Amid Growing Concern over Learning Loss Due to the Pandemic, Researchers Say it’s Time for Kids to Be Teachers and Teachers to be Learners

May 23, 2021

As concern over learning loss among Canadian students mounts due to unprecedented time away from school, there is one lesson we can all take away from the events of the past year: given the chance to use technology with proper guidance, kids can do amazing things and should play a greater role in their own education.

That’s the finding of a recent study led by leading education experts Cathlene Hillier and Jessica Rizk, who say it’s time for Canadian classrooms to shift to a new model, one that provides for more student-centred learning opportunities where kids become teachers and teachers become co-learners.

Based on their analysis of home literacy practices and the role of technology in education, Hillier and Rizk show that children are picking up digital skills at a rapid rate, often with little or no intervention from parents and teachers. The more they acquire these skills, the better equipped they are to navigate their own successes within the educational sphere, often teaching themselves as well as their peers.

“The past year has showed us that moving forward, children can take more initiative in their own learning especially when using technology,” said Hillier, an assistant professor at Crandall University, who was so inspired by the creativity of a Grade One student she interviewed, she has since borrowed a word he coined. “He had cleverly made up the word ‘mideo games’ to describe the math-based video games he was using to strengthen his math skills. It became our hook for this project,” she explained.

The researchers found that the more technology is encouraged in learning, the more “co-construction of knowledge” takes place. Even though teachers weren’t 100 per cent confident in their technical knowledge about robots, for example, the study found that when they “were open and willing” to use them in their classrooms, it provided an opportunity to capitalize on student skills and increase student confidence. Teachers were no longer positioned as experts at the front of the classroom, but as co-learners alongside their students as they explored answers together.

“Kids are doing amazing things. They’re learning how to code, they’re getting apps that can read to them,” said Rizk, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Waterloo. “There’s this understanding that there’s this world of opportunity online that extends past what teachers and parents can do and opens doors for children to explore learning on their own, to self-teach and teach others as well,” she said, adding that students are also showing a deep understanding of the importance of skills like coding, communication, collaboration and leadership.

That’s not to say kids should be handed tablets and told to “run with it,” she added. Content and screen time still need to be monitored by an adult, and teachers are still required to develop the pedagogy and instruction around the use of technology in the classroom.

“Taking a step back from being the expert can be an uncomfortable place for teachers,” acknowledged Rizk. “What we’re saying is don’t underestimate the power of children who are engaged and curious to learn. If educators and parents are willing to see students as potential experts and knowledge creators, it will open many possibilities for learning.”

Hillier and Rizk’s research was partly supported by funding from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s Insight Grant [435-2013-0730]. It is drawing on data from two larger studies in Ontario: The Summer Learning Project and Robotics and 21st Century Competencies Project.