A teacher told me recently:
“You can tell which children have grown up having lots of conversations at home, whether it is around the dinner table, in the car or during playtime, as their confidence with words and desire to learn new words stand out.”
She is an Assistant Principal at an OFTSTED Outstanding school for 11-18 year olds, in London. Their values are built on hard work, integrity and honesty and while their academic scores are impressive (in the top 1% across the UK), she went on to say:
“Grades only open the doors but do not guarantee the important skills that children will need to be successful in society when they leave us. So we’re not just trying to get students the best grades, we also want our students to be well rounded individuals in society and help them to develop their skills in such a way that they can achieve and do whatever they want to in the future."
This Assistant Principal and I were talking about KidCoachApp – our project to support soft skill development at home, by providing parents with lots of 5 minute conversation starters.
She said: “What I like about KidCoach is that it encourages kids to be creative in their thinking and express their thoughts in a safe space through a low risk conversation without a large audience. Communication is such an important skill, it’s one thing to be really creative or analytical but if you can’t communicate your thoughts and ideas then you won’t be as effective”
Her view that Communication is a differentiator is not only intuitive but supported by the research.
Neil Mercer, a Cambridge Professor of Education has done lots of work on Exploratory Talk and Dialogue Based Learning.
He writes on his website that “Spoken language enables us to do much more than share information - it enables us to think together”. A paper he co-authored also called out that "the amount and quality of the dialogue children experience at home in the pre-school years correlated strongly with their eventual academic attainment".
We are working with Neil in the development of KidCoachApp and he told us that: "I think it is great that KidCoach is helping parents engage their children in learning conversations, in ways that should complement the learning experiences children have in school"
This Harvard review titled The Brain Changing Power of Conversation highlights the connection of the home language environment to a child’s cognitive development i.e. the impact parents can have by just talking with their kids.
The back and forth is important though: “Don't just talk to your child; talk with your child. The interaction, more than the number of words a child hears, creates measurable changes in the brain and sets the stage for strong literacy skills in school.”
This is exactly the intention of the questions on KidCoachApp.
There are lots of one-liners that get an initial conversation started, but then the parent has the simple but really important role of developing their child’s communication skills by probing; asking why and how questions to keep the conversation flowing and the thinking audible.
We have guidance and prompts for the parent to assist exactly with this.
For instance – after asking the initial question “What are 10 different things you can do with a Cup?” – challenge your child’s pre-conceptions and develop their creativity by asking “What if the Cup was the size of a house?”. Or another example, after asking “If you could be happy always would you choose to be so?” (and inevitably hearing the answer “YES!”) develop their Critical Thinking skills by asking “What if you change your mind in 1 week’s time?”
Hundreds of parents have already signed up and now receive weekly content and inspiration they can use immediately with their kids. I spoke to one such parent in Northwood, London recently.
Sonya Moledina is mother of 2 brilliant kids – Shakir aged 10 and Elena aged 7 – we spent some time together going through a few of the questions like “If you invented a new colour what would you call it?”, “Which superpower would you want and why?”, “Can you name 10 different emotions and their opposites?” (developing skills in creativity, communication and empathy)
Discussing afterwards her feedback was that: “We know that talking with our kids is a good thing to do, but at the end of a hard day’s work, inspiration can be hard to come by. The coaching cards you have are a very handy prompt and I like that you can zoom in on specific categories like critical thinking if you want to.”
Sonya has actively been using the questions with her kids in the past few weeks – you can hear what she has to say about it here.
Overall it seems that the questions within the App are well chosen and conveniently packaged to make them super practical to implement by parents.
At this unique time in our history when so many parents and children are “stuck” at home, we are glad that our approach is helping to make the best of this time we have together.
We will keep going - writing more content (e.g. this list of 101 questions), developing the App and supporting thousands of parents. If we are able through our work to spark regular conversations in the home, helping kids to talk and think better and in the process support their development, then I would consider that a job well done.