Tyler Thigpen, swing
Students can thrive in virtual learning environments if their parents and caregivers help them establish a structure and say to them the magic words: I see you, I hear you, I’m here. Photo illustration: Institute for Self Directed Learning

By Guest Columnists TYLER S. THIGPEN and CALEB COLLIER, academic leaders at The Forest School and Institute for Self Directed Learning

A parent at our school has three kids at home. Last school year, two of them were learners at our school, The Forest School, a self-directed learning environment in Pinewood Forest, in Fayetteville. The third attended a nearby traditional middle school.

Tyler Thigpen
Tyler S. Thigpen

The parent told us that, when students were sent home at the onset of COVID-19, each of her children approached their school days differently. The two from the self-directed learning environment created calendars, designed their work spaces, and set their own goals for the day. The other learner waited for instructions from school to get started and, when he finished his week’s worth of assignments in less than two days, screamed with joy, “Break time for the rest of the week!” and went straight for video games.

For us, this highlighted something important. In this moment, as districts announce plans for the Fall and, it seems, most learning will continue to live in virtual spaces, what are the key moves parents and caregivers need to make to cultivate deep learning and meaningful engagement? Every home looks different, especially in terms of which adults are available, whether students have additional responsibilities, what resources are available to them (e.g., books, Internet connectivity, and devices), whether there is access to outdoors, and what potential trauma may exist. Despite these differences, how can caregivers truly inspire learners – even resistant ones – to shoulder the responsibility for their own learning?

Caleb Collier
Caleb Collier

In our recently published, open source e-book for parents, Key Moves Parents Can Make to Shepherd Children through Remote Learning, we share how caregivers can organize the building blocks of education to create an effective learning environment at home. To give a glimpse, here are our four key takeaways from the e-book parents can employ to inspire learners to be in the driver’s seat of their own education:

  1. Goal Setting / Schedule Making: The first step of doing anything is figuring out exactly what you need to do and when you need to do it. It’s important, as an educator, to not neglect the importance of this step. The first mistake is to structure all the learning tasks, down to the minute, and simply hand students the what, when, and how of their remote work assignments. This strips learners of any sense of agency, leaving them relying on you to deliver marching orders. The other mistake is to lean too far in the other direction, expecting young people (and their parents) to meaningfully fill their time with educational experiences without any guidance. The trick is to find the sweet spot. At The Forest School, for instance, we encourage learners to spend 45 to 60 minutes every day reading, writing, and exploring math. They can choose when, where, and how. They have a choice on what to read and what to write within certain systems we co-create. Their responsibility is to make their own schedules, set goals with a peer every day, and post their progress.

Tyler Thigpen, swing
Students can thrive in virtual learning environments if their parents and caregivers help them establish a structure and say to them the magic words: I see you, I hear you, I’m here. Photo illustration: Institute for Self Directed Learning
  • Create Incentives: In the absence of the watchful gaze of the teacher and all of the rules that govern a classroom, how do you motivate a young person to learn? Well, think of it in two categories. First, you have your intrinsic motivation. We agree with Aristotle, who argues in Metaphysics that All men [and women] desire to know. People want to learn things. Children are curious. Part of what can make school so hard is that instead of fostering curiosity among young people, we often discourage it. So, take advantage of this time to encourage your students to learn something they want to learn. This can be a “passion project,” where students can choose to spend four to five hours throughout the week exploring a skill or topic of interest, and then presenting in some virtual format what they’ve learned. Or maybe send out links of TED talks to watch, podcasts to listen to, skills to learn, and see what sticks. There is also the category of extrinsic motivation. Sometimes a learner might need a little push to make it through the hurdles of Algebra 1. What kinds of incentives can you create to motivate heroes when they’re feeling stuck? At The Forest School, we post a transparent chart of time spent on e-learning platforms and pages read for the week and publicly celebrate those at the top. Also, learners will be able to participate in challenges throughout the week for prizes. While the presence of extrinsic motivators concerns some, we anchor in the belief that we’re human, and sometimes we need all the help we can get.

  • Tyler Thigpen, computer
    Parents and caregivers can help virtual learners by creating incentives that motivate students to stick with lessons, even those that can seem overwhelming. Credit: Institute for Self Direct Learning
  • Pay Attention to the Inner Work: Oftentimes, the key difference between someone that can effectively direct their own learning and someone that can’t is a different response to these questions: What am I capable of? What will happen if I try? Young people that either don’t believe that they can do the work, or that it doesn’t matter if they do the work or not, are going to have a hard time directing their own learning. What would it look like for educators to help students take stock of their own passions and interests? How can they connect the dots between the work they are doing now and what they want to be doing later? Virtual learning can offer some rich time for reflection. What would happen if we continued to ask young people: Who are you? What makes you you? What is your purpose in life, right now? What are you capable of? How do you know? 
  • Be Available. Be Vulnerable: Over the course of mere days, the world as our children knew it came to a halt. Have lots of grace with yourself and with your students—we’re all in this together. Some of you have hundreds of students, and having one-on-one check-ins may not be realistic, but find some way—any way—to be available to your learners. Ask them how they’re doing. Ask what they need. Be ready to listen. At The Forest School, we have a one-on-one talk with each of our learners every week. That might not be possible for you, but find something that is. Education, even self-directed education, is relational. Sometimes, all a learner needs to hear in order to be successful is the affirmation from a caregiver: I see you, I hear you, I’m here.
  • Note to readers: Caleb Collier is the middle school guide at The Forest School and co-founder of the Institute for Self Directed Learning, and is pursuing a doctorate in teaching and learning at Georgia State University. Tyler S. Thigpen, with a doctorate of education leadership, is co-founder and head of The Forest School and Institute for Self Directed Learning, and academic director at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

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