Monday, March 16, 2020

Teaching, and learning, in the pandemic.

Since we seem to have a little time on our hands, I decided to write a little something about learning. I've been teaching for over 20 years, and I've taught every grade from preschool to college; my career has mostly, though, been focused on college literature and composition. I am currently a Learning Specialist at Smith College 

Teaching, and learning, in the Pandemic

Suddenly, many of us find ourselves homeschooling. Our kids are home for two weeks. No, wait -- three! We were not prepared for this. Schedules and activities are suddenly in need, and flying around the internet to support -- and save -- us all.

In the midst of this, I'd like to add a little perspective.

One aspect of the educational system that has long been problematic is prescriptive learning: in many schools, we tell kids what to do, when to do it, where to do it, and so on. We send the same messages in homes as well. (My father, for many years, threatened only somewhat jokingly that he wanted to sue Nike for “his” use of the phrase “Just Do It.”) It is a part of the educational system that many of us not only know well but rely on as a necessary strategy for keeping our kids disciplined, engaged, busy, and in line with learning outcomes. 

In this long tradition of learning, kids have external guidelines that they – and teachers –  must follow. Those guidelines are based on state and federal requirements, passed on to districts, to teachers, and to kids. This isn’t so bad, of course – we want academic standards, we want age-appropriate learning for our kids, we want the wisdom of our teachers and schools to support our kids, and we want a place where our kids can thrive during the day while many of us fulfill a litany of other responsibilities.

One aspect of learning, and not just learning in schools, is that people thrive when given the opportunity to pursue goals that are important to them on a personal level. This, as you may know, is called internal, or intrinsic, motivation. It is the motivation that comes from within.  A lot has been written about this subject, and one source says this: “Intrinsic motivation involves engaging in a behavior because it is personally rewarding; essentially, performing an activity for its own sake rather than the desire for some external reward. Essentially, the behavior itself is its own reward.” Additionally, this link contains good information about internal motivation.

For some of us, this idea seems obvious. Why wouldn’t we want to pursue something that we love and feel passionate about? And why wouldn’t schools support students in that pursuit? But schools are not necessarily in tune with this concept. It’s not really schools’ fault – there simply aren’t the resources in most schools to cater to every child’s internal compass. (More schools are doing this, luckily, but that’s a story for another post.)

But in this moment, sequestered at home, as we try to figure out what to do with our kids, we might take this as an opportunity to let the kids lead for a while.

That doesn’t mean let them do whatever they want to do. We all likely want guidance and schedules. But, perhaps one activity each day might be to spend time with your kid(s), simply by putting on your scientist hats for a while and listening, together, or watching, or noticing. Look out the window together, or watch something you normally don’t pay attention to. Let your kid(s) lead. Grab a pencil and paper, and see what comes up. What are they drawn to? What is interesting? Then do the same activity each day.  Can you turn it into a drawing? And/or, after a few days what do you notice? A comparison of images, or sounds, or colors? A song? A collection? A book? 

Some ideas: are there plants growing in the house (or can you plant something and put it in the windowsill?) It’s spring, so is there anything budding nearby? What’s the weather like outside the window each day? Are there sounds you hear? What is the temperature outside? But forget my questions – ask your kid. What does he/she/they want to pay attention to? Try it out for 15 minutes, or 30. See what happens.

Most of us are juggling a lot here. This moment is asking a lot of us physiologically and emotionally. This is not intended as a quick fix, or any kind of solution. It is simply meant as a suggestion, that when many of us are sending around schedules and routines to imitate school days, perhaps we can think more broadly about what our kids may be drawn to. And then add that to the schedule.