Covert Operations and Sneaky Teaching

June 24, 2021
Daniel Burton
Fiona Alexander


School: Scotch College

Year Group: 2

Teacher: Fiona Alexander

Creative Practitioner: Daniel Burton

Creative Practice: Nature Pedagogue

"I thought they were off task until Mrs Alexander asked him to explain what he was doing, and I couldn't believe what came out of his mouth. He knew exactly what was happening and what everyone else was focused on, I'm never doubting him again!" - Parent

Excursions are a wonderful place to include parents in the learning experiences of a child's school life. Inviting parents to join these outings supports the teacher with supervision, group support, boundary markers and road crossing buddies. Still, there are many more advantages of inviting parents into these experiences.

During Semester 2 of 2020, Year 2 Teacher Fiona Alexander and Creative Practitioner Daniel Burton, ran the first-ever series of Beach School and River School excursions at Scotch College. The fortnightly excursions to the beach (Term 3) and river (Term 4) provided the platform for investigating properties of materials, gaining access to wide-open spaces, exploring the natural environment outside the school grounds, and connecting the students to their local community spaces. However, there was also a covert operation in play at each of these excursions – Adult Learning Experiences. Three to four parents were invited to join the class as parent helpers each session. Their role and support with supervision were to sit back and observe whilst taking anecdotal notes of the conversations and dialogue that occurred as the students explored, built, collaborated, invented, learnt, and played. Their challenge: not to engage verbally or physically!

At first, for many of the parents, this was a challenge. Their discomfort became visible as they fought the urge to jump in, offer advice, redirect, ask questions, and help the groups with their task. However, with support from Fiona and Daniel, they relaxed into the role, and the magic happened. They started to observe things they weren't expecting, and they were witnessing complex conversation, creative exploration, new discoveries and deep learning.

"I used to think he was a follower. I've never seen my boy in this light. My boy is a natural born, quiet leader. I'm so proud of my boy!" - Parent

In essence, what the parents were asked to do was pause and take time to see their child (and other children) in a different light, see the true value of play and social interaction, and see their children as capable. How often do parents get the chance to sit back and be observers while their children play? Play often happens while parents are engaged in other tasks or activities.

In addition to sitting back and observing the interactions, the parents were asked to hold back on 'rescuing' their children and doing things for them. Examples of these are: putting on their shoes, carrying their water bottle or dusting off the sand from their feet and legs when they felt uncomfortable. This request was born out of two intentions. Firstly, Fiona explained to the parents that they are not always going to be there, on every incursion, during a regular school day, etc. Doing it for them now disables them for these future experiences. Secondly, Daniel shared the concept that when adults do the simple tasks for a child (tasks that they are capable of doing themselves), they send a message to the child that they don't trust that the child is capable. It can also send a statement that the child cannot do the task fast enough, efficiently enough or good enough, so the adult must take over. This subtle, subconscious message sticks!

Daniel and Fiona were excited then to hear from a parent, on the last excursion of the year, that attending the excursions as a parent helper and taking on the parent challenges, had a lasting impact on her as a mum. The covert operation had made an impact!

"It's changed the way I parent. I used to carry their school bags across the oval; now I can see they can do it. I get them to help me carry the shopping bags when we go shopping. They are capable of doing their own shoelaces, putting on their own sunscreen!" - Parent

When we invite parents into our classrooms to join our learning experiences, excursions and other unique opportunities, it provides a chance to share a glimpse into the child's world with a specific lens. When parents can see their child in a different context, they see them in a different light, they see them as capable and confident.