Image by Zara Hawkins 2020 in Procreate for iPad
Take a moment to think of what new skills and habits you have formed since this global pandemic first changed our lives irreversibly? Like many other people in lockdown around the world, I picked up new tools for my skills set both out of necessity and because I had more time to learn. Skills such as how to cook with dried beans without poisoning my family, grow vegetables anywhere that light can reach, cut & style hair, edit films in iMovies and cook processed food-free meals. My children also picked up new life skills such as how to cook an entire family dinner on their own, create electronic music, produce beautiful art and build a new website. Without fully realising it, we have all adapted ourselves in this exceptional time and most likely will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
Until now ‘Learning’ has largely been defined as a process that happens in school buildings while listening to specially trained teachers in front of a classroom. Yet a broader definition of Learning is emerging as a process of growth in knowledge and skills from interaction with the world around us. Learning happens when there is a curiosity and/or need to adapt to our environment, and can be facilitated by parents, friends or even YouTubers. The danger of placing these life skills & interests in the category of ‘hobbies’ and ‘extra-curricular’ is that they become less relevant in our minds than the pure academic knowledge that gets most of the focus within our educational establishments.
We now have a unique chance to bring a more balanced approach to the way we provide education for our children, if we can only expand this definition of Learning. Now that overcrowded school buildings have been carved up to enable social distancing, and many teachers are limited to teaching in a virtual setting, there is an urgent need to change how we define and structure learning environments. As children are staying at home with their parents (their first teacher, by the way) more than ever before, learning by doing seems to be the most practical and least stressful approach that has been working for many families.
In our home we’ve been doing educational projects based on personal interest such as Plastic Pollution, and my role has been to find the resources to supplement that learning as it is needed. Granted that has been much easier with the vast amount of educational resources on the Internet such as 5 Gyres Lessons on Plastic and UN Ocean Heroes. My daughter’s interest will then develop into some form of output (ie. report, portfolio, website, organised community campaign) that really cements the learning by doing.
Our family is fortunate to have such technology to hand via the internet to bring us maths worksheets and educational videos, however even those who don’t have digital access can still learn by doing. They can tap into family members or mentors in the community with a particular skill, much like the apprentice model which is being adopted in many forward-thinking countries. It’s important to point out that without a personalised framework to hang incoming information (which a project can easily provide), Learning can become limited to being a short-term, test-oriented endeavour that seldom gets applied in the ‘real world’.
With the vast uncertainties facing us all right now, we can no longer allow our students to leave school without basic life skills, such as how to open a bank account, fix a flat tire, write a coherent letter or cook a nutritious meal. High unemployment figures are going to increase as more jobs are replaced by AI and robots each year. We need to make sure that our children can navigate towards Plan B while confidently equipped with their own problem-solving skills that will see them through the tougher times that lie ahead. The two main objectives in building back our education system as we move towards a ‘new normal’ should be the rapid adoption of more productive ways of learning, such as project-based learning (PBL), while embracing many of the cutting-edge educational resources, such as online courses, that we have at our collective disposal. Now is the perfect time to expand our definition of Learning.