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Why Distance Learning Doesn’t Work – Real Reasons Behind The Chaos

There have been reports after reports of why distance learning doesn’t work. All fingers point at this flawed education model. But is that the reason distance learning fails? Is distance learning the sole source of the problem in our kids’ floundering education? Let’s find out.

Why Distance Learning Doesn’t Work

Many frustrated parents complain about distance learning. Many of them also complain about their kids’ increased use of YouTube and video games. 

So, a child who cannot learn from a live person on the other end of the screen can consume information from non-interactive YouTube videos, or learn to play Roblox from the same screen.

Why is that? Is distance learning really to blame?

Children can learn from a distance. Most of them just don’t want to.

It’s not a learning problem. It’s a motivation problem. To understand that, we need to get into the science of motivation.

boy with headphones looks at laptop and writes why distance learning doesn't work

The Science Of Motivation

Self-determination Theory developed by psychologists and motivation experts, Deci & Ryan, states that people are innately curious and motivated to learn. Human motivation is driven by basic psychological needs for autonomy, mastery, and relatedness ​1​.

Autonomy refers to the “free choice” to do something. A child is autonomous when they willingly devote time and energy to homework or studies.

Mastery is the sense of competence when something is done well. A child is competent when they feel able to master and meet the challenges of their school work.

Relatedness is a sense of belonging and being connected to someone who cares.

Besides the three factors that can increase a person’s intrinsic motivation, one factor can reduce it — stress. 

Stress is the enemy of intrinsic motivation. When we’re stressed, we don’t want to do anything. Stress is a demotivator ​2​.

Have trouble motivating your child? Check out this online course:
Self-motivated Learner

Self-motivated learner

Motivation During Distance Learning

Distance learning has triggered a downward spiral in kids’ motivation. When distance learning first started, everyone was stressed. 

Children were stressed learning to use new technology and adjusting to a different lifestyle. Parents were stressed about jobs, finance and childcare. They both were also stressed about safety.

With all that stress, a child’s motivation to learn was off to a rocky start.

When kids had classes at home, parents felt obligated to watch over their shoulder. That took away the kids’ autonomy.

When the children were not motivated to attend class or do homework, parents started nagging, which soon turned into yelling or punishing. That damaged their relationship and relatedness.

When kids’ fell behind, the parents panicked. They watched even closer, and the correction strategy they applied got harsher. Parents’ mere focus on bad grades prevented a sense of mastery in the child.

So, all three motivators disappeared, and the demotivator got increasingly bigger.

The more the parents wanted to fix this, the less motivated the child became.

It went downhill from there. 

Unfortunately, distance learning became the scapegoat.

Distance Learning – Barrier Or Enabler?

But there is one more reason, one that no one talks about…

In a 2006 study, researchers at the Ohio State University compared students who did in-person learning and those who did blended distance learning ​3​.

One significant finding was that whether a person perceived using technology to learn from a distance as a barrier or an enabler affected their motivation, and the outcomes.

Those who felt that it was hindering their learning had less motivation to learn and performed worse. Those who felt that it was enabling their education otherwise not possible had more motivation to learn and got better grades.

Mindset matters.

When we believe it’s bad, it will be bad. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

From the very beginning, parents have been voicing their discontent and despise for distance learning. When their kids were not motivated because of all the above-mentioned reasons, they blamed distance learning.

Kids picked up on that and perceived distance learning as a barrier to their education. They became even less motivated.

Imagine, if your boss assigns you a lousy project and tells you it’s a horrible project he expects nothing good will come out of it, yet he expects you to be fully motivated to make it work, do you think you will be very driven to complete it? 

Of course not. Right?!

We cannot expect our kids to be motivated if we believe distance learning is a horrible thing.

Kids look to “their adults” for cues on how to react to things. When parents loudly proclaim that distance learning is a failure, their kids would often say the same words. They mimic us when we least want them to. My kid often says she hates something she’s never tried just because she’s heard me say that once.

The whole situation and the adults’ reaction have set our kids up to lose their motivation.

A Challenge, Not Obstacle

No doubt, in-person learning is almost always better than distance learning. Some children do have difficulties learning remotely, especially those who have special needs. There’s no question about it.

But as the research shows, our reaction can make a difference in our kids’ behavior because perception can change a person’s motivation.

Technology is here to stay. Whether your child will become a scientist or an engineer or not, they will have to utilize some form of technology in their future. Portraying technology as a bad thing is doing our kids disservice.

Distance learning is not an obstacle. It’s a challenge. It is an opportunity for kids to learn technology and a new skill.

It is also a chance for us to help our kids build resilience.

When facing adversity, resilient children can bounce back and overcome challenges. They don’t just quit trying and complain.

There are kids who thrive in distance learning. Those who do well view technology and distance learning as opportunities, not hazards.

Need More Motivation Help?

If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, my online course Self-motivated Learner is a great place to start.

It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate in learning.

Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.

Final Thoughts on Why Distance Learning Doesn’t Work

Optimism cannot cure disease, but it can help us become more motivated to overcome a challenge like this. We need to apply optimism in the right place, especially since in this case our kids are learning skills that will contribute to their future success… 

But only if we help them to.


  1. 1.
    Niemiec CP, Ryan RM. Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom. Theory and Research in Education. Published online June 25, 2009:133-144. doi:10.1177/1477878509104318
  2. 2.
    Weinstein N, Ryan RM. A self-determination theory approach to understanding stress incursion and responses. Stress and Health. Published online January 31, 2011:4-17. doi:10.1002/smi.1368
  3. 3.

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