The coronavirus has turned tens of millions of parents into homeschoolers. Just finding a quiet spot for the kids and then settling them down can be an exhausting chore. But another big frustration is the sense that a diet of worksheets, iffy video connections, and rote tasks can leave kids bored and tuned out. That’s why so many parents are asking for tips on how to motivate and engage their kids.

I’m no expert on that question, but I know a guy: Jal Mehta, prize-winning author of In Search of Deeper Learning and a professor at Harvard University. Jal studies what great learning looks like and what the best teachers do. I was curious about what he’s telling parents. While Jal tells me that he’s struggling exactly as much as any other father of three, he does have some practical wisdom to share.

For starters, he says, curiosity is crucial. Good teachers work to find the spots where content intersects with student curiosity. For science teachers that can mean tackling dinosaurs or volcanos; for history teachers, it can be learning about what it took to put the first man on the moon. Jal says, “Great teachers are really interested in the world and interested in the minds of their students, and they find ways to connect the two. So pick something in that Venn diagram space of what you are interested in and what your kids are interested in and explore it together.”

Jal notes that there’s enormous power in apprenticeship. He observes, “If parents have a skill or passion—like graphic design, chess, cooking, basketball or computer programming—this would be a good time to invite their children into learning how to do it.” He adds, “You also want to look for models of real people doing whatever the thing is. In my house, we’ve watched Mo Willems draw pigeons and plot out stories, which gives a good sense of the process that real writers use. You could do the same with almost any domain—moving back and forth between watching experts do it and trying it yourself.”

If you’re trying to do all this while making lunch and with a baby screaming in the background, Jal advises parents not to overthink it: “Start with your kids’ questions. Pick a topic about which they have some interest (and you have some interest!) and then have them make a list of questions that they have.” For Jal’s kids, evolution hit that sweet spot. He notes, “Their questions were things like: ‘What came before monkeys?’ ‘What was the first animal in the chain?’ ‘Why did dinosaurs get wiped out when smaller animals survived?’” Once your kids have some questions, Jal suggests helping them research answers and then encourage them to share what they’ve learned with a friend.

And it’s okay if learning looks different than it does in school. Sounding a reassuring note for harried parents, Jal insists, “Almost anything can be an opportunity for learning. Read an article or a blog and talk about it. Watch a movie and discuss it. Rock out to D-Nice and explain what turntables are.” He continues, “School makes us think that some subjects and some times are for learning, and others are not. But much of our most powerful and deepest learning—from infancy forward—comes in informal time, about anything and everything. Rather than trying to re-create school—and its attendant boredom and disengagement—at home, live life, and use the questions it raises to create chances to learn.”

In all of this, there will be ups and downs—and that’s okay. In his house, Jal says, “The lowlight was when the 6-year-old dumped out an entire box of Cheerios in protest one hour into our first day. The highlight was when I asked him to name the school at the end of the week, and he named it ‘Happy School.’” Jal reminds us, “This is a tough time for everyone. Do what works for you. If you need to work and have the kids watch ‘Frozen 2’ for the thousandth time, so be it. If it stresses you out to have a schedule, don’t have one. Ultimately, you want the kids to look back at this period and see it as a chance to spend some happy time with you and to do some learning that they could not have done in school.”

That’s a bit of wisdom that even a weary parent might find practical.

This article was written by Frederick Hess from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.


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