The silver lining around the coronavirus pandemic is that there is sense of coming together amongst people from all parts of the world and this has translated into efforts to support, help, and listen to one another. Social media is full of messages from educators sharing or asking for ideas and resources to meet the needs of children learning in in physical contexts that aren’t schools, usually at home with their parents and their device (distance learning). Whether this crisis will lead to a reevaluation of educational practices is not yet clear, but if nothing else, it has shown that we need to be agile in our thinking and ready for uncertainty. Never has it been more important to be creative and fluid.
Browsing through social media, I noticed that one contributor who has a large following uploaded resources to guide parents with home schooling. He posted a weekly timetable with the different curriculum subjects each allocated a 45 minute slot, each day wrapped between a morning meeting and an afternoon reflection, and split by 30 minutes of free play and lunch (parents were told they should eat with their children). The contributor recommended that parents stick to it strictly in order to order to sustain routines and provided links to resources, which consisted mostly of worksheets.
I am not questioning whether this person had good intentions; it seems to me, however, that this was a missed opportunity. We have the chance to do things differently because things are so drastically different. The current situation (of confinement) is not the time to impose structured timetables and artificial transitions, which end or prolong tasks based on the reign of the clock, rather than where the child is in the learning process. This is the time to let learning happen at a natural, productive pace, breaking through the artificial rigidity of disciplines, which only exist inside schools. This is the time to engage in fluid, authentic learning, where kids can explore what interests them, hone their curiosity, and bring in the skills as they’re needed to support the learning. This is not the time to drill content, it is the time to unleash children’s freedom to play and discover, bringing in literacy and numeracy as relevant and appropriate, when they’re meaningful, when the learning will happen.
We have the opportunity to sit and be active with our children to figure out what makes them tick, maybe to help them develop the skills they need to become positive, caring, kind human beings who learn for learning’s sake, for their own sake. This is the time to connect with our kids and to develop their socio-emotional skills and character. This is the time to get to know our children and to come together.
Over the past few years, my son Nico has consistently struggled to focus in classes where assignments were over-scaffolded or the final product largely pre-determined. He struggles completing worksheets and isn’t very motivated to write a paper with a prescriptive rubric. Take away these restrictions and he excels: the more room for choice and creativity, the more he dives in and (generally) the higher quality the output. Not every child is like this—my daughter often benefits from very clear directions—and the level of structure provided should depend on the particular child, developmentally, personally, even their mood that day! (This is nothing more than differentiation.)
Nico is a tinkerer; he learns by planning, making, and reiterating. Charlotte had the idea of making a cat playground/obstacle course and gave Nico a rough vision. He latched on immediately. He gathered materials from drawers that had been unopened for weeks and constructed a multilevel structure with different textures, noises, and spaces. Nico attached trays where the cats could nibble treats and windows cut out at rest spots. He constructed the playground until he wanted a break, then went back to work when inspired by a new idea (that percolated in the meantime), and finished when he was satisfied. He managed his choices and time like many of us do at work and at home.
I learned a lot about Nico and the way he thinks. I saw a gentle, caring side with animals that is not always apparent. I saw this as an opportunity to connect with Nico, his emotions, and see how we can further nourish this empathetic, nurturing side. I hope this continues, that I can keep my focus on his needs.
I am noticing and learning more about Nico. Overall, he has been doing better with his virtual learning assignments than he was used to doing when in school. He gets up and manages his own time, works on his modules when he feels like it, and they are usually completed to a high quality, even the work that doesn’t usually inspire him. He has choice and this makes him feel a bit more in control. I have tried to give him more choice in the way he organizes his life, rather than “suggest” that he do things certain ways. This has been a great learning opportunity for me as well.
My daughter Alexia started making wallets from construction paper, taught herself the basics of iMovie, and uploaded instructional videos to her YouTube channel. I didn’t have to push her to do this (in fact, she surprised me with it) and she demonstrated understanding of when to how to use text to enrich visual information as well as technical skills. We plan on working on the relationship between surface area of paper and the size of the wallet, per the number of folds.
Sure, wallet making and documentation could have happened during summer break, but because of where we are (theoretically) in the school year, I saw this experience through a different lens, seeing the possibilities to construct a learning outcome through which literacy/numeracy skills are developed, while teaching concepts such as form, design, production, cultural awareness (say, by looking at different ways peoples from across the world carry things), science (light)… the possibilities are limitless. This blurs the lines between school and holidays, or rather, it concretized in my mind that school is just another place where learning is supposed to happen. The curriculum should be flexible to meet the needs and interests of our kids, not force the them to adhere and comply because a group of adults they will never meet decides that is what they need.
This is not the time to reproduce a structured system that was designed to prepare people for a factory age. This is the time to embrace personalized learning, to give kids the freedom to decide what to explore and create, to find what sparks their curiosity and nourish this interest. It is a time to discover what motivates them and to allow them the space to try, fail, try again, find something new, pick up something put away a while ago—this may take some encouragement because how often are they allowed to do this at school?
This is a time to bring joy back into learning because we have the opportunity to have our children participate in writing their own personalized curriculum.
Sadly, this may be more challenging than it seems because children are so infrequently provided genuine opportunities in school to influence their learning. They have become so used to compliance and content delivery that they often don’t learn with joy and the resilience to overcome challenge with the motivation for master an engrossing task or idea. Too often, they conceive of learning as externally measured, such as through a test score, and don’t have the metacognitive awareness to conceive of a personal project or hobby as learning-in-itself or learning-for-itself.
The silver lining of lockdown is that our children have the opportunity to self-direct, self-pace, explore, self-challenge, and reflect, while supported by teachers and parents (across the world). The silver lining of lockdown is that we can implement true personalized learning through unlimited possibilities for meaningful projects and interactions. Let’s eschew structure and unleash learning in ways that will accelerate in socio-emotional, transversal competency, and literacy/numeracy skills.