EEME makes monthly hands-on project kits and online lessons to teach kids electronics.
I am the geeky dad who makes all the EEME circuit projects and online lessons.
But this post is not about EEME. Instead, it will be about how to teach our kids to process and understand assignment instructions - more on that later. First, allow me share some background.
COVID-19 has our family schooling-at-home
Along with EEME, I also made, with the help from my wife, 2 kids. My daughter is 3 years old and my son's 7 years old. While I understand the importance of playing an active daily role in their education, both my kids attend a brick and mortar school. My daughter attends a non-profit preschool. My son goes to 2nd grade in our locally zoned public school.
Although homeschooling has always appealed to me, it was an impractical consideration for my family since both my wife and I had to work full-time. Then COVID-19 emerged. Now, with the lockdowns in place and our schools closed due to COVID-19, schooling at home has become mandatory in our household.
(UPDATE: April 21, 2020: For those who have read the original article, you may recall my use of "homeschooling" to describe our situation. A number of homeschooling families have pointed out the inaccuracies of using that terminology. Since my purpose of writing is not to accurately define our schooling situation, I'll defer to their expertise, and instead use the term "schooling-at-home". Regardless, the lessons I learned during our family's "schooling-at-home" should apply to any educational environment - homeschooling, brick-and-mortar schooling, blended learning, etc..)
Like us, if you were not actively involved in your kids' day-to-day education, you probably are now. My wife works in corporate (thanksfully, she can do it working from home) so her time is still dictated by a fixed schedule with deadlines and meetings. Since I run my own business (EEME!) I naturally have a bit more flexibility to take on the primary role of the schooling-at-home parent educator.
Our kids' schools have been fantastic with adapting to distance learning. The teachers play a role similar to a homeschooler's chosen Educational Specialist/Consultant. We receive curriculum material from them digitally or we go to the school once every couple of weeks to grab physical materials. Each day, we are presented a learning program to help pace the day. But the responsibility of clarifying instructions, enforcing time schedules for working on different subjects, checking the "integrity" of assignments, managing my kids' emotions during learning, have all fallen on to our shoulders as parents.
Why are we not teaching our kids how to learn?
It has been a couple of weeks since the start of our schooling-at-home adventures. In a couple of future posts, starting with this one, I will share with you some of the lessons I learned from my experience so far.
For us, our son's grade-school daily lessons are more structured than our daughter's preschool ones. I find that structured learning requires a bit more parental coaching. So I'll primarily focus on my experience learning with my 2nd grade, 7 year old son.
I won't be writing about electronics, robotics, or even how to teach math or english. Instead I want to focus on how I'm trying to teach my kids how to learn, inspired by my own personal studies on learning how to learn, a incredibly important skill that I don't believe is emphasized enough in K12 curriculums, if at all.
I will be writing tactical suggestions. They will be suggestions you can actualy implement and do with your kids right away. While I will explain the rationale behind the suggestions, I will avoid simply writing about high level strategy which can still leave you scratching your head on how to implement the strategy in your day-to-day schooling-at-home, blended learning, homeschooling, or what not. So fear not. I will explain how to do it, and what to do.
So with further delay - in this post, I will suggest a method to help your kids process, understand, and re-synthesize assignment instructions.
He read it, says he understands it, but does he?
Each day, our family receives a series of assignments from our 2nd grade teacher. Each assignment has instructions. My son reads the instructions, one word at a time in a focused manner. When he finishes, I ask him if he understands and he says yes. So, I leave him to it.
When I return 15 minutes later to check up, he's still staring at a blank sheet of paper. When I ask him why he hasn't done anything, he often answers, "I'm thinking". Another 5 minutes pass, the paper's still blank. And this time he confesses that he doesn't really understand the assignment.
My son wasn't lying the first time I asked him. I believe him. Because in my own day to day life, I know I have thought I knew what an article or book says, what certain instructions are, only to not realize I don't really know when called upon to re-express the gist, or execute the instruction. I think we have all been in this situation before.
So my son and I re-read the instructions together, but this time, sentence by sentence, I explain each step in a different way. This is probably what the teacher does when they notice a student stalled on an assignment in class. It works. He's now making material progress on this assignment.
You might think "victory"! But how sustainable is this process? If I, or a teacher, am to read every sentence of an instruction with him, for nearly every assignment, I'd lose my mind! Additionally, what happens when there isn't anyone around. By working so closely with him on understanding the assignment instructions, I just gave my son a fish. Can I teach him to fish instead?
Checklists are better than sliced bread
I am a huge proponent of creating, refining, and following process - ie playbooks. I have a playbook for nearly everything - for my morning routine, how to start a work assignment, what I need to do before I go biking, etc.. Each playbook in its simplest form, is effectively an ordered checklist. You shouldn't do step 2 until you did step 1. With a checklist in hand, I exert less mental energy on executing my day-to-day routines. I follow my checklist/playbook and just do it. On a regular basis, I sit down and refine my playbooks by looking back in my notes or journal to understand what worked, what didn't. Rinse and repeat.
For my son's assignments, instead of reading the instructions and trying to jump right in, I started to ask him to convert the instructions into a checklist which he can follow. This process has a couple of benefits:
It requires him to think critically about the instructions themselves. Through the act of resynthesizing the instructions and converting it into checklist items as sound bites, he internalizes and develops a deeper understanding for each step.
Instructions are rarely written in order - ie the first thing you should do is rarely the first thing written.
Here's an example for an assignment he received:
"Title: What is your favorite animal and why? Description: write a couple of sentences for the question. Click on the link below to submit what you wrote. Please check the punctuation and capitalization, and make sure it makes sense before you submit."
The checklist he created from this was:
- Write on paper a couple of sentences of what your favorite animal is *
- Write on paper a couple of sentences of why that is your favorite animal *
- Check to see if what you wrote makes sense
- Check the punctuation and capitalization of what you wrote
- Click on the link
- Type in your submission
- Double check what you typed is what you wrote on paper
- Click submit button
* Because my son is still learning to type, I have him write on paper first.
As you can see, the instructions are not expressed exactly in the order of action! Additionally, you can also see how the checklist becomes much easier to ingest and execute.
For the next couple of days, I coached him on how to create this checklist. I'd ask him to pull apart the instructions sentence by sentence. Order them into a checklist. Re-read the checklist to make sure the ordering makes sense. IE - you can't type what you wrote before you write it on paper. As a 2nd grader, he's pretty capable of rationalizing the sanity of a checklist. Your mileage may vary for younger kids.
Now, for each assignment, I'd ask him to convert instructions into a checklist where he can stick his fingers out one by one and tell me the steps in a sound bite manner - "one - do blah", "two - do bleh", etc.. In doing this, he does spend a little more time prepping for an assignment. But I found he is quicker to discover when he doesn't understand something and come ask. And he finishes the assignments quicker with less mistakes as well. While we are far from perfect, I have become more hands-off and he feels more autonomously successful.
Most school curriculums focus on math, science, writing - the "what to learns". But how you learn, how you approach learning is as important, if not more important, than what you learn. During my brief crash dive into schooling-at-home, I had to really think about how to help my kids learn more effectively and efficiently. In that process, I have also become a better learner! To teach is to learn twice!
I will post more tactical suggestions in upcoming posts. Please follow along by signing up to EEME's free online lessons to learn electronics (which also puts you on our mailing list).
If you are looking for hands-on electronics kits for your 7-12 year old kid, we are still shipping during this COVID-19 fiasco. Each kit is paired with its own online curriculum to teach your family how to build the circuit as well as how the circuit works. You can learn with EEME kits in two ways:
Subscribe monthly - each month we send you a new project.
Make a one-time purchase of our 9 project set - which is effectively the first 9 month's of projects.
Thanks so much, stay safe, and happy building!!
Jack "EEME Dad"