COVID-19 Diaries: “I Think I’ve Forgotten How to Learn”April 23, 2020
By Erika Kerekes
Erika Kerekes is the director of web content and social media for the Milken Family Foundation.
Last week, our family’s sixth in home isolation because of COVID-19, my 18-year-old son said something that broke my heart.
“I think I’ve forgotten how to learn,” Weston told my husband and me. He was sitting on an exercise ball, swaying a bit from side to side, fidgety and restless. His voice was neutral, but his eyes were sad.
There are probably kids who don’t mind being out of the classroom, but my child, it turns out, isn’t one of them. Like high school seniors around the country, he is mourning the evaporation of important milestones: final concerts, senior honors night, prom, graduation, our school’s elaborate dusk-til-dawn Grad Nite.
But Weston has academic concerns, too. Online classes are fine and he’s getting assignments and AP course review packets from his teachers. Everyone is doing their best. But my kid is a STEM-oriented student headed to an Ivy League school in (if the coronavirus pandemic cooperates) the fall. He’s worried about how he’ll fare in intense math and science classes after such a long pause. There are some things he can do at home, but an acid-based titration in a safety-equipped chemistry lab isn’t one of them.
I didn’t know what to say to ease Weston’s fears. But I knew who would. So I turned to Milken Educators for advice, both for my child and for any other student who might be feeling the same way. Their comments, as I expected, gave me hope. As frustrating as this situation is for students who feel like they’re in learning limbo, it will pass. And education is all around when you’re a lifelong learner.
Here’s some of the advice Milken Educators offered:
Wade Whitehead (VA ’00): He isn’t forgetting how to learn; rather, he’s realizing that life without learning feels empty. Learning is a mitochondria for people like him. It brings energy and fuel to every day. To him, I would say: See this as a transfer of power. Seize your learning journey and move it forward. Imagine, discover, and share solely for the benefit of new perspective. This experience could unlock an awareness of purpose that hid, previously, behind the social construct we call school. May it be transformative—and may it leave him refusing to allow any circumstance to stand between the “now” and his true potential.
Krista Trent (OH ’18): You are always learning, whether you realize it or not. Right now you are learning how to adapt and you aren’t done figuring it out yet. Be patient with yourself. All dogs can learn new tricks.
Kathryn Daniels (MS ’19): Learning is deeply personal and intrinsically rooted. At the end of the day, you do not learn simply because someone presents information to you in a compelling way—you learn because your own innate curiosity is quenched, because you see some purpose, however small, behind the content and skills before you. Spend time reflecting on your unique “why” as a learner, trying to reignite or fuel your passion for the subject(s) in question. This time is a gift; the slower pace of life lends itself to introspection and reflection that you don’t always have time to do. Grieve the missed opportunities, yes, but take advantage of the chance to rediscover (or discover for the first time) a love for learning in and of itself, independent from instructional or assessment constraints. Pursue knowledge in an unfettered way, and you might be surprised what you learn about yourself, too.
Jennifer Fuller (TX ’17): I teach juniors and seniors, and the fear of transitioning to four-year university is real right now. I’d ask him what he wants to learn right now. So often learning is prescribed by teachers and a syllabus. Although teachers are beautiful guides, it’s such a unique time and we can all examine the things that make our hearts soar. I would encourage him to enjoy the exploration.
Dan Willever (NJ ’19): Our brain needs to be exercised like any other muscle. Even though school isn’t providing the necessary “fitness” right now, he is smart and driven enough to find his own ways of learning new things.
Erika Klose (WV ’17): I believe we often think that we only learn in school. Kids think this way. But we know that it’s not true. Even when we’re not learning in formal classes, we are learning. In the midst of this crisis, I am in grad school. But I have learned way more from life in the last month than from school.
Hailey Couch (OK ’18): We are always learning. Use this time to actively reflect upon your learning and challenge yourself to learn something new. Learning is constantly occurring around us. Seek it out. Look for a new adventure. But also allow yourself some self-care and quiet time. We are learning a whole lot about ourselves right now. Embrace it and enjoy it. You haven't forgotten how to learn. This is just learning in a different context. I believe in you.
Andria Lindsey (OR ’17): Throughout life we learn in different ways. In our younger years it is from our teachers standing in front of us. In college it may be from reading lots and lots of research. Later in life I have learned more from asking thoughtful questions of the people I interact with. I would encourage him to find his new way of learning in these times.
Theresa Cross (LA ’17): I would start by asking him, “How do you learn?” “How else can you learn new things?” Reflecting on your thinking is another way of learning.
Matt Walsh (IN ’03): We are all discovering how we learn in new ways. These times are testing how we learn. As Howard Gardner says, educators need to challenge students in their learning in ways that are not their strengths.
Stephanie Whetstone (LA ’18): I have twin brothers who are graduating this year, and I know this has been so upsetting to them and my mom. My advice to him would be to remember that learning is not a thing you can forget. Disinterest, burnout and frustration can hinder learning, and he is completely justified in feeling each of those. Learning is curiosity, problem-solving, mastering new skills. It occurs every day whether we realize it or not.
John Lary (LA ’15): I think all educators (and maybe we Milken Educators especially) believe in the idea of lifelong learning. None of us stopped learning because we stopped sitting on the student side of the classroom. He might be forgetting how to learn as a student in a classroom, but he is learning how to learn without that structure. And much more of his life will be spent outside a classroom than in it. So I hope he finds some joy and some purpose in this newfound freedom. There are so many opportunities to learn new things, whether he finds it in a great piece of literature, music, perusing the internet, enrolling in a MOOC. He can’t forget how to learn if he keeps on doing it.
Katie Bobby (PA ’18): Please tell him that he’s not forgetting how to learn—he is learning to learn differently! We all have preferred methods of learning, and when we are forced out of our comfort zones it is natural to feel anxiety. Tell your son to give himself a moment to grieve the way he wishes things could have been, and then make the conscious decision to move on to what must be. The key is to turn that distress into eustress. We all need to train ourselves to soak up the opportunity to grow and forgive ourselves when we falter. Teachers and students, we are in this together.
Manuel Zaldivar (CT ’16): Tell him to research and learn about the life of scientists and mathematicians who have made an impact in our society. There will be time later for him to apply that knowledge.
Jennie Todd (CO ’16): I would tell him this: You absolutely haven’t forgotten how to learn. You are simply learning how to learn a new way. What you’re feeling is dissonance, and dissonance isn’t always bad. This is hard for all of us, but there is opportunity to be better here. You’ll find it.
Katie Picciuto (TN ’16): Learning may look different right now, but this can just mean we are learning in a way we aren’t used to. Just the fact that he is concerned about learning shows that he is a lifelong learner at heart and will have no trouble picking right back up where he left off!
Coda: The day after the conversation that sparked this article, Weston decided to tackle a new skill. He’s almost done with an online class in Python and looking for another coding class to put on his list.
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