Learning in isolation

My daughter took her first unassisted steps over the past week, at about 16 and a half months of age. That’s later than some (average is about 15 months), but not considered delayed (which it would be at 18 months).

She was late to crawl with her belly off the floor; that came at around a year, right after we got a puppy. It turns out it’s easier to chase a puppy without worming your way across the floor.

My daughter had been walking holding onto a toy or wall or something for a few months, and for going on a month or so had been holding onto one finger while walking with my wife or me. I was getting a little frustrated, truth be told.

One of the things that our at-home time during the COVID-19 crisis is our local libraries are closed. With our daughter not in day care, her primary interaction with children her age has been at story time at the library, and at that age, peer pressure is great.

Without that, she doesn’t have an example of wee humans walking.

There is a girl about a year older than her up the street. She’s learning to ride a bike, so when we see her on our (very frequent) walks around the neighborhood, that’s usually what she’s doing.

And then, one day, we saw her walking around the cul-de-sac. In fact, she came over to pet the dog, and the dog knocked her down (she was fine, bouncing onto her bottom and right back up as toddlers do). Later in the day, our daughter took her first steps. She’d seen another person about her size (and age) walking, and she put it together.

Something else that’s happening a lot in our collective coronavirus quarantine is schools — elementary, middle and high schools as well as colleges and universities — are going online. Sure, plenty of college classes were already being taught online, but even classes that were meeting in person on March 10 were meeting online a few weeks later.

The teaching might be happening in a multi-user environment — students are learning at the same time — but the students are learning in semi-isolation. They can be “present” when their peers ask questions, but there’s not a lot of peer interaction, at least in a learning context. Once you move the conversation to text, Snapchat or whatever, I’m guessing the subject matter veers away from coursework.

For the grade-school and high school-age children, the learning environment is very different from what the vast majority are used to, and parents find themselves suddenly homeschool administrators without warning. For college students, on the other hand, the taste for distance learning among people who expected to have the in-person experience is so bad a lot of colleges and universities are being sued for tuition refunds.

Meanwhile, for those of us who have been in the working world for a while, the opportunities for learning on our own have abounded in the internet age. Yes, there are podcasts and YouTube, but there are also learning platforms like SkillShare, Udemy, The Great Courses Plus and Class Central, among others, some of which offered steep discounts or extended trials during the quarantine.

Of course, non-fiction books and audiobooks are also good ways for autodidacts to pick up new skills or become experts in topics they never studied in school (or only touched on).

While a lot of people who have been long-time readers and studiers and who take instructional courses for a specific purpose — say, to learn a coding language or how to install a water heater — have been learning on their own, it turns out that both learning and studying in groups is more effective than doing either on our own.

Going it solo certainly has some benefits — including self-pacing and limited distractions (or at least the ability to limit distractions) — but it’s not the way most peple learn best.

There’s an old proverb that goes something like this: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. It applies to a lot of things, including learning, at all ages. We are social beings, and we gain more from being in groups.


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