What COVID-19 is Revealing to Us about Formal Education in America

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Quarantine & Social Distancing

COVID-19 has spread rampantly around the globe, bringing our normal routines to a grinding halt. As more and more people are being turned away from work, school and other public places and are being told to remain at home as much as possible, we have seen a huge trend on social media of parents sharing how they are continuing to school their children at home.

And most of what we’re seeing reflects more traditional approaches to teaching and learning: worksheets, timetables, a focus on learning a specific skill. (“Today I learned about how to round decimals,” and other such statements of fact.) However, there are also parents showing alternative ways they are learning and spending time with their children at home: going to the beach to explore tide pools, imagination play with legos and blocks, cooking meals at home together.

Though I applaud all parents who are trying their best to make sure their kids are engaged and learning at home, my educational predilections often force me to (inwardly) applaud more fervently for the parents I see trying to make school at home a little more dynamic than filling in sheets of paper or memorizing a laundry list of mathematical facts. Here’s why:

Countless educational research illustrates to us that (1) people learn best through failure…and with a positive outlook about making mistakes, (2) memorization of facts rarely supports learning in the ways we think they do, namely in terms of long-term memory and (3) learning through play and through learner-driven inquiry has stronger, more positive long-term effects on overall growth and development.

Inquisitive Play is for Everyone!

Many hear the words play and inquiry and immediately think, “That’s just for kids. What about my teenagers? What about me?” To answer those questions, we first have to redefine the word play:

Most people, myself included, will hear this word and probably think of kids running around a park, building things with blocks, playing duck-duck-goose, etc. Play is limitless and on the surface appears to be devoid of any rules or effective structure. However, if we consider this term using Hirsh-Pasek’s definition of learning, we can see that play-based learning has universal applications across all age groups and has a lot more structure to it if given a little forethought.

According to Hirsh-Pasek, humans learn best when they can take an active role in the learning environment, when they are fully engaged in the activity, when what they are learning is meaningful and when they can interact in social contexts. She calls it the four pillars of learning.

Now, imagine two families quarantined at home: one family has set up a nice learning space in their living room or dining room with pencils and crayons, a table to work at and worksheets to fill in or a skill to practice…maybe they even put up some colorful posters; the other family has decided to go for a walk and have a scavenger hunt around their neighborhood to find out more about the different types of plant and animal life in the area (while maintaining proper social distance, of course). Now, think back to Hirsh-Pasek’s definition of learning. Which one embodies the most pillars?

Of course, learning will happen within both contexts. However, understanding and connecting more deeply to conceptual knowledge (as opposed to skills-based knowledge) will most likely happen in only one. Furthermore, opportunities for inquiry-based learning are most likely to happen in the latter learning context over the former because there’s so much more open-ended interaction that naturally elicits curiosity and leads to questioning. Now many of you are probably asking, “What is inquiry-based learning? And why does that matter?

To me, inquiry and play go hand-in-hand. Take that same family who decided to go on a scavenger hunt around their neighborhood. They’ve finished their walk, washed their hands and now they’re going over the things they saw and catalogued. From this exploration and play will invariably come questions. There are things they saw and wrote down or even took a picture or video of that they want to know more about. This is inquiry in its purest form: learners noticing something and wanting to know more about it. Sometimes, it is in reaction to a problem they see that needs solving; other times, it is based on sheer curiosity. Engaging and meaningful play in this context has led those involved to ask follow up questions. Which may lead to more questions. Which may lead to some form of action (i.e. creating an artwork, making a presentation, engaging in a quest to provide safer spaces for plant and animal life in their neighborhood, etc.).

This is the critical component of play-based, inquiry-driven learning that cannot always be realized in more traditional approaches: questions lead to answers and, most importantly, can lead to positive, meaningful action. That’s why play and inquiry matter. However, adding to this, here are some more reasons why play-based and inquiry-driven learning matter:

  • It engages skill learning across a wide variety of contexts; meaning that skill learning in this context is adaptable and not limited to one subject area
  • It develops a stronger sense of curiosity in learners. Meaning, they will continue wanting to learn long after they’ve left the classroom. It helps them to love learning because it’s an ongoing process, not a one-stop destination!
  • It makes learning more engaging, both with the learning experience and with the material they are learning about. (Remember those pillars?)

How do I get my kids to play and inquire more at home?

The great thing about play-based, inquiry-driven learning is that it often takes the work out of your hands to get it started. Because you start with the learners. (Though there may be some work needed to respond to your kids’ questions like gathering the appropriate materials and what-not.) However, in the context of parents at home with their kids under the current quarantine circumstances, a simple place to start is with questions.

Make a list of things you are curious to know more about. It can be in response to something you’ve done or are doing (i.e. watching something interesting on TV, noticing something in the house that needs fixing, looking in your cupboard/fridge to figure out what to make for dinner, etc.). Write those questions down and choose one together that you want to find out more about. It really can be that simple. I would recommend that you try to keep questions as open as possible; meaning that, the question is one that will invite exploration and even more questions. Some examples:

How do air conditioners work?

What is hand sanitizer made of and why/how does it kill germs?

How can we make the perfect cupcake?

Where do butterflies come from?

Read together. Write together. Draw together. Cook together. Build things together. Watch anything together. And then talk about it. That’s where the questions will come. And then, simply have fun exploring, failing, trial-and-erroring, discovering, learning!

Okay, I’m buying it…so what?

I will only mention this very briefly as the ultimate purpose of this article is not me standing on a soap box, preaching my beliefs. It is rather a gentle plea to incorporate inquiry and discovery-based play into your learning routine at home, something that can continue on long after we’ve stopped social distancing.

However, I will say that with the current climate being what it is, systemic issues have and will continue to come under massive, public scrutiny when it comes to the state of formal, public education in America. With many students unable to complete their formal assessments (SATs, ACTS, CATs, etc.), it has left many in the lurch about whether or not they will get into their college of choice or move up to the next grade next school year. That alone should indicate a need for change in formal public education, from how kids progress to how we implement and assess learning.

There are massively effective benefits to play-based and inquiry-driven learning. With that in mind, are there ways we can transform public education further to foster a curriculum of learning based on these approaches? Can we make education more accessible and ensure that our evaluations for successful learning go beyond a number scored on a standardized test? These are critical questions to ask, especially considering its long-term benefits: fostering a love for learning, developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are applicable to real-life contexts, encouraging collaborative learning, and the list goes on. Why wouldn’t we want an educational system modeled after something that has so many long-term benefits? Why wouldn’t we want this kind of positive change?

Writer, book nerd and music & singing lover. Find my first poetry eBook, “I Was I” on Amazon Kindle (amzn.to/2Tp723z).

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