How to get the most out of home-based learning

Online games or watching a video should come only at the end of the day. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

With schools and tuition centres shifting to home-based learning, parents have questions on what works and doesn't work with online learning.

Here is how they and their children can benefit from learning at home.

1. Create a timetable

In chaotic and uncertain times, losing the routine and structure provided by their schools can leave children unsettled, even fearful.

During term time, schools would have given a timetable for the online lessons and assigned work that children have to complete.

But when the school holidays start, there won't be a timetable. Many parents, especially those with children sitting major examinations have arranged for online tuition as well during the school holidays.

So, whether there's a timetable or not, parents should create a schedule and get their children involved in the process. If the school has assigned work, incorporate that into the schedule.

Education research shows that consistency and structure are important because children learn more easily when they know what to expect.

A schedule also allows parents and other caregivers, whether it is the maid or grandparents, to share some of the duties.

Do you have to supervise your child during a Zoom lesson?

Again, the sage advice is for parents to be available if there are technical difficulties, but not hover or participate in the lessons.

Teachers and tutors say they often hear parents whispering answers to their child. This will hinder the child developing into an independent learner.

2. Give your child a break

You must take into account attention spans of children and build in breaks. Studies show that most younger children can work on assignments for around 25 minutes to half an hour before they need a break.

Use a timer to arrange breaks and to transition to new tasks.

In between, have children learn some new dance moves, get a drink of water, take a short walk, climb stairs or play a game.

Allow for a range of activities and some options - for example, to read their favourite book or to piece together a puzzle.

It will be tempting to give in to children's pleas to be allowed to play an online game or watch a video - but this should come at the end of the day.

These make good rewards, but can be distracting midday.

3. Give clear instructions

For young children, it is best to give clear instructions as they move from one activity to another.

The way to do it is to face your children and have eye contact before giving verbal instructions.

After you are done, ask them to restate the main points you have made.

4. Get your child to write, speak and present their assignments

Many parents use online quizzes and worksheets to check if their children are keeping up with what they are learning.

But research suggests that writing by hand creates stronger memories and understanding, so try to include written assignments along with the online options.

Parents can also ask their children to speak on or present a topic to their friends online.

5. Use online resources

Don't confine learning to the work assigned by teachers. There are numerous online platforms that offer lessons (both free and paid for), activities, quizzes and so on.

Among the platforms that come highly recommended is the one by Khan Academy, which offers free lessons in maths, science and humanities from kindergarten level to the early years of college. Students can use the exercises, quizzes and instructional videos to learn and master skills.

Another one that is highly recommended is Outschool, referred to as the "Netflix for learning".

It offers live classes, at a small cost, to young people between the ages of three and 18.

Some of the lessons are taught by expert teachers who are passionate about the subjects they are teaching.

There are lessons ranging from chemistry to architecture, and they combine learning with play - architecture is taught with Minecraft.

6. Developing interests through project work

Many studies show that project-based learning is a powerful way of learning.

Help your child to identify a project they can explore deeply. Ensure it is not a project that will require too much guidance from you.

Even though families have been advised to put off their mid-year holiday plans, you could ask your children to do some research and create a travel plan for the December holidays.

A parent I interviewed last year asked her Secondary 4 daughter, who is interested in cooking, to help her grandmother create a cookbook with favourite family recipes. Her 14-year-old son, who is an avid photographer, has been roped in to take pictures of the dishes.

Get your children to draw up a grocery list for online shopping. Depending on the child's age, elements of mathematics could be incorporated, by getting them to estimate prices. Children can also work out which option is better value for money.

Older children and teens can be encouraged to explore interests that they do not have time for during the school year.

Learning at home can offer them a chance to dig deeply into a subject of their own choosing, from baking cupcakes and urban vegetable farming to how to design a simple video game.

One parent recounted how last year, her daughter in Junior College Year 1 got involved in caring for her grandfather who was recovering from a heart attack.

She started researching healthy foods for heart disease patients and drew up a diet plan for her grandfather. It grew her interest in science and medicine and has spurred her to do well in her studies to qualify for a university place in medicine.

7. Don't neglect social development

Remember, social development is an important part of your child's overall development, so allow for opportunities for your child to interact online.

If they are not already doing it, nudge your children toward interactions that go beyond social media.

Playing games online, watching a movie while texting with a group, or even just having lunch with classmates over Zoom are all ways that children can feel less isolated and more connected to their peers.

8. Manage your child's screen time

There are many tools available to manage your child's time online.

Outside of online lessons, check how much time your child spends on the computer, smartphones or other screens, and what he does on these platforms.

A teen who FaceTimes with her grandparents or does homework online for an hour is having a very different experience from someone who sits alone and watches an action movie or plays video games for hours.

Studies have shown that the type of screen time makes a difference in mental or physical health or in school achievements. Research studies have sorted screen time into different types - passive (such as watching a movie), interactive (such as playing a video game), social (such as texting or video calling) and educational (such as an online class.

As one would expect, educational screen time is linked to better school achievements. More passive screen time is linked to worse outcomes in health and school achievement, compared with the other categories.

But some researchers have noted that the impact was "quite small". Problems showed up mainly in children spending more than eight hours a day on screens.

Studies also show that it is especially important to avoid screens at night. Exciting video games or movies or social media exchanges make it difficult to wind down.

Also, the blue light that screens emit can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. The general advice is to put away screens an hour before bedtime.

9. Mental health and well-being

It is important to attend to your child's mental health and well-being. Without being able to see their teachers or friends in person, they are likely to feel frustrated, anxious and even angry.

Give your children the opportunity to talk about how they feel.

Ask how they are doing, whether they are finding it easy or hard to learn remotely, and if there is anything they would like your help with.

It would also help to identify one or two things they could do to address what they are concerned about.

Every time your child wishes they could do something, you write it on a slip of paper and put it in a jar. These could be small but important things - seeing the grandparents - or bigger ones, like going to a theme park.

After the movement curbs are over, you can then pull a slip out of the jar every weekend and do the thing that your child wished for during the restricted period.

10. Play and have fun

When school work is done, take time out to do fun things with your children. Play board games, watch scary movies, dance your socks off with your children and go for walks in the neighbourhood or nearby parks.

Remind your children how lucky they are and make them aware of the difficulties faced by classmates who come from disadvantaged homes.

If they come up with ways to help their needy classmates, help them organise the help - whether it is a grocery run or baking a cake for the family.

Years from now, when your child recalls the lockdown and restrictions caused by Covid-19, he is likely to recall his school shifting to online learning, and of having to wear masks and washing his hands frequently.

Hopefully, he will also have warm memories of mum and dad converting his bedsheets into a tent to camp out in his bedroom, dad telling him the scariest ghost story ever, and mum teaching him to make his favourite chocolate cookies.

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