Israeli Experts Say Zoom Learning Widens Gaps Between Kids, but the Three R's Can Wait

Remote learning is detrimental in terms of youngsters' social interaction and simulation, educators say, but there's no real harm in delaying the teaching of basic skills like reading and writing

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Two children during an online Zoom class in Tel Aviv, September 17, 2020.
Two children during an online Zoom class in Tel Aviv, September 17, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Just a few weeks ago Ziv, a first-grade teacher in a Givatayim stood, in front of her class for the first time. On the board she wrote, like she does every year: “Welcome to first grade.” She told the excited children how their school day would go, noting the special rules for dealing with the coronavirus: They would do their welcome-the-Sabbath ceremony on Fridays via Zoom, parents would not be allowed to enter the school and they would need to be strict about washing their hands. Then last week, on Wednesday, she already had to bid farewell to her class, at least until after the High Holy Days.

Haaretz asked five experts in education, child development and brain science about the possible repercussions of the lack of a framework for children in kindergarten and first and second grades. The picture they present is complex. On one hand, there’s no special urgency in learning how to read and write precisely at age 6. On the other hand, a long period without a regular school routine, they say, could widen already-existing gaps between young children who will get the attention and enrichment they need now, and those who will be stuck at home and exposed to fewer outside stimuli.

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“In terms of the individual child, nothing will happen if they learn to read and write in second grade,” Esther Adi-Japha, head of the child development program at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Education, says. In some countries, including Finland, she says, children only learn to read and write at age 7, in second grade.

According to Dr. Ronit Ram-Tsur, a researcher in brain science and a lecturer at Oranim – School of Education of the Kibbutz Movement, “the critical span for learning extends over a long period,” and thus a delay of a few months in teaching language or math skills will not matter.

However, under the current conditions, Adi-Japha is concerned that gaps between children in different communities in the country will grow. “Some parents will do their best to teach their children themselves and some will not do anything,” she predicts. “The gaps will be huge and hard to bridge.”

The effects of socioeconomic background on the widening gaps in children’s education have been known for years, and are again confirmed by Rachel Schiff, head of the department of learning disabilities at Bar-Ilan.

An adult accompanies a schoolchild in Jerusalem on the first day of school, September 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“We may assume that the children from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds will be the most hurt by the lack of a framework,” says Prof. Schiff. “And the children in the lower grades will be the most seriously compromised.”

But even children from families with higher socioeconomic status will be affected by the lack of a regular school framework and the restrictions due to the pandemic, especially the younger ones, Schiff adds. “Parents are struggling these days,” she says. “They’re working. There will those who can invest in their children and those who can’t provide the proper stimuli. The gaps will grow.”

Loss of faith

“The question is what happens when there’s no school,” as is the current situation, Ram-Tsur says. “If kids are staring at television all day long, then of course their learning abilities will be hurt. But if the home provides a pleasant and fertile ground for the child, cognitive skills can naturally develop there too, not only at school.”

In certain areas, such as development of creative thinking, there might even be an advantage to the home environment, which is not tied to a schedule, “allowing for more freedom when it comes to thought and a more fertile environment for activating neural networks that improves children’s original and creative thinking,” Ram-Tsur says.

It’s almost impossible to separate a younger’s psychological state from their ability to learn and develop, she continues, adding that “they also need to enjoy learning. Without enjoyment, motivation to learn is compromised and so is their attention span, which affects memory.”

Dr. Nira Wahle, head of Early Childhood Education at Oranim, agrees: “Children, especially in kindergarten, don’t just learn numbers and write in workbooks. They learn from their environment, from how adults express themselves,” she says, but adds that “at times like these, the adults in their lives may express distress, and may even treat children as a burden.”

Youngsters may also lose their faith in the school system, Wahle says: “They still haven’t developed faith in the new framework, and have already been told: ‘Goodbye, go home.’ Who can promise them this won’t happen again? Such a period can create antagonism when it comes to trust, to communication and to social relationships.”

Just hours before Israel’s schools closed their doors as a fairly strict lockdown was imposed last week, the Education Ministry published guidelines for distance-learning in elementary schools, via video communications. According to them, teachers must take into consideration the social-emotional as well as the actual educational aspects of their work with their classes. In grades 1 and 2, the ministry recommends that teachers teach math and language for four hours a day.

A kid during an online Zoom class, September 17, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Adi-Japha believes that introduction of remote learning by Zoom will range from very challenging to impossible, especially for those in the lower grades who are just learning how to read and write. A teacher won’t be able to gauge whether a child is learning those skills properly and they could acquire the wrong habits. “It’s better for them not to learn at all than to learn badly,” the researcher-lecturer says. “These are things that are very hard to correct.”

Adi-Japha would like to see the curriculum change while pupils remain at home – for example, by teachers focusing on games and social interaction and only later teaching their classes how to read and write, which is very difficult to do via video.

“There are actually things that can be practiced by means of the computer, like learning how to speak in turn and how to hold a proper conversation among the pupils,” she says.

Tami Katzir, of the Safra Brain Research Center at the University of Haifa, is another expert who believes that there’s no harm in postponing reading and writing for a few months. “In any case at age 6 all the cerebral systems are not mature,” Prof. Katzir explains. “The children will acquire the technical side of this – that doesn’t worry me.”

But reading is not merely a technical skill. Exposure to language enriches one’s vocabulary, improves memory and also has emotional importance. Reading stories develops empathy in children, for instance. This can also be done at home, Katzir says, by means of a local project that she has been promoting for years: reading in the family circle. Katzir would like to see the system change so that it more strongly encourages reading and listening to stories at home.

Wahle, for her part, would also like to see the system change under the current circumstances. Children don’t need us to teach them how about a triangle and a rectangle, she says. They need to know that adults are listening to them. That they are aware of their needs. It’s enough for the kindergarten teacher to say, ‘Hi, honey, how are you?’ That’s all that’s needed.”

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