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Kids Stuck at Home? Tips for Improving Home-School Learning

Engage your child to seek out knowledge.

Vecteezy/Arthur Shimamura
Source: Vecteezy/Arthur Shimamura

How can we keep our children's brains from turning into mush as we hunker down? Even with a take-home school curriculum, your child's learning can be enhanced by your active participation as "teacher-in-residence."

In previous blog posts, I offered MARGE—an acronym for five principles of lifelong learning: motivate, attend, relate, generate, and evaluate. Recently, I wrote a booklet for teachers and students that applies these principles to academic learning. Here, I offer MARGE as a way for you to stimulate your child's learning at home.

During my career as a university professor, a critical challenge was finding ways to instill interest and curiosity in the topic at hand (or at least trying to keep students conscious during lectures). Thus, the first principle of MARGE is to motivate learning. A good way to do this is to begin a study session with a question that addresses the big picture, such as, "How do viruses attack the body?"; "What events led to World War II?"; "Is a smile viewed the same wherever we go?" Big-picture questions direct students to the topic at hand and will motivate them to pursue the answer.

For many of us, such questions are addressed by seeking the oracle known as Wikipedia. With a smartphone in hand, a wealth of knowledge is literally at our fingertips. Yet unless one is intrinsically motivated to seek knowledge in this manner, it is not enough to say to your child, "Look it up on Wiki." Your task is to find suitable subject material for study sessions. If a digital device is not available, find magazine articles or book sections as learning sources.

However, if possible, I find the most engaging way to initiate learning is through audiovisual presentations, such as the thousands of educational videos available online. There are excellent ones on YouTube suitable for children of any age and covering just about any subject matter of interest. Many are produced by well-known sources, such as the BBC, Discovery Channel, History Channel, National Geographic, and PBS. For teens (and yourself), my personal favorites are TEDTalks, those engaging 10-20 minute presentations given by leaders in the field. Two of my favorites are The Clues to a Great Story by Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton and How Bacteria "Talk" by molecular biologist Bonnie Bassler.

Arthur Shimamura
Source: Arthur Shimamura

The second principle of MARGE is to attend. At any given moment, we are bombarded by a cacophony of sounds, sights, thoughts, and feelings. So much so that it seems remarkable that we can get anything done. Yet we have the capacity to select, focus, and attend to specific features of our environment.

As an example, consider those times when you're sitting at a restaurant chatting with a friend, and then suddenly, the conversation at the table next to you sounds very enticing. You have the uncanny ability to move your attention and listen in on that conversation, but of course at the expense of hearing what your friend is saying. Our ability to focus and maintain our attention to aspects of our environment requires top-down processing, which refers to using your knowledge ("top") to determine what sensations ("bottom") to consider.

Educational psychologists call this process active learning. Bottom-up processing is passive, as you simply let sensations percolate up to your consciousness. Top-down processing is essential for efficient learning, as it keeps your attention focused on the topic at hand.

Motivation and attention will draw your child to the subject matter. These two steps are preparatory for the actual process of learning and acquiring new information. Think of your knowledge as a highly developed web of connected facts—your personal Wikipedia. Just like the web's informational resource, we build knowledge by linking new information to existing knowledge. Exactly how we relate new information to our knowledge base is critical for efficient learning and retention.

A well-organized knowledge base is built around a framework or outline. With respect to MARGE, your initial framework is its five principles. By now, you should be able to add some further links, such as using big-picture questions to motivate your child and the idea of top-down processing as an important feature of attention.

Acquiring knowledge is based on integrating new information with what you already know. My personal mnemonic for doing this is by applying the 3 C's: categorize, compare, contrast. Encourage your child's conceptual learning by asking them questions that relate to the 3 C's. With respect to our current global crisis, you can ask: What is a virus [categorize]? How is COVID-19 similar to other viruses [compare]? How are viruses different from bacteria [contrast]? Developing links that relate new information with existing knowledge is as important as the new information itself.

In the past, memory researchers devoted much effort trying to understand how new information gets initially learned and stored in the brain. In recent years, it has become evident that our ability to retrieve memories is as important as the initial learning process itself. One of the best ways to facilitate remembering is to generate information—such as telling someone what you've recently read or heard. You can increase your memory of such material by 30-50 percent simply by generating the information in your own words. Whenever you come across new information: think it, say it, teach it!

How do we know that we will remember the information we've recently learned? Students often have difficulty determining their success (or failure) in how well they've learned new material. During all phases of learning—from initial presentation to the time of retrieval—it is important to evaluate the proficiency in learning. This kind of mental evaluation involves a process that psychologists call metacognition (meta is the Greek prefix referring to "about" or "beyond").

For efficient learning, we must determine whether the new material was actually stored and understood. For example, when generating recently learned information, it will become apparent what was forgotten or not well learned. If your child has difficulty telling you what was learned, then it would be wise to spend time reviewing the material. We must evaluate our conceptual learning from time to time in order to maintain a healthy and proficient knowledge base.

A Home-School Study Session

Step 1 — Motivate: Find an educational video, preferably no longer than 20 minutes (consider splitting longer videos into multiple study sessions). As you preview the video, make sure it is age-appropriate and enjoyable enough to maintain your child's interest. Once you've selected an appropriate video, come up with one or two big-picture questions. As an example, we'll consider a video on the Denisovans with the obvious big-picture question: Who were the Denisovans?

Step 2 — Attend: Facilitate top-down processing by giving your child a set of three to five study questions prior to watching the video. Providing such questions in advance will help your child focus attention on pertinent information and encourage the 3 C's. With respect to the Denisovan video, ask your child to consider these questions: How are the Denisovans related to us? When and where did they live? What is the "Tibetan gene"? What does the green bracelet tell us about them?

Step 3 — Relate: After your child watches the video, spend time (preferably that same day) going over the study questions. This will help relate specific facts to a conceptual framework and encourage the 3 C's. You might ask your child to write down the answers to the questions right after watching the video. The goal is to encourage the linking (i.e., relating) of information into a web of knowledge about the Denisovans.

Step 4 — Generate: Have your child say in his/her own words, Who were the Denisovans? A useful way to generate knowledge is to ask your child: Tell me a story about the Denisovans. Another method is to have them teach the information to you as if you didn't know anything about the topic.

Step 5 — Evaluate: Once your child has tried to generate the information and answer the study questions, you (and your child) will know the degree to which the information was learned. You can discuss parts of the video that were unclear and even replay parts.

Another way to evaluate what was learned is to use what I call the aesthetic questionDid you like the video? Why, why not? When we ask this question, we bring emotions into the learning experience. It is also open-ended, so there's no right or wrong answer. Days later, re-evaluate your child's memory—Do you remember who the Denisovans are? Every time conceptual knowledge is retrieved, it becomes better fixed in the brain.

When we apply MARGE, we bring together a set of memory tools that not only foster better conceptual learning but also help plant the seeds for further explorations. Teaching should be more like Peace Corp training rather than forced labor, as we want to implant knowledge, but more importantly, instill a desire in your child to seek out new information in the future. MARGE should be a part of your own commitment to lifelong learning. During meals with family, discuss current events, reiterate (i.e., generate) things you've recently learned, ask the aesthetic question (e.g., What did you think of that TV show?). Ironically, our period of forced sequestration may permit more "quality time" with family than would have otherwise occurred!