What to do When No One Tells You What to Do

 Over the past two weeks, the interruptions to daily routine caused by the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic have caused the question of how to help support our children’s learning to abruptly rise to the surface for our family, and for many families across the United States of America, and around the world. The sudden closures of school buildings and workplaces has created unprecedented levels of uncertainty, as the predictably ordered structures of institutions like “school” and “work” have been thrown into turmoil and fundamentally disrupted.
I live with my family in Cambridge, MA and on Wednesday March 25th, Governor Charlie Baker announced that schools will be closed through at least May 4th. Commissioner of Education Jeff Riley commented that, “This could be an amazing opportunity to think differently about how we educate our kids, and think about real world applications… This could be something new that could give us additional information about how kids learn best.” Governor Baker added, “I have seen how excited and how important project-based learning and applied learning can be for kids… If people really choose to embrace this, there’s an opportunity here to do some very different things with respect to educating and encouraging kids, and we certainly hope that ends up being where this goes.”
And yet, there has not yet been clear instruction from MA DESE nor school districts, so, what do you do, when no one tells you what to do?

On Friday March 13th my partner/wife Leigh and I sat down with our children and delicately and deliberately explained to them that beginning Monday, school was going to be closed (“For how long?” - “Well, at least 3 weeks, but we don’t know exactly, it could be through the end of the school year.”) And, as that sank in, we began to figure out the questions together with our children, my daughter “J” 10 years old in 4th grade, and my son “L” 7 years old in 1st grade. “So what are we going to do?” came the question. “Well,” we replied, “What do you want to learn about?”

We spent a good chunk of Friday evening and Saturday morning asking questions and listening (really listening!) to our children talk about what they were interested in learning: what they wondered about; what they felt was important, especially at this time; what they wanted to learn. Want - the word WANT is important.

By Saturday evening Leigh and I had drafted up a precursor to a “learning plan” based on our children’s responses. Our kids, used to a quite tightly regulated time-table at their school, had requested an overview “schedule” of the week. We made clear that this was a first draft that we would try for a week, and that the start times were meant to be guideposts, not hard/fixed rules. Indeed, we continue to make significant modifications as we pursue an emergent and opportunistic strategy for their learning. Below is the second week’s draft.

It has proven to be interesting experiential learning in international diplomacy as our family of four seeks to peacefully coinhabit our 1,100 square foot four-room apartment. It is worth noting that we have not tried to recreate the look/feel of a classroom - our kids chose which room and alternately sit on the floor, use a desk, stand at a table, and move around as they prefer. Leigh and I do not hover over them, monitoring what they were doing every minute; indeed she and I engaged in a quite full work day, only checking in on/with them as time allowed.
One thing that we did make clear to our children during the preview dinner table discussion on Sunday night: so long as you are able to stay focused, collaborate effectively, and make progress, we’ll continue with interest-based learning experiences. And they have! As Leigh and I have engaged in our own work a series of calls, Zoom video conversations and relentless inundation of email; our best estimate is that our children are largely self-directed and productive about 90% of the time. (they might even have us beat!?!)
Again, we used the schedule only as much as it was helpful as a general guideline; the right time for a kid to learn about something is when they WANT to learn about it. We have sought to make sure that the schedule isn’t too rigid!
So what did week 1 look like? And what did we learn about Learning Through Interests? How do we start each week day? - My father-in-law actually suggested that a good way to start the day would be to get ourselves ready at the normal time and take the walk we normally would have. We happen to live a short walk away from the Bilingual Spanish/English Cambridge Public School that they normally attend, Escuela Amigos School. So every day we take a picture of our family standing near the front steps and we send it to our kids teachers, Principal and Vice-Principal to check in. Then we walk home to continue learning.
Our kids began their “Who Am I?” projects - I was an Advisor at The Met High School, the first school in the Big Picture Learning Network of schools, and then at the Met Sacramento High School and the first project that we had all entering students engage in is the “Who Am I?” Across our network (and beyond) there are a wide variety of flavors and versions of the project, but all include a mixture of self-reflection as well as family research and community exploration. Here’s a picture of my children eagerly diving into an “Interest Exploration” activity after which J triumphantly announced, “See, just like I always tell you, I LOVE Science and Animals.” And L declared that his obvious attraction to computers was similarly validated. In addition our children have been reading and learning about their family history and writing about the culture and customs we engage in.
Spanish conversation with Oma (Abuelita) - Although they have video-chatted before, this was the first time that we and they had experimented with it as a learning medium. We wanted to make sure that our children would have lots of opportunity to continue to practice communicating in Spanish; luckily their grandmother has been excited to get on video-chat for regular conversation time. Each day she picks a theme to organize their conversation: Animales, Insectos, y uno fue Frutas y Vegetales, and they talked about all their favorite recipes that they like to make and eat when we are together. This has been not only a way to exercise their spanish language muscles, but also therapeutic to ward off feelings of isolation for grandparents.
 Math - Our children LOVE Math! and school had sent them home a workbook, a packet of math problems, and links to a few largely underwhelming on-line math platforms. (We’re apparently not alone in feeling some frustration with the various on-line “learning” platforms being promulgated. See this rather irate parent’s mini-rant). Each day our kids have explored topics that they had wanted to learn more about. Some evenings we’ve played cribbage which involves a variety of arithmetic and statistics to determine the likelihood of drawing certain cards. (For cribbage players, here’s a picture of my children who ganged up on me as a team to skunk me and they didn’t even need to count this 24-hand because they had already pegged in to win!)
My son, in first grade has always been fascinated/jealous that his older sister is already learning “the times tables.” He created a set of multiplication flash cards and delighted in practicing them. We aren’t sure exactly why these seem to come to him easily - perhaps because he spends so much time with legos and building with blocks and Cuisenaire rods.
Our children LOVE learning about animals, plants, bacteria, and yes, even viruses. They wanted to learn about all the forms of life on earth and how they interact; where they came from; how they are categorized and named. L was thrilled to create his first-ever PowerPoint Slide Deck and give a Presentation in our Living Room on “Red Pandas.”
We’ve also been going for daily walks around the neighborhood and to local parks identifying birds; it may be that we’re being more alert but we even saw a hawk try to nab a rat right outside our front door!
My daughter J began a project of observing and counting the number of the crocuses and daffodils and tulips just beginning to emerge and is learning how to use google sheets to track data and make a graph. Some tulips were also dissected to examine and draw the parts of the flower, and learn the lifecycle of a plant. This kind of Learning Through Practice is more than esoteric. So far in the past week she is observing exponential growth in the number of blooms, but she is predicting that this will tail off as the season progresses. She’s comparing the graph she’s creating to the rate of growth in COVID-19 Coronavirus cases, and she’s hypothesizing when the number of new flower blooms will diminish and the curve begins to flatten. Hopefully a lesson that will be transferrable!
Our children have been reading books of their choosing in both English and Spanish. My daughter J has been eager to work through the inspiring autobiography “The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor,” en inglés y después también en español. Our children are writing reflections about what they read, and also writing post cards and letters to their relatives and friends.
We also included a large block of “Free Time” on Wednesday afternoons. In part we wanted our children to explore, “What do you do when no one tells you what to do?” Theirthus far has been to read, draw, play with legos and blocks, and work on some of the other learning experiences and projects identified above. The first week has reinforced for us the idea that complex specific directive instructions would likely result in simple predictable behaviors, while the simple expectations we have commonly agreed to have resulted in complex generative learning experiences. For example, L inadvertently bumped a precarious piece in the elaborate four-foot-tall wooden block and lego structure that he had constructed, and like dominoes, it all came crashing down. Even as a moment of abject devastation ensued, L learned that it is possible to pick up the pieces and begin to think about how to reconstruct.
Why do we feel that it is important for our children to have the ability to have great input into how to spend their time? Especially in a time of uncertainty when a lot can feel out of control. We want our children to feel that they do have control over their own learning. A hero of mine Debbie Meier has noted that “you cannot prepare kids for democracy unless they experience living in a democracy" and we feel that a vitally important part of preparing our children to thrive as productive pro-social adults is that they recognize that they have voice and can take actions to shape their own experiences and world.
For example, if they wanted to experience eating lunch, then they needed to learn how to make lunch and clean up from lunch! This in itself has been a powerful learning experience. Up until last week Leigh and I packed them a lunch each day for school, but now as Leigh and I jump between calls and Zoom meetings we have enlisted our children in meal preparation and clean up with a variety of collateral benefits.
For Leigh and I, our work lives and our children’s learning experiences are becoming more intertwined and we have noticed our children Learning Through Relationships. Because our children are in close proximity with each of us, and overhear our phone calls and Zoom meetings, they frequently ask, “What are you working on?” and “Can I help?” Last week while I was on a webinar led by administrators Chiara Joroz and Fabio Pirola from Big Picture Italy, my daughter got to literally “try on the Big Picture Learning hat” when she sat in for part of it with me and eagerly listened to the lessons that they were sharing about how to support students, families, and educators during the first weeks of school closings and restricted movement in Northern Italy.
And when BPL’s Co-Executive Director Carlos Moreno and I jumped on a weekly call with our Board Chair Peter McWalters, it briefly became a “family affair” when our families joined us to check in.
My wife Leigh works in the upper-level administration of Harvard University’s School for Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) program. As you might imagine the series of Zoom meetings over the past weeks have been intense as Harvard and other universities have wrestled with the decision making process of when to close down, and how to pause various programs and initiatives. We have listened in, and discussed parts of calls as they have made the painful decision to pause a major construction project and deliberated the relative benefits of individual research projects continuing as compared to the need to close down building access in order to limit risk. Our children are learning invaluable lessons about how to manage and navigate crises and negotiate uncharted waters.
So, what do you do when no one tells you what to do? As parents and educators we know that whether it is a pandemic, global warming, racial/ethnic/religious conflict, or any of the other gnarly challenges and problems that will face our society and human existence on the planet, it is developing the next generation of young people that holds the greatest promise. Like the Confucian maxim, “If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for ten, years plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years, educate children.” Now that we are all required to practice physical distancing, many of us are working from home, it is important that we don’t try to compartmentalize the work away from our children. We shouldn’t keep our children isolated and walled off from learning about the world that they inhabit; We should invite them in and respond to their questions and offers of “How can I help you?”
And this is something not unique to our family. As I follow my friends and colleagues posting on social media I see many similar stories. A high school friend of mine, Nick Thompson, editor in chief at WIRED, had posted to facebook in January that he was taking his 11 yr-old son with him to meet with presidential candidates in Iowa. This week he posted that his son had taken a photo of him working that was published in the New York Times and is now his Facebook and Twitter cover photo.
Over the weekends we have been making sure to go for long walks outside. As a transdisciplinary “field trip” we drove to Deer Island located at the northern tip of Boston Harbor near Logan Airport and walked around the largest sewage treatment plant in New England - a experiential learning that was multisensory (especially smell!). In all seriousness, there’s a BEAUTIFUL walking path that encircles the island with some of the most fantastic views of the city of Boston Harbor as well as out into the Atlantic; a beautiful vantage point to contemplate.
Especially in times when we are faced with great challenge, we must continue to think about ways to help our children connect their learning to their interests in the world beyond our homes, in our communities and around the world. As Benjamin Bloom found in his seminal research Developing Talent in Young People, it is Learning Through Interests, Practice, and Relationships that hold the greatest promise. Particularly in these challenging times, what Leigh and I are working to engender in our children is that like Big Picture Learning, we are activists, and we will be active in our learning, and so this is when we get to work exploring our interests and connecting learning to our dynamic world.