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  • Diahann Hughes Hawkins

8 Lessons on Learning

Since the time I started my own home schooling journey in April 2019, there are now as many as an estimated 1.5 billion children being home schooled due to the global pandemic*. In that first year I went thought a steep personal learning curve and had little guidance, so it seemed appropriate to share some of the insights about Learning with other parents, who have been thrust into this same situation. While we’re living in a challenging time in so many ways, hopefully these tips can help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that comes from expectations and turn the home schooling experience into a positive one for both parents and children. I found the experience of being a home educator actually became enjoyable at the point when it suddenly felt like we were all exploring and learning together on an educational journey.

When first starting out with home schooling, the most important skills any parent really needs is to stay open to changing one’s mind about how learning happens and adopt new strategies when appropriate. Home-schooling really is a ‘trial and error’ experience that enables a parent to tailor learning to the uniqueness of each child. It doesn’t have to be 3-6 hours per day of instruction or conducted sitting at a desk. Learning happens in so many different ways, and the ‘how’ is the flexible part.

The following 8 Lessons on Learning outline some of the most significant preconception-changing insights I’ve had from this immersive experience:

#1 Don’t over-work material: Children can learn quickly, and too much covering the same information over & over can lead to boredom in no time. Better to make sure they have learned a particular skill or concept, then briefly return to it again in a few days or weeks. Or even better, just keep informally testing that skill set or concept in everyday life when a good example arises.

#2 Give more challenging materials than their actual age-level: Children learn in different stages and capacities. Often they find the material too easy, and switch off out of sheer boredom. A good indicator of their ability to stretch beyond their years is if they already have an interest in a particular topic or project. They will take in what they are able to absorb, and can always come back to revisit more levels of complexity at a later time. Best to err on ‘too much’, rather than too little educational content. Observe their personal limit, and prepare to be surprised about how much more they can absorb and do.

#3 Remember that Learning happens ALL THE TIME: It takes a lot to break the conditioning that learning only happens 5 days a week between the hours of 9-3pm in school. When schooling is done at home, it becomes quite obvious that there are times of day or evening when a child is more open to learning. They have bio-rhythms like adults, and it’s far more productive to work with a child when they are keen to learn. And they really are inherently keen. When children have an interest in learning a new skill or concept, they will let you know one way or another, which leads to the next point.

#4 Let the Learning be guided by interest: If a child is interested in a particular hobby or activity, there are a lot of skills that can be creatively developed through their interest. Half of the battle is getting the focus of a child when teaching, and this is cut in half by tailoring the material to where they have their own interests. Projects are a useful way of customising ‘need to know’ material with the fun stuff, which can get the creativity flowing in everyone. It is also a ‘beginning to end’ experience that can go on for weeks at a time. The learning opportunities through customised projects are unlimited, and the more these activities parallel real-world work experience the more likely that children will be developing important life skills.

(One example: If filmmaking is the latest interest, then find tutorials on filmmaking, help with developing & writing a story, learn about storyboarding together, and encourage them to start filming with a video camera or smartphone. iMovie is a free resource for film editing, and kids can learn to safely publish their work on Vimeo/YouTube or through their own website.)

#5 Working alongside each other works well: Humans are programmed to learn through copying. If parents sit down to read a novel, chances are children will be more inspired to pick up a book and read. I noticed that if I started learning a language or watched an educational video, they were usually right over my shoulder wanting to share the experience (or take over the computer). One inspired morning, I picked up my laptop and suggested that we write a story together. I volunteered to type out the story, so we wouldn’t have to work on spelling & hinder the creative flow. We each took one sentence per turn, and had to follow the thread carefully by listening to others. If on their turn they had enough ideas for a second sentence, then they had to come up with an appropriate conjunction to connect them. We soon realised that to make a more interesting story, it was important to come up with synonyms and creative adjectives. Before long we had the most amazingly creative story that any of us had written in a long time. They didn’t have any idea how much they were learning in that one session, which is why they wanted to do it again the next day.

#6 Importance of the ‘Spaces In-between’ learning: Free time to assimilate and order new information requires breaks from the intensity of learning. It’s easy to know when this needs to happen, as children get fidgety, lose focus and basically will tell you they need a break. Play is the most obvious way that children work through new skills and ideas, and it is important to give children this assimilation time. Research has proven that when working on difficult tasks it helps to take a break and do something enjoyable, then return more motivated to continue the task. Children especially need time to pause and assimilate information into their world, otherwise it doesn’t become longterm memory. Flitting too soon to the next subject or topic can overwhelm minds and switch off Learning.

#7 It’s impossible to learn everything: The development of national curriculums around the world since the 1980s has lead to a commonly accepted belief that there exists a pre-ordained set of ‘must-know’ information, much like a hardbound collection of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Any material outside of that realm is sometimes considered to be in the hobby or frivolous learning category (where sadly music & art have fallen into in recent years).

However, the reality is that much curriculum content is random, outdated, chopped into fragments, and pieced together with new bits of updated information each year. It can never be completely comprehensive, and even if it were, no-one person can possibly learn and remember all that information with robot-like recall. How many adults can honestly admit they remember most of what they learned in primary, or even secondary school? The more vivid memories tend to be around experiences (ie. school trips) and skills such as creative writing, building things and learning how to research in libraries.

It’s the doing skills that we need to be imparting to the next generation, while information will be accelerating it’s rapidly-changing pace and will continue to be on-demand by the Google Generation. In other words, it's not necessary to follow a rigid curriculum to give your child the best possible education.

#8 Assessing Learning: think beyond ‘Test to Assess’: The most useful ways to track dynamic learning is through portfolios/learning journeys that include pieces of writings, artwork/sketches, printouts of computer coding, pictures of activities, maths workings, etc. and most importantly a spreadsheet to list what learning activities have been done. This book or digital folder is mostly meant for the learner(s) and parent, and it is a wonderful tool for looking back over the weeks and months to see how much learning has taken place. It’s the way I remember classroom learning was evaluated in primary school back in the 70s, and is still being used in nursery settings around the world as learning journeys. And now with the interruption of school terms around the world by the coronavirus pandemic, many teachers will be using personalised assessment instead of standardised tests.

This learning journey, which can be challenging at the beginning, is ultimately highly rewarding. It gives parents a chance to get to know their children better. It won’t necessarily work for every family, but it can work extremely well for many. I’m yet to meet a parent who chose to home-school and regretted it. We know our own children better than anyone. It just takes confidence to embrace your own home-learning experience while remembering that the point of the journey is Learning, not ticking boxes. Developing the art of listening to what our children need and want to learn helps us to make it a success.

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The Background of our own ‘Home Learning’ Journey

I decided to embark on our own home learning adventure with my two children nearly a year ago (my son since January), after they completed the main learning objectives of their successful primary school education. They both are very capable at reading, writing and working with numbers, yet they also have inquisitive minds that wanted to learn more than the National Curriculum allowed. They were at the point where they were learning more new material at home and in after-school activities, so school seemed to be getting in the way. Both our children are very different, as siblings usually are. My daughter is dreamy and artistic, with a strong desire to help change the world as a marine biologist. My son loves anything science, music and computer-related, therefore filmmaking ticks all his boxes at the moment. They learn in different ways, but they are both creative and want to learn.

However, that didn’t come naturally when I first started working one-on-one with my oldest child. She had suffered a lack of self-confidence and constantly needed to be told what to do (even asking to use the loo at home!). This is one of the unfortunate effects on children in modern classrooms where there isn’t time to encourage self-responsibility, and ‘good behaviour’ can easily be confused with obedience. She had stopped reading books, so the first step was to give her the time she needed to ‘just be’ and read….lots. She constantly had her head in an educational magazine and read nine books in 6 weeks. She emerged from this phase months later, and decided she wanted to make a contribution to the world. Within three months she became a mini-entrepreneur creating ‘Eco-wrap’ selling reusable, fabric gift bags at Christmas. This spring term she is starting spirulina (algae) production for her project, which enables us to fold in maths, biology, food production and nutrition. My biggest challenge these days is reining in her huge ideas into the realm of physical possibilities. As I type, she’s designing a huge wooden house to build for her toy animals to live in. She’s been influenced by viewing some architectural programmes about unusual homes these past two weeks.

My son was just in the right time to move towards independent learning, as being in Yr4 he hadn’t been funnelled into the standardised test treadmill yet. He also acquired the basic skills of primary school, but was trying to learn programming and filmmaking in evenings and weekends. He also was very keen to learn more advanced maths, so it seemed easier to teach them Yr6 level maths together. It didn’t take long for him to find his feet and he hit the ground learning the very first day…and hasn’t looked back since.

We’re in our third week of official ‘suspended official learning’ by me, as I still don’t feel well enough to work with them. However, that hasn’t stopped the kids from self-learning and doing educational activities, even when they haven’t felt great themselves. Children are by nature little sponges. Since ours have access to some good educational books, Internet learning resources and helpful guidance from us as parents, our kids are staying just as busy as they were before the ‘no school’ declaration for a few weeks. They proved to me that they have now acquired one of the most important education goals - ‘life-long love of learning’. This is one of the most key skills to nurture, as gives children the ability to independently adapt and thrive in the rapidly changing world we are all living in today.

-March 31st, 2020

*as of 31-03-20

This is article #3 from ReThinkingEducation.blog that is exploring what are the core components of Learning and how we can improve the educational experience for our children in the rapidly changing 21st century world.

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