School's really out…

Naomi Fisher with an update to her recent article, as children learn at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, my article on self-directed education ‘School’s Out’ was published in The Psychologist. A few days later, in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, all the schools in Italy, France and Spain were closed, to be followed a week later by the UK, most of Europe and North America. School is now well and truly out for millions of children and we don’t know when they will go back.  

Schools have had to respond very quickly to provide online education, with some providing classes whilst others send home packs of worksheets. Teachers are working round the clock to continue to provide children with an education, often simultaneously juggling their own children’s needs.  

Not all children are grateful. Suddenly it’s the task of parents to make sure their children do what school requires of them. For some, this works fine, and they can continue to work, knowing their children are still getting an education. For others, it means that parents and children are stuck in conflict. Parents have contacted me to ask what to do when their child says no to everything, or when it becomes clear that they are completely uninterested in what school says they should be doing.

On a global scale, this is unprecedented. Never have so many children been educated at home. Whilst this isn’t the same situation as home education, because schools still hold the responsibility rather than parents, it still may be helpful to see what we can learn from those who have trodden this path before. How can we ensure that children continue to learn and thrive, even whilst school’s out?  

1. Expand your perspective on learning. Schools are one type of learning environment which prioritises academic learning.  Home is different, and here social and cultural learning can be prioritised. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik says that social learning can be richer and more meaningful than school learning, and now could be the time to try that out. Do things together and enable children to do things they enjoy. Read books, make models, play games and make meals. It’s all learning.

2. What works at school may not work at home. At school the whole system is set up to ensure children comply. There are relatively few distractions and children have very little power. At home, children are surrounded with their own distractions, and they have more power. They can say no more easily, and they do. This means that efforts to reproduce school at home are frequently full of conflict. It may be more efficient in the long term to focus on finding things the child is interested in and learn about that rather than fighting about worksheets. 

3. Much of what happens at school isn’t actually about the learning. When you have 30 children in a small space, you need a rigid structure to control them. Otherwise, mayhem ensues. However, this doesn’t mean that the best way to learn is to be seated at a desk for several hours a day with short breaks to run around in the garden, nor that listening to an adult talk necessarily results in effective learning.  
At home, we don’t have to reproduce school conditions in order for learning to happen. The child can research something for themselves, for example, through looking for Youtube videos, discussing their ideas and asking Siri. They can run around the house every few minutes, there’s no need to wait for break time. They can lie on their bed, or under the table. Talking together is a rich source of learning, as is play. 

4. Learning is more efficient when the learner is interested. This becomes very clear out of school. As developmental psychologist Alan Thomas says, parents quickly learn that there’s no point in continuing when a child’s eyes glaze over. Trying to persuade a bored child to learn is like trying to fill a sieve with water. Even when it appears that they are learning, nothing sticks. Look for their interest, and follow that. 

5. When a child is intrinsically motivated, everything is flows better. To nurture intrinsic motivation, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory suggests we should create the circumstances to encourage autonomy, a sense of competence and relatedness. One way to do this is by giving children meaningful choices about what they do, and pointing it out to them when they do things well. Right, now, children have very few choices about their lives, so think about what control you can give them in increase their sense of autonomy. If they miss work, they will catch up more quickly later on if they feel that it is in their control. Prioritise your relationship with them, this will still be there when these worksheets are long forgotten. 
For older children, this may mean keeping out of the work sent to them by school and leaving it up to them what they complete and when they complete it. Paradoxically, keeping out of it could mean that they feel less pressured, and therefore more inclined to get on with it. 

6. Resistance can be a sign of anxiety. So many children are saying no right now, whilst their parents tear their hair out. We’re in the middle of the most anxiety-provoking time globally our children (and us!) have ever experienced. Many children are hyper-aroused, and they show this with anger and resistance. If parents react with anger, then the child becomes even more anxious and more resistant.  
It’s a time where parents need to take a deep breath and stay calm, even whilst their children shout and rage. Seeing a tantrum as a panic attack can help us to stay compassionate even when faced by outrageous and unreasonable behaviour.
Help children manage their anxiety by providing space for them to talk about their feelings. Talk about how anxiety is a normal human reaction in this situation, and many millions of people are worrying and having trouble sleeping right now. The best thing we know for anxiety is exercise, and many children are doing less exercise now that they are stuck in. There are exercise apps for smartphones and exercise games on consoles. Put some music on and dance. If they say no, you do it anyway. One day they may join in.

7. Children will not end up behind for ever if they miss a few months of school. Much of what children apparently learn at school (particularly at primary) is developmental. Studies of children educated outside school show that they can catch up quickly on specific skills and learning when they are motivated. Children who never go to school do not have to go back and cover twelve years of education in order to go to university, they just need to learn what is necessary for the exams and tests which qualify them for the next stage.    
Right now, many would argue that it’s more important for children to feel happy and safe than it is for them to keep up with their maths workbook. If they want to do the maths, then great, but if the fuss about doing the maths makes everyone miserable, perhaps it’s time to decide on your priorities. They may not be the same as their school.   
Again, for older children it might be helpful just to back off and let them make the choices for themselves. Ultimately it’s up to them and the school whether they do the work or not.

8. Prioritise connections. Peter Gray, a psychologist who researches how children learn outside school, thinks that children can educate themselves through play, curiosity and sociability. Sociability is the multiplier. Sugata Mitra, who conducted the 'Hole in the Wall' experiments in India says something similar. When children communicate with each other, the learning is quicker as they share their discoveries.  
Right now, this means video or phone calls. Children learn from adults, older and younger children and each other. Setting up video calls for younger children with their friends often works better if you find an activity they can do together. Drawing, craft or playing on a tablet together are all ways of connecting remotely. If they can’t manage other children online, find adults who can spend some time playing remotely. Board games sites allow you to play games together, or Monopoly, Cluedo and Exploding Kittens can all be played with far away friends or family on a tablet.

9. Joining with children results in more learning and less conflict. At school children are obliged to focus on activities chosen for them by adults. At home, it often works better to join them in what they are doing rather than to try and pull them away. If your children are choosing to do things which you feel is a waste of their time, try joining them and finding out what the attraction is. Learn how to play Fortnite or Minecraft. Watch Youtube together. Don’t rubbish their choices. Use what you learn about their interests to talk together. At home, conversations are an important source of learning for children. 

10. Adults can open (metaphorical) doors and create a rich learning environment at home. Children’s worlds have shrunk dramatically in the last few weeks. Parents can mitigate this by creating the most interesting environment they can at home.  This can mean embracing things which are usually limited. For many, a phone, tablet or computer is going to be their best source of new stimulation in lockdown. 
Make this time worthwhile by investing in high quality games and apps. Explore the potential of your devices. Tablets can be used to create short films, to read, to make podcasts and of course to watch documentaries. Answer their questions and if you don’t know the answers, show them how you try to find out. Get out the kits and games which they got for Christmas and which there’s never been time to play. Listen to free audio books on Audible, and download the free coding apps like Tynker.  Think about how you can bring new experiences into their world, since they can’t go and find them outside.

And finally

Our children will remember this time forever. Perhaps the most important thing they are learning is how we deal with a crisis and what our priorities are. Protecting their wellbeing and our relationship with them will mean that they can learn more efficiently both now and in the future. This doesn’t have to involve lots of extra time – after all, many parents (including myself) are juggling full time work with children at home. If parents choose not take on the responsibility for ensuring that that children comply with school requirements but instead leave that with the school, then they can focus their energy on making the time that they do have together fun. 

We can use this experience to embrace a wider perspective on learning and helping children feel in control by giving them more choices. There are many ways to learn, and school is just one of them. 

- Dr Naomi Fisher is a chartered psychologist and writer.  Her book on self-directed education, Changing Our Minds, will be published by Little, Brown in spring 2021. 

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