learning curve! Would be good to swap notes over a beer some time 🙂
      Enjoy Malta!

  4. I agree with Dan, I think you are already doing the most that can be done. its a fine line between children not having a dissonance between school life and home life, to showing them other ways things can be done. There are lots of fine lines we dance as parents.
    May this be a great school year for both you and the children!

  5. Yes, as Tony says – a biggie.

    Wish I could offer some insight, but in fact my own little sproglet has just started his first pre-school year. Already I’m worrying about general stuff that lies far in the future – will he be lucky enough to have teachers that can teach, rather than just follow a (poor) syllabus in a hurry? I confess I feel pretty negative about the box-ticking mentality that seems to prevail in Spain, along with many other places.

    And the specific stuff – how will he react – as an English native speaker – to English lessons? Be bored? Show off? Switch off? Will it even somehow undermine his natural English?

    Maybe you know already?

    I have to say it sounds like you’ve been lucky with your kids’ school, though 🙂

    I will take a leaf out of Dan’s book (above) though, and get involved.

    Good timing, Ceri. Thanks.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Alan,
      Thanks for stopping by 🙂
      Sorry not to have replied sooner – we’ve been away for a last few days of summer holiday!

      I agree, the general stuff is worrying … even when they’re three 😉 Maybe more so when they’re three, when we haven’t seen yet, that actually they’ll be OK, that they’re learning machines and that actually “bad” teachers don’t necesarily affect them as much as we worry they will. But when(if) they get “bad” teachers, the box-tickers, the testers, the heads-down-and-copy-ers, then the onus really is on us, the parents, to counterbalance, to support and bolster, not to badmouth their day-to-day classroom reality, but to supplement it, to offer different learning paths and experiences. Or at least that’s my take on it. And that’s the challenge, finding the time to do that, the time and their energy and good will.

      and the English classes? man, I think we need a couple of beers for that!
      They can both do a mean imitation of English with a Spanish (Andaluz) accent 😉
      Someone asked my son when he was four who was best at English in his class. With the honesty of a four year old he said “me” – And then who? he was asked. “My teacher” he said 😉

      But seriously I really don’t think it undermines their English outside the class. They both make/made the typical L1 learning mistakes – overusing the -ed ending on past verbs for example – and some possible transference problems that are typical of any bilingual speakers especially when they’re code-switching, but that’s more to do with growing up with two languages constantly in their environment.

      I think they see the two things as totally separate. English is their language, they learn and use it outside school – it’s not really related to what they do in class. The challenge of learning to spell and write correctly is really the only challenge the classes offer (and in some cases is the only thing they’re tested on which at least puts them on a level with their Spanish classmates!). So far they’re both pretty happy to jump through the hoops – the social aspect of being in class with their mates is enough – they both appreciate that it’s easy for them and difficult for their friends. I guess boredom will kick in at some point. A bridge to cross when it does I guess.

      Hope the first year of cole goes well for you all 🙂

  6. swisssirja says:

    Aie-aie-aie, Ceri, this post talks to me so loudly I could barely calm myself down and NOT start to respond before reaching to the end of the post 😉
    Well, I have been having EXACTLY the same questions and doubts. My older ones are 8 and 9 respectively and just like your kids they have to follow quite a rigid and traditional syllabus. We spend our evenings and a way too important part of the weekend doing all the homework, memorizing, revising, learning by heart the rules that go on for lines and lines. The older girl has no big difficulties as she is the “academic” type, but the younger one is struggling because he is the dreamer, the creative type, the one who just doesn’t fit into the mould. I see him suffer, I understand him, I see his potential, but its of different hue and flavour than the one they require at school – and it makes my heart ache, it makes me angry, disappointed.
    On one hand, I would like to be able to let him do things in his own way. But on the other hand, I know, I wouldn’t be doing him a favour like that. After all, he needs to pass his years so that one day he could be free.
    It doesn’t help that I’m reading Ken Robinson at the moment 😉

    So how do we cope? Well, we do the work, the boring tasks. But whenever possible, I try to take them further. Get them out of the box. Ask strange questions, draw funny parallels…but most of all – whenever they want to talk about something – ALWAYS listen! Always find the time to listen, because that’s when they show themselves, that’s how they learn to dare to express themselves and their ideas!

    I’m sorry I only answer the first question but well, that’s the one I felt more comfortable with.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Sirja,
      Thanks for stopping by it’s good to see you 🙂
      I see we’re on the same wavelength again. As I’m reading your reply and typing I’ve got my youngest at my side (the creative one as well). It’s copying and memorising today. But she’s off in her own little world … acting out some hilarious, crazy classroom roleplay which includes interruptions at her imaginary classroom door, dictations and drilling her imaginary students (she’s quite a drill master!). She’s drilling the words on the page that she needs to study but she’s definitely let it all out of the box (in fact now it’s gone spinning off into some kind of complicated admin task or other, sounds like she’s timetabling the whole school)and it’s great fun to watch and listen … listen as you say, so, so important … making time to listen properly, to follow up the tangents … but I know I’ll need to bring it all back into the box … and soon. There’s a test tomorrow 😦 – but as you say, that’s our job, juggling, balancing, allowing time when we can but remembering that they’re in the system and need to jump through the hoops, like it or not. What I hate most of all is the theft of those “way too important weekend times”!

      and by the way, I’m avoiding that second question at the moment too 😉

      hope your school year’s got off to a good start
      Ceri x

  7. Reblogged this on piergiulioprimerano and commented:
    Great writing! I really enjoy your reflections about language and teaching.
    I remember you as a wonderful teacher at the English School of L’Aquila, when I attended your classes in the ‘80s.
    Thanks, Ceri!

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Pier Guilio!
      Come stai? What a long time! Where are you? Are you still in L’Aquila?
      Hope all’s going well for you 🙂

      • Hi Ceri,
        Sto bene, grazie, e spero lo stesso per te e la tua splendida famiglia.
        I’m not in L’Aquila any more, although my parents still live there; the town is struggling to come over the earthquake of 2009, anyway the reconstruction is somewhat progressing. At present I’m based in Rome, but I travel extensively on business (latest destinations were South Korea and Saudi Arabia).
        I love reading your posts, and I’ll keep on following your blog for sure, as I find it extremely helpful for my writing, dealing with people and life in general. 🙂
        From time to time I get the chance to teach, so now I’m aware of how hard it is to get through to your audience and to keep them engaged!
        All the best for you and your family! 🙂
        Pier Giulio

  8. positively critical says:

    Hi Ceri,
    I’ve been meaning to write for a while now but could find little in myself to add to the debate. I agree that so much of the “giving of classes” feels unsophisticated and result driven and children find themselves thrust into an unforgiving structure with apparently limited ambition and too tight a focus. I agree with so many of the posts here too about the need for support and extension and being there for our kids.
    At the same time, I feel a huge sympathy for the pupils, teachers and school leaders as they work through what is an incredibly difficult time. My impression is that governments and education departments pile pressure on schools to “raise the standards”, schools then transfer on to heads of department and so on to teachers and subsequently on to our children, their students, and all the time with fewer and fewer resources as austerity cuts deeper and harder into the social fabric of society. A thankless task for teachers perhaps and perhaps an understandable response is more input and rote learning.
    Our older daughter (7 years old) has been getting pretty upset about homework and it was all becoming a bit of an ordeal. We asked for a chat with the teacher, who I should add has a reputation as being particularly old-school and slightly scary. I approached the meeting warily and determined to be open, I wanted her advice and was looking forward to her observations, I told myself. I was really surprised and impressed with the results. The way she spoke about my daughter showed how well she knew her and in how much depth she thought about her and the other 25 students in the class. We covered seating arrangements, interpersonal factors, intrapersonal tendancies, development, maturity and all manner of other areas.We talked about the role of memorising texts and the day-to-day mechanics of teaching and learning. It was wonderfully interesting and reassuring.
    I came away with a renewed appreciation and admiration for the profession. I also came away with a nagging sadness that resonates through many of the comments here. My conclusion? To find positive notes in a supportive narrative around education whenever and wherever possible.It also served as a reminder of my own responsibility for my child’s education.

    (sorry for banging on, it turned into a long piece. feel free to edit if you can on these blogthings!)

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi there,
      Thanks for taking the time to come back and “bang on” 🙂
      I really appreciate the gist of your message, and I don’t mean to come down on teachers. I’m hoping to turn the question around and face it as a teacher in a post very soon 🙂
      I really don’t blame the teachers at all, as I mentioned, my kids’ teachers are great and do what they can to bring in creativity and student-led learning where possible. I really appreciate the work they do and they are so much more than just test givers. But I still think the system makes it difficult. The syllabuses drive the books that drive the lessons. Material has to be “covered” and be seen to be covered. Tests are given and grades are public property with everyone measuring themselves against each other. That’s the system and I think it’s good when the kids, whether through their teachers, or through their own explorations, or through extracurricular activites, or playing or – yes – with us, their parents – can experience a different way of viewing learning that doesn’t continuously measure and count mistakes.
      Stopping now before I start banging on as well 😉

  9. I’m not a parent, but my initial reaction to your first question is…. playtime! In Ontario, certain schools value play-based learning for young children as a means to encouraging exploration, experimentation and self-directed learning. It is amazing how much kids learn through their imagination and testing what they think will work, but doesn’t. 🙂

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Ty,
      Sorry for being so slow replying. I’ve been ever so slightly worklogged (love that word of yours).
      There is so much that we can learn from the education system in Canada – a lot of things your school system is getting so right. Last year there was a lot of talk in the Spanish press about the Canadian parents who won a court case against homework. My daughter’s teacher wanted to experiment with no homework for a week, giving the kids more time to play and relax and learn on their own terms out of school and then testing the kids to see if they did any better or worse at retaining what they’d learnt in class, the theory being that at primary homework (apart from reading) doesn’t actually aid learning. She put it to the vote in a parents’ meeting. The parents voted against it :(. The culture of rote learning and testing goes much deeper than the school system.

  10. You are on the right track. Keep doing what you are doing, and look for more ways for your children to creatively do activities to increase their learning. You are the extra teacher!

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