I was fully prepared to hate the new distance learning that started in Israel after Pesach. But after a week of experience with full-day online learning, I discovered that the picture was more complicated. I would like to share some experiences from my own children and from conversations with friends who are also parents of children in elementary and middle school. Please excuse my use of Pesach imagery after Pesach is over!
There are (at least) four types of children with regard to distance learning: the wise child, the misbehaving child, the simple child, and the child who cannot connect.
The wise child is tech-savvy and adaptable. S/he is doing fine with distance learning, while still looking forward to, at some point, getting back to class with friends. However, the wise child may have noticed some academic advantage to distance learning: content that teachers put online has to be real content. An Israeli elementary school can have entire class periods of the teacher writing on the board and the kids copying, or class periods that include 20 minutes of the teacher trying to get quiet. Now that classes are being put online, they need to have a beginning, middle, and end. The wise child appreciates that s/he is now learning more, while sitting for fewer hours.
The simple child is just too young for this to work. Some parents of the simple child are willing to invest large amounts of time and energy to force it to work, while others have decided that it is not worth the effort, that in any case several hours a day of learning in front of a screen is neither appropriate nor necessary for a first-grader.
The child who cannot connect just doesn’t have enough devices at home, or enough internet connectivity, for this to work. This is where the education system needs to be offering solutions; parents cannot, and should not have to, go out and buy a computer (or more than one computer) so that their kids can get an education.
But most fascinating of all is the misbehaving child – the child who, during the regular school year, gets yelled at a lot, and his/her parents get called with complaints about behavior.
Now that learning has moved online, many of these children are thriving. The same child whose teacher had to tell him over and over to settle down and open his book now gets up in the morning, checks his schedule on the website, and follows it. This child is learning better on his own steam, while his working parents all but ignore him, than he ever did with teachers hanging over him. In fact, if this child was on ADD meds during the normal school year, she may be managing fine with distance learning without the meds.
One reason distance learning is working so well for these kids is the lack of distractions at home; a school with 600-plus kids is a pretty stimulating environment. But the bigger difference is that these students have now been freed from the extreme rigidity of the Israeli classroom. In a classroom with 35 kids, the way teachers maintain order is by making sure everyone does the exact same thing at the exact same time. If one kid takes five minutes to settle into sitting quietly after recess, or to look for his textbook which he misplaced, that is a major disaster for the flow of the class; at home, those things barely register. On the other end, if a child in school finishes her classwork before others, this is also a major challenge for the teacher who wants her to continue to sit quietly; at home, this is a nice opportunity for her to go and play until her next assignment.
While our family contends with the challenges of distance learning, we are also enjoying its surprising benefits. But what will happen when schools reopen? We parents are learning some important lessons about what our children are capable of, and what may really be holding them back from learning. What lessons will the teachers and administrators learn from this experiment?