As a family, we’re in the process of designing an emergent, cooperative learning strategy at home in response to the sudden opportunity we have to be home together due to the COVID-19 situation. So many families are doing their own version of this. At the moment our version, involves art, music, self-care, physical activity, and land-based learning. It is specific to what is right for us at this particular time.

Our home-based curriculum is dynamic and will unfold over time; however, we are committed to a process we hope will be personally engaging and even transformative for each of us.

If you are curious about how we are doing this, read on. I’ll share a bit about how we’re doing this personally and invite you adopt some of our ideas if you’d like.

Our youngest kids, 15 and 16, girl and boy respectively, are still at home. If I do nothing with this time, they will slip into the rabbit hole of social media, video games, and nothing productive. They will become moody, self-absorbed, and will isolate in their rooms so they can feed their addictions to flat screens. I will become irritated, judgmental, and controlling. If I wait until the schools get around to announcing they’ve moved all the coursework online, it’ll be a rub against my “knew better” voice, which is constantly trying to steer me in a more autonomous direction.

No, none of that is suitable for any of us. On a bigger scale, if I do nothing, and my kids do nothing with this unexpected downtime rather than contributing to the social benefit of life beyond our own lives, we will be nothing other than consumers of someone else’s products.

This, to me, is a sure path to misery.

Self-Determined Something-ness

Doing, creating, building, working; these are words of activity. Activity engages, releases bound up energy, builds competence, self-esteem, and connects people to others ~ all are vital ingredients to fulfilling people’s basic needs. I’m not talking about Maslow’s basic needs here, but Deci and Ryan’s basic needs from self-determination theory (SDT). Basic needs from SDT include autonomy, competency, and relatedness. Basic needs being met are essential for self-determined behavior. Self-determined behavior is crucial to everything from personal happiness, to creating a sustainable, livable future for all of us. Heck, self-determination is the root of true self-appreciation as far as I’m concerned.

Something to understand here is that activity for the sake of being busy is absolutely not the focus of this endeavor. Nor is learning for the sake of learning without purpose or meaning. No, in fact, that sort of activity is what we hope to leave behind, and this opportunity gives us space and time to experiment with activity and learning that is particularly meaningful both to the individual learning and to the family as a whole. Meaningfulness for the individual and for family also creates meaningfulness for the community at large. Even if indirectly by improving the inner experience of the individual.

A note on meaning. According to Viktor Frankl, founder of logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy, and a Nazi concentration camp survivor from the 1940s, meaning motivates behavior in significant ways, which provides direction and purpose to individuals in their lives. Self-determination theory becomes relevant once again in helping us understand personal motivation.

According to psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, two primary types of motivation exist; autonomous motivation and controlled motivation. I probably do not have to explain the differences between these two types of motivation, though, for the sake of clarity and precision, I will.

Autonomous motivation is characterized by features of choice, willingness, volition, enjoyment, and values, with others or not, and with help or not. Autonomous should not be confused with independence, which is characterized as doing something alone and without support.

Controlled motivation, on the other hand, relates to individuals engaging in a behavior out of a sense of obligation, feeling pressure, avoiding punishment, or as a means to get a reward. We all know that many of our children’s learning process occurs by way of controlled motivation, not because that’s what we really want for them, but because we, ourselves are also caught in the throes of controlled motivation.

What if this collective moment represents an opportunity to break those chains of controlled motivation? Even if briefly? Can you seize it right now and engage in an experiment of emergent collaborative learning with your children? Even if it’s a disaster (as most things we try the first time are), will you experiment?

Recently, I asked my kids to think about what they would make, do, or create if their time wasn’t bound up in going to school every day. I told them, “think about it”, and “I’ll ask you again. I want to hear your ideas.” Pretty quickly, my son said, “Mom, would you get me some canvas?” Commenting more to himself than to me, “I’d really like to do some art,” as if already beginning the internal focusing of deep engagement.

This is exactly what I hope to foster in him during this time. Not accomplishment of a bunch of activities and “to-do” shit. Just deep, focused engagement in something good for him.

I noticed my 15 year-old daughter walking around the house with her journal. She’s been indulging herself in-home spa treatments of her own making when she’s not outside in the sun drawing and journaling in her book. For the moment, I’m just taking note. When we begin to shape some of her personalized learning curricula, we can use her natural tendency towards self-care (autonomous motivation) as an essential thread in her studies in health.

I also have crucial areas of learning that I think are important for my children’s development and are inherent in improving our quality of life at home. So, in addition to allowing the children’s unique interests and natural proclivities to direct their learning inquiries, I’ve shared with them that we’ll be engaging in land-based learning activities too. Permaculture to be specific. To my delight, they expressed interest in my ideas as well. We’ve established a positive rapport for our collaborative learning. This is a beneficial first step.