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It’s time to reexamine what learning looks like and the forms it can take, says a Tufts elementary education professor
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"We have created this false distinction that learning happens in school and life is some other thing," said Brian Gravel, E01, E04, G11, director of Elementary Education in the Department of Education at Tufts University. Photo: Ingimage
April 27, 2020

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With Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement that Massachusetts schools will remain closed until the end of the school year, many parents are left with a looming and unsettling question: Will my child fall behind academically?

Brian Gravel, E01, E04, G11, an assistant professor and director of Elementary Education in the Department of Education at Tufts University, has a question in response. “Fall behind whom?” asks Gravel, himself a father of three children. “Everyone is doing this.”

Kids all around the world are out of school, with some engaged in virtual education while others are not. And the notion that school is the only place where learning happens is fundamentally wrong, he said.

“We have this vision that if we're not doing traditional academic work, then we're not doing good learning,” he said. But he doesn’t buy into this narrative, because learning across many kinds of spaces—not just classrooms—is his research specialty.

As challenging as this time has been—and will continue to be, at least until June—Gravel sees it as an opportunity for parents and school districts alike.

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He encouraged parents to rediscover the importance of play, and not necessarily with toys, but with materials, ideas, and words. Play fosters a learning environment for kids of all ages, and it shows us how children learn, his research shows. He cited a recent example where his family took a song they all love and rewrote the lyrics to be about COVID-19. It was fun, yes, but it also made them think about things like verse structure and word choice.

“While children are home with family members or loved ones, that is an opportunity to learn together as a family and to teach traditions,” he said. “That looks different than so-called ‘online learning solutions,’ but this is the moment to think about what learning looks like and what forms it can take. We have created this false distinction that learning happens in school and life is some other thing.”

Gravel, who has a master’s in mechanical engineering, also championed what he called “the long-standing human tradition of making things.” Kids learn by doing things, he said, which helps them engage with tools, science, and engineering. For example, think about vocational school or home economics classes of yore, where students were taught cooking, woodworking, or sewing.

“Parents can give kids a provocation and engage them in the process of making something. You make a first version, you iterate on it, you change it. You learn a little bit about design,” he said.

Lastly, Gravel advised with a bit of a grin, if working or playing together causes your kids to bicker, look at it this way: “They're working on some pretty real negotiation strategies.”

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All joking aside, Gravel pointed out that COVID-19 has provided an excellent opportunity to reexamine what schools are doing for our society and how we value them.

“For example, if we want them to be the place where students receive food, an education, dental health, and wellness checks, and then a few months from now have vigorous debates about how little we should fund them, that seems deeply flawed to me,” he said.

He’s also concerned about children returning to a school system that expects them to sit at a desk after months spent with less structure. Students should spend more time outside, he said, and don’t even get him started on the pressure to sit still.

Lastly, he pointed out, COVID-19 has highlighted the inequities of our society, in terms of who is healthy, safe, and secure, and who is vulnerable, at risk, and left without food and necessities.

“Part of the re-examining means looking closely at these inequities and how schooling often furthers them,” he said. “Are we doing the things that research has suggested are beneficial to learners? We owe it to ourselves to not pretend we just know how to do it.”

The things that are beneficial to learners are the same things that many kids are doing at home with parents during this time: play, chores, cooking, learning from family about histories or traditions, and caring for each other and our living space.

And that’s why parents should worry less about their kids falling behind. “Family contexts are powerful learning environments,” said Gravel.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.