A few suggestions for learning at home

“I would appreciate some advice on homeschooling. Giving my 10 year old extra work doesn’t seem to be working.”

I’ve gotten this type of request a lot recently as the coronavirus has required parents to take a more active role in helping their children learn as they wait for local schools to come up to speed on remote learning.

Having homeschooled our daughters for the past 4 years, we’ve had a lot of experience with self-directed learning, which has come in handy as our usual excursions have been cancelled as part of the shutdown in New York.

And while every child is different, I think there are two approaches that will work for most of them (and most adults too).

I’ve written before on the importance of learning as a skill, and this post follows that philosophy. Whether a child or adult, being able to learn for yourself is a skill that will drive the trajectory of your life. The earlier you can practice it the better.

Here are my favorite two approaches:

Approach 1: Create, build, or do something that you didn’t know how to do before

The important part is the process, not the topic, so you can do something “practical”, like coding (Tynker and Scratch are good for kids), or something more entertaining like learning magic tricks. The basic idea is:

  1. Have your child(ren) pick a topic of interest that they would like to learn
  2. Have them (or help them) figure out resources to learn it (YouTube is a goldmine)
  3. Have them actually do it
  4. Have them explain the learning process to you (Was it easy or hard? Was the video good? Would there be a better way to learn it?)
  5. Bonus: Have them teach you to do what they just learned (a great way to reinforce the learning)
  6. Repeat

The magic step is #4. Traditional schools generally apply a simple learning style – sit and listen, memorize, and repeat. For most of us, that is not the most effective way. Knowing what works for your child will speed up learning for the rest of their life as they learn to pick resources that match their style.

As a personal example, I do not do well in all day lecture-based seminars. I learn best when I can consume a lot of input quickly, and then have time to quietly digest it and try it out. I learn best via books or video where I can speed up or slow down based on how quickly I’m understanding the material. The most important role of a teacher for me is to answer all the questions that come up after I’ve had time to think about it. But that’s me. How do you learn? If you haven’t thought about it, it’s a good question to spend some time on.

Approach 2: Pick something they enjoy and have them figure out how it works

This one is effectively the opposite. Instead of learning by constructing, you are learning by deconstructing. You are trying to understand the rules by which the world works. Here’s how it works:

  1. Have your child(ren) pick a topic in which they are interested 
  2. Have them (or help them) come up with a bunch of questions that would help inform how it *really* works (I’ll explain below)
  3. Have them (or help them) go find answers
  4. Have them tell you about what they found (What was the most interesting thing they found? What was most surprising?)

The magic step here is #2. This will train an ability to ask good questions.

Let’s say your kid likes basketball. How does it work? The first round of questions is probably about the basic rules – how many different ways are there to get points? How much time in the game? What starts and stops the clock? 

That might be enough to get you started, but if you can go beyond that (often referred to as 2nd-order or 3rd-order questions), it starts to get more interesting. 

Who sets the rules? If we wanted to change them, what would we have to do? If you know the ref makes the calls, who gets to be a ref? Do you need to go to school for that? If you wanted to do that as a job, what would you need to do?

In effect, the questions are endless and as a parent you can direct the conversation to anything that is important (jobs and income, roles in society) or just questions for the fun of it (why is the ball orange?*)

I hope that gives you some ideas. For a child in school, I hold the slightly radical position that the content really isn’t that important. I think the best use of their time is to help them feel in charge of their own learning process and to realize that learning can open up all kinds of doors.

Good luck!

*An orange ball, which made its debut in the 1958 NCAA championships, is apparently easier to see than the older ones, which were brown leather. And now you know.

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