A message of hope for parents navigating rough waters as a new school year begins

Special to redefinED

Editor’s note: Kevin Currie-Knight, who authored this commentary, is a teaching assistant professor at East Carolina University’s College of Education. Currie-Knight’s research focuses on history, philosophy, and the politics of education.

These are strange and hard times. Across the world, schools are moving away from their temporary summer hiatus with no end in sight to COVID-19.

As a professor in a college of education who is quite familiar with research on how kids learn outside of conventional schools, I can offer six bits of advice to parents struggling with how to deal with children learning from home in either 100% virtual or hybrid settings. Before I give that advice, I have to carefully stress my awareness of how different this situation is from homeschooling (let alone unschooling or homeschooling without formal curriculum).

Most parents navigated the summer, and are now entering the new academic year, dealing with kids who are home from school not by choice but by necessity. For the past six months, schools and districts have fully expected their children to be learning and completing schoolwork. But this has not been, nor is it now, in any proper way been homeschooling.

Now that I’ve said that as carefully as I can, here are six points the literature on homeschooling and unschooling can nevertheless offer to families struggling with this new learn-at-home situation.

First, as tempting as it is, you might not need to stress as much as you think.

I know this one will be hard to hear, especially for families whose schools are expecting students to maintain a rigorous school schedule at home. Families are experiencing great pressure to replicate school at home and to make sure their kids are learning everything they can lest those kids fall behind.

Yet, there are four studies I know of that show that despite not learning in any “schooled” way, kids turn out fine in life. (Here, here, here, and a study summarized here.)

They get into college when they apply. They find decent jobs. All without the benefits of a traditional school education.

This is an admittedly small number of studies, and the studies themselves are small, but the results are quite consistent. Kids who don’t attend traditional schools tend to grow into adults who aren’t very distinguishable from their peers who learned in brick-and-mortar settings – and they certainly are not deficient.

It’s clear that families in this current crisis can’t treat it as a “just let them learn what they want” experience. But my message is more humble: For all of your anxiety about your kids’ sudden hiatus from in-person school, try not to stress about what will happen if you can’t replicate school at home, or what will happen if your child doesn’t learn everything your district expects to the standard children would have at brick-and-mortar school.

If these studies are to be believed – and I think we should believe them – your kids will almost certainly turn out fine. They will go on to be able to learn or relearn what they need when they need it.

Second, your job should be to ensure your children are learning, not necessarily to teach them.

A second source of stress for parents appears to be the idea that, without any warning, they now are supposed to be teachers. I would suggest that their job instead is to make sure their children can learn things. These two are (deceptively) different ideas.

To teach someone math means you become an expert in math and then convey your math expertise to learners. But to facilitate learning means to help the learner learn – to help them find resources and to ask them questions that might help them learn: “Well, what do you think went wrong? How can we figure out what went wrong? What resources can we use to figure that out?”.

In fact, this unfortunate hiatus from in-person school might be an interesting opportunity to empower kids to take more charge of their learning. Instead of having to learn things from and at the pace the teacher sets, parents can help their children find resources – books, friends or relatives who could help, online resources, anything – children can use to take more ownership of their own learning.

Yes, you can teach your kids too, if there are subjects you feel you know quite well that you can share with your children. But your main job is to help them learn in whatever ways you can, not necessarily to teach outright.

Third, kids don’t have to be learning all the time.

The important thing is simply that they learn, not the amount of time they spend learning. I’ve been reading a book called Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, by business writer Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. The author surveys literature that indicates contrary to what we often think, people tend to perform better when allowed time for rest.

And by rest, Pang means not only the type of passive rest most of us think of (watching television, sleeping) but active rest (pursuing hobbies and activities just for fun). As he puts it, “measuring time is literally the easiest way to assess someone’s dedication and productivity, but it’s also very unreliable.”

I see no reason why the research Pang cites wouldn’t also hold true for kids doing schoolwork. In fact, it is in line with what I’ve heard from both homeschoolers and unschoolers. Homeschoolers often start out thinking they will replicate school (and its daily schedule) at home but gradually find they get the best results by doing a few hours of academic work in the morning and allowing kids the rest of the day to pursue what interests them.

Unschoolers tend to report that a good amount of their (or their kids’) time is spent “doing nothing” before the learner finds something that really interests them. And once that happens, learning often will be quite rapid. A lot of learning is compressed into a small amount of time with ample opportunity to do things besides learning.

Again, parents are encouraged to take this advice only to the extent that it fits with the expectations of their district. But the lesson should be that you care more that they are learning, not how much time they spend learning, or that the time be equivalent to how much time they spend in school.

Fourth, more choice is better than less choice.

Obviously, most parents can’t let their kids have unlimited choice over what they learn, because schools and districts expect children to learn specific things. But a lot of research (here and here) shows that choice (autonomy) is a huge motivating factor in learning.

Try to give your kids as much choice as possible given the expectations of your school district and your own comfort level. Even if your district is giving your children large packets of work to complete each day or week, you can give them choice over the order in which they do it, the resources they use to complete it (maybe instead of using the textbooks or teacher’s slides, they can use YouTube or the Internet), and what times they do their work.

Fifth, learning doesn’t just happen in school-like ways.

School inadvertently gives us all the impression that learning is something that generally happens in school. (I’ve written about this before, cautioning that we think of math, science and history less as school subjects and more as ways of thinking.)

In traditional school settings, students learn math and history in math and history class, using math and history textbooks. But homeschoolers and unschoolers learn from a host of other sources. They can learn mathematical concepts while cooking, playing video games that use point systems and such, or playing with LEGOs. They can learn history by finding interesting documentaries or historical dramas to stream, calling relatives who have interesting stories to tell, or listening to podcasts.

And sometimes, learning even the most school-related stuff will just be a byproduct of unplanned activity, where children stumble across something that is interesting to them.

Most important, try to enjoy the time with your children.

Having kids unexpectedly home all day can surely be stressful. But it is also a great opportunity to develop connections with them that are less possible when they are in school (and we are at work) all day. And just as parents are stressed during times like these, so are kids. Now is a time where parents get to have conversations with kids, share their interests and allow them to share theirs.

This study of parents who don’t send their kids to traditional schools shows that a whopping 57% of those parents felt in retrospect like “family closeness” was a highly valuable part of having their kids home with them. Of course, those are families who chose (parents and kids) to not send the kids to school. Nevertheless, these families can teach us how parents and children can learn to see each other as allies and resources rather than adversaries.

So, we can take these strange times to get to know our kids in ways we couldn’t before, allow those of us who are working from home to see what their parents do all day and play (and learn) together.

It is true that we are not all homeschoolers and unschoolers now. To claim that we are would be like saying those displaced by natural disasters have become campers and outdoors enthusiasts. But just as veteran campers might have some words of wisdom for people navigating displacement, the literature on homeschooling and unschooling could have something to offer parents struggling in this difficult environment.

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