I admit it – I have given up on parents’ evening. As an assistant headteacher, I was always first in and last out of our regular events. But, four and a half hours of rapid-fire, five-minute chats with parents was never enough for them and too exhausting for us. Furthermore, the ‘speed-dating’ effect of the evening meant that by the twelfth meeting of the night, it was hard not to become repetitive, and increasingly difficult to formulate worthwhile thoughts about each child as an individual.
As a parent, I find these evenings even more frustrating. At my daughter’s recent secondary school parents’ evening, we booked slots with six teachers but, so chaotic was the organisation, every meeting overran and we only got to see three. We will never go again.
Parents’ evenings are broken. Waiting hours for brief conversations is not a constructive use of anyone’s time and is ill-suited to communicating an entire academic year and the future ahead. Giving parents and teachers a time to communicate is paramount. But what if we could do better? What if we could flip the whole idea on its head?
Knowledge is power
Generally, conversations at parents’ evenings centre on students’ classroom performance and progress, before moving on to goals and targets for the rest of the year.
However, the first part is merely about providing historic information; it’s perfectly feasible to provide this to parents before the meeting even begins, and doing so would help to ensure that their questions are more pertinent and potentially fewer in number. Parents don’t need teachers to read grades to them – they require advice on action to take following those grades.
If this sounds a little like the emerging pedagogical trend of ‘flipped learning’, then you are right. Just as classroom face-time with teachers can be made more valuable when students first digest learning materials in their own time, parental engagement can be improved by flipping the engagement model.
Parents are ready for change. In a survey Firefly Learning recently commissioned from YouGov, parents said they wanted more communication from teachers, but preferred to receive it through digital means. Now it falls on teachers to respond.
Little and often
There are two possible options for implementing a ‘flipped parents’ meeting’. First, we could produce a short report on each child and distribute this to parents before the meeting takes place, as some schools are already doing, and host the parents’ evening shortly after reports have been published. However, such an approach is not without its complications. Asking teachers to produce a further report in the academic year may not be popular.
Alternatively, if parents were to receive regular, small updates throughout the year (the kind of communication that is ideally suited to smartphone technology) then they would be able to arrive at the meeting with a more balanced and long-term picture of their child’s progress. This is also less stressful for the child and the teacher, as they are not preparing for a test or a piece of work that will inform the meeting at any one point. Using frequent information about student performance as a basis, real-world discussions can be centred on improvements and goals, not out of date information.
You can’t change parents’ evening overnight. Parents need to be ‘educated’ so that they understand that a movement of grades up and down, like those of the stock markets, is a normal part of student progress – in other words, that they don’t need to contact the school every time there is a change in weekly grades. There will be a flurry of contact in the initial phase, but as they get used to the system, families will become more comfortable with the normal ebb and flow of work that students produce.
The same is true for the students themselves. Some may feel under the microscope in the initial stages, but as they get used to the idea, continuous assessment and feedback will be part of their educational experience and not one over which to be unnecessarily concerned.
Education is an interaction between the different parties involved: teachers, students and parents, and as such the human element of this process is an essential one. However, the real benefits of these face-to-face discussions can all too easily get lost while we talk about the data and facts that inform them.
By flipping the model, teachers can spend their time more effectively with students and there is no reason why the same strategy should not work with parents as well. Once teachers, parents and pupils are used to the idea of continuous feedback, parents’ evening can become a forum through which to discuss how to improve a child’s learning, rather than a snatched conversation in which to cram a whole term’s worth of feedback.
About the author
Rob Eastment has been in working in education since 1998, teaching in a range of different schools before joining firefly learning (fireflylearning.com) in August 2014. As Head of it and then as a Deputy Head, he was responsible for digital strategy within schools. He is an advocate of the growth mindset and has worked with the flipped learning model.