What’s Worth Learning?

The generosity of this moment has been extraordinary to witness. In my small town, a local cafe is giving out free breakfast and lunch to anyone who isn’t able to work right now. People are cleaning out their closets to find masks to donate to hospital workers. Neighbors are saying hello and introducing themselves–albeit from six feet away. And teachers, authors, illustrators, coaches, and organizations have made available a world of online learning that we never had access to before.

If you are like me, you might be starting to feel a little flooded by all of the e-learning possibilities. Why haven’t we gone on a virtual tour of the Louvre yet? Shouldn’t we be joining authors online for live read-alouds? What about the swim team coach’s workout at 1:00 on Facebook Live? FOMO apparently rears its pervasive, anxiety-fueled head even in a social distancing world.

In our house, we are on Day 10 of homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that a simple routine has been established, my husband and I find ourselves looking at the detailed plans their teachers have worked so hard to create, the extraordinary online possibilities to learn something new, the gift of time before us, (and our own work responsibilities) and we’re wondering…So what’s worth learning?

Most of my career has been about asking similar big questions in my work with schools and teachers: What are students learning? Why are they learning it? and How are they learning?

I’ve tried to take a step back during the last ten days to ask the same big questions about our own makeshift family schoolhouse. We are grateful for the plans our children’s teachers continue to make, the adjustments they are making along the way, and the world of possibility that now exists online. Yet, one of the gifts of this moment is the potential for a hard reset and conversation about what’s worth learning.

As our two children seesaw between contentment and frustration each day, we’re wrestling with the questions of What’s worth learning? and Who gets to decide?

Right now, if you’re a parent trying to Laura Ingalls Wilder this homeschool thing or you’re a teacher trying to figure out how to translate the magic that happens in your classroom to something on the screen, you’re being asked to make learning happen. Some of it will happen. A lot of it won’t. And that’s okay. Most of what our children will probably learn won’t be planned. But maybe that’s how most learning happens anyway.

I have a doctorate in education and my husband won Teacher of the Year once before becoming an administrator. Day One of homeschooling felt like our big moment had arrived. We could finally show our children what great teachers we were. By 2:00 both boys had moments of tears and our grand plans for inspiring our boys to become historians and for turning our kitchen into a science lab quickly dissolved. Thank God. Since then, we’ve doubled down on what’s simple and sustainable.

Now, we’re giving ourselves permission to strive for the bronze some days. We’re also quickly learning that supporting our boys to tear apart the couch cushions to make a reading nook is sometimes more valuable than forcing them to watch a videorecorded minilesson. Learning to pump their own bike tires is probably more important than watching the science video, especially if they already learned about the topic last year. Measuring out flour for homemade cookies may have more math applications than a workbook page especially when everyone in the family gets to benefit by eating warm cookies. It counts. It all counts.

What’s worth learning is a question that ancient philosophers pondered, Harvard’s School of Education has their answer to, and teachers in all forms respond to often minute-to-minute. The answer is both remarkably simple and deeply complex.

The Simple View

The simple view of what’s worth learning is by asking what’s relevant. This moment reminds us that it’s worth our children learning how to become more self-driven. To make decisions about their use of time after giving them some structure and choice. To deepen their own interests. To try something new. To take a break. To move when they need to. To realize it’s okay to waste a weekend binge-watching Naruto. To lock their brother out of the house and suffer the natural consequences. To find freedom in boredom. To help others when they can. To decide what’s relevant to them.

Learning to make a bread starter became relevant because the store is out of commercial yeast.

The hopeful part of me believes that this historic moment could help children learn some of the secrets of how to live a happy life by determining their own purpose.

A Little More Complex View

Some things worth learning are a little more complex. There are arguably certain bodies of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that give you more power if you know them. The more background knowledge you have about a topic, the easier it is to read and comprehend texts about that topic and to share your knowledge with others. If you know how to spell words conventionally, more people will read your ideas and take them seriously. If you know math facts with some level of automaticity, you will find more joy in solving complex operations because your brain won’t be taxed by the first step. If you know a bit about historical events, you are likely to ask questions and then find joy in the search for answers. If you have practice making art, you’ll feel more comfortable and confident making art.

Grateful for Art.Simple on Youtube for daily drawing class

That said, the most important metric for determining what’s worth learning is to watch your own child’s response. Notice what’s working and worth repeating and what is simply too frustrating and should be let go. Try to notice and recognize the ways your children are outgrowing themselves in small ways and let them know you see them.

If you’re trying to decide what’s worth creating routines around and what’s worth letting go, here is a quick (and imperfect) cheat sheet. Here I focus on reading, writing, and math for now.

Reading:

  • a love of stories: knowledge of how stories work will be useful for almost anything your children want to do in life; set aside time for daily read-alouds, share stories over meals about times when your children were little or before they were born, or listen to audiobooks together–Audible just launched a free collection for kids
  • getting curious about the world: if your children have been assigned nonfiction reading through online sources try to link what they are learning about to a bigger topic that might be of interest to them–have conversations about what questions the reading sparked for them and share anything you might know about the topic
  • how characters are just like us: have conversations with your children about the characters in their books, what the characters’ lives are like, anything that’s different from their own life, or what the characters make them think or feel
  • the sounds letters make: if your children have been given ways to practice phonemic awareness (the sounds in spoken words) and phonics (the sounds represented by letters in print) and they are still learning how to read it’s worth setting up short bursts of practice to maintain these skills

Writing:

  • our ideas and stories are worthy of sharing: sustaining free choice writing can help children realize they are writers even if they are using scribbles, drawings, and invented spelling to convey their ideas; set aside 5 or 10 minutes for freewrite time in a blank journal–imperfection is part of the writing process
  • how sentences work: sentence fluency is the ability to craft a variety of sentences for different purposes. Try using question words to help children write stronger sentences from simple sentences (for example, if they wrote Harry Potter played. Who did he play with? Where did he play? When did he play? Why did he play? How did he play?) Almost any writing in any genre can get stronger by using the 5W1H questions as a guide.
  • spelling: help children notice the patterns of how words in English are spelled by talking about how words are alike and how they are different. Try using sticky notes for matching word parts or to create a memory game. Use magnetic letters or a white board to dictate words or sentences and to have children write them in a way that isn’t permanent and where mistakes are meant to be learned from.

Math

  • automaticity: the more automatic fact retrieval is the easier more complex operations become. Use dice or numbers cut up on paper to practice mental math. Make three digit numbers together and practice taking away or adding five or ten. Use the same basic fact math practice sheet 5 days in a row so children experience the joy of getting stronger each day.
  • fluency: the more number sense we have the more we understand how operations work. Support children to draw or diagram their solutions to problems. Talk about how numbers can be represented different ways (for example, 587 is 500+80+7 and 400+180+7). There might be a correct answer to math problems but how to get there can take lots of different paths.
Independent reading routines at home have their benefits–namely, jammies, comics, and snacks.

Lastly, here are a few more tips that are helping me keep things simple and sustainable:

  • Choice blocks built into your day can help children discover what they want to learn or get better at –a predictable structure helps them anticipate the time for choice and even look forward to it
  • Reading aloud is one of the best ways to build connection, grow vocabulary, and build a love of stories–it is always time well spent; video chat with relatives to share snippets of books (our favorites are weird animal facts and joke books)
  • Use online resources like virtual tours and live author read-alouds if it is something your children want to try
  • Evaluate suggestions by your children’s teachers and ask yourself if there are any things your children already do naturally that may not need to be “assigned” right now
  • Use tactile materials when you can (sticky notes can become letter tiles, a cookie sheet becomes a magnetic surface for magnet letters, the dry erase board you use to write your shopping list can become a writing surface) especially for children in preschool-Grade 2.
  • Short bursts of daily practice (sometimes of the same repeated skill) is often better than longer practice sessions that lead to more frustration
  • Support children to set daily or weekly goals for themselves as a personal challenge–What do they want to try? What do they want to get stronger at? How do they want to outgrow themselves? How can they help others?
  • Not all screen time is created equal. Encourage screen time that supports creation. A new favorite in our house is Art.Simple.
  • Cookie breaks help.
Making sentences using Who, What, Where, When, Why, How

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