How to Learn the Most

I ran across this article from Brainpickings about letters that Albert Einstein wrote to his own children. He writes to his 11 year old son,

“That is the way to learn the most…when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.”

-Einstein, in a letter to his son

I got to thinking about the kind of learning that Einstein describes – the sense of losing time because you are so present and engaged in something you are interested in.  I love that Einstein also tells his son in the letter to play more piano and do carpentry, and that it is “even more important than school.”  (YES!)

It made me wonder, what would Einstein think of the virtual learning we are planning for students to endure this year? How many students in school regularly experience that same sensation of total engagement, of losing time while engaged in learning?    It may happen occasionally, but I doubt that most students miss normal school instruction.

How engaged will students be in online lessons this year?  What would Einstein think of 6 and 7 year olds learning how to read, write, and count by way of screens? What would he think of high schoolers logging in for a minimum of 180 minutes everyday without face-to-face interaction with their peers? Extending virtual instruction for students indefinitely everywhere as a mainstay form of schooling will have long and short term consequences on individual and collective levels.   There are so many issues to this, it can be difficult to grasp.  But I hope I can stir a points here.

First, when we are totally engaged and losing track of time as Einstein described, this is about relevance, interest, self-motivation and choice. Schools typically provide very little choice in learning.  Einstein knew, the best way to learn is not necessarily in school.  Yet, we can learn some things in school, and we can also learn some things on computers. Technology has its place, but a screen does nothing to engage us with the same completeness that real-life tasks do.   What if we embraced this challenge of school closure due to pandemic as an opportunity to learn through real tasks with verve and interest?   Things like playing music and doing practical tasks like carpentry have a real place in daily life for healthy people with curious minds.  Too much external, academic programming makes us lose touch with that sense of agency and autonomy to do purposeful activities with our hands.

Second, there is the idea that when schools are at their healthiest and best, they can provide a sense of community.  When schools are at their worst they provide a sense of alienation,  perpetuating societal indoctrination, propaganda, and racism.  Sometimes schools can be very sick places.

Due to the COVID-19 healthcare crisis, we have already been away from our schools for more than six months.   What have students missed the most?   Friends and the social contact with their community?  Playing at recess, or going to gym class, sports, or other activities?  For older kids, being captain of the team their senior year? Graduations, proms and other major events?  Students might also feel the loss of regularity and routine, the predictable structure that the school day provides.  Maybe the children also miss the independence, the ability to leave their homes, taking a step into the broader community away from their family?  Occasionally, students might miss being with an inspired teacher who can foster within a student a love for a subject, or the self-confidence to overcome obstacles.  The loss of interpersonal opportunities like these can’t really be measured. There may be many other things I failed to list about what students missed, but I doubt high quality instruction would make the top of their list because most never get to experience it.    I mean no disrespect to my teaching colleagues in this, but most instruction is not engaging.  Also, some children might be relieved they are NOT in school, More students may be relieved to NOT have to worry they will be shot while eating their lunch in the cafeteria.  The incidence of school shooting are down for the first time in a long while. Children today face extreme anxieties that adults today never had to worry about.   Sometimes our schools are very dangerous places.

Why did humans develop schools?  A school was meant to be a place where we provide a well-rounded offering of activities with the intent to enrich human experience, but that is definitely not always achieved. What opportunities, advantages and disadvantages does virtual learning offer us? How can we meet our needs for community? What good schools provide, virtual learning cannot easily provide the same way.  On the flip side, perhaps the hidden opportunity of not being in a school building is that we have more time to heal from the ills of our own society.  We have more time to reflect on what we want, and more time for the kind of learning Einstein talks about, if we are able to take advantage of it.   We will need to control our time better, however, and not be mindlessly controlled by our screens.   One need only recall the movie Wall-E to imagine how life in the future might be if we allow ourselves to be controlled by our screens and materialism.

We need to keep a distinction between “school” and “learning” and be more mindful of the potential negative effects of so much screen time on childhood.  Learning does not necessarily take place in schools, though it can.  Children are  not widgets or robots.   Requiring massive amounts of screen time as a vehicle for learning will have long term consequences which have yet to be fully understood, but there will be steep consequences on a societal level, as well as on mental and physical health levels. A bigger question might be, with the onset of Artificial Intelligence, at what point are we irreversibly putting computers above human beings as decision makers?

Some people are upset because they so desperately want kids back in a school building.  What is that really about?  Economics of childcare? Convenience for parents? Government control? The comfort of routine?  FOMO?

It is not the building that makes learning happen.    Learning can happen in a lot of ways.  The school building is just a shared space for community.  A community of people can be a sick community or it can be a vibrant community or something in between.  It can be online community or in person community or something in between.   We don’t have to be in a particular place to learn, but whether we are in a school building or on a screen, its of vital importance that we keep striving to make what happens in schools REAL, relevant, ACTIVE, ENGAGING and above all… HUMAN for students.

vir·tu·al
/ˈvərCH(o͞o)əl/

adjective

  • 1.almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition:“the virtual absence of border controls”

learn·ing

/ˈlərniNG/

noun

  • 1.the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught:“these children experienced difficulties in learningsynonymsstudystudyingeducationschoolingtuition… more

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