Are Kids Learning More at Home During COVID-19?

More than one billion students around the world are currently missing school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several US states have already canceled school for the remainder of the academic year, turning to online learning when possible, and other states are likely to extend their school closures soon. Some educationists panic about learning loss while children are at home with their families, and headlines abound about how “homeschooling during the coronavirus will set back a generation of children.”

Learning Outside of a Classroom

Rather than focusing on the alarmist narrative of what is lost during this time away from school, it is worth emphasizing what is gained. There is so much learning that can happen this spring, within families and outside of a conventional classroom.

In many school districts across the country, any assigned coursework has been deemed optional, compulsory attendance laws have been relaxed, and annual testing mandates have been removed. This regulatory respite can provide an opportunity for parents to regain control of their children’s education and expand knowledge using the abundant online learning resources now at our fingertips. Free from state and federal curriculum and testing directives, parents can nurture their children’s education and development, helping them to explore new interests, dive into self-directed projects, and reveal passions and talents.

Whether it’s taking a virtual tour of one of 2,500 museums around the world, listening to a live concert, learning in-demand technology and coding skills for free, engaging in livestream story or art time with renowned authors and artists, or just enjoying special, slower moments together as a family, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to disconnect from standard schooling and discover how much learning can really happen.

Some worry about children’s learning slipping away during this time at home. Writing recently for The Washington Post, former Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman notes the alleged “summer slide” phenomenon when students purportedly lose during summertime much of what they learned during the academic year. He suggests several strategies for combating the learning loss that he says will occur during the pandemic, including adding “more instructional days next year and beyond,” and “opening schools in the middle of the summer, lengthening the school day and the school year, or potentially eliminating summer vacation for the next couple of years.”

Does Learning Loss Occur?

But as I’ve written previously for NPR, we should be skeptical about the overall idea of “summer slide,” or learning loss when children are away from school. If learning is so easily lost when a child’s school routine is disrupted, did they ever really learn at all? They may have been effectively schooled—that is, trained and tested on certain material—but they likely never learned.

Now, children and their parents have an unprecedented opportunity to learn without school. While this is a stressful time for all of us, as our routines are altered and we are mostly stuck inside, distanced from our larger community, it can also be a time to use the enormous, and mostly free, digital resources that are sprouting daily to support learning and discovery. It can be a time to nurture and rekindle our children’s natural curiosity and creativity, qualities that are so often dulled within a mass compulsory schooling system focused on compliance and conformity. It can be a time to get to know our children in ways that might have been difficult during our previously packed, always-on-the-go days.

Most parents will eagerly send their children back to school when this is all over, but some parents will be surprised by what they discover during this break from ordinary life. They may see how much calmer their children are and how school-related ailments such as ADHD are less problematic at home. They may see that their children’s mental health has improved, particularly for teenagers who report the most unhappiness at school.

Parents may see their children’s love of reading and writing reappear, when they are allowed to read books and write stories that are meaningful to them and not tied to an arbitrary school assignment or grammar lesson. They may see a strong interest in science and technology emerge, as their children want to know more about how viruses work and what inventions are being created to help fight the pandemic. Parents may see real learning happen and decide not to send their children back to school.

Fortunately, there are now so many more ways to facilitate education without schooling, including hybrid homeschooling models, virtual learning, microschools, self-directed learning centers, and co-learning spaces. With more demand from parents for innovative, out-of-school learning options, more entrepreneurs will build experimental K-12 education models that will expand choices for parents and learners. Opting out of conventional schooling has never been easier or more worthwhile.

Rather than dwelling on the schoolwork that isn’t getting done this spring, let’s celebrate the immense learning that is occurring, in our homes and with our families, as we experience this historic event together. Let’s focus on what we gain, not on what we lost.

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After the Pandemic: Back to School, or Forward to a Better Future?

Anyone who tries to tell you that the COVID-19 pandemic, and its associated social, political, and economic panics, are good things is  an idiot, or trying to sell you some kind of snake oil, or both. Society-wide disasters are always net negatives, or we wouldn’t think of them as disasters in the first place. Silver linings are never as shiny as the clouds they run through are large.

That doesn’t mean silver linings don’t exist, though. They do, and some of them are significant.

One major silver lining in the United States is that the nation’s  patchwork of government-operated daycare centers / day prisons / drone worker boot camps, aka “public schools,” have temporarily shut down as part of the effort to slow the spread of the disease.

That’s a silver lining in itself: Even if the kids only miss a quarter-year of classroom confinement, most of them are probably going to advance at least a full grade level where real life skills are concerned. Yes, they’ll lag in terms regurgitating whatever propaganda they’re spoon-fed, but that’s a feature, not a bug. They’re getting a glimpse of what real freedom might look like.

But when the pandemic and its associated panics end, parents are going to be faced with a wrenching choice: Continue educating their kids, or hand those kids back over to the professional parasite class that’s monopolized “education” in America for more than a century?

The tax burden imposed by that parasite class has increasingly forced both parents in most households to work outside the home over the same time period.

But a second silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the discovery that working from home is practical for millions who were previously fooled into thinking it wasn’t.

And a third silver lining has been new attention — beyond even that cast by mass school shootings — to the fact that packing dozens of children into single rooms and hundreds or thousands into single buildings on a daily basis would be a bad idea even if the purpose WASN’T to stunt their intellectual growth and turn them into obedient robots.

Millions of American parents just became homeschoolers. That’s a good thing regardless of the reasons. And homeschooling just became more practical as well.

Instead of handing our kids back over to the parasite class when this crisis is over, let’s not.

And let’s stop handing our money over as well.

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Here Are 6 Ideas For Parents While Schools Are Closed

As schools shut down indefinitely across the country due to coronavirus concerns, many parents are wondering how to get through the coming weeks at home with their children. This is new territory for all of us, especially as “social distancing” becomes the new normal and virtual working and learning spaces replace the real thing.

As a homeschooling mother of four, and author of Unschooled, I realize that this time at home can feel overwhelming and is far from a typical homeschooling experience. There are some steps parents can take to make this time at home with their children more tolerable and rewarding for everyone.

1. Avoid replicating school at home.

While many schools and districts are sending home packets of curriculum materials or shifting to virtual classrooms and assignments, parents should try to avoid the tendency to re-create school at home.

It’s understandable that parents may worry about keeping their children on track academically, but they are likely to find that their children are able to complete their course work in much less time than in a typical school day, and will learn a great deal from the other experiences and insights that will surely emerge during this challenging time.

If parents can take the pressure off themselves to be the teacher and curriculum enforcer over the next weeks, they may be pleasantly surprised to discover just how much their children learn. One thing that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to reveal is that it is possible, and sometimes preferable, to learn without school.

2. Prioritize play and unstructured time.

We all know that play is vital for children’s healthy development and it may be particularly important as we confront this pandemic. My 6-year-old son was playing recently with the figurines from the board game Risk when I overheard him say to them: “I can’t shake your hand. You might have the coronavirus.”

Our children are listening to all that is going on and processing it through play. Prioritizing ample play and unstructured time is one important way we as parents can help our children to cope. For young children, this means creating space for free play without feeling the need to direct or organize their play activities. This could take some adjusting, as kids learn how to overcome their boredom and rekindle their imagination.

For older children accustomed to mostly adult-led activities and supervised extracurriculars, allowing them abundant, unstructured time over the next several weeks could awaken new interests and goals.

3. Use online learning resources.

We are lucky to live at a time of hyper-connectivity and vast digital resources at our fingertips. Technology enables us to work and learn in ways unimaginable only a couple of decades ago.

Some young people may be learning virtually through their school, completing coursework and tests online. But there are other great online resources that can expand a child’s learning and open pathways to new information and knowledge. Khan Academy and TedEd, for instance, offer free YouTube videos in a multitude of content areas. EdX and Coursera offer free university-level classes from leading institutions.

Libraries and museums often have high-quality and free online tools, including the Boston Public Library’s online resources and the Boston Children’s Museum’s 100 Ways to Play list and BCM Home Edition. Many more museums and organizations are also starting to offer free programming during the pandemic, including the Metropolitan Opera that is streaming its performances for free this week.

4. Encourage virtual playdates.

With social isolation upon us, virtual play dates will become the new norm, at least for a while. Fortunately, your kids can connect with their friends over Google Hangouts, create stories and scripts together over Google Docs, play Minecraft multiplayer online while watching or listening to each other over FaceTime or play the Prodigy Math game in a multiplayer gaming world.

It’s not as ideal as being together in the same spot, but these virtual friend meetups can make the separation more fun and bearable.

5. Embrace family time.

This is a once in a lifetime moment to gather together as a family and connect in deeper, more authentic ways. Reading books, listening to music, enjoying unhurried meals, playing board games and card games, and going for walks outside can all be ways to enjoy quality time together. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to draw or to speak another language or to knit.

This can be an opportunity to explore these interests as an adult, and perhaps prompting your children to explore their distinct interests as well.

6. Make room for reflection.

We know that this difficult period will not last forever and our lives will return to normal, but taking time to reflect on this historic occurrence can be helpful to endure the experience now and to remember it in the future.

This is just as true for ourselves as parents as it is for our children. Encourage your kids to keep a daily journal, draw or take pictures, and collect or print news clips to record this profound event. Then, they can show their grandchildren what it was like to live through the great pandemic of 2020.

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Coronavirus Reminds Us What Education Without Schooling Can Look Like

As the global coronavirus outbreak closes more schools for weeks, and sometimes months—some 300 million children are currently missing class—parents, educators, and policymakers are panicking.

Mass compulsory schooling has become such a cornerstone of contemporary culture that we forget it’s a relatively recent social construct. Responding to the pandemic, the United Nations declared that “the global scale and speed of current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education.”

We have collectively become so programmed to believe that education and schooling are synonymous that we can’t imagine learning without schooling and become frazzled and fearful when schools are shuttered. If nothing else, perhaps this worldwide health scare will remind us that schooling isn’t inevitable and education does not need to be confined to a conventional classroom.

Mass Schooling Is a New Idea

For most of human history, up until the mid-19th century, education was broadly defined, diversely offered, and not dominated by standard schooling. Homeschooling was the default, with parents assuming responsibility for their children’s education, but they were not the only ones teaching them.

Small dame schools, or nursery schools in a neighbor’s kitchen, were common throughout the American colonial and revolutionary eras; tutors were ubiquitous, apprenticeships were valued and sought-after, and literacy rates were extremely high. Public schools existed to supplement education for families that wanted them, but they did not yet wield significant power and influence.

The Puritan colonists’ passed the first compulsory education laws in Massachusetts Bay in the 1640s describing a state interest in an educated citizenry and compelling towns of a certain size to hire a teacher or to open a grammar school. But the compulsion rested with towns to provide educational resources to those families who wanted them, not with the families themselves.

Historians Kaestle and Vinovskis explain that the Puritans “saw these schools as supplements to education within the family, and they made no effort to require parents actually to send their children to school rather than train them at home.” This all changed in 1852 when Massachusetts passed the nation’s first compulsory schooling statute, mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force. Writing in his book, Pillars of the Republic, Kaestle reminds us: “Society educates in many ways. The state educates through schools.”

Society Without Schooling

We already have glimpses of what education without schooling can look like. When the Chicago teachers’ strike shut down public schools for 11 days last October, civil society stepped up to fill in the gaps.

Community organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club opened their doors during the daytime to local youth, the aquarium and local museums offered special programming, church and religious organizations welcomed young people with tutoring and enrichment activities, public libraries and parks were populated with families, and the federal school lunch program continued to nourish children in need.

This same pattern repeats itself during summer school vacation each year, with various community organizations, local businesses, and public spaces such as libraries and parks offering educational and recreational experiences for young people.

The idea that children and adolescents need to be enclosed within a conventional school classroom in order to learn is a myth. Humans are hard-wired to learn. Young children are exuberant, creative, curious learners who are passionate about exploration and discovery. These qualities do not magically disappear with age. They are routinely smothered by standardized schooling.

As Boston College psychology professor and unschooling advocate, Peter Gray, writes in his book, Free To Learn:

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. . . Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.

As humans increasingly coexist with robots, it’s crucial that young people retain and cultivate the imagination, ingenuity, and desire for learning that separate human intelligence from its artificial antipode. These qualities can be ideally nurtured outside of a standardized, one-size-fits-all school classroom where children and adolescents are free to pursue their interests and develop important skills and knowledge, while being mentored by talented adults in their communities.

An example of this type of learning is a series of spring daytime classes for homeschoolers at a makerspace in Boston offering up to nine hours of content each week in topics ranging from architecture and design to STEM science and art, taught by trained engineers, scientists, and artists. These are the types of high-quality educators and learning experiences that can and do flourish when we seek and support education without schooling.

In addition to its health scare, coronavirus has triggered widespread fear about how children can be educated when they can’t go to school. Despite the fact that mass compulsory schooling is a relic of the industrial age, its power and influence continue to expand. Perhaps some families will now discover that education outside of standard schooling is not only nothing to fear but may actually be the best way to learn in the innovation era.

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Coronavirus May Lead to “Mass Homeschooling”

As fears of coronavirus mount around the globe, cities and countries are taking action to prevent the new respiratory virus strain from spreading. While the virus has not yet hit hard in the United States, government officials and health agencies have enacted response plans, corporations are halting travel abroad, and education leaders are grappling with what a widespread domestic outbreak of the virus could mean for schoolchildren.

In countries where the virus is active, schools have been shut down and children are at home, learning alongside their parents or through online education portals. The New York Times reports that US schools have been prompted this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prepare for a coronavirus epidemic that could shutter schools and require alternate forms of teaching and learning outside the conventional classroom. According to Kevin Carey of the New America think tank, coronavirus in the US could lead to “a vast unplanned experiment in mass home-schooling.”

Indeed, in Hong Kong this is already occurring. The coronavirus outbreak led to orders for schools to be shut down in the city for two months, affecting 800,000 students. An article this week in The Wall Street Journal declares that “coronavirus prompts a whole city to try home schooling,” noting that in Hong Kong many children are completing lessons virtually through online learning platforms or receiving live instruction from teachers through Google Hangouts or similar digital tools.

It’s unfortunate that it takes a viral epidemic to spotlight the many alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling. Not only is homeschooling widely popular in the US, educating approximately two million children nationwide, but other schooling alternatives, such as virtual learning, microschooling, and hybrid homeschooling continue to sprout.

Virtual learning programs such as the Florida Virtual School, founded in 1997 as the nation’s first fully online public high school, and K12, Inc., one of the largest providers of virtual schooling, enable young people to take a complete course load and earn a high school diploma without sitting in a traditional classroom environment. Supplementary online programs, such as Khan Academy and Outschool, expand learning options and allow young people to dig deeper into topics that interest them or those in which they may need some additional help.

Interest in online learning options is sure to increase as the coronavirus spreads, but other in-person schooling alternatives are also likely to gain notoriety. Microschools, for example, are small, home-based, multi-age learning environments that act like a one-room schoolhouse, typically with no more than 8 to 12 students at a time. Prenda is a fast-growing network of these branded, in-home microschools, with more than 80 schools in Arizona alone serving some 550 students, and plans to expand out-of-state.

Like microschools, hybrid homeschooling programs and small, community-based classes for homeschoolers are also gaining popularity and may be swept into the limelight if conventional schools are forced to temporarily close. Operating with small, age-mixed groups of children, these hybrid models and classes offer an alternative to institutional schooling, avoiding large classrooms and crowded buildings. I have recently launched a marketplace platform, Unschool.school, that connects educators, parents, and learners to these homeschooling models and out-of-school learning experiences, fostering small group, in-person interactions in local community spaces, such as art studios, makerspaces, and spare dining rooms.

These emerging learning options outside of traditional schooling show not only that “mass homeschooling” is possible but also that it may be highly desirable. Personalized learning, small group interactions that build community and connection, and education without the coercion inherent in standard schooling are beneficial whether or not a pending epidemic is what exposes families to these education possibilities. Mass homeschooling may be just the cure we need.

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When Did We Become Socialists?

Nobody asked but …

What state has reached the highest level of socialism?  It happened when:

… and so it goes.

— Kilgore Forelle

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