What Are Kids Learning in Virtual School?

When the COVID apocalypse descended upon us in March 2020, we all went into hiding in our homes, thinking it would all be over in a few months.

When it wasn’t over after a few months, society began to scramble to get children back in school. They couldn’t homeschool forever. The children were going to fall behind if they missed too much more learning. And so the conventional classroom model was imported into virtual space, so that something resembling the old normal could continue.

But what exactly is “learning”? What exactly were the kids missing from school that they needed to get back to so fast?

The answer is whatever it says on the curriculum: they need to learn fractions, vocabulary, history, Spanish, chemistry, and so on. They need to learn these things.

Now, I don’t think kids should be spending all their time on the couch watching cartoons. Certainly they need to be learning, but shouldn’t we be more concerned about learning general skills and less concerned about learning a combination of specific career skills and facts that can be looked up at any time? Why do we think that the only way a child can learn something is by being told it by a teacher or book?

I want to paint a picture of learning using The Open School’s virtual program. We are doing school online, but without any classes, teachers, textbooks, or homework. Instead, we have “hosted events,” 95% of which are designed and hosted by students. These events include arts & crafts sessions, cooking sessions, Minecraft multiplayer, music jam sessions, Dungeons & Dragons games, Netflix watch parties, doll play dates, and even Zooms where friends just hang out and talk.

There are also some classes and workshops focused on learning some skill, but these are a minority of events. Most events are video calls where people do their own things while together, or games in which players cooperate or compete with each other. All events are social experiences.

Finally we get to the titular question: what are kids learning in this virtual program? If you are conventionally trained, you might look at a doll play date and say: nothing. I looked through the curriculum and playing with dolls is not in there. But let’s look a little deeper.

First, to a large extent they are learning the same things they do when they’re playing together in person. I wrote about that already, so I won’t rehash it here. The virtual program is different in that, rather than spontaneously jumping into activities with the people that happen to be around, students must plan ahead, schedule, and show up on time. This is much harder! But that also means intense learning is happening.

The Open School’s virtual program is hard. I don’t mean “hard” in the sense of “grueling” or “painful.” It’s more like “I really want this thing, but I keep messing up when I try to do it.” This kind of “hard” leads to growth. Students start out not knowing what to do, and not having any friends. They don’t know how to use any of the technology. Some of them don’t know how to read and can’t follow the copious text threads. To them, next Wednesday is an eternity away, but they have to figure out exactly what they’re going to do that day at 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00. Then they have to rely on an alarm to alert them when it’s time for their event, but the alarm is on their tablet in their bedroom on the 2nd floor and they’re down in the living room and can’t hear it.

After a year or so in the program, they’ll have overcome most or all of these challenges. And they’ll continue to get better at them over time.

Hopefully, this quarantine will be over soon. But the skills students are learning now, like technology and time management, will not become obsolete. Online communication platforms were already embedding themselves in our work and home lives before COVID, and in the future they will be even more embedded. We are increasingly living in a world where freelance work is replacing stable jobs, and à la carte meetings with distant associates are replacing office boardrooms; where online video games are replacing tabletop Monopoly, and hacking your computer to get it to play the game you want is becoming a basic life skill.

A large part of the “curriculum” of The Open School’s virtual program is technology. Students are becoming power users in a variety of software applications. Many of these applications are highly text-based, meaning reading and writing are on the “curriculum” as well. Students are also developing mastery of time management, planning, and organization, and they are learning how to honor their commitments.

The essence of The Open School’s program is that it’s intensely social. Kids can do stuff on their own outside of school hours, but while at school they’ll be honing their ability to navigate social situations. One of the first lessons is that just because you offer to host an activity doesn’t mean anyone will sign up for it. Just because something sounds fun to you doesn’t mean it will sound fun to others. Students must learn to look for the intersection between their own interests and others’; this is empathy-building. They will also need to forge friendships and alliances if they want their unpopular (but genius) idea to see the light of day.

Ultimately, the most important lesson kids learn at The Open School is how to figure out what is worth doing and what isn’t. They must figure out what matters to them, what interests them, and what constitutes a meaningful existence. It is much easier to have someone tell you exactly what to do, like an instruction manual for a Lego kit. But a pre-packaged curriculum is not only unlikely to resonate with a child emotionally, it will also leave them ill-equipped to direct their own lives as adults. Students in The Open School’s virtual program are learning how to cultivate ideas and execute them. They are growing into independent, confident, competent leaders.



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