Some of my kids and their friends have recently gone into business. It began with an idea, which evolved into a plan, and with a little coaching from their parents, they are on their way to launching their product. They have used math to calculate their expenses, design to create a logo, writing to create a slogan, and of course positive social skills to create a solid business partnership. Playdates for these young entrepreneurs now involve preparations for their upcoming meeting with a patent lawyer. This summer, with all its limitations, has become fertile ground for creativity, ingenuity, friendship, and even business ventures.
How many times have we heard students ask why they need to know something, or why they need to follow a prescribed method to figuring it out? How many times can we remember asking those questions ourselves? What happens when we give kids the time and space to apply their knowledge in areas and ways that flow from their own interests and curiosities? This case in point is just one example of what can happen. Their product may or not make it to the headlines, but these kids are learning a great deal from this experience and they are having so much fun that they hardly realize they are getting an education. And so, the question arises, what can we learn from summer learning? What can we take back with us into the upcoming school year?
While this question is one that can be asked every summer, this year it is compounded with anticipations of modifications to a typical school plan. Will there be closures? Will there be Zoom? No one knows. One certainty is that there are positive takeaways to be had from this necessitated pause to rethink our models. Perhaps considering what is working for kids during their informal learning time this summer, can inform plans for the upcoming school year. Whether or not we questioned our existing models before, and no matter how we choose to contend with existing challenges, this time can truly be a blessing to inspire questions and creative responses. Some of the solutions we generate may improve aspects of education that we may not have previously realized needed improving.
We can start by asking: what are some identifiable ingredients for success this summer? A big one is spending time outdoors, and with that comes increased fresh air, sunshine, increased movement, and of current consideration, reduced risk of virus exposure. What difference do these conditions make for our children? How is their attention different? How is their mood affected? How about their sleep patterns and energy levels? What differences might these elements make in their formal learning? Can we envision a learning space where these features can be successfully integrated?
Another notable difference this summer is kids becoming accustomed to pods; a core group of friends or bunkmates that they socialize with. Does this structure lend itself to more social cohesiveness? Are kids experiencing more individualized attention? Is their sense of camaraderie different? Are kids who may tend to be more reserved finding their voice and feeling more comfortable expressing it? What can we learn from these considerations about class structure and what changes should we be contemplating with them in mind?
Informal summer learning also often includes fun incentives, including raffles, prizes, and bunk cheers. How do these rewards, no matter how small or trivial, influence our children’s interest, motivation, and enthusiasm about their participation in activities? While certainly the appropriateness of these rewards would vary for different age groups and varied interests of different learners, is there a consistent beneficial response worthwhile to think about? For educators already integrating incentives into their instruction and learning culture, is there opportunity now to rethink our methods and successes? What litmus test can we put in place to gauge student response and appropriateness of the chosen incentives? How frequently should we revisit that analysis?
Another common feature of summer learning is the involvement of young leadership. Whether it is teen counselors or specialty instructors, kids have an opportunity to lead and be led, or coach or be coached by young leadership. How might kids, whether as the counselors or campers, be responding to this relationship differently than that of a typical teacher student relationship. Is there a value to teaching or learning with or from someone closer in age? While majority efforts are focused currently on keeping learning groups separate, is there a way to allow students of different ages to learn with and from each other? Can school instructors, regardless of their age, guide the teaching and learning between students, even across grades? How might that add to their learning and overall connection to their school community?
Finally, there is something about kids coming home or just being home, depending on their summer plans, without homework. That is not to say they do not have work to do. They may still be engaging in private lessons, pursuing different hobbies, or have appointments. Is there a different vibe in the home when a child’s latter part of the day does not revolve around homework? Does this avail them to developing personal interests or assuming more home responsibilities? Does it enable more opportunity for socialization with friends or family bonding? Are there lesson reinforcement homework alternatives that could or should be considered for this school year? How can teachers or parents support each other in planning for such alternatives?
A common denominator between these different summer learning features is happy campers make for happy learners. Happy learners make for more successful learners and overall happy school environments. How can we make this school year as safe, happy, and stress-free as possible for our children? What can we learn from summer learning to enable our students to enjoy their learning so much, they will hardly realize they are getting an education? At times of uncertainty, it is especially meaningful and important to reassess that which we know to be true and constant. Rather than focusing on the unknowns of the year ahead, it may be worthwhile to reflect on the basics comprising the happiness, well-being, and enjoyable learning happening this summer. It is not too lofty of a goal to bring these ideals into reality, they are already happening right before us. The greater challenge will be to re-imagine the school model to incorporate these positive and joyful summer moments.