One of the few positives of the current COVID-19 crisis is all the people seeking positives. While there are countless downsides, this crisis does provide opportunities. One opportunity is to actually improve the learning, growth, and development of our children. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. The fact that nearly all schools are closed—and many will remain closed at least for the remainder of the school year—provides a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate just how much more our children can accomplish if given greater power over their own learning.
How can our children learn, grow, and develop better when they are unable to attend school? Because now we can put our children in charge of their own learning; and if they are in charge—if they have true power—they will then take responsibility.
WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY
Most of us are familiar with the above statement Uncle Ben made to Peter Parker (AKA Spider Man). What we often overlook is that the opposite is also true; with no power comes no responsibility. Think about that. When you have no power over something, you can’t be responsible for it. That doesn’t mean there are no consequences for something over which you don’t have power, but those consequences then become your reason for acting, not your sense of responsibility.
That’s what happens in schools. Children have to be in school and are told what they are supposed to learn, when they’re supposed to learn it, and how they will demonstrate their learning. Because they have no power over any of these decisions, they cannot be responsible for them. Even in schools that strive to give students “voice and choice”, the options are almost always limited in some way.
Thus, we offer rewards in the form of grades, gold stars, assemblies, trips, etc. for students to “learn.” And we threaten consequences in the form of additional classes, extra work, “interventions”, not being able to participate in sports or clubs, not participating in “reward” activities, or being held back for not “learning.”
We then put all sorts of conduct policies and procedures in place to control behavior because, again, students are forced to be there so cannot be “responsible” for how they behave. Instead, they behave based on offered rewards and threatened consequences. And, of course, many parents add their own rewards and consequences for “learning” and behavior.
Yet look what happens when children have real power over their choices. They demonstrate incredible responsibility. Whether it’s a sport, hobby, game, friendship, musical instrument, or even an academic subject. When it’s something about which they are passionate or maybe just interested and over which they have power and control, they will take responsibility for learning about it, caring about it, practicing it, and improving it. When immersed in it, they will conduct themselves with incredible maturity.
HARNESSING THE POWER-RESPONSIBILITY DYNAMIC
What if you could use this awareness about power and responsibility to have your children—or others’ children if you are a teacher, caregiver, or some other interested party—begin taking true responsibility for their own learning, growth, and development during the time schools are closed? What follows are insights and tools for doing exactly that.
First, I will respond to one objection many of you will make—that this will not work for kids who are only X years old, whether that’s five or 10 or some other age. Yes, it will work. A five-year-old with real power committed to some activity or decision will act more responsibly than most adults who are acting out of a sense of compliance (that is, based on rewards or consequences). In fact, beginning this with a toddler or younger child is much easier than starting with an older child who has adopted poor practices due to functioning in a compliance-centric environment.
Thus, I will begin by addressing the obstacles that will often arise and that will be more severe with older children than with younger ones.
THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE
The biggest obstacle or challenge to giving children power so they will take responsibility is relinquishing that power. As the adult in the relationship, you have to change your traditional role. There’s a fantastic book on this called “The Self-Driven Child” by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson that I highly recommend; they advocate for parents to approach this role as a “consultant”, and I will use that term here.
As a consultant, you have to make yourself an equal to your child rather than being superior. You are a consultant because you have valuable knowledge and life experiences from which children can learn, but you recognize that children have free will and must make and live with their own choices. The bonus of this approach is that it prepares children to function independently and interdependently in other situations.
The more traditional you have been with your children, the harder it will be to transition to the consultant role. It will be harder for you to relinquish power and it will be harder for them to believe they are being given power. But it is completely possible to make this transition and the most effective way to do it is to begin by partnering with the children on figuring out the transition.
THE NEXT BIGGEST OBSTACLE
The next biggest challenge is being completely honest with them. I know many of you are thinking, “I’m always honest with my children” (while some of you are smiling thinking, “Oh, no.”). In our traditional parent-child roles, we may always be honest when we say things, but we typically withhold a lot or spin what we say, though usually with good intentions.
However, if you are serious about relinquishing power to your children, you will need to be more open and forthcoming. Of course, you must still take into account the age and readiness for some things, but even then, you can talk to the child about not sharing everything “right now” and why. In reality, it is rarely such topics that are a concern. Rather, we tend to withhold or spin information for self-serving reasons.
THE FINAL BIG OBSTACLE
The last big obstacle is getting children to believe and trust they are being given this power. If they have been in a typical parent-child power relationship, they may think this is a test or that it will end at some point without warning. They may even test you to see if they have really been given power. This can require real patience on your part. You may need to bite your tongue. But here’s the thing; if you want what’s best for your children you will understand how much this will benefit them; that will allow you to commit to the process; once committed to the process, it will play out in awesome ways you won’t even expect.
Trust yourself and trust your children.
THE PROCESS IS AS VALUABLE AS THE OUTCOMES
The process of relinquishing power to your children will take quite a while, and that is more than okay. You and your kids will benefit as much from this process as they will benefit from taking responsibility for their own learning, growth, and development. So, don’t try to rush the process; and try to be super-patient to let the process play out.
Think of Daniel being trained by Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid (if you haven’t seen the original from 1984, it’s worth a watch). The training begins with sanding and painting fences, waxing cars, and other mundane chores that seem totally unrelated to learning Karate, which is why Daniel is there. Then, when Mr. Miyagi starts the real Karate training, all that work pays huge dividends.
The same will occur with your children.
THE MEANS FOR GIVING CHILDREN TRUE POWER – PART 1
As noted previously, the book “The Self-Driven Child” provides a much more robust guide to doing this and I highly recommend it for every parent. What I will address is how to give children true power over their learning, growth, and development so that they will take personal responsibility for it.
One more caveat: bad habits will be hard to break. Children who apply themselves to their academics in order to comply with the demands of teachers and parents may have to learn how to apply themselves for their own intrinsic desires. This is where they can really use a consultant providing tips and guidance when they need it and are open to hearing it (not when the consultant wants to force it on them).
The first place for giving students power over their learning, growth, and development is identifying what they are going to learn and how they want to grow and develop. Ideally, this begins with some conversations about “what they want to be when they grow up.” Okay, not quite like that, but it should begin with a vision of the child in the future. While in general the younger the child the harder to imagine far into the future, this varies child to child.
Begin by having conversations about the future. Discuss your journey to your current situation in life including milestone events that helped set or change your path, mistakes made, lessons learned, people who influenced you, etc. Discuss the things you learned early that were helpful, things that were not helpful, and things you wish you had learned earlier. Invite your children to speculate on some of these things before sharing (i.e. “What do you think I really dreamed of being when I was 14?”; “What do you think was the most memorable thing that happened to me when I was eight?”).
Then work on getting your kids to talk about the journey they see before them. Ask them about their dreams and aspirations. Ask them what they’re interested in and what they’re truly passionate about. Ask them what’s important to them. Take their responses seriously and don’t be judgmental. Let them ask you questions and answer them honestly.
When the time seems right or as part of the conversations, start to discuss the knowledge and skills they want to learn and those they see as having value, even if they don’t necessarily want to learn them. Work together to develop a list of knowledge and skills they believe would be worth learning. Be all inclusive; don’t limit this to academics but include hobbies, sports, music, video games, other games, acting, programming, and really anything else. In your consultant role, help them to see the value in skills they may not include but that you know will be important.
In addition, have conversations about the requirements from their school for progressing through the grades and eventually graduating. This is one place honest conversations need to be had. There may be requirements that you can’t defend or even that you acknowledge are silly, dumb, and/or a waste of time. Don’t deny this, but also let your child know you are not going to try to change them or cover for them if they don’t achieve those requirements. These are conversations I have all the time with my son who is a tenth grader (for more details on these conversations, see The Power-Responsibility Dynamic in My House blog post).
Eventually, you want a pretty comprehensive list of learning, growth, and development outcomes with which each child agrees. These will then be used during Part 2 of this process. Keep in mind, however, that the list will never be completely finished. Rather, each child should regularly reflect on the list and change it based on new discoveries, a changing future vision, changing circumstances, their actual growth and development, or any number of other reasons.
THE MEANS FOR GIVING CHILDREN TRUE POWER – PART 2
The next step is each child determining how they will demonstrate having achieved each learning, growth, and development outcome. This is one of the most substantial ways of giving power to children—allowing those children to determine how they will demonstrate what they’ve learned.
Anyone with real knowledge of assessments and data will tell you that multiple-choice tests have extremely low reliability in determining an individual’s actual knowledge and skills. Assessments that are reliable are too complex or time-consuming to be used in a traditional school model and, to be truly reliable, they must also be adaptable to account for individual child differences.
Because the process you’re going through is completely personalized for each child and their unique circumstances, there are almost no limitations to the nature and scope of the assessments being used. Thus, each child determines the way of demonstrating when they have achieved the desired level of mastery for each outcome. You should encourage them to figure out how to demonstrate multiple outcomes simultaneously. And you should encourage them to be creative in their demonstration methods.
Further, know that the list is never fully finalized; it should remain dynamic and be changed and adapted regularly as the student adapts their outcome list and learns more about each outcome area.
One bonus about this step of the process is that the mastery demonstration methods are also means of learning and practicing the knowledge and skills being developed.
THE MEANS FOR GIVING CHILDREN TRUE POWER – PART 3
The final step is having the children identify how they will learn the knowledge and develop the skills from Step 1. Much early research on “learning styles” has been debunked, but everyone does have preferences for how they learn different things. We also know from research that the more contexts and forms information takes when we are learning it, the better we retain that information and the more effectively we can recall and apply it.
As with the methods of demonstrating mastery, the methods of learning and developing should be diverse and appropriate to the child. In your role as consultant, you can provide numerous methods of which you’re aware and then invite the child to be creative in identifying other methods. One of the most important things to be thinking about here is that the learning need not be isolated by content or subject. In other words, students will identify far fewer learning methods than learning outcomes because each learning method should contribute to multiple learning outcomes.
In addition, children should look for opportunities to collaborate on their learning with others. Of course, during the times of “social distancing” for which this is being written, everyone is supposed to avoid gathering groups together. However, technology provides numerous ways to still collaborate with others and, when the COVID 19 crisis passes, in-person collaboration should be encouraged.
ONLINE COURSEWORK AND LEARNING
One of the greatest sources of information available is, of course, the Internet. There are classes, podcasts, videos, blogs, entire websites, and so much more related to nearly every topic. Of course, one has to be discriminating to make sure the information is accurate and appropriate, but it also must be accessible—not just technically, but within the developmental level of the student. Here again, each child can have power to determine what online sources can contribute toward achieving mastery of their outcomes (with appropriate guidance from their consultants).
The biggest caveat is recognizing that simply taking a bunch of online courses on various subjects has no more value than sitting through classes in a traditional school. Which is to say, some learning may occur, but it won’t be an effective use of time compared to engaging in activities that truly ignite the interests, emotions, and imagination of students. The Internet is an incredible resource, but it needs to be used as part of a more comprehensive process for students to learn, grow, and develop toward their real potential.
WHAT ASSURANCE IS THERE THIS WILL WORK?
None whatsoever. There are far too many variables to make any guarantees, but I am confident this is a no-lose situation. Just having conversations about learning, growth, and development with your kids will change the nature of your relationship and get everyone thinking about the dynamics of power and responsibility. You will become more aware of how these dynamics play out in all aspects of our lives. You will begin to see how everyone—adults and kids alike—can take greater control of their lives by focusing on those things over which they have true power and deemphasizing areas where power is limited or absent.
Ideally, over time your children will see they can take more and more power over their own learning, growth, and development and, in so doing, begin to exert real responsibility over the same. If their schools are not implementing extensive (or any) lesson plans and programs while out of school, your kids will have a great opportunity to truly exert this control. If the school does implement lessons and programs and maybe even requirements for time spent on school activities, these opportunities may be less. The same will be true when children go back to school. But the opportunities are still there. And just going through this will have lasting benefits.
WHERE TO LEARN MORE
I saved this for last because I’m not trying to hawk a product, but I figured if you read this far you may really want to know where to learn more. Everything noted above is derived from my research and work on reinventing public and private education. I am on a mission to do just that.
My book, Know Power, Know Responsibility: How to Unleash the Potential of Every Child in America, provides 26 reasons why it is imperative that we replace the current factory model of school. I then provide an example of what a reinvented school model could look like (and only what it COULD look like; one of my primary points is that every community must design its own model to meet its unique circumstances and needs). I follow that up with responses to all the “yeah, but…” reasons people will argue it can’t be done. Finally, I provide a guide to reinventing the school model in any community. The book collectively addresses many of the things discussed in the post above.