Many parents are recognising a disturbing truth revealed by the COVID-19 crisis: school is often regimented and boring, and it doesn’t fit the way that their children learn naturally. Peering through the window of home education, parents see that schools’ approaches often provide poor ways for their children to learn.
Moms and dads are spending their days encouraging their children to do activities that schools require to be completed at home: filling in dull worksheets and completing internet-based tasks, as computers replace teachers in ordering, providing, and grading children’s activities. Many families dislike this tedious regime, but neither parents nor children have much idea of what they might do instead. Families have gotten used to a certain way of learning, and they may struggle to take a different approach.
Some just give up. As one frustrated parent announced on Twitter: “This is my Kindergartener’s home school curriculum. And nearly everything requires a printer, which we don’t have. We quit.” Are such parental reactions a harbinger of a more general revolt that we might expect against conventional educational approaches that have been embedded in school systems for nearly two centuries, and from which a big change is long overdue?
Some children thrive during lockdown learning
On the plus-side, COVID-19 is also highlighting how education might change for the better. Lockdown learning has proved more fruitful for some households than others. Some children are more accustomed to independent study that engages with what is around them: they are better able to thrive while in lockdown. For example, children have walked around their neighbourhoods to spot and count the colours of people’s front doors and then made bar graphs. Others have surveyed signs of spring, noticing dirt softening, birds singing, and buds emerging, and they’ve compiled the information into reports. Others went looking for symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes in their homes and neighbourhoods and reported back. They are not staring at computer screens or filling in worksheets all day.
“We don’t set up a blackboard and tell children at 12 months that it’s time to walk.”
This difference in experience is highlighting to parents a gulf between how many children are taught in schools and how learning might change if education were based more on what we know about child development. Alternative approaches recognise that children build understanding through active interaction more than by listening; by ‘constructing’ what they learn rather than being told.
In this “constructivist approach”—found, for example, in Montessori education—student questions drive the learning, interactive teachers create an environment fitting children’s developmental level, and lessons are built on student understanding with continuous assessment and collaborative student work. Such methods can fail when delivered without structure. But with sufficient structure, children thrive.
Teacher-text-centered model of education
Conventional schooling relies much more on a teacher-text-centered model of education. For over 150 years, much of the world has used this model, which depends primarily on teachers (helped by textbooks and computers) telling children what others think they need to know. This approach has been widely adopted because it makes sense to adults, who seem to learn in a linear fashion from what they are told or read. Teachers are also quite knowledgeable, so it stands to reason that they should tell children what they need to know. Children are often framed as ‘blank slates’, which fits with a model of teachers transforming children by giving them information and making them learn it. Many parents, with school direction, are now trying to follow this model at home.
Children learn by self-direction
But this conventional approach is fundamentally flawed. We can see how children naturally develop. No one instructs babies on how to form syllables. Six-month-olds start to get ready to speak by closely watching other people’s mouths as they talk, and thereby gleaning the information they need to form phonemes. We also know from research, such as Celeste Kidd’s, that children focus their attention during play on what they believe to be achievable levels of learning. They know what is within their grasp, and they can often work out the next stage of learning themselves, particularly in a supportive, well-equipped environment.
Outside of school, young children actively teach themselves. We don’t set up a blackboard and tell children at 12 months that it’s time to walk. They pull themselves up, mastering the task through repetition and with a clear goal in their minds.
Student teachers know all of this. They study how children develop and are trained to deliver child-centered education. However, once they reach the school environment, they typically find few supports for this approach and have little option but to conform to more traditional methods.
Teacher-text-centered learning has survived its own inadequacies thanks to the introduction of incremental changes that prevent its collapse. These include grading and examinations to stimulate the flagging interest that children have in this unnatural type of learning. More recently, high stakes testing of whole schools has further pushed teachers to conform to the model.
However, outcomes have not improved. The worst hit are the lower-income schools which, under the demands of stricter testing regimes, double down on didactic instruction. Research shows that this has resulted in less time spent on non-tested (but often enriching) material, increased stress in children, higher dropout rates and education reduced to filling out bubble sheets. Taking these effects together, the school achievement gap, which testing was meant to address, has actually increased.
Use COVID-19 to change how your child learns
COVID-19 and the meagre gruel often served up as lockdown learning at home has highlighted the problem to parents. It has also removed the incentives that usually maintain the system – grading and standardised exams have been dropped this year for many children. Mom and dad are really stumped for ways to persuade children to stay focussed. Having been educated conventionally themselves, they may find it just as difficult as their children do to develop more self-directed ways of learning at home.
“In this relatively short lockdown period, make a start at organising children’s environments so they can learn more independently.”
My advice to parents in this lockdown is to make a start at organising children’s environments so they can learn more independently. Is your child old enough to plan meals or prepare portions of a meal, with some adult support? If so, then build that into every day, and set up the kitchen to enable it. Think of useful activities your children can do on their own. These can be as simple as making their beds or washing some dishes. Play a counting game, and then send the children off to do some counting on their own. Try to set them up with independent activities, be it with paints and brushes or building blocks. Expect them to put things back and tidy up afterwards. It can take a while for them to work like this, so you’ll need love, compassion and patience, taking one step at a time. New York Times columnist Michaeleen Doucleff described coming to this realization with her four-year-old at home. Given the opportunity, children love being involved in real life activities.
You’ll find resources for parents at the Association Montessori Internationale and distance learning resources at Aid to Life. We have a brief opportunity within the lockdown to change the way our children learn so that it fits what comes naturally to them. If enough of us do it, conventional education may also begin to think again. The new normal doesn’t have to be the old normal.
Previously published on childandfamilyblog.com.
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