My daughter now has 2 weeks of virtual learning under her belt. The virtual learning this semester is vastly more rigorous from what we experienced in the spring when we were thrust so suddenly and unexpectedly into virtual learning. It’s been an interesting 2 weeks with quite a steep learning curve for my daughter and me. We’ve had challenges, but we’ve also had some successes. Here are a few observations I made both as an educational psychologist and as a mom.
1) Cognitive load – I saw my daughter’s teacher being mindful of a concept called cognitive load. Cognitive load is the amount of information a person can hold in working memory at one time. Working memory is the short-term memory (or brain power) you’re using to complete your current task or thought. Because working memory can only hold a small amount of information (about 5-9 pieces of information) at once, instruction should be designed to give students only information relevant to the lesson. Extraneous, non-essential information should not be included because it will bog down working memory, make learning more difficult and increase students’ frustrations. Cognitive load theory was initially proposed by John Sweller in the late 1980s.
While cognitive load is applicable to all learning situations, it is particularly important in virtual learning, where the virtual technology itself adds a significant amount of cognitive load in addition to the cognitive load from the lesson content. Most K-12 students have had little to no experience with virtual learning. Before our children can even begin to learn new content, they must first master working their tablets, laptops, Zoom, and whatever learning management system their school is using. Learning new technology is challenging for most of us, but for the younger students with limited reading skills, new technology is especially difficult. Because they can’t read the words, they have to be taught how to mute or unmute themselves, where the submit assignment button is (or even what submit assignments means), or what an app icon looks like. Plus, the younger students are still developing fine motor skills so switching between apps or even clicking on the right button can be challenging.
How does mindfulness of cognitive load translate to the virtual classroom? It means that everything feels like it’s going at a snail’s pace – an extremely slow snail. And that’s good. The teacher is allowing the children to learn the technology a little at a time so their working memory is not overwhelmed. The teacher will introduce new material very gradually once the technology skills become more practiced and automatic. In my daughter’s class, I saw the teacher doing a lot of social-emotional development work in stories, songs, and ice-breaker type conversations. These activities don’t require as much cognitive load as a math lesson does so the students have more working memory to devote towards learning the technology. And once the technology skills are developed, the students will have more working memory available to learn their new math lessons.
2) Boundaries – I saw pretty quickly that as a parent I needed to establish clear boundaries with my daughter. She kept leaving her tablet mid-Zoom class to tell me something funny that someone said, to tell me she was starving (even though she had eaten a good breakfast 30 minutes before), or to join her younger brother and me in playtime. I had to establish some rules about when it was okay to walk away from Zoom and when it was not. I also had to do my part to minimize distractions. Seeing me do even quiet activities like puzzles or drawing with her younger brother was a huge distraction so we had to move these activities out of her line of sight. I do stay within listening distance and peek in once in a while to see how she’s doing.
3) Parental involvement – I learned that, like it or not, I have a huge role in my daughter’s virtual learning. Because my daughter is a very early reader, she simply cannot navigate the learning management system independently. Even when it’s running smoothly with no glitches or broken links, it’s too complex for her. In my daughter’s school, they have synchronous learning via Zoom with the teacher and class and asynchronous learning on the school’s learning management system. While I can leave her somewhat unsupervised during the synchronous learning (with a few reminders to attend to the teacher), the asynchronous portion requires both of us sitting side-by-side. Her education is important to me so that means I have to prioritize and commit a decent chunk of my time to her learning daily. I act motivated and happy to do it because during this asynchronous time I am essentially her teacher. I would be upset if her teacher appeared unmotivated, annoyed, reluctant, or bored when teaching so, likewise, I need to model the same attitude and behavior I expect from her classroom teacher.
4) Flexibility – I learned that I have to be a lot more flexible than I expected. To keep things fresh and to give her some autonomy, we change up where she does school: the counter, the table, the floor, outside, etc. Her body gets tired of being in one position too long so changing where she’s sitting helps. I’ve also had to be flexible about what is “school time”. My daughter had a very difficult day yesterday. She was mentally done but her work wasn’t so I texted the teacher a note saying that we would finish the work at some point over the weekend. It was just not worth forcing her through her work just for the sake of saying it was done. I wanted her to learn, and I wanted her to enjoy it. I knew for those two outcomes to happen, we had to wait until she was mentally in a place where she was open to learning. Saturday morning we finished the work. She was motivated and engaged, and I didn’t have to do gymnastics to get her to that point.
Another way I’ve had to be flexible is how I approach learning with my daughter. Towards the end of this week, my daughter and I were having conflicts when it came to her math lessons. She loves math so I was confused about what the problem was. We were both frustrated, and I was heartbroken. Having my children love to learn is my number one goal for their education, and she was not loving it. In fact, she was hating it, and I was not okay with that. Overnight I decided to stop feeling defensive and hurt, and instead listen to what she was telling me with her actions. I realized that my approach to math, the typical textbook approach to math, was not meeting her needs. My daughter is a storyteller extraordinaire. She is energized by a strong narrative. When we were talking about how many birds were in the tree and how many birds were in the sky and how many total birds there were, I wanted her use simple circles to represent the birds. She wanted to construct the tree and birds and make up a story about how the baby birds were in the tree because they were too little to fly and the adult birds were in the sky looking for food for the babies. Did her way take longer? Yes and no. It initially took longer to set up, but it ultimately took less time because we weren’t fighting and we stay focused on learning. Success! We compromised on using manipulatives for the birds so she wasn’t spending 15 minutes drawing 9 detailed little birds. We completed all the problems in less time than 1 argument would have taken, and the best part was that we both really enjoyed it and had a positive experience together. By me being flexible and giving her more autonomy over how she learns, my daughter was more motivated and engaged in learning. In the future, I will definitely be allotting time for tree construction and bird reenactments. It was well worth the extra 10 minutes we spent.
I hope all of you out there living in the land of virtual learning are surviving. It feels hard because it is hard. I’ve taken oodles of online courses myself as a graduate student, but nothing prepared me for virtual learning with a first grader. It pushes my parenting abilities every day. Send me your observations or strategies you’ve learned. We can learn from each other.
Thanks for reading!