How homeschooling has impacted my teaching

Would you believe it? I’ve spent years producing original, expert commentary on the economy and financial markets (see Kaleidic Economics) and yet the time I make it onto something like The Chart Book (at 28:15) it’s for a tweet I posted while homeschooling.

As a professional educator I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to homeschool. And although my wife has taken on the vast majority of the work, the few hours where I’ve sat down with my kids has allowed me to confront a burning issue that I’ve dwelt on for some time. Should we treat adults like children?

We know that children are excellent learners, and great care and attention is given to understanding their development and providing engaging activities that help them progress. Indeed learning techniques are monitored and studied in a way that’s absent for most higher education establishments. As Teaching and Learning coordinator for the London campus at ESCP Business School, I routinely attend conferences on improving teaching practices. And I’ve been surprised by how much of that content originates from foundation year studies. I’ve often encountered an implicit implication that since children are the best learners, educators should adopt those models whenever learning takes place. Hence the focus on participant-centred learning, the importance of play, etc.

I’ve resisted this somewhat, because adults are different. Attention spans are longer, they have an existing interest in wanting to learn, and they have prior knowledge and experience to draw upon. When I’m told that TED Talks are so effective because they’re so short, and then hear someone else challenge that with the claim that 2–5 minute videos are optimal, I recoil. Surely a good lecturer can hold attention for longer than this? Surely it’s part of our job to build resilience rather than catering to bad study habits? Surely students don’t want to be treated like children?

Regardless of my teaching principles, it’s clear that we are moving towards a model of shorter interactions, closer spoon feeding, and reducing our expectations over students ability to self motivate. As I’ve chased better teaching evaluations I’ve abandoned my model of what a good course should look like, and tried to meet students on their own terms.

And I think that’s the key — I’m not like my students. The best professors I’ve had were those who cultivate an interest in economics and exposed me to incredible insights and clarity of thought. Whether they turned around assignments on time, provided extensive written feedback, or clearly articulated learning outcomes for each part of the course, was utterly irrelevant. But my students are different. I’m not encountering future version of myself. I’m not the model student. And my children are even more different. I have no option but to meet them on their terms.

Homeschooling has really clarified, for me, the difference between three types of teacher:

  1. The expert — these are the teachers I experienced in graduate school, and this is appropriate. It’s the PhD seminar, the conference presentation, or the evening lecture by an esteemed public intellectual. There is a shared background of knowledge and interest. Many concepts can be taken for granted without need for explanation. No attempt needs to be made to justify your presence. Attendance is voluntary and if you miss it, it’s your loss. Just turn up, listen, and learn.
  2. The coach — this is about development. It’s about having someone to help you acquire a new skill. You’re not challenging any thinking or being too creative, you are being trained to do something that you’ve already consented to. Applies on a soccer field, in an iPhone fitness app, or in any corporate away day. Attendance is compulsory and it’s the experience that matters.
  3. The educator — this is trickier. You’re not simply delivering content or passing on a skill. Your aim is to aid critical thinking and assess someone’s transformation.

If I’m invited to give a Zoom webinar on the economics of pandemics, I’m playing the role of an expert. When I’m showing my kids how to do a keepy uppy, I’m a coach. But when I’m teaching reading comprehension to my son, or auction theory to MBA students, I’m an educator. It turns out that it’s the same role.

Here’s the thing though: if teaching models are increasingly moving towards early stage methods, why not really experience those methods? I’ve always felt, in a superficial sense, that coaching kids football helps my teaching. But actually finding out what techniques and resources are necessary to teach a 9 year old and a 7 year old have proven to be a very useful exercise.

The key points I’ve learnt are as follows:

  • Set the right preconditions — if they’re not paying attention it’s possibly physiological. It’s amazing how “go and get a glass of water” or “have a 10 minute bounce on the trampoline” can help. If students come to class tired and dehydrated then it’s an uphill battle. Action point: Don’t start unless the class is ready to learn. Encourage water bottles on desks, even if someone spills something. Use breaks wisely.
  • You really haven’t taught until they’ve learnt — I sometimes find myself in class answering a student’s question and then being unconvinced that they’ve properly understood my response. On a good day, I’ll try to explain it in a different way, or follow up with that student during a break. On a bad day, I figure that if they still don’t understand when they are going back over their notes, they’ll ask again. And yet when I say something to my child, in my homeschool, and they fob me, off I don’t want to leave it there. If they haven’t understand then there’s no point continuing and so we’ll go back over it in as many different ways as necessary. (Of course this reflects the advantage of smaller class size, but I always assume that one student’s uncertainty reflects a wider failure on my part). Action point: Now that I’ve really felt it, I wonder if I can maintain that same devotion to student learning when I’m at work.
  • Give them options — although I found that my kids have a high tolerance for structure and routine, there’s no doubt that they are more engaged when they have input into their activity. When it’s entirely up to them, by definition, they are most engaged. Those things that my wife and I do want to cover — basic arithmetic, legibility of handwriting, telling the time — are a harder sell. But giving them a choice over what to do and when seems like a small concession on my part. Action point: Give students more of a choice over assignment questions and ensure that those options are driven by their interests.
  • Make assessment activity led — it may be going too far to hire a professional cartoonist to make my worksheets more fun and engaging, but the fact that I use worksheets so frequently tells a story. Instead of testing comprehension with a list of exam-style questions, having a single A4 page that needs to be filled in is more bite size and tangible. Action point: Find/create more worksheets.
  • Use role play — I was initially skeptical of doing homeschool because home isn’t school. This was our opportunity to escape school, and give the kids some freedom. And yet if we wanted to cover some of the curriculum we’d need some structure. It turns out that playing schools can be more fun than schools, and sometimes acting like their teacher is better than trying to be one. (Perhaps the fact that I am a teacher makes this a dumb point, and this advice wouldn’t hold for typical parents. I’m not sure). And yet it’s made me recognise that the use of role play within an MBA course isn’t a cliche or gimmick but a useful tool. Doing some acting, seeing things from different perspectives, and making the class more light hearted are highly valuable. Action point: Go deeper on role play. In a case discussion actually get into character. Bring props.

Although my teaching experience is based on postgraduate and executive education, there’s clear parallels with younger age groups. This unexpected but intensive experience means that I’ve resolved some of my inner conflict about the increased infantisation of modern students. By going so very far, I think I’ll know where to stop.

Professor of Economics at ESCP Business School