“Education is what people do to you. Learning is what you do for yourself.” Joi Ito

Virtual Learning

Schools and communities are doing the best they can right now to provide some sense of stability and normalcy for families and children during this uncertain and anxious time. But we all know, especially educational experts, that virtual learning is a far cry from the ideal learning environment

Watching a lecture, taking notes, asking a question or two, and then regurgitating the information for an online test or quiz is not even close to the ideal learning environment that teachers and community members strive for. It favors a direct approach to teaching which, if done correctly, plays an important role, but is not ideal 100% of the time. In addition, virtual learning or blended learning is meant to supplement, not replace teaching. It is not exactly how real, lasting learning takes place. 

I am sure that we can all attest to the fact that we miss face to face human interaction and real world experiences. 

Paradigm Shift From Teacher to Learner

With that, I want to be able to paint a clear picture of the learning environment that teachers strive for in their classrooms. I want to share with you a paradigm shift that has been evolving over the past several years in schools across America and how it affects you, your family, and your child’s growth, development, and learning journey. 

This paradigm shift is one that involves moving away from direct instruction to an approach that focuses on the learner.  One where the student is charged with being a leader, orchestrator, and director of their own learning journey


This paradigm shift sees the learner as curious, wondering, and inventive bringing forth vast capabilities and competencies.  It recognizes that learning is an active process and that we are born with a natural excitement and eagerness to discover and learn that is something to be fostered day to day. 

As I write from the perspective of facilitator and author of professional development courses for teachers across America, I see the immense efforts behind creating this ideal learning environment where students direct and teachers support.  I aim now to share how that can be done at home. 

Science-backed Support

We have known for years from a tremendous amount of research that learning is an active process. Lasting learning, the kind that activates key areas in the brain such as the amygdala where learning and memories are stored and the prefrontal cortex which “selects and manipulates goal relevant information is set in real-world, meaningful, and authentic contexts. Experiences that we find valuable are experiences that we will want to dive deeper into exploring, inquiring, and investigating.

If content is not meaningful, authentic, or proves invaluable to the learner then we are more likely to check out and any information acquired is quickly lost and forgotten.

From a neurological perspective this evidence has become clear as day in the past several years.  It is now confirming what some educational progressives such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Maria Montesorri have claimed for nearly 150 years.  Humans are born with immense learning capabilities. They are born able to think critically, problem solve, experiment, hypothesize, communicate, create math, and so much more!

Children do not need external, specific rewards to learn. They are born to be active, inquisitive, curious, and problem solvers. We all learn differently and at different paces. Most importantly, experience is central to learning.  

Student-directed Learning

So, how can we honor this?  How can we come to accept, validate, and capitalize on children’s in-born zest for learning?  The answer is student-directed learning.  

Educational experts, administrators, and teachers have been moving toward a classroom environment that is student-directed for a long time.  An environment that moves away having a teacher at the front of the room using direction instruction, memorization, and regurgitation of facts as best practice to one in which students are actively involved in planning, implementation, and assessment.  This shift involves a lot LESS TEACHING and instead MORE LEARNING

Teachers now strive to support, scaffold, and consult instead of dictate, direct, and coerce.  They want students to take control of their learning so they give them autonomy and empower them to direct their learning journey as much as possible.

This means that teachers share power. They share in decision making, give students opportunities to take charge with interest based choices, give up the need for control (hello student freedoms!), and they apply skills to the real world. 

Educators also know that when content or assignments do not tap into the interest of the child, the effort, results, and in turn overall learning suffers.  

Can we even call it learning when students zone out of an assignment or feel forced to complete something that lacks meaning and purpose?

When it comes to assessment, most classroom teachers strive to create authentic experiences and meaningful assessments where students can showcase their learning in ways that are meaningful to them. This means that some of the most effective assessments are not traditional paper and pencil ones.

If your child is enjoying the distance learning and you see authentic evidence of growth and application of what they have learned, then that is fabulous! Continue to use what resources your child thrives on but keep it in balance and remember that deep, meaningful learning is set in authentic, self-directed, real world contexts.

And, if your child seems  miserable or disengaged with online learning, then take a step back and ask yourself if the environment supports self-directed learning.

While this pandemic crisis makes it difficult to create real world conditions and experiences, you can still create an environment in your home to support authentic, self-directed learning to some extent. 

How to foster self-directed learning at home:

  • Trust-  Read the research that shows students have the capacity to lead and take charge of their learning. Children do not have to follow a standardized model of knowledge and skill development. Remember that all kids are unique and will learn and grow at their own pace and in their own way. Learning is a journey, not a race.

  • Shared Decision Making– Have your children share in the decision making process. Collaborate with your child, help them set their own goals, and give them a voice in what they learn and how they engage with content. 

  • Assess Child’s Needs and InterestsUnderstand what your child values and what is truly meaningful to them. Use this knowledge to build and deepen experiences. 

  • Give up your need to control– Your children are capable and curious. Show support, offer invitations to new experiences, challenge their thinking, raise questions, and learn alongside with them. Model for your children what a learner is and does– be curious, wonder, research, question, persevere, challenge, and more! 

  • Offer ChoicesCreate interest-based choices and invitations to learn then offer authentic ways to share what they have learned with others.  For example, is your child a budding paleontologist? Invite them to study to their hearts content all things fossil-related.  This could lead to a 3 month study ranging in reading, writing, speaking, listening, math, science, art, computer science, communication, collaboration, and so much more!

So, if you are new to homeschooling and anxious to find the right online curriculum for your children, or simply feeling lost and confused amidst this chaotic time, I urge you to take a look at the research and take a look at your child’s learning environment from the perspective of those in the field of education by using these guiding questions:

Will this give my child the opportunity to take learning into his or her own hands?

Will this put them in the driver’s seat and take ownership of their learning journey?


The shift from teacher to learner is here and it is here for a reason. For many reasons actually!

Be empowered to empower your children!

Give them the trust, freedom, and the choices they need to thrive.

 

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