Whose Learning Is It? What Are the Real Lessons of COVID-19?

What parents’ frustrations and children’s tears are showing us about education.

Posted May 08, 2020

greg westfall/Flickr
Source: greg westfall/Flickr

I read today about a child who cut the cord on the family computer. Literally took a pair of kitchen shears and cut the cord.

Schools have been out for several weeks now, and it looks like they’re going to stay out a while longer. In many jurisdictions, kids won’t be back at school until September. This is causing all kinds of havoc for families with kids, and serious distress for others. It’s leading to too many children experiencing hunger, hardship, and abuse, and too many parents experiencing extra layers of anxiety at a time when they’re already at the edge.

But there’s more to this experience than suffering. There is opportunity, too. The quarantining required in this time of COVID-19 to keep us all safe is giving each family a chance to think about the nature of teaching and learning, and what really matters in their child’s education.

I had a Zoom meeting with a colleague who’s an advocate for private schools. He told me that a lot of parents are really unhappy with the public schools right now. He’s right. I’ve heard from parents who are furious their kids in public school are not getting the white-glove online learning experiences that many private school kids are getting.

As I reflected on our conversation, I realized that that was exactly the problem. Nobody’s going to real school right now, a place where they can interact with real kids and real teachers, but some kids—mostly those attending private schools, kids who have their own computers or iPads, and who are able to maintain a disciplined focus—are getting a well-organized online learning experience. Others—mostly those in public schools, as well as private school kids who just can’t learn from sustained interaction with a machine—are having to fend for themselves, with varying degrees of success.

As I see it, the kids who don’t have much structure now are getting a more organic and potentially valuable life experience. Although it may require more management from their parents, the kids are being given a chance to connect more deeply with family, and to figure out who they are, and what they want to know more about. When they go back to school, there’s a chance they’ll appreciate it in ways they never did before, as will their parents.

Under the online tutelage of their teachers, many of the kids enrolled in private schools are working steadily toward the academic achievements that can lead later to status, recognition, and success in worldly terms. The kids who are experiencing more chaos and less structure—and are not experiencing too much other stress or hardship—have a chance now to work on the character strengths that can lead to a life of happy productivity, love, and fulfillment. When they get back to school, it won’t take them long to catch up with the missed academic learning—teachers know how to collapse curriculum when necessary—but if you’ve helped them use this time well, they’ll have developed knowledge and strengths that will nourish them the rest of their lives.

How can you help your child find the treasure hidden in this chaos?

  1. Let it be okay your child isn’t doing much that looks “academic.” Relax and let the online learning go, unless your child is getting something important from it. Everyone is feeling stressed right now, and your relationship with your child is infinitely more important than whether or not they get their virtual homework done. There will be lots of time after school resumes to support a meaningful structure for their academic learning.  
  2. Find ways to integrate learning into daily activities. There’s lots of opportunity for reading, math, science, and communication skills when taking a walk, cooking, cleaning, and all the tasks of everyday life. Ask your child for suggestions when you can’t think of anything.
  3. Slow down enough to be loving and attuned. You have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now for strengthening your connection. As frequently as you can through the day, make time to listen to your child with love.
  4. Ensure ample time for free unstructured play. Let your child enjoy the benefits of free play. It nourishes their curiosity, self-awareness, and imagination. It also strengthens their self-regulation, autonomy, and decision-making skills.
  5. Spend time outdoors. A daily dose of outdoor time—preferably in natural settings—reduces stress, increases optimism, improves health, stimulates the senses, frees the spirit, and enhances creativity. By improving your child’s attention and focus, it also increases academic and other kinds of achievement.
  6. Help your child find their passions. Provide opportunities for exploration and discovery in the arts, sciences, architecture, gardening, and more, as widely as possible. Support your child in developing their curiosities into passions.
  7. Welcome daydreaming, do-nothing times, and boredom. The restful neural processing that occurs in daydreaming is essential to self-discovery and self-actualization. The COVID-19 downtime can replenish your child’s spirits and help them find their creative wellspring.
  8. Teach your child to breathe. Kids who practice mindful breathing are better able to manage stress, sleep soundly, and focus their attention cognitively, emotionally, and physically. When school is back in session, mindful breathing is a valuable tool for concentration on tests and exams, and leads to better coping with challenging situations.  
  9. Model a growth mindset. Show your child that every problem is a problem-solving challenge. Show them that what matters most, especially now, is taking things one step at a time, with patience, hard work, and persistence.  
  10. Say thank you. People who actively appreciate what’s good in their lives experience higher levels of well-being, happiness, energy, optimism, empathy, and popularity.  

You have a chance now to rethink your child’s life and education. Take a leaf from the homeschooler’s book and realize that you and your child own the learning. If online learning is causing more trouble than it’s worth, turn it down or turn it off. When the schools go back into session, your child will be freer to forge a path to happy productivity that will sustain them the rest of their life.