Now that nearly all public schools have closed their doors because of Covid-19, about 50 million school-age children are being ‘Homeschooled,’ and parents are being told that they should be dividing their children’s days into time periods for academic subjects and following lesson plans. That’s how The Today Show approached the subject recently, giving parents a step-by-step map, the first step being “Set Up School.” That’s exactly the wrong advice, in my view, a recipe for failure on every level.
Unfortunately, it’s not just The Today Show, because a lot of school systems seem to be reflexively behaving as if they could simply transplant school’s routines to the home. Some are emailing or posting lesson plans that they expect students (and parents) to follow. Distance Learning and on-line instruction are all the rage, but most of this seems to be “same old, same old”–the straightforward presentation of information. While these may be understandable responses to the crisis, they’re not particularly helpful in my view.
While anxiety is understandable, it’s healthier to look for the opportunities that Covid-19 is creating. Let’s begin by abandoning the term ‘Homeschooling,’ because no one should be trying to turn homes into schools. Schools are organized for crowd control and group instruction, which is why they have established periods of time for individual subjects, bells, and lesson plans in order to run smoothly. Homes don’t need bells, et cetera.
But don’t take my word for it, because there’s plenty of sensible advice out there, including this: “Learning doesn’t have to take the form of worksheets and spelling tests. Young children have such a strong desire for knowledge. If you can trust them to lead the way, you may be surprised by how they choose to spend their time and where their curiosity takes them.
So, if it’s not Homeschooling, what should we call it? Should we rename it ‘Home Teaching,’ a new name for an old concept? After all, parents have always been their children’s first teachers, and Home Teaching simply means they are stepping back into that role. Home Teaching is often spontaneous and responsive to what a child is curious about (“Why is the sky blue?”), but some lessons are determined by what children need to understand to stay safe: “Don’t touch a hot stove” and “Look both ways before crossing the street” are two obvious examples.
However, from my perspective, Home Teaching implies a one-way transmission of knowledge from parent to child, and what’s happening today is more complex, more interesting, and more valuable. Much of traditional school involves consumption of information and knowledge: memorizing the state capitals, the Periodic Table, the formula for the volume of a cube, and so on. What Covid-19 offers us is the opportunity to redefine education, to turn young learners into producers of knowledge. Not video game players, but creators of Apps. Not watchers of films, but producers of their own documentaries. Not drudges, but dreamers…
So I propose that we embrace this experience as Home Learning, because parents who embrace this challenge will learn a great deal–and not just about dividing with fractions!
But learning how to divide fractions and other basics are also part of the deal, because a central purpose of the early years of school is the transmission of knowledge. Children need to learn spelling rules (“I before E, except after C”), the multiplication tables, how to divide and carry, and other basics. They need to know that letters have sounds associated with them (i.e., Phonics and Phonemic Awareness). Someone has to teach them that, if you put an E at the end of words like ‘ton,’ the O sound changes from short to long. That’s heavy lifting for parents who haven’t trained to teach, and many are going to be anxious about trying to teach these concepts. Relax: Free resources like the Khan Academy, ReadWorks, and Zearn are available to help children and parents with basic skills. PBS Education has tips for teachers that parents can steal for their own use!
Always remember that “you don’t need a degree in education to teach your children valuable skills through family activities:
- Play board games
- Do puzzles
- Cook together
- Plant a spring garden
- Use butcher paper to draw a life-size family portrait.
Above all, parents should recognize that they are learners too, because that makes it perfectly OK to say, “I don’t know, so let’s find out together.”
Accept that it’s a journey. Be comfortable making mistakes. Teach children that failure is a huge part of learning–and learn along with the kids.
Parents committed to Home Learning should not establish 50-minute periods for each subject. Some structure is essential because children are accustomed to–and benefit from–a sense of order, but it is neither necessary nor desirable to drum up ‘lesson plans’ for each day. Instead, Home Learning parents can work with their children to create learning goals for the week.
This can be fun. For example, to teach how adverbs work, give your children this sentence, “Charley ate the chocolate cake” and then ask them to put the word “Only” somewhere in the sentence. Then discuss how placement of “Only” changes the meaning. “Charley ate the only chocolate cake’ does not mean that ‘Only Charley ate the chocolate cake’ or that ‘Charley ate only the chocolate cake.’
To give yourself some time off, ask your children to create short stories that provide the back story. Why didn’t Charley eat his vegetables? Were his parents away? What kind of kid would eat the only chocolate cake, and how did Charley get away with it? And so on….
Projects, done alone or with other children, are an essential part of all learning, but projects are essential for Home Learning because they give working parents extended time away from the kids. While creating the projects will take some time, once underway, the children can work alone, or with their friends on Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts.
The huge gap in material resources that existed before this crisis is now front-and-center, and some companies are stepping up to provide broadband access to low income communities, for example. Internet access is essential for serious Home Learning, because students have to be able to connect with the world beyond their homes. Free resources abound, including here, here, and (for children under 5) here. Museums are a great resource.
For a laugh, click here.
Now let’s focus on encouraging children to become producers of knowledge. That’s actually easier than you might think. Many Home Learning projects will involve smartphones, the most ubiquitous of technologies.
For openers, I suggest children interview their parents about their lives and make short films. Not full-scale biographies, but small subjects like “Tell me how you met?”, “Tell me about your first train/plane trip,” and “Tell me about your favorite movie, and why it’s your favorite” are good starter subjects.
Some hints for how to proceed.
- Saying “Tell me about….” is more effective than asking direct questions. When I was reporting I also found it very effective to say “Tell me more” or “I’m not sure I understand.”
- Another approach is to use some family photos to get the conversation started, then push for details.
- I suggest the recording should be audio only so that the child can concentrate on listening. Trying to capture video requires real concentration, which makes it difficult to listen to what’s being said.
- Editing audio is pretty straightforward.
- When compiling the documentary, use pictures of the parents, old photos, film clips, et cetera, as b-roll.
- Writing the script is an important challenge, and parents should remind the young writers of the importance of clarity. Our rule at the PBS NewsHour was to overwrite to make sure we answered the fundamental questions (Who, What, When, Where, and Why). It’s much easier to pull back, cut words, and let the pictures and the audio tell the story.
- Create a YouTube channel so everyone in your school class can post their films.
- Create a chat room to discuss techniques. Keep learning. Make more short films.
Here’s another example of knowledge production: Young kids can plant seeds in small pots and make videos of their growth. Vary the conditions (not enough sun, too much sun, not enough water, too much water) and record what happens. Edit the video into a short documentary that the child can narrate, explaining what she has discovered about plants. And why not do this in conjunction with other kids in the class?
Projects that explore what children are interested in may be the best way to acquire knowledge, because when children DO, they learn. The bottom line is “What’s the most effective pedagogy that results in increased curiosity about the subject at hand, and not merely acquisition of a specific body of information?”
Take ‘state capitals’ as an example. I still know most of the state capitals because I was forced to memorize and regurgitate, but I had ZERO curiosity about why a particular state–even my home state–chose a particular city. That changed when–in my 60’s–I happened to learn that California had six capital cities before settling on Sacramento. Suddenly I wanted to understand how that happened, and why. When we moved to New York, I wondered about Albany, the current capital, and learned that five other cities were once New York’s capital.
I suggest parents (perhaps working together) create a unit whose goal is understanding the state capitals and state government. But, instead of memorizing, children could dig into a number of states to find out how, when, and why their capital cities were selected. What was at stake? How were decisions made?
This can easily segue into research into national capital cities, also a fascinating subject. You may know that the United States had EIGHT previous capitals. Eight-year-olds would have a field day with that, particularly when they learn that wherever the US Congress happened to be automatically became the nation’s capital…and that the Congress was on the move during the War of 1812. This is great stuff for children to DISCOVER. Would they retain it if their teacher assigned some reading and gave them a test? I seriously doubt it.
(Regular readers of my blog, themerrowreport.com, know that I devoted four recent posts to project-based learning, with lots of specific suggestions and that quite a few readers added more good ideas.)
But education is much more than knowledge transmission. Much of what goes on in the teenage years in particular is the development and creation of the individual. “Building a Self” involves discovery and trial-and-error, and that journey becomes much more interesting when kids are creating knowledge, not just giving back the right answers in order to get good grades.
In the age of Covid-19, we ought to be encouraging children to ask good questions. Home Learning entails the search for answers.
Before Covid-19, parents might ask their children at dinner, “What did you learn in school today?” Now, let’s ask, “What good questions did you come up with? How’s the search for answers going?” The goal of education, the goal of Home Learning, is not the right answer. The end game is perpetual, life-long curiosity.
As awful as it is, the Covid-19 crisis also represents an unprecedented opportunity for children to take responsibility for their own learning. Remember, schools basically look at children and ask ‘How Smart Are They?’ Now you can ask ‘How Is My Child Smart?’ What’s he interested in learning more about? What does she wonder about?
Follow those pathways….
We will need public schools when this crisis is over, so let’s set an example to encourage educators to follow as their own reset opportunity.
Meantime, onward with Home Learning.