Online learning: teaching younger students
One of the greatest challenges the world faces is how to deliver a high-quality education to our children in G1 and below. It is a prerequisite that the younger learner has a parent or caregiver supporting their learning. Invariably, this person is not a qualified teacher so it is incumbent upon the school to ensure the appropriate procedures for learning are in place.
The first step is to reduce screen time and especially passive screen time, where learning is one-way. The brain does not stop developing until the mid-twenties but has the most plasticity in the first five years of life. This is when the brain has the greatest potential to absorb stimuli and form strong connections that last for life. A recent study by Hutton et al. (2020) used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 3 - 5 years who spent more passive screen time than the WHO’s recommendation of 1 hour per day. They reported that those children with greater exposure than the recommended amount had lower levels of white matter, the brain tissue that is key to the development of language, literacy, and cognitive skills.
It is well-established that young children learn more effectively when there is social interaction. Whether this is with family members or children of the same age, the benefits are well documented. Social interaction is essential in the development of young children and has a positive influence on language skills, creativity, empathy, communication, and confidence.
With the need for social distancing, the parent must ensure that their child has the opportunity to interact with them and household objects that can be used as educational materials. Numerous studies (e.g Furmanek, 2014; Shivji, 2016; Sokolov et al., 2017) have shown the mind-body link and how movement supports learning. Online learning should not ignore the importance of combining movement and objects with learning.
Hopscotch, the game where children hop and jump to different numbers has been around for 2000 years. This is a perfect example of developing counting skills naturally as children develop coordination and obtain exercise. Replacing online games, such as Beebot, with physical movements develop children’s spatial cognition as they build an understanding of sequencing. There are numerous other examples of allowing children to learn through play while reducing screen time but these need to be well-coordinated and planned by the teacher.
Online learning presents an opportunity for teachers to liaise with the parents of young children to ensure that screen time is reduced to small segments that provide instruction for the day's learning activities. Pre-recorded videos are useful so that the parent can go back to the instructions when necessary. Breakout rooms, where the child can interact with a friend or two online, is an effective strategy for developing collaboration and supporting social learning. They enable teachers to promote a responsive learning environment. Games and play through the use of technology allow students to build their language development to heighten their understanding of concepts, sentence structures, and vocabulary along with phonemic and graphemic awareness and memory. Smaller groups are better because managing students in an online environment is more difficult than in the classroom. Digital portfolio applications are a great way for teachers to give meaningful and specific feedback to the parents of young children.
Like all teaching, online learning does not have to be a one-way or didactic means of disseminating information. The best schools are still managing to deliver a quality education even when their children are at home with their parents.