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If You Want Children to Love Learning, Let Them Lead

It’s 11 a.m., the first day of the new year, and my 14 year old has just come out of his room. Hair disheveled, loving grin on his face as his tall body bends over to give me a hug. This is how every morning begins if I’m home when he wakes. A warm embrace and a grin almost immediately followed with, “What’s for breakfast?” Today he says, “Mom. Did you know that the largest tsunami created a wall of water 3 miles high?”  “I didn’t know that. That’s unbelievable.” I’m obviously interested and he continues with stories about prehistoric weather events, asteroids, the power of atomic bombs, and engineering mistakes that resulted in the loss of human lives. All this from a video he recently watched. He shares, I listen. I ask questions, share some things I know, and he listens. After about 10 minutes the conversation comes to a natural conclusion. He goes onto something else and I finish tidying up the kitchen.

In our brief conversation if you were to focus only on the facts and figures he shared, which were impressive, you’d be missing the deeper, more significant part of this exchange; which is a pure example of what self-directed learning looks like. My son voluntarily chose to watch a video that contained information about things he’s interested in. There was no pressure to learn for a test, no imposed expectation from an authority figure. He took ownership of how and what he learned and was able to absorb the information that was interesting and important to him. Both of my children have been doing this since they were born. Following an interest, exploring multiple topics, chasing answers for their curious minds. They are doing what they were born to do: LEARN. And here’s the thing– they are not unique in their desire to follow their curiosity or to seek things that interest them. We are all born with the capacity to learn and educate ourselves. What is lacking is respect for an individual’s right to chose what and how to learn. We have created a system that dictates how, when, and what children will learn and call this education. As John Taylor Gatto, former teacher and author of Dumbing Us Down, states:

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your roadmap through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.

As infants, children show a desire to understand the world around them. Small and dependent, they track objects with our eyes, respond to touch or loud noises, use their tiny hands to caress a caregivers hand, and they vocalize in coos and cries. Using their senses they gather information and draw conclusions at an incalculable rate. No caregiver in their right mind would ever consider punishment, coercion, or force to get infants to do any of those things. So why then, when children become school age, do adults go to great lengths, employing all kinds of tricks to engage children in the classroom? It appears as though adults who comfortably trusted the process of learning so much when a child is new, gradually loses touch with this trust as children grow. It’s as if they believe children miraculously forget how to learn. When adults take over, education becomes an agenda that fits their needs and expectations and takes children, the learners, out of the equation.

We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards, gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A’s on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean’s lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys, in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else. -John Holt.

It is undeniable that learning happens all the time and is most optimal when the learner is engaged and in control. Tactics like manipulation, loss of freedom, punishment, and coercion make ZERO sense in the name of education. Learning is personal, individual, and unique. Forcing information onto someone is irritating at best and a violation of their dignity at worst. Kids treated this way are certainly learning something, but it’s not to love learning. This is why self-directed learning is honored and revered in our home and although not a new concept by any stretch, is rightfully gaining more acceptance in the classroom. In a Huffington Post article, “Is Learning Increasingly Self-Directed in the Digital Era”, written by Suren Ramasubbu and Lakshml, the authors state:

It is vital that educators be trained to recognize and nurture self-directed learning using technology and be capable of creating learning environments that support it. A teacher who encourages freedom of learning and is open to it can accelerate the transition of learning from being teacher-centric to student centric.

Technology has certainly played a vital role in learning in our home, but it is only one tool. Instead, our focus is embracing knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself, not to satisfy someone else’s standards or expectations. Children are no different than an adult who seeks to gather information or learn a new skill. You can’t stop them even if you tried. The goal in all education should be to respect and offer space for individuals to go where their hearts and minds lead them. I trusted that my children would walk and talk when they were developmentally ready, and I have continued to trust that they will educate themselves and seek guidance when needed. Instead of being their teacher in the traditional sense, I am a careful observer, a willing listener, a helpful, loving, trusted resource who is available when they need me. I share things I have learned and I offer ideas and suggestions to my kids in the same way I would tell my husband about a car show he may want to check out or my neighbor about a good book I read or my brother about nutritional supplements. Conversations build connections and experiences create lasting knowledge. I am someone my kids talk to and someone they feel safe with–not just because I’m their Mom, but because I have respected their minds as much as I have respected their hearts. And those minds of theirs are always busy even when we don’t think they are.

Later in the day, many hours after our kitchen conversation, my son and I were driving to a shopping center a little over 3 miles from our home. Less than a mile to go he turns to me and says, “You know, we still aren’t to the top of that wall of water yet.”


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  1. […] and given opportunities to bloom fully within safe parameters that flex as they develop and grow. Learning is respected as the individual endeavor it is and the teen years are met with excitement and intrigue instead of […]

  2. […] likely, but that isn’t necessary. Schooling isn’t necessary either to create learners. Children are born learners. What they need is time, space, and the flexibility to interact with a variety of interests without […]

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