The COVID-19 pandemic has led to novel shifts in how we school our children, with little time for discussion or thorough planning. As the pandemic hurled itself on us, schools were forced to shut their gates overnight. Most privileged schools have adjusted to the situation by switching to online platforms, with regularly scheduled online classes and homework, some of which is graded. These shifts were accompanied by an increase in panic and anxiety around children’s productivity, and the policing of learning schedules.
A situational triage
The child has traditionally been at the centre of the parent-child-teacher nexus, always a passive recipient rather than an active player in the design and execution of their education. The pandemic is only intensifying this passivity. The nexus is fast morphing into a teacher-parent-child hierarchy, with the child at the receiving end of a long chain of educational command. Their capacity to respond in a way that has an impact on what is being taught and how is limited even further in the online and distance learning mode of functioning.
The situation has elicited different responses from parents, depending on the time they can make for their children, and on their individual perception of education. Some parents welcome structure to keep their children’s education on track. Other parents find themselves divided over the idea of remote schooling. Similarly, there are children who are quick to adapt to the demands of remote schooling, while others may be less able or unwilling.
Although we are all in this together, each family is experiencing house-bound life according to very individual circumstances. A number of factors influence this. The number of children in a household and their ages, whether or not one or both parents continue to work, the presence of other adults (uncles, aunts, grandparents) in the immediate family unit, and the availability of external help are just some of these factors. School-from-home does not account for this wide range of family circumstance. It works on the presumption that all families will have the same capacity to make adjustments to accommodate school, without factoring in considerations like increased housework, the availability of digital devices, strong Internet connectivity and bandwidth, or even the availability of dedicated spaces to sit and work. Parents are also concerned about the substantial increase in screen time that online schooling involves.
The situation is not just tough on parents and children. Many school teachers also find this moment overwhelming — they too have families and children of their own, and homes to run. Over and above dealing with the various contingencies as the rest of us, teachers are suddenly expected to engage with an entirely new set of online platforms, learning how to use them on the job. For teachers that are not trained to lesson plan for online instruction, teaching online is often not a satisfactory teaching experience. Lively classroom sessions are not easily translated via the screen, with students sitting in isolation, often with their mikes muted to prevent disruption from the children themselves, or disturbance from household sounds. While students and teachers may enjoy connecting online for a short period every day, staying online for the length of the school day gets monotonous and emotionally draining for both parties. In addition, teachers are expected to constantly plan lessons, produce worksheets, and then provide feedback on all this work, without really interacting with the child. This takes up much more time than official school hours. While administrators have taken the decision to move schools online to stay relevant, to respond to the moment, and to prevent bankruptcy, this has not resulted in effective teaching or learning scenarios.
As adults, we often need to establish a sense of control in unpredictable situations, and one way of exercising control over our own lives is through regulating the lives of our children. Yet, we must remember that this emergency is being experienced as an emergency by our children too. No school, no extra-curriculars, no outings and no friends is a gaping hole in their social lives. While children are accustomed to having little say in the way they lead their lives, this moment is being experienced as a loss of control, even by them. Schoolwork often invites resistance. The rigid expectations of schoolwork frequently set up a power struggle between parents and children, usually to the dissatisfaction of one or the other. Given their lack of mobility and access to friends in these circumstances, a lot of children are probably looking to their parents to partner with them as playmates rather than as educator.
The potential of self-directed learning
So here is a thought. Why not look upon a break from school and schoolwork as an opportunity to allow children to be more self-directed in their learning? We can strive to suspend our pre-conditioned notions and judgements of time well spent, and consider the idea of letting children find their own cues to fill in their time. This can be achieved by changing our mindset to recalibrate our ideas and ideals to value our children’s initiatives, with no imposed goals or directions of our own. This is not to say that children need to be dissuaded from doing schoolwork, but rather, they should not be forced to have to do it. Nor does this mean that there are no house rules or family rules whatsoever. However, learning can be led by the child. We can focus our gaze on the natural interests and inclinations of our children as they unfold in an environment free from pressure, and support them in their pursuits as best we can. Being self-directed is a worthy pedagogical goal in itself, and the ability to tackle and overcome a sense of boredom is a skill worth developing, one that will serve our children much longer than the duration of this pandemic.
Here’s what self-directed learning can look like: children may choose to learn to cook, knit, garden, play an instrument, learn chess, learn magic over YouTube or drawing techniques. Some children will watch plays or movies, listen to podcasts, play videogames, write stories, compose music, create games, read books, design robots. Some children may play all day long in their world of make believe. The possibilities are endless. But all children will be having fun, exploring their multiple intelligences, and perhaps making surprising discoveries for themselves and about themselves. They will spend their days in the satisfaction that they are doing what’s most worthy for themselves. And what they discover about themselves, about their likes and dislikes, about their strengths and interests, will have a lasting effect on their sense of self-worth, beyond their ability to complete a worksheet on time.
Particularly anxious parents, worried that playtime and work are mutually exclusive categories should know that play is learning. Adults can choose to leave them to it, without an accompanying sense of guilt. Trust your child. Trust in the process. They might look like they are wasting time, but practically everything a child does on their own initiative is a form of learning. Playing with dolls and action figures is storytelling, practising vocabulary, developing social and emotional skills. Playing with blocks builds spatial reasoning while learning about size and measurement. Cooking involves culture, chemistry and survival. Musical instruments involve fine motor skills and a sense of rhythm. Boardgames involve concentration, strategy, and problem solving. Gardening is a life skill involving knowledge of basic biology and ecology. There is little that children do that will not foster learning. It is for adults to bring in the learning perspective to the child’s self-chosen actions for themselves, and use that understanding to support or extend the child’s interests.
The premise of educational reform
It is widely acknowledged that learning takes many forms, outside of set curriculums and walls of a school. In his book Free to Learn, Peter Gray explains why self-direction leads to the best, most relevant learning for the individual child. Ken Robinson, in his talk titled Changing Education Paradigms, addresses the genesis of school in its current form, and the need for schools to recognise the necessity for educational reform to keep up with the changed structure of society. Former children’s laureate Michael Rosen has been advocating more play and creative outlets for children in his book Michael Rosen’s Book of Play , while psychology professor Alison Gopnik in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter makes a case for nurturing our children like a gardener would tend to his plants, supporting their growth, rather than a carpenter who would mould a child with a very particular idea in mind.
As unfortunate as the circumstances are, we are presented in this moment with a unique opportunity. A collective pause — for teachers, parents, and children — has the potential to be a starting point for collective reflection about our educational systems, powerfully led by the voice of the child at the centre as parents are exposed to the advantages of self-directed learning. Educational reform born out of the pandemic may also be worthy of pursuit. Let’s press pause and let childhood take over. Let’s all learn something.
The writer has a Masters in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, a Bachelors in English Literature from Delhi University, New Delhi, and worked for several years on environmental and social issues in the development sector. With her latest credential as parent, she has developed an academic interest in self-directed learning and the subject of play. She has completed the online Playworker Development Course offered by Pop-up Adventure Play, a play advocacy organisation with bases in the U.K. and the U.S. She lives in Chennai and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org