Engaging teens in learning during the coronavirus crisis

Michael Robbins
Mar 17 · 3 min read

Families and educators are struggling to sustain student learning while schools are closed during the coronavirus crisis. Learning for teenage youth at home can be far more than screen time or another version of homework. With the right structure and supports, teens can take ownership of learning and make important progress towards college and careers.

Instead of attempting to make up for lost class time, we should focus on transformative home-based learning opportunities that connect young people to their passions, peers, community, and careers.

Passions: Let teens select topics to focus on with adult input and guidance. What problems do they want to solve? What inspires their curiosity and passions? What might they learn related to coping with and recovering from the coronavirus pandemic?

Peers: Teenage students are feeling isolated at home, and learning activities can foster positive social interaction. Have them collaborate on projects with friends and classmates, using technology to communicate.

Community: Engage teens in in learning activities that relate to their neighborhood, school, and community. Connect them to online forums and email lists as part of their activities. Strengthening community connections will help sustain them in the long run and support communities once recovery efforts begin.

Careers: Connect teen passions to possible future careers. Discuss potential pathways to employment and identify what teens might want to learn next. Spotlight how college or specialized training could help them pursue their career goals.

The following practices for home-based learning can boost engagement, strengthen learning outcomes, and help young people share what they learn:

Develop learning playlists. Work with teens to outline a “learning playlist” that organizes their selected topic into 3–5 achievable activities. Playlist steps might include defining the topic, online research, interviewing an expert, creating something, conducting an online activity, recording a performance they did, and showcasing student work online for others.

Engage adults as resources. Connect teens to adults that can help them learn more about what they are interested in. There are many people with subject matter expertise who are also at home now and eager to assist.

Document learning. Decide together what evidence teens should create to document what they learn in each part of their playlist. Select evidence that is not overly burdensome but credibly demonstrates what they accomplished. Documentation could include photos, videos, or written narratives. Have them upload a description of their playlist and evidence to online sites such as Google Docs, Vimeo, YouTube, and Instagram so they can share their accomplishments with others. Teens should also discuss and share their efforts on Instagram, Twitter, or even TikTok using #COVIDlearning and other relevant hashtags

Provide incentives. Work with teens to identify short-term rewards for completing their playlists. Incentives might be as simple as a gift certificate. A more meaningful reward could be a special opportunity relating to their playlist topic.

Use digital credentials. Give teens a way to share what they learned with teachers, friends, college admissions offices, and potential employers. “Digital badges” have emerged as a common standard for documenting learning no matter where or when it happens. Families, schools, and other learning providers can design customized digital badges using platforms such as Credly, Accredible, or LRNG.

These strategies are used by District of Learning, which is turning Greater Washington D.C into a giant campus for learning so that young people can pursue their passions and create stronger pathways to college and careers. District of Learning will soon launch a free playlist and digital badge format that students ages 13–24 in Greater DC can use for home-based learning regardless of the topic they choose.

As we struggle to cope with the coronavirus crisis, this approach to teen learning at home can help make the most of lost classroom time. Beyond the crisis, it can be a model for engaging entire communities in advancing education and career success.

To share this article, use the link http://bit.ly/COVIDlearning

Michael Robbins is an education leader, keynote speaker, and social entrepreneur. He is the founder and executive director of District of Learning.

Follow him at on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for additional resources. @mwredu @dc_learning #coronavirus #COVIDlearning

Michael Robbins

Michael Robbins is an education leader, social entrepreneur, and keynote speaker with over 25 years of experience solving complex public challenges.

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