As a parent, you are likely struggling, while schools are closed, with what to do every day to keep your kids’ education going, and—just as importantly—with how to keep your kids happily and usefully occupied while you do your own stuff. What most educators are telling parents is to “give your kids an adjusted-for-home version of what happens in school,” including lessons (online or from you), practice (“home-work”) and suggested activities. But before you, as a parent, rush to adopt any educator’s interim solutions—from your kids’ school or elsewhere—bear in mind that “continuing to do school in different ways” may not be the best solution for your kid in these times. In fact, the chances are very good that it’s not. With a little more thought, and the actions suggested below, you can do it far better for your kids—without overly stressing yourself or your kids over this.
This Is a Great Opportunity for Parents to Take A New Perspective on Education and Home-Schooling
Many parents who have tried teaching their kids have discovered that it is not easy. “Teachers should be paid a million dollars” wrote one. But the lesson that “teaching” or “schooling” is hard is absolutely the wrong lesson for parents to take away from this crisis. The right lesson is that teaching and schooling our kids is hard because what we do is so ineffective and wrong for most of our kids. That is why most kids resist it being done to them. Many teachers agree: “I wonder every day if what I am giving my kids is truly what they need” says one.
This crisis is an opportunity for every parent to do something better for their kids than giving them more of the same “MESS” (Math, English, Science, and Social studies) that they get every day that school is in session. Few kids need all of this for their future—we do much of it out of tradition. Now, as parents, we can offer our kids the chance to do something far more useful and better: REAL-WORLD PROJECTS (AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS) THAT OUR KIDS REALLY WANT TO DO. School offers very little of this. “Every once in a lifetime a school project comes along that you’re actually interested in,” says one 15-year-old. Parents now have a wonderful and unexpected opportunity to give their kids what they actually want and need. The good news is that any parent can do this—for kids of any age—without over-stressing ourselves, or the kids, in the process.
Your kid wants accomplishments they are proud of and skills that are useful to them
Every kid wants accomplishments they are proud of and more skills that are useful to them. It’s just that each kid needs to decide “usefulness” for him or herself. School, because of its one-teacher-for-many structure, decides this for all-—school cannot have a truly individual curriculum for each student. Home is different. It can be about each kid individually.
Here’s a Different Approach to Home Education that is Better for Most Kids and Easier for Parents:
Make this stay-at-home time an exciting “working vacation” from schoolwork for your kids,by allowing them to go in all the directions school prevents and ignores.
The very best way for any kid to develop any skills—including the so-called “basics”—is through their desire to do something they care about. You know your kid’s interests. So If you want to encourage your kids to read, your job as a parent is to help them find stuff in print (offline or online) that they feel they need. Give your kid a book, article, web site, or magazine about something your kid really cares about and wants to know and chances are good they will work to get the information—even if the writing is above their “school” reading level. When kids feel the need for skill at something they want to do (e.g. play video games) they teach not only themselves, but each other.
I’m NOT suggesting that your kids use this time just to get better at video games. But my advice to parents is very different from that of most educators. I do not think you should make your kids continue to do schoolwork. Instead, I strongly suggest that you make this a time for your kids to educate themselves to accomplish other things they want to. We all do self-education in order to accomplish some goal we personally have—it is the education that lasts. Motivation for self-education is one-hundred percent internal. As parents, it is internal motivation that we should be encouraging in our kids.
The self-education approach is doable by every parent and kid, in the following way: As a parent, make sure your kid emerges from their stay-at-home period having worked, primarily, on at least one big project—totally of their choice—about something they are personally truly excited about. As a kid, you can find something you are anxious to show off as an example of what you are capable of.
Instead of saying to your kid: “What you have to learn at home is whatever your teachers put online, or the standard MESS curriculum, those are the lessons you must do, the kinds of discussions you should have, the kinds of topics you should write about,” or trying to teach your kids anything that they haven’t asked for, try saying to them instead:
“This is a vacation from everything you don’t like in school but are made to do. Your job for now is to do things you DO like that help you advance your life and, if possible, the world at the same time.”
Ask your kids to design, and do, a “special project” during this time. Ask them to make it something that they are really excited about working on. Tell them you really don’t care what the project is, as long as it motivates them to work hard and leads to an accomplishment they are proud of and anxious to show to others. Tell them that their best memories of this time will come from what they create from inside themselves with your support and guidance. Tell them you’ll try to help by answering any questions they ask, but that it’s “their show.”.
Every kid has dreams—including yours!
Can a kid, at any age do this? You bet! I have never met a kid without dreams, interests or things they want to do—you just have to sometimes dig to find them. That is your role as a parent—to bring out what is positive inside your kid. If ever there was a time for doing this, it’s now. Here are some recommendations:
- Resist any temptation to “schoolify” the project or make it “academic enough.” DO NOT try to be “teacherly,” or to make the project about “doing research.” This should not be a school-like project at all. Resist the temptation to do any of it yourself—even if you want to help make it better. Make sure it is “their show.”
- The project should NOT be about your kids’ “learning” something, but about their accomplishing something. Tell them the project needs to make a difference to at least one person in the world other than them. Your kid should be able to say at the end: “That was bad (or not there) before my project. Now it’s great. Here’s what I did to help.”
- Make sure it’s a project your kids design themselves to meet their own interests and desires. Schools typically do “projects” badly, because they try too hard to align them to curricula and standards (“PBL”). Tell your kids, specifically, NOT to make this a project they would do in school.
- Make it very much about your kid’s interests “at the moment,” without worrying about future needs. My son is currently into aviation; his project is “getting certified as an air traffic controller in his simulator.” A year ago it would have been be something else, and a year from now it would likely be different entirely. Kids’ interests and passions change, often rapidly. Build on what they have now.
- Your role is to be their coach and to make suggestions. It’s useful at the start to talk about the parameters for this project and define its essential qualities such as: What’s the project’s purpose? Why? Who on the team does what? Whose idea is this? (remember, it must be the kid’s!) Projects are generally best done in teams–your kids’ partners in this project can be their siblings or friends online, if available. Discuss how the kids, parents and team will work together.
- The most important thing you can say to your kid about the project is “Surprise me!” My guess is that, in almost every case, you’ll be surprised by what your kids can do. Have them keep track, in some form, of how their project is going. Periodically discuss it with them and encourage them. But if it’s the right project for them, you needn’t push them.
Finding the Right Project
Start with a conversation with your kid in which you listen hard for what your kid really cares about likes and wants at this moment. In many cases, if you just tell them it’s NOT a school project, they’ll come up with ideas. Many kids already have things in mind they’d love to do and are just waiting to have time and to be asked and given permission. You can ask your kid:
- What specific problems do you see in your world (family, local, or global) that you’d like to help fix? (The current crisis might have helped them clarify this)
- What do you truly care about at this moment in your life? (other than games, sports and/or social activities–those are a given for most.) If they say they don’t know, try a thought-game like “Would you rather?” or ask them “What YouTubes do you watch, and why?”
- What do you think is your unique combination of attributes and strengths? I.e. What are you really good at? What do others say they like about what you do? How are you different from everyone else in the world in a positive way? What do you want to become better at? What activities make you particularly happy (again, beyond games, sports and social activities)?What can you uniquely contribute?
(If you ask these questions, keep the answers somewhere for future reference. If you keep asking these same questions once a year you will have a record of your kid’s internal growth—just as you record their external growth in pictures.)
For additional inspiration, your kids can check out Ray Kurzweil’s book Danielle (https://amzn.to/2RAfDjo). Or go to the Design for Change web sites (http://DFCworld.com and http://DesignforChange.us) and see videos of hundreds of projects kids have already done using a simple “Feel-Imagine-Do-Share” methodology. Or you can browse with your kids through the online “Better Their World Database of Real-world Student Projects” at http://btwdatabase.org.
Technology Not Required
If your kids don’t have access to the Internet or other technology, don’t worry about their “missing out.” Lack of technology or access is NOT a barrier to your kids doing such a project. It is their imagination that counts—and every kid has one. Instead of physically doing something with technology, it is even better for your kid to think up an original idea they are excited about and to develop it—in their mind and on paper—into a potential product or business plan.
Suppose your kid likes being an organizer. They can contact all their friends by phone or online and divide them into interest groups—and then help each of these groups decide on, and do, a project. It’s something kids don’t need school or a teacher to do—in fact, it’s just the kind of thing a school assignment could really spoil for them. But if it’s their idea, it’s different. As their coach, you can ask guiding questions like “What problem would this help solve?” or “What will you be able to do at the end that you couldn’t do before? Build a team? Manage people? Build websites, apps, or chatbots? Start a company?
As a parent, you may think that you and your kids are doing OK if you can get them to do all their school assignments during this period or some lessons online. Or you may be trying to teach your kids by yourself. Either way, you are likely stressing yourself—and your kids—to do this.
But you can de-stress, dramatically, by seeing this time as a unique opportunity to give your kids an experience they are unlikely to get in school. You know your kids better than any teacher does—and you can know them even better by listening even more to them. You can assess whether your kid is in the relatively small group that love academic schoolwork (10 percent? 25 percent?) or whether your kid is in far the larger group (up to 90 percent) that doesn’t love school but would REALLY LOVE to do something they are interested in and be proud of—and want to show off. Remember the larger group includes a big percentage of our smartest and most talented kids—who are just not academic. You may have been in that group yourself. But even if YOU were a student who enjoyed and benefited from academics, you should be open to the possibility that your kid may not be.
Try, above all, to help your kids emerge from this crisis with a new sense of empowerment and faith in what they can do themselves. Try to help them emerge feeling that you, their parent, showed an interest in THEIR ideas, rather than telling them that they should show an interest in what YOU think they should do. Make your kid feel that they have a parent who supports them in creating their own education (and life) rather than just telling them what you or others want for them. This will go a long way to helping them be optimistic in the coming uncertain times—if you are not optimistic about their possibilities to help themselves, they are a lot less likely to be so. This unexpected stay-at-home time needn’t be a waste of any kids’ time or education. As a parent, you have the power to make it a different—and better—kind of educational experience than school typically offers kids. If you worry about “missed schoolwork,” rest assured that when this is over schools will pick up where they left off, and colleges will make allowances. Whatever time you spend, as a parent, encouraging your kids’ ideas and letting them do, on their own, things they dream of will be for more valuable to them, and far longer-remembered, than any assignments you make them do. Remember, a self-motivated kid is one you needn’t worry about “keeping busy”—my wife and I now have to pull our kid away from his project to make sure he eats, exercises and goes to bed. By doing what they desire— with your guidance—your kids will blossom over this period. Any kid who winds up with a great resume of “what I accomplished during Coronavirus time” will do very well.