Let’s face it: continued school closures are inevitable. We just have to accept on-line instruction as our new normal. As a scientist-educator and founder of an organization that provides science-based instruction to hundreds of kids worldwide, I have had countless conversations with parents who are absolutely dreading the next school year. So, I’m here to empower you in this moment of hopelessness and fear. Let’s turn this breakdown into a breakthrough for you and your kids.
First and foremost, knowledge is power. You need to know what makes instruction effective. You also need to know the factors that lead to academic failure and frustration. You don’t just have to blindly accept what your schools are offering. As consumers of educational services, you can actually request better options – even if your kids attend public schools!
Effective instruction requires that kids have the opportunity to actively participate and receive positive reinforcement for that participation. Kids don’t learn by sitting and staring. They learn by behaving with respect to the subject matter to be learned, and most important, having that behavior repeatedly reinforced. Regardless of whether instruction occurs in a classroom or via zoom, kids must participate for learning to take place.
So, for your child to benefit from on-line instruction, they must actively participate in lessons. Unfortunately, the tradition of hand-raising directly contradicts this basic requirement for learning. When only one student has the opportunity to respond and have that response reinforced, the rest of the class misses out on that opportunity.
I encourage you to observe your child during on-line instruction and count the number of opportunities they have to participate. I also encourage you to count the number of times their participation is reinforced with praise or corrective feedback. I train my instructors to provide at least 20 learning opportunities per minute! Highly effective instructors present learning opportunities and give feedback at a rapid pace, which produce exponentially greater learning gains than traditional teaching methods. To verify this statement, visit https://www.nifdi.org/.
If you feel that your child is not being provided with enough learning opportunities during on-line instruction, then give their teacher this feedback. Encourage their teacher to explore Direct Instruction (DI) as an alternative approach. There are videos and on-line tools that can help teachers learn how to implement this approach during on-line instruction. DI has been empirically validated as the most effective teaching method since the 1960’s (https://www.nifdi.org/what-is-di/project-follow-through). Unfortunately, the educational establishment has consistently ignored these scientific findings. But the squeaky wheel gets the oil! Schools won’t change unless parents demand they do so.
Learning also requires repeated, reinforced practice. Kids don’t learn via exposure to stuff. They learn by repeatedly practicing skills until they are truly mastered – or fluent. A fluent skill is neurologically permanent (i.e., remembered), resistant to distractions and fatigue, and available for the effortless learning of more complex skills. Unfortunately, schools aren’t designed according to this principle of learning either, which is why many kids have been pushed along from skill to skill and grade to grade despite the fact that they haven’t mastered the prerequisites. On-line instruction requires that kids largely function independently. But students can’t function independently if they haven’t mastered the skills required to complete the assignment. Students require repeated, reinforced practice of skills to mastery in order to apply those skills independently. To verify this statement, visit www.fluency.org.
So, if your child is struggling to independently complete assignments, they likely require the opportunity to practice and master prerequisite skills. If your child is counting on their fingers but is being expected to complete complex math problems – they need fluency building in basic math facts. If your child is struggling to sound-out words but is being expected to read with understanding, they need fluency building in decoding and core reading skills. These issues should be communicated to your child’s teacher so that they can provide you with resources to help build your child’s mastery of prerequisite skills.
Finally, don’t be afraid to outsource your child’s instruction. You aren’t your child’s teacher; you are their parent. If on-line instruction isn’t working and your teacher won’t adopt more effective practices, find an organization that will. There are organizations informed by the science of learning that provide profoundly effective on-line instruction that dramatically accelerates learning gains. Visit www.fluency.org for a list of such organizations.
Take charge of this next school year by taking effective action and being a better advocate for your child. Arm yourself with the knowledge that effective learning is the result of effective instruction. Conversely, academic failure is the result of ineffective instruction. Our first instinct is to assume something must be wrong with our kids when they struggle academically. But nothing could be further from the truth. Kids fail to learn because of ineffective teaching practices. Don’t be afraid to demand better instruction. Empower yourself and your kids by knowing what works and what doesn’t. In so doing, this school year just might turn out to be the best one ever.