When should a parent correct a teacher?
One subject that is regularly fiercely debated on parenting forums across the internet is whether parents should correct teachers if they get something wrong. Parents fret about being rude, ruining their child's relationship with their teacher and getting the teacher into trouble. Should they draw attention to the "excellant" (sic) written next to their child's answer? What if they are unconvinced by a teacher's approach to division?
Last week's Dispatches documentary on maths teaching - which paraded a handful of primary teachers who could not answer supposedly simple questions - will only serve to give some parents more encouragement to assume that their child's teacher is wrong (see box, right).
As a lecturer, I have given this matter some thought and come up with a system that should help parents and teachers know when a correction is called for. This involves seeing teaching as being on three levels: fact, analysis and discovery.
Fact covers things we know to be correct. This includes spelling and basic grammar such as apostrophes, two of the biggest bugbears on the parenting forums.
A primary-level example might be the sentence "the cat sat on the mat". Knowing that this says what it does and how to read it comes into this category of fact. At secondary level, you might take as an example the fact that Germany invaded Poland in 1939. While facts can be challenged and debated and of course sometimes disproved, there is an accepted answer that is deemed to be correct.
Analysis refers to the kind of teaching that stems from knowledge of the facts. When it comes to "the cat sat on the mat", the analysis includes wondering what might come next and the reasons why the cat sat on the mat as well as whether the story is enjoyable. On the invasion of Poland, analysis includes thinking about why this happened and considering the consequences. Any theories should be questioned, challenged and debated, and students should be encouraged to think that just because the teacher says one thing does not mean that there is not an alternative analysis of equal or greater validity.
Where parents disagree with a teacher's analysis, the thing to do is to ensure their child knows that analysis is open to interpretation in a way that facts are not.
Then there is what I will call discovery. This is the kind of knowledge that takes the facts and analysis to another level. So in the first example this would mean encouraging a child to think about further rhymes for cat, sat and mat or to read another book or to draw a picture of a cat that is sat on the mat. For the second example it would be thinking about lessons that can be learnt from the Second World War: moral questions such as the concept of a just war, or the suggestion of further reading around the subject. Here it is the teacher's responsibility to equip students with the ability and encouragement to find this kind of knowledge. But other than discouraging them from doing so, there is no right or wrong.
It is in the first stage of knowledge where correcting any teacher mistakes is most important. In fact I would point out to the parents on forums who are um-ing and ah-ing over what to do that in these instances correction, done kindly and appropriately, is vital.
The key words there of course are kindly and appropriately. As with most jobs, it is not making a mistake that matters so much as how the mistake is dealt with. A parent sending a kind note or asking the teacher if they can speak to them for a moment is completely different to belittling a teacher or gathering a mass of parents to confront them. When it is done correctly, the teacher should be pleased to have an error pointed out, and if it was an error of understanding rather than a one-off mistake they should be brave enough to seek out the knowledge they need.
When it comes to the other two types of teaching, disagreeing with a teacher's analysis or discovery does not necessarily warrant a correction or ticking off, as long as they are encouraging students to ask questions and to think.
So where parents have taken an active teaching role at home, perhaps in maths or reading, and find that teachers are taking a different approach, they have to let teachers teach in the way they have been trained and interfere only on points of fact.
Making a mistake when it comes to fact does not make you a bad teacher, but failing to think it should be corrected does.
Ellie Levenson is the author of 'The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism' and a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London
A test of primary teachers' maths skills for Channel 4's Dispatches left many parents concerned. Postings from www.tes.co.uk and mumsnet reveal a divergence of views
"Primary teachers are often not confident in maths themselves. As a general rule - and in my experience only - primary teachers are not as bright as secondary teachers."
"(My husband) went to an evening about how maths is taught at (my daughter's) school and he pointed out three errors in the presentation."
"I love the way my son is taught maths. He has a fantastic grasp of things like place value which, to be honest, I find lacking in a lot of people of my generation, and his mental maths is astonishing to me."
Maths doesn't add up
"The impression I got was 'teachers are doing a rubbish job at teaching maths, we must all get this guy in to save us all'. I wonder how much he makes from going into schools and running courses."
"Primary teachers who can't do 2+3x5 or half divided by a half? It's a sad state of affairs when so many primary teachers are pathetic at very simple, basic maths."
"I can do the maths in seconds and I'm primary. I wonder how the test was delivered. If I got a patronising maths test in my pigeon hole or during an Inset (day) I doubt I'd treat it with any more interest than most the other pointless paperwork I get. The fill-the-first-half-in-to-pretend-you-care-then-get-a-coffee rule may well prevail."