Distance Learning
How Might We Prioritize What Matters Most in a Time of Uncertainty?
by
Katie Martin
As the current health crisis continues to turn the world upside down, we are all reimagining our roles. Families and caregivers are learning to make teaching a part of their routine. At the same time, educators are coming up with innovative ways to provide students and families with food and other resources (both academic and non-academic), all while looking out for themselves and their loved ones.
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As the current health crisis continues to turn the world upside down, we are all reimagining our roles. Families and caregivers are learning to make teaching a part of their routine. At the same time, educators are coming up with innovative ways to provide students and families with food and other resources (both academic and non-academic), all while looking out for themselves and their loved ones. Everyone is adapting as guidelines change and new information, opinions, packets, and schedules become available on a daily basis.

While families have shown incredible openness and resilience, juggling parenting and teaching around the clock is not sustainable and should by no means be the goal. For so many of us, it has been stressful enough managing our basic routines in the face of unknowns. The added responsibility of educating our children at home creates further complexity. We need to give ourselves permission to slow down, take care of ourselves, and focus on doing what’s most important. In these uncertain times, how might we go about prioritizing what matters most?


School v. Learning

I have been thinking a lot about how we as parents can make the best use of our time and focus on what really matters in an at-home learning context. The graphic below, created by George Couros, highlights the difference between school and learning. (He and I had a discussion on this very topic, which you can access here). 

Much of what we do in school is driven by what can be measured, so many aspects of K-12 education (including class schedules, pacing, and content) are standardized. As we experiment with at-home learning, many of us are likely trying to standardize our behaviors and routines in an effort to replicate the feeling of school and maintain a sense of control. However, a standardized approach may not be possible right now, especially given the extreme differences that exist among families’ circumstances and needs.

In an article titled “40 million students in 4 days: How is the shift to learning at home going?”, Stacey Childress shares, 

“In reality, this unprecedented shift to learning at home cannot be standardized. And yet, some school districts and state agencies are trying to rein in the early efforts of teachers and principals until a unified plan is developed from the top…The consensus advice to parents and caregivers seems to be: create a bit of structure, make a little time for formal learning and more time for play and exploration, and help kids feel safe and secure. Above all, keep it simple and make it work for your family — there is no one best way.”


Children (and adults) need to feel connected and safe, first and foremost. What better time than now to give children the opportunity to be seen, heard, and inspired to learn? I know that many are thinking, “My kids need structure. They can’t just be left alone! If they had a choice, they would play video games all day.” I think about my colleague who, when talking about some of the challenges she was facing with her son, acknowledged, “He isn’t driving his own learning.” I want to be clear here that not many learners are going to be able to create a schedule, know exactly what to work on, and be perfectly self-sufficient for 6 weeks or more. Not many adults I know can do this, to be honest. But there can and should be an attainable middle ground between free exploration and structured learning time.

As I take in different perspectives, knowing of course that there are many I have not yet heard or will never fully know, what I see is that every circumstance is unique. Every child, family, and community has its own set of opportunities and challenges. I also know that regardless of whether or not children are in school, learning is happening all the time:

  • Children are learning as they watch how we react to our environment and the unknown.
  • They are learning as they see people rise up to help and support others. 
  • They are learning as they observe how we follow the “rules” (or don’t). 
  • They are learning as they process their feelings – as they get so bored they want to scream, and as they dance, sing, and create. 

And much of this learning and their experience will stick with them far beyond the Chapter 2 biology test or the main theme of a paragraph in a test prep packet.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Most states likely won’t have standardized tests this year, and, given the lack of opportunity for all students to complete coursework and tests, college admissions might require different processes. I keep returning to the idea that necessity is the mother of all invention. This is the time to invent new structures and awaken hidden talents and passions in our children. Let’s see this as an opportunity to focus on what learners need and what they want to learn. 

Read more about the importance of sparking children’s curiosity.