Inside: Why our current expectations of education need to change for the better and why the pandemic is the perfect time to pivot.
The beginning of the pandemic hit me with a force I never would have imagined. I’ve experienced the sudden death of loved ones and life-altering stress. And still the pandemic hit me hard. It felt like the whole world was rocked.
My university closed while my children were on spring break. Each day we turned on the news with bated breath to hear about closures, phases and stimulus cheques. In what felt like no time at all, I was juggling my own remote learning with that of my kids’. Finding the correct zoom link, enough devices for everyone to log on at the same time and places in the house where we could avoid talking over each other.
We weren’t prepared for any of this.
We were without childcare, had to work from home, and somehow were expected to resume our children’s schedules as if nothing happened. Albeit we were doing so online instead of in-person.
Though our extracurricular activities were postponed or refunded, many of our friends’ kids attended virtual dance classes, soccer practices, and piano lessons.
For the better part of March and April, I felt like I was failing on all fronts. I cried because I got sent the wrong link for my son’s first day of virtual learning. I cried because I couldn’t fathom how I would finish my term papers with two boys sitting on my lap. And I cried just to cry.
But if I’m truly honest with myself, I was one straw away from my breaking point for a while.
If I look back on past school years, I was juggling bus schedules, soccer practices and piano lessons while coordinating birthday parties, carpooling, and running my own business while going to school myself. There were times where my kids were shuffled around. Each day of the week looked different. Every morning was a rundown of who’s doing pickup, what parent is home, and when dinner will be. Nights were typified by standoffs over homework. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if we were perpetually on overdrive trying to get all things done.
In my own life, the breaking point was imminent, but it turns out it was for society too.
In his article, Why The Self is Empty, psychologist Phillip Cushman explains that since the World Wars, the pursuit of self-improvement has been on the rise and so has psychological distress (1).
He explains that as the wars came to an end, production was at an all-time high. And so, for the first time, businesses needed advertising and public relations firms (2). Instead of focusing on the durability of products, as print ads had before, they emphasized how buyers would feel owning their goods (2).
Citizens were no longer citizens, but consumers.
Soon, North Americans were consumed with buying non-essential and “quickly obsolete products” (1). As Fromm and Laisch explain that as we bought into consumer culture, slowly flash became valued over substance, “opportunism over loyalty, selling ability over integrity and mobility over stability.” Our heroes were no longer civil servants but celebrities. Achievement took precedence over connection.
While western culture had long had a focus on individualism, a person’s buying power and resume took precedence over all else. As buying consumer goods rose, so did our need for self-help. It appears that the more we bought into consumerism, the more we undermined our humanity.
This shift has spilled over to our children in a dire way.
In the pursuit of more, we have bought into the notion that if we schedule our children more, they will learn more and become more too.
Presently, teachers and parents alike attempt to hurry children into adult roles, believing earlier is better.
And marketers have capitalized.
Parents receive carefully crafted messaging “that good parents expose their children to every opportunity to excel, buy a plethora of enrichment tools, and ensure their children participate in a wide variety of activities (3). Now, many parents believe that afterschool programs and enrichment apps are necessary.
In his research, psychologist and researcher, Peter Gray found alarming consequences to this approach to child education. He notes that since 1955, children have been spending less time playing and more time in adult-directed activities like school and extracurricular activities. Research shows that a decline in play is correlated with an increase in child psychopathology. Specifically, multiple studies point to a dramatic rise in anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness and narcissism (4). He points to a time in America where children filled neighbourhood streets playing. Now, it’s a rare sight. Less play means less of a sense of control and less control means more mood disorders.
And yet, education remains far too focused on homework, performance standards, and grades. It’s as if we think the busier the schedule, the more skills we can upload into our children’s brains. And yet, research shows that it essentially does the opposite. Instead, it creates toxic levels of stress.
Now, it’s gotten worse.
When the pandemic hit, many of us held our breath wondering how long the impact on all of our lives would last. In March, schools closed. In a matter of weeks, parents became teachers, personal assistants and work-from-home personnel. We were responsible for our children’s zoom meetings as well as ensuring all school work was done. Many still continued scouts and piano remotely. And you know what? It didn’t go well.
As physician and author, Chavi Lee Karkowsky writes:
… during that terrible time, my kids managed. They were frustrated; they were on screens for far too many hours a day, and in the sunshine for far too few. But they were game; they were helpful; they were, generally, loving to one another.
But time went on, and on, and so did the pandemic. Although things in the hospital were getting less terrifying, in my house they were getting harder as school receded further and further away. My older kids became withdrawn, more frequently angry. I couldn’t get my formerly chatty 9-year-old to talk at the dinner table. All my kids started having trouble sleeping. Having a 5-year old and an 11-year old wandering aimlessly and miserably around the kitchen at 2 a.m wasn’t unusual for me. I consulted our pediatrician. I bought some melatonin, and then some more, and now I buy it every month. I hate every part of that.
We’re not alone. I was at the hospital in June, masked and eye-protected, and I asked one of my colleagues how her kids were doing. “Well, we’re all healthy,” she started, as we do these days. “But,” she hesitated, “it’s kind of … Lord of the Flies in my house.”
I nodded: “Same.”
And, it’s not just these medical professionals. A mom in my children’s school’s Facebook group shared a screenshot of her colour-coded remote learning schedule. She stated, “Between four kids, we have zoom meetings from 8am until sometimes as late as 7pm each night. I’m going to go insane.”
Even in our own family, I notice higher highs and lower lows. With respect to the former, I saw elation consume my children when we went on our first socially distanced play-date since March. The latter was marked by greater mood swings, more meltdowns and shriller fights between siblings.
We’re at the point education has to change. For good.
While I am not a policymaker or a politician, I know that mental health and overall wellbeing is dependent on healthy boundaries. This means that right now, more than ever, need to re-prioritize play, outdoor time and connections however they may come.
It means identifying limits. This may mean cutting down on or completely stopping homework in exchange for downtime, time in nature and time with a good book. It means identifying how our children and we are feeling. Psychologist Dana Gionta states that when anger and resentment are on the rise, it’s a sign we need to set boundaries. In the case of school, this means communicating clearly with teachers about what we are committed to doing. It means saying no to busywork and, instead, finding ways for children to learn through real-life. It is natural to feel guilty when we draw a proverbial line in the sand. It is hard to let go of the belief that saying yes to all things related to school makes a good parent. However, according to Gionta, healthy boundaries are a sign we respect ourselves and our children. It means letting children regain control of their lives in a way that is developmentally appropriate – through play.
Here are some resources to promote learning and minimize stress:
Experts Say This How to Learn to Read and Love it too!
Additional education resources for play-based and hands-on education:
How to set up 3 Simple Science Experiments