What enables a student to be a successful learner in school, while others struggle? This question is being asked with renewed urgency, as many students work from home without as much face-to-face involvement from teachers, and with many parents trying to help their children in this new environment.
The pandemic is excruciating for many reasons, but it also contains great potential for new growth as well. In this time, we may gain an opportunity for insight into the dynamics of education and to better understand factors that help students thrive.
It may be helpful to start by considering the basic structure of our modern education system. Most schools, Paulo Freire classically observed, apply a “banking model” of education. In this system, the teacher plays the central role in what happens in the classroom. We might add that teachers are often controlled by administrators and authorities beyond them as well. In this system, Jerry Farber suggested that students are socialized to be timid, depending on the teacher’s direction more than themselves.
To the extent this is true, teachers, parents, and students may be experiencing “withdrawal symptoms” at this time. Well-intentioned teachers may be trying to perform a “virtual miracle” as they try their best to continue instructing and guiding students while at a distance. Likewise, well-intentioned parents may feel like they need to take on the full supervisory role of the teacher at home amidst many other competing demands and concerns.
In this context, it is important to note how Jean Piaget, the great pioneer of understanding children’s cognitive development, stressed how “knowledge is not given to the passive observer, [but] must be discovered and constructed by the activities of the child.” Although others can help, ultimately, knowledge is created by the student.
Many have forgotten that children possess “instincts” to construct knowledge, a fact easily observable before they go to school. Most of this learning occurs naturally, directed by the child’s own curiosity and needs. Young children actively explore their world, asking questions about what is meaningful and important to them. They proceed at their own rate and, if they choose, can keep practicing until they judge they have mastered an activity.
To be sure, school requires a different kind of learning than the mostly practical learning of childhood, with its reliance on direct everyday experience. It greatly expands the breadth of knowledge to include abstract and conceptual ideas. It ultimately requires students to adopt new theoretical ways of thinking and to think critically about the world in which they live.
Still, most students possess remarkable resources to learn independently. Considering this, teachers and parents would do well to nudge their students toward rediscovering “lost instincts” to learn on their own, pursuing their curiosities within the context of their school work, asking questions, following tangents, and working at their own speed. Beyond school requirements, there are other unique opportunities for learning and growth in this moment as well, including various kinds of “passion projects,” exercise, and outdoor activities. Parents and teachers would do well to intentionally and creatively foster connections with and among students during this time, as students are may be stressed about the changes in their lives, and isolation will only increase this stress and make it more difficult for them to learn. Finally, if there is one point of intervention many students may need, it probably lies in the area of self-discipline, as self-discipline has been found to be one of the most powerful predictors of performance in school, but is also likely a skill many students have not yet mastered. Even something as simple as helping a student figure out a time management plan for the day – and checking in with them as appropriate – may go a long way toward nurturing their success as learners and in life.
This is a difficult time for teachers, parents, and students – a time that will forever be remembered. But, in the end, the lessons learned may be invaluable for improving the future of education.
Myles Johnson contributed to this post.