At parent-teacher conferences, parents have often asked how they can help with revision, or have told me how frustrating it can be trying to help their teenager when they really don't know what they are doing and how effectively they are studying. Even before the GCSE years, parents can feel ill-equipped when it comes to understanding their child's education.
I once had the parent of a student from one of my English classes who were very worried that their daughter might have dyslexia. We didn't have subject-based parent-teacher conferences in year 8, but they very much wanted to speak with me, so I arranged for them to come and see me separately, before the tutor-group based evening started. It turned out to be a great opportunity to discuss the parents' concerns and to talk about teaching and learning with them and their daughter. We talked about how mistakes and misunderstandings are vital for learning and about how the brain will make as much as possible automatic. Their daughter is not dyslexic, but had made some incorrect writing habits automatic through constant reinforcement, which the parents did not help her to correct, believing them to be something she just "couldn't help" doing. The conversation was really helpful for all of us: I understood the student's concerns about her work, particularly how she had adopted the idea that she simply couldn't do it as well as others in the class; the parents and their daughter were able to find reassurance and we could all see a way forward and develop strategies to get there.
Along the same lines are the workshops that I have designed and run which involve inviting students and their parents and carers to learn how to learn effectively. It is great to see students telling their parents the themes, main-ideas and details of the subjects they are learning, so the parents can create logical and creative revision tools with them. Parents who attend them say that they are much more confident about helping their child and can recognise when the studying their doing is effective.
It didn't really occur to me at the time, but both of these are examples of how good it can be to go "off-piste" with parent-teacher discussion and collaboration. We weren't bound by the the format of the traditional parents' evening and they felt much less formal, which meant we could communicate in a more natural way.