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  • 19th Mar 2020

900 million children and young people are learning from home. What works best?

As the UK prepares for schools to shut tomorrow, this post explores the evidence on what works for remote learning and provides ideas for how to help parents support their children’s learning at home, based on our experience running a number of projects in this space. 

The UK will soon be joining 119 countries who have closed schools, colleges and universities, impacting over 900 million children and young people globally (as of 18 March). Already, UK universities have largely suspended face-to-face teaching, meaning some 2 million students are adjusting to remote learning. 

Remote learning – what works? 

Most researchers recognise the irreplaceable qualities of a physical teacher. However, under Covid-19, many countries must now work out how best to educate children and young people online. It will be crucial to both learn from existing evidence and test what works best to support learning in these challenging times. 

There are already a large number of resources available to help children and young people learn at home. Research by Daisy Christodoulou also recommends a number of online platforms. In some cases these tools have shown evidence of impact, but as they begin to be used by more and more educators it will be important to listen to both teachers and students to learn what works, and how these resources can be improved to better support remote learning.

Crucially, most online platforms have been designed to support and complement a physical teacher that sets work and checks pupil compliance. The success of these platforms will likely depend on the engagement of teachers, as well as of pupils. 

Behavioural science can help learners and teachers engage with virtual technology. In a previous blog, we discussed the potential for behavioural insights and education technology to work together to improve outcomes. 

Supporting parents with home learning – what works?

At BIT, we have worked on multiple projects to help parents engage with their children’s education, often by sending regular tips by text message. We have learnt that short messages with simple, actionable prompts can make it easier to engage in developmental activities – ideally by turning everyday activities into educational moments. 

Evidence for the impact of this approach comes from a 9-month curriculum of SMS tips for parents of 4-5 year old children, designed by Professor Susanna Loeb of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. The programme provides 3 messages a week covering numeracy, literacy and socioemotional skills. A trial in the US found that these messages improved literacy by the equivalent of 2 months of additional schooling. BIT is currently testing a version of this programme called Tips by Text (adapted to the UK context by BIT) in the North East of England in partnership with the Education Endowment Foundation

One set of readily available messages that parents might find helpful are in the free Tig app developed by BIT for Ipswich Opportunity Area and currently being piloted. The app includes 80 home learning tips for each age group from 0 to 5, designed using behavioural science and input from speech and language therapists. 

Tig’s tips build on everyday activities like doing the laundry (“Count how many socks there are.. Try taking away three of the socks – how many are left?”) and also turn everyday objects into games (Put four or five household items on a tray, like a fork, piece of fruit, and a toy… cover the tray with a towel. How many of the items on the tray can [your child] remember?). 

We could adapt this approach to help parents manage long periods of time with their children at home. Messages could also include suggested weekly/daily schedules (to be used flexibly), and tips on physical health and wellbeing, e.g., the importance of spending one-on-one time with each child to support healthy sibling relationships. 

With around 12m children under the age of 15 in the UK alone, there will be a huge burden on millions of parents who will find themselves acting as full time caregivers. These highly targeted, timely and unobtrusive prompts could potentially provide parents with extra ideas and activities that have been proven to deliver a positive impact.

For further ideas on developmental activities to do with children, take a look at the Department for Education’s Hungry Little Minds website and Five Minute Mum.

Please get in touch if you have other ideas about how best to support learners, parents or teachers with remote learning in these tough times.