How Online Learning is Failing My Children

And the unintentional lessons they’re learning

Stephanie Tolk
Nov 15, 2020 · 7 min read
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Photo: Hananeko_Studio/Shutterstock

During the spring of 2020, kindergarten through twelfth-grade teachers and administrators patched together learning opportunities as best they could while navigating, along with students and families, a new era of mask-wearing, handwashing, and distancing. Working from home, they hustled to educate students without the camaraderie of colleagues in the same room, sometimes while caring for their own children. None of us had high expectations, and most of us had empathy.

We had a two-month summer break, and as those weeks went on, we realized that the new school year, for most Americans in the K-12 system, would begin remotely.

This was our moment. This was our chance to innovate.

As a nation, we had the opportunity to try something new, test novel methods, and teach what’s topical and relevant (and, boy, meaty, meaningful topics abound right now) to put this era into context for our children. We might have decided to make 2020–21 an educational experiment. We might have reinvented education completely for digital platforms.

Instead, my daughters’ school administrators, and thousands like them across the country, are busily cramming old ideas onto a new type of instruction, and my children are suffering.

I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it ceased to be one — Mark Twain

The U.S. Department of Education and its state counterparts, school district personnel, school boards, and faculty and administrators control pieces of planning and execution. Parents and students often have a voice, and there are guidelines, mandates, standards, rules, and regulations. Funding complicates this crowded landscape.

If K-12 education in America is a ship, imagine that it’s a fusion of a rowboat, yacht, canoe, junk, and catamaran with a skyscraper glued on for good measure. Want to steer that ship in a new direction? There’s no turning that monster.

But during this strange year, this unprecedented time, imagine if departments of education proffered to districts the opportunity to be more autonomous in their planning while meeting some basic standards? What if we loosened up just a bit, just for a time, without making a big thing of it?

Adults discuss the “new normal” and all that’s changed in 2020. I don’t need a gym to be in shape! I guess I can cook after all! I don’t have to go into my office to be efficient and productive! I love not smiling at everyone I pass in the street! I wanted to be wearing yoga pants every day all along! Looks like we didn’t have to rent this massive office building after all!

Yet when it came to our children who, one day, will be leaders, innovators, and decision-makers, we just couldn’t pivot. We couldn’t think big.

My fourth grader has begun multiplication and division, and she’s exploring these concepts through a storyline about Mr. Muffles who owns a truffle shop. Mr. Muffles packs truffles into boxes to ship across the country, and each truffle inhabits its little square. One box might have two rows and three columns of truffles; that customer has ordered six wee chocolates. How many boxes of ten can be made with 63 truffles, and what’s left over? You get the picture.

There’s a pandemic raging outside; the West is on fire; our economy is suffering; Black people are shining a light on our history and inequities; conservatives and liberals are coming to fisticuffs in the streets. And my daughter is packing imaginary truffles into boxes.

I’m not an educator, but here’s what’s obvious to me.

If this is truly an unprecedented time, as the media keeps telling us, why are my children being kept in the dark? Why are they not learning how viruses replicate? How our bodies fight diseases? What the electoral college is, and how it came to be? What it takes to bring a vaccine to the public? What the economy is and its relationship to unemployment? Why we ran out of toilet paper this spring?

Children hear these topics mentioned in our homes and cars, around the dinner table, and in muffled conversations between the adults in their lives. And yet, we tell them about truffles.

I wonder if we think children can’t handle these topics because we’re barely managing them ourselves. I wonder if we’re sending a message that we think children are weak. I wonder if we’re afraid ourselves of this mess we call life, and we don’t want to show children that fear. Better keep them thinking about chocolate.

My daughters attend a school that prides itself on nurturing “innovative problem-solvers,” and yet, administrators force in-person learning strategies, which now seem archaic, onto an online system.

Running the lessons and assignments made for a classroom setting through digital software is like making almond butter in an old food processor. Have you ever tried that? The machinery gets so sluggish and overworked that the entire contraption heats up and threatens to destroy the motor. You have to stop frequently, scrape down the sides, and move slowly, or you’ll kill your appliance. Your product is poor.

Time to try something new. Soak your almonds first. Add a little oil. Try peanuts instead. Or better yet, dismantle your food processor, remove the ancient motor, fashion a new one with your creative, powerful brain, and apply for a patent.

My fifth grader has reached a new echelon in her reading capabilities; she graduated from graphic novels to 200-page chapter books with few illustrations. She’s currently engaged with a series on dragons, and her classmate, Mead, owns all 13 books in the series.

When I asked my daughter if she could borrow the books, she answered, “I can’t talk to Mead. There’s no way to talk with him.” After digging in a bit, I learned that, indeed, there are no moments in the week between Google Meet calls for my child to ask her classmate one simple question. The chat function has been disabled to keep children on task.

I imagined what her experience would have been like last year. She would have walked to the playground with Mead, caught him in the art corner putting away the Sharpies, plunked next to him on the carpet during Morning Meeting, or joined him at lunch. They might have shared their love of the series, citing their favorite dragons, the scariest scenes. What’s more beautiful than fifth graders connecting over literature?

This year, there’s no space for that kind of connection.

Gone are the spontaneous games imagined during recess, the collaborative spawning of new ideas during Morning Meeting, the partnered exploration of art materials. Gone are the opportunities to stand before classmates and speak with butterflies in the belly and confidence building. Gone are arguments on the playground that require humbleness, honesty, and empathy to resolve.

School is a child’s place of employment. They arrive on time. They receive assignments and ask for clarification if they feel confused. They meet deadlines. They collaborate, listen to others, advocate to manifest their ideas, or yield to others’ ideas. They try their best.

Now, as parents and caregivers have become involved in our children’s education, we model a terrible habit: we let our children opt-out of work. I’m guilty of this myself. My daughters’ teachers present so many mini-expectations that I spend my days badgering my girls. They each need about three reminders for each requirement, and they each have about five requirements each day. That amounts to 30 reminders about lessons and assignments per day; I can barely stand the sound of my own voice.

So what do I do? I instruct them not to do their jobs. Because they read 30 minutes per day, my children don’t have to track reading each day through the online form. And because they can barely complete their academic work, we opt-out of physical education activities. Decided by me, their part-time teacher, in isolation and without consultation.

Young children, many of whom never had access to computers and the internet, spend quadruple the amount of time creating an appropriately-sized text box in which to insert their solution to a math problem than they do finding the solution itself. If our objective is to create technologically competent nine-year-olds, we may accomplish that by June.

When they’re not changing the font in the text box from black to aqua, they’re distractedly YouTubing Classroom Pranks and 5 Minute Crafts. I know this because I’ve discovered glue stick tubes filled with frozen yogurt (“Oh my gosh, she’s eating glue!”) and dolls with remarkably stylish haircuts.

While adults obsessed over wiping down our groceries, setting up our home offices, coordinating our mask fabric with our outfits, and buying copious amounts of weed and booze, we just needed some things to be easy. It’s understandable. We couldn’t handle too much change at once. We just needed our children to go to school. And when they didn’t go to school, we hoped that teaching in the same fashion from home would be just fine. Well, it’s not.

UNESCO estimated that 1.4 billion students around the planet were affected at the height of the pandemic with 900 million students still impacted. With new school closures just last week across Europe, that number continues to fluctuate.

Let’s just round up to a cool billion for now. That’s a billion students working from home, studying alone in their dorm rooms, or climbing trees to get cell reception to download assignments. That’s a billion people who will need to be equipped to address our pitiful economy, our damaged climate, and our fractured populace.

Don’t we owe them more than truffles and pretty text boxes?

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Stephanie Tolk

Written by

Mother | Worldschooler | Traveler | 45+ countries | Top Writer: Parenting, Travel | Founder of Deliberate Detour. Read more

The Bad Influence

We’re a Bad Influence because we INCITE change through inclusion, thought and creativity. We imagine a world where people can think critically, express themselves, and thumb their nose at the status quo, together.

Stephanie Tolk

Written by

Mother | Worldschooler | Traveler | 45+ countries | Top Writer: Parenting, Travel | Founder of Deliberate Detour. Read more

The Bad Influence

We’re a Bad Influence because we INCITE change through inclusion, thought and creativity. We imagine a world where people can think critically, express themselves, and thumb their nose at the status quo, together.

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