Learning at home: challenges and opportunities

There's no denying that learning at home is challenging. Peer pressure, performance pressure, and the typical feeling of embarrassment for asking a "silly" question are all learning barriers that can be overcome at home. A prescribed curriculum must be followed within the confines of a strict schedule in a formal learning environment.

Some people learn better in a group setting, while others prefer solitude, and some even have dyslexia. Learning challenges in formal learning environments are a daily reality for all children. Therefore, it is critical to consider approaches to improve learning at home.

Maker education revolution

Conventional education is struggling to provide the learning environment necessary to help raise the future innovators, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs that advanced societies need. Maker Education offers a model for education in the 21st century.

“Play is the highest form of research.”
— Albert Einstein

Today, learning is largely formalised with much of it done in school classrooms and university lecture halls. For better or for worse, this is part of the legacy of the 18th and 19th century educational systems. But at a far larger extend, informal learning takes place in homes, makerspaces, community halls, libraries, even on trains and buses.

Learning at home can take many forms. People can learn at home as part of a school project. Or they can choose to completely replace institutional school with homeschool. Or they can enrol in a distance education course. Whatever the form is, learning at home is challenging, there is no doubt about that. But in return, there are significant opportunities. In this chapter, let’s explore some of the issues that impact learning in a formal environment and the opportunities around creating an environment for learning at home.

Unlike formal learning environments, like in a school, college or university, learning at home has the immediate advantage of being informal. In an informal learning environment, many of the mental blocks and inhibitions that obstruct learning are eliminated or at least reduced.

For example, a learner may be intimidated by the teachers or other learners. Peer pressure, pressure to perform and to keep up with the rest of the class, the typical feeling of embarrassment for asking a ‘silly’ question are some of the learning inhibitors that can be eliminated at home.

There are many more, of course. In a formal learning environment, there is a prescribed curriculum that must be followed, within the boundaries of a strict schedule. Then, there are the standardised tests. There is also the low ratio of teachers to students which makes it hard for teachers to respond to the learning needs of the individual student. Every student has to achieve certain outcomes within a specific time frame. There is little room for deviation from the curriculum and the schedule, and there is little room for adaptation to the learner’s unique learning needs.

Children and adults alike respond better or worse to external conditions that can severely affect the way they learn. While some people thrive in noisy, buzzing environments, others respond by closing themselves in an imaginary bubble and becoming unresponsive, or at the other extreme become agitated and aggressive. While some people learn best by using their eyes and ears to watch and listen to a lecture, others prefer books and multimedia. Some people learn better in a group environment, while others prefer solitude.

In a formal learning environment, the learner has very little control over any of these parameters. The lucky few who are able to operate in whatever characteristics their environment has been set to by the institution or the instructor will benefit from it and will produce real outcomes. The rest will fall behind. They will often be branded as ‘bad students’, and be made to repeat the same process again. Without making any change in the learning parameters, the institution hopes that the second or the third time around, things will somehow improve for those students that didn’t make it the first time.

Consider a child with dyslexia, for example. Dyslexia is classified as a learning disorder in which the dyslexic person is having difficulty in learning how to read or interpret letters, words and symbols. Although dyslexia affects the ability of a person to read, it does not affect their intelligence. With the right interventions, a dyslexic person will become a confident reader a few years after their peers, but even then he will likely need more time to complete any reading or writing.

Research conducted by the Dyslexia Center of Utah suggests that 70-80% of people with reading difficulties are dyslexics. These same people are just as intelligent as everyone else.

In a conventional learning environment, dyslexic students are particularly disadvantaged because their special learning needs are not being met. In the US, around 60% of students that are not able to read dropout of school, with all the negative consequences that this brings to them, their families and society in general.

Let’s also have a look at another learning disorder: ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). According to data from the American Psychiatric Association, 5% of all children in the US have ADHD. More recent studies indicate that this number is actually higher. For example, in 2011, 11% of children in the US were diagnosed with ADHD, a number that has increased from 7.8% in 2003.

A typical response to a diagnosis of ADHD in a child is to provide behavioural intervention first, if possible, and then medication. Unfortunately, the behavioural intervention approach is very labour intensive and requires a close collaboration between the psychologist, parents and teachers. This does not always happen in ‘real life’ due to the limited resources that both parents and teachers have at their disposal. This leaves us with over 6% of children aged between 4 and 17 years being medicated in the US. Many children with dyslexia also have ADHD, further impairing their performance in a formal learning environment.

Apart from the typical problems of the conventional learning environment that I described in the first half of this chapter, children with ADHD and dyslexia are severely disadvantaged in almost every learning setting. These, and many other similar conditions (like dyscalculia, auditory processing disorder, visual processing disorder, dysphasia/aphasia, etc.) that require learning to be more focused on the student rather than the group, are additional reasons of why looking at ways for boosting learning at home is important.

For all children, learning difficulties at formal learning settings are an everyday reality. Simply not feeling confident enough to ask a question, or low self-esteem that comes from seeing other children doing better are all challenges of growing up. Many children are able to learn how to deal with such situations on their own, and grow up to be fine individuals. Others need more help to get past these troubled years. However, for all of them, including children with the aforementioned learning difficulties, a non-conducive, conventional learning environment should not impact on their learning. The home is a place where a learning environment can be created, specifically designed to cater for the needs of the individual learner. These learning difficulties do not disappear at home, but they are addressed so that the learner can gain confidence and skills in learning.

Another important aspect of learning that is not addressed in a formal learning environment is that of freedom. The freedom to learn. The cornerstone attribute of a constructionist Maker-style Education is that the learner is given freedom to choose what it is that they would like to learn. In a formal environment, this freedom is constrained to the extent that learners feel trapped. The textbooks, the weekly lesson or lecture schedules, the deadlines and exam dates create a feeling of entrapment for the learner. This feeling, on its own, is enough to over time destroy those attributes that are most important in a learner: the built-in need to follow their curiosities and pursue their passions.

Home, or other free-learning environments like open makerspaces and libraries, are places where this freedom is encouraged. These are the places where the learner can be left free to rekindle their curiosities, and where the environment actually allows them (or better, encourages them) to pursue their passions.

Interesting readings

Maker Education Revolution

Learning in a high-tech society.

Available in PDF, Mobi, ePub and paperback formats.

Using Maker Education as a model for education in the 21st century, Dr Peter Dalmaris explains how teachers, parents, and learners can apply the educational methods of inventors and innovators for the benefit of their students and children.

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