Smoothing the Clay of Distance Learning

Smoothing the Clay of Distance Learning

By Dr. Ian Kelleher

What does good distance learning look like? The past month has been a fascinating evolutionary journey. I am, perhaps grandiosely, reminded of the point in his career when Picasso began exploring sculpture. New mediums unleashed new possibilities. But guess which of these was his first work*?


 *(Yes, I know he was only 10 when he made the sculpture on the left. He is brilliant. But please suspend your knowledge for a moment and work with the analogy!)

Students, parents, teachers — we are all learning how to make this new medium work in our hands, with our minds, feelings, and resources. What have we learned so far? What early insights can help our kids achieve their highest potential?

Emotional and physical well-being need to be taken care of for learning to happen

We thought this would be the case before distance learning happened, and we are even more sure now.

  • Make sure your child has time in their schedule to catch up and virtually hang out with friends.
  • There is power in getting outside to play or go for a walk.
  • Many people are posting online workouts — go exploring. Give yourself permission to try just five minutes of a workout, and if it isn’t a good fit, move on to the next one.
  • Mindfulness and meditation can help, even for people who are initially skeptical before they are “forced” to try it out. Many of us like the Headspace app (free options!).
  • And here is an article by renowned child psychologist Dr. Madeline Levine on How to Talk to Your Child About the Coronavirus

Having a solid routine really helps 

For many interlinked reasons, including stress, executive functioning and cognitive load, help your child develop a routine that works for them.

  • Remember that we all have different stress coping mechanisms, and that what works for one person might not work for another. Some students will flourish with lots of structure, others will need more downtime or flexible time mixed into their routine.
  • Suddenly having lots of free time is actually a struggle for many students — procrastination is easier.
  • Don’t assume that because your child has more time, getting all their work done is easier. It is just differently difficult. They probably still need help balancing their time.
  • Help your child create a timeline for the day. Include time for eating, exercise, socializing and downtime as well as work.

The bedroom might be the best study location – it depends

Ideally, where your child studies should be free from distractions (TV, other electronic devices, clutter, people). But it also needs to be a place where they feel comfortable working in this unusual, stressful time — the place should decrease anxiety, not add to it. For some children, their room might be the best place; for others, it might be the dinner table. Find a place for your child that balances distraction and comfort.

Sleep and monotasking are still huge issues

Monotasking helps us work more effectively and efficiently than trying to do multiple tasks at once. Phones can be the enemy of quality learning because of the multitasking temptations they provide. Do what many teachers at St. Andrew’s do and designate a space or container in your house for your child’s phone to go during lessons.

Sleep is crucial for learning. It helps memory, mood, attention and a host of other factors. For many students, bedtime and getting to sleep now seem to be harder than ever. We have no magic solution for this, sorry, but we feel it is important to name it.

Be more proactive in being a self-advocate

One-on-one meetings between your child and their teacher help. These were easier to do when school met in school (eg. staying after class, bumping into someone in the hallway, popping by their office during some free time). Now these meetings need to be scheduled. This can be done in several ways — all are fine, and your child just needs to find what is comfortable for them. But they also need to find something that works for them.

  • Speak out loud during an online lesson
  • Type into the chat feature during an online lesson
  • Stay behind online at the end of an online lesson 
  • Give yourself a break to think at the end of an online lesson, then get in touch by email (or hop back on the lesson if your teacher is still there)
  • Email your teacher to suggest a time to arrange an online meeting, and give them some times when you are free.

Dr. Ian Kelleher is a science teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, and Head of Research for its Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning. His work focuses on helping teachers translate the science of learning into everyday practices in their own classrooms, and measuring the impact. Ian is the co-author of “Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education,” and co-designer of Neuroteach Global. Ian is the the inaugural Joseph and Kathleen Dreyfuss Faculty Chair for Research, an endowed position at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School for the lead CTTL researcher.