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  • Scott Murphey

Learning independently and how the time of COVID has made this topic very important.

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

A while ago I wrote the following blog, on a previous site, to parents of my students at the time. It has now become particularly relevant now in today's current COVID pandemic. Most interesting I "anecdotally noticed" that my students very conveniently fell into predictable groups when it came to distance learning.

What does this mean?

In our classes we have many different kinds of students, but in reality we know there are some students who we can assign common attributes. Things like: self control, disciplined, focus, interested in their own learning, work ethic, and last parent involvement. Parent involvement can be a bit tricky, but specifically when it involves in having expectations, holding their kids accountable for the work, for their behavior, and actively supporting the teaching and learning happening in the classroom and at home. The kids with more of these aspects do better and we can watch the slide down as they have fewer and fewer of these aspects.

Of course there are some surprises, as always, but I would dare to say that if you look closer to what is happening in the lives of these surprises, you would probably find deficits in many of the above areas which are causing these surprises at home.

How to learn independently, at home or anywhere.  

Many times we get caught up with a certain program, buzz word, curriculum, etc…   It sounds good and many times it even has the word “research based” in it.  So we should be able to trust it right….   Well not always.   This conversation can take us down a large rabbit hole of:  Who is creating this program? What research?  Who did it?  How well was it done?  Etc….    Also the question needs to be asked, “How is the program being implemented?”   Many times these programs and curriculum's are based off of good science, but implemented very poorly, as there is no explanation to the teachers as to the science behind it.  

I want to cut through a lot of that, and try to get to the heart of what it means to learn.   These concepts I will talk about are at the heart of many current programs used in schools and curriculum designed to teach our students.   I will go over a broad list now and at later times come back and try to do a bit more of a deep explanation.   

  •  Effort:  The bottom BOTTOM line in learning is that it takes effort.   If you are not putting in the time and it is not effortful than it’s probably not good learning.   Science has not provided us with any shortcuts to this… at least yet.    But there are better ways to put our effort into learning than others.  

  • Mindset:   Basically we talk about this as Growth vs Fixed Mindset.     This has to do with how we think about learning and intelligence.   What we really want are students to have a Growth Mindset.   This means that they understand that intelligence and learning is something that can be altered and grown.   It is not something that just is since we were born.    Once they understand that, then they can start to produce the right kind of mindset to help them achieve growth. 

  • Trust:  Much of learning is built on trust.   If students/children don’t trust you then you then many times even if you use good learning strategies, the effects may backfire and have even detrimental effects.   This is why it is always important to spend time with your children in their learning.   Make sure they know you don’t know everything.   Take the time to learn to do something with your child to show them this is how it works.   Instead of saying things like “this is how it Is”, or just making something up,  use phrases like, “This is how I learned it, or I understand it this way so far”.   

  • Routines and Study Environment:  This is very important to home life and independent study practice.   Our brains are very limited in the amount of information they can take in.   There is no such thing as “Multitasking”.   You can only do one thing at a time.   That being said some people are good at “Task Switching” which means you can quickly switch from task to task, but for the general young student I generally take the stance that they are average at best. 

What does this mean?This means that students need to learn to have a good study environment free from distractions.Many families really struggle with this because the home environment is naturally chaotic with siblings, tv’s, music, phones, other parents responsibilities (work, relaxation, activities), and to be honest parents who just don’t want to be bothered.This can make it extremely hard for students to learn at home, and even to understand what a good learning environment is.

A good learning environment is one where the child can focus on the task they are performing.It requires them to be free of distractions and to be able to not only concentrate but reflect on what they are doing.It also requires them to be able to ask questions of adults or at least come up with questions about what they are struggling with.Struggle is a key element in learning.Some other things that are important for a good learning environment would be:

  • Space:  free of distractions, organized, and pleasant ( a place kids like to go)

  • Lighting:  Natural is said to be the best but besides that, enough lighting to see well but maybe soft enough to make the environment comfortable.  

  • Colors or decorations:  This connects to “space” above… make it a place that is comfortable to go… that kids might want to go to. 

  • Smells:   Make it smell nice. 

  • Sounds:  This is something that is delicate.  Like I said before, there is no multitasking.   Noise is something that can be a big distraction.   If you can have a quiet place free of noise, that would be best.   If not then having something that provides background noise, like a noise machine, music repetitive music (probably without words) that might drown out noisy siblings or tv or kitchen sounds might help a lot.  

  • Parent Support of education: Most parents, whether they want to be or not, are the primary and most important teacher and influencer in their child's life. This makes them vital in their child's education. Not only do they have to promote learning at home, they have to encourage it, provide high expectations, and support their children to become independent learning. This includes the work at school and for homework, but also going above and beyond that to show that learning is not just a "school thing". It is a "life thing".

  • Focus: Students need to be able to sit and focus on a task independently for an extended period of time. This is something that is and can be taught and is definitely something that needs to be practiced so kids get better at it. Don't get confused by "attention span". Sometimes it looks like this:

    • 2 years old: four to six minutes

    • 4 years old: eight to 12 minutes

    • 6 years old: 12 to 18 minutes

    • 8 years old: 16 to 24 minutes

    • 10 years old: 20 to 30 minutes

    • 12 years old: 24 to 36 minutes

    • 14 years old: 28 to 42 minutes

    • 16 years old: 32 to 48 minutes

If you have ever watched an active child, sit down and play a video game for an hour, kick a soccer ball for hours, play a game, watch a movie, etc.... This task is "holding their attention". There are some kids who truly have "attention issues" but based on my experience, I would say I have never encountered a child that, with practice and coaching, couldn't or didnt' improve in this area. This also agrees with what I have read about child development and psychology.

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