School Closures Round Two: Now with added remote learning

As I write this, we’re heading into week three of remote learning here in the UK, or in my children’s case ‘anything we can do to avoid remote learning-learning.’

I was calm going into it.  I’ve been exploring alternative methods of education since the last lockdown and I felt prepared.  My rose-tinted glasses fogged up about half an hour into day one. What I hadn’t prepared for were the copious amounts of worksheets, emails and a packed timetable.  Bringing the actual classroom, teacher and all, into our home wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I imagined home schooling.

My children attend a good school with caring teachers trying their best to engage them, but I’m sure even the teachers would agree remote learning as its operating now is not an ideal way to learn.  I’ve been working in the same room with my kids to support them, so I’ve seen their engagement first-hand.  It’s early days, but it’s not great.  From my daughter there seems to be a general effort to complete the work as quickly as possible so she can get on with the things she wants to be doing, like drawing, crafting and parkour with her brother on the sofas (the running total they owe me for new furniture stands at £1000).  From my son, there’s resistance to most of it; each worksheet I manage to get him to complete (and we’re still in single figures here) is like pulling teeth – mine not his.  He did spend a good hour or two building Mount Vesuvius out of snow, but I don’t think this was an actual assignment (though it was the most fun he had all week).

I can’t say I blame them.  It’s dry stuff.  But they must do it, right?  And it’s my job as a responsible parent to make sure they get it done, for the sake of their future!  But you try telling a recalcitrant eight-year-old he must do his maths homework or else…or else…or else what?  He’s not bothered about the confiscation of anything if he doesn’t have to do ‘those boring worksheets’ and he’s long since worked out my threats to tell the headteacher he’s not pulling his weight are as empty as bottle of wine on a school Mum’s Friday night.

Living on a building site with incessant drilling, banging, dust and electricity downtime doesn’t particularly make for an engaging learning environment either.  My daughter’s teacher asked her not to sit on her bed for lessons the other day but sitting her at the kitchen table would have been akin to studying in a Victorian workhouse.  I did consider seating my son there so he could at least learn something about his literary topic of Dickens this month. 

The other problem with making them do the work is that even when they finish something it’s done in the same manner as when it’s rushed, with little attention.  If ticking a box with your best guess before moving swiftly on counts as real learning, then I guess we’ve got this covered. 

Then my fear for their futures start to creep in with a whole load of catastrophising ‘if’s’ (my favourite form of self-torture).  If I don’t make them do at least some of the work they’ll fall behind.  If they’re behind, they’ll never catch up.  If they don’t catch up how will they learn what they need to be successful? How will they ever take life seriously?!  Ok so that last one wasn’t an ‘if’, but I think I’ve made my point.

Yet I’ve seen them work hard at difficult tasks when it’s something that interests them, with no prodding or intervention from me.  I’ve seen my son spend days building Lego models, overcoming frustration when he makes a mistake and sticking with it.  This is the boy who nearly reduced me to tears in his refusal to do the work his teachers set but who does maths skills books to wind down at bedtime because he hasn’t linked these ‘fun’ books to school.  I’ve seen my daughter dissolve into tears at the prospect of another school video call yet take her time in getting just the right shot for a video project she’s working on or sit down for hours creating pictures, cards or crafts for her family and friends.

By the yardstick with which we traditionally measure education these endeavours are viewed as hobbies my children can engage in whilst on a break from the real job of learning, but I’m not so sure.  More and more I’m coming to believe that this pursuit of their interests is where the real learning lies.  If my children were allowed the freedom to follow their passions for the next ten years, where could they take them?

Experience of a subject matter leads to competency if we’re passionate or interested enough about what we’re learning to engage with it.  I spent five years of my school life learning French and passed my GCSE, but I can just about say a few introductory words because I didn’t enjoy it.  If I can’t remember anything, did I learn?  I’ve got the qualification to say I did.  My Italian, which I studied as an adult, is so much better because I wanted to learn it.  Competency in a subject area also doesn’t necessarily need formal qualifications.  I spent a long time thinking I couldn’t write because I don’t have any post-GCSE qualifications in English and haven’t written creatively since childhood; yet here I am, loving writing and occasionally getting paid for it. 

There’s an underlying assumption that once you’ve completed your schooling you’re armed with all the knowledge you need to be successful in the adult world.  But for many people the negative correlations with schooling are so bad we actively avoid whole subject areas in our adulthood, convinced we’re rubbish because we didn’t excel at them.  For me it’s maths, a ‘jimmy went to the sweet shop’ question freezes my mental faculties instantly; for my husband it’s anything that looks like reading a book.  Yet I can do the maths I need in my day-to-day life and he can do the reading and writing he needs in his.    

Teaching does not guarantee learning, otherwise we’d all be able to undertake a literary criticism of one of Shakespeare’s plays, or solve algebraic equations over breakfast.   Like anything, the knowledge we acquire in school (if we acquire it) needs to be used to be retained.  If it’s not it will collect dust at the back of the mental cupboard.  Sometimes we have a rummage around and dust bits off (most often for me to answer questions in zoom pub quizzes).  If it’s never needed then it gets discarded and a shiny new piece takes its place, but that’s ok.  Our knowledge and skills expand and change over a lifetime, not just our childhood and I think this is something we often forget, particularly when it comes to the school years.  We can’t know everything, so why not concentrate on knowing the things that fascinate us?  Or at least the things that are useful to us.

There’s no intent here to undermine the efforts of schools or teachers, I think they’re doing admirably in difficult circumstances.  I just can’t help thinking that trying to re-create the classroom at home is missing an opportunity to explore if there could be a better way of doing things, or indeed if our children are learning what they’ll need for their future. 

My daughter was told she no longer needs to learn the names of all the points on a circle now her SAT’s are cancelled; which begs the question, if not for the SAT’s, would she ever need to know the name of all the points on a circle? If she did could she not just google it? I did – apparently there’s a diameter, radius, chord and tangent (which up until now I thought was just something I went off on).  We’re living in an age where so many of the facts drilled into our children during their education can be looked up with the click of a button.

The world of work is changing before our eyes too, so it stands to reason our education system must.  If I’m preparing my children for a world where many jobs will be done at least partly at home, requiring them to work on their own initiative, without supervision or direction and managing their own time, then traditional school (and by extension remote schooling based on this model) with its rigid structures and constant direction might not be the best environment for them to acquire the self-direction and intrinsic motivation they will need. 

I’ve noticed I also tend to think in absolutes when it comes to my kids.  I’ll look at my son as he watches yet another YouTube video involving American teens doing pranks and find my body tense in irritation at his lack of productivity (cue my brain fast forwarding his life to his mid-twenties where he appears welded to my sofa).  I think these tensions come from my own conditioning that to be of worth I must be productive (or appear to be) all the time, so I equate my children’s desire to rest or play with laziness. 

But I need to remember that we’re so different from our childhood selves when we grow up.  I’m sure I used to watch hours of television as a kid, about 90% of my vegetable intake came from tomato ketchup and I could not embark upon a family walk in the countryside without excessive moaning; yet now I’m lucky if I get to watch more than an hour of television a day, I enjoy many fruits and veggies and I love walking – I even drag my own moaning children along on occasions, just to keep up the family tradition.  They’re learning all the time, even when I don’t realise it and especially when I don’t want them to (if swear words made it on to weekly spelling tests, they’d ace them). 

This is where I must leave you.  The kids are having too much fun working together (a rare joy in itself) to build a snuggle den using numerous cardboard boxes and every stuffed animal they own, so I need to interrupt them to tell them to get back to those worksheets because their teachers will be checking in soon and if they haven’t done them then…then…oh I’ll think of something.

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