Rethinking Learning: Why You Haven’t Achieved Nothing Today
If I had a pound for every time a parent contacts me in despair, telling me that their son or daughter has ‘achieved nothing’ today, I would be rich. It is such a common sentiment. Nothing? I ask, wondering, picturing the entire family flat on their backs contemplating the ceiling (which, as it happens, is a lovely meditative practice). I mean, I guess we did some painting, comes reluctantly down the line. Oh, well then..
The notion of what we should and shouldn’t be achieving during the day is subjective and varies from person to person. I don’t think anyone who spent the weekend chilling with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (what? people still do that..) would have a problem sharing that with someone who just went hiking in the foothills of Snowdonia. Everyone is different. Live and let live. Hakuna matata. But somehow when it comes to education, most of us feel the pressure – quite understandably – to be keeping pace with everyone else. This is what is ingrained in us from our own years at school and the message runs deep. It takes time to unwind this thinking.
What, after all, is education for? Peter Gray, in his powerful essay ‘The Case Against the Case Against Homeschooling‘, defines it thus: ‘Education is the sum of everything a person learns that enables that person to live a satisfying and meaningful life.’ I like that. That will do nicely. But stepping away from the conveyor belt of the National Curriculum can be a challenge to even the most liberal-minded parents. It’s simply not how we were raised and we all, naturally, want the best for our kids. But let’s take a moment here to have a closer look at how children actually learn.
Conversational Learning. One of the most ancient and effective methods of sharing information and developing ideas is conversation. This is the basis of how we have evolved and transferred knowledge for thousands of generations. Children are, largely, programmed to be chatty and curious by nature, because this is how they are making sense of the world. We have evolved that way. So, increase the value of the conversations you have with your children by ensuring that you are – as often as possible – pausing, making eye contact, listening carefully and providing thoughtful responses. It’s okay not to know all the answers. If you did, there would be no human progress.
Learning by Example. Children love to watch you and their older siblings, picking up on the behaviours they wish to imitate themselves. For almost all children, this is how they learn to walk, talk and start eating cereal in the morning. But for home educated children, this might also be how they learn to read, imagine big numbers, and much more. By setting a varied and interesting example to your kids (such as, creating time during the day to sit down and read your own book, or listening to a podcast that interests you and talking to them later about what you found out) will have a more powerful impact on their long-term development than sitting down for five minutes to test them on the weekly spelling list.
Learning Through Wonder. There are so many fascinating places to go and activities to engage with which will open your child’s mind, causing them to think and imagine the world differently. Think: a recycling plant. Think: the beach. Until the lockdown is fully lifted, though, it is still possible to achieve the ‘wow’ factor through stimulating books, documentaries, classic films, and carefully selected magazine subscriptions. The point is to forget what ‘level’ you think your children are ‘at’ and allow their young minds to be exposed to some of the curiosity and wonder of the world right now, while their minds are most receptive and their way of thinking is being shaped. Endless worksheets can have a limiting effect on a child’s mental horizons. Let them lift their heads up and take look around.
Learning Through Play. Of all the ways of learning, this is the one that parents tell me they struggle most with. The games that their children want to play are ‘boring’ or ‘repetitive’ and, actually, I’m with you there. Free play, however, is tremendously important for stimulating the mind to be creative, empathetic, and joyous. Surely, we want this as a learning outcome, as much as the five-times-table? Try out different ways of making deep play happen regularly for your children and figure out what works for you. Many children just want you to ‘be there’, so if you can sit down with a coffee and a bit of work or reading, you might find that they are happy to disappear into the game by your side. Others do want you to be involved sometimes, though, and often what they are seeking is a new level to the game. Try to think of how you could open it up for them. Does it look like a duvet den would make this more fun? Or is there a funny voice that would bring this character to life? What ideas can you bring to the game to recharge it for them? This is mostly what kids are seeking when they ask you to ‘play cars’ again.
The Power of Recognition. Much more important than a reward system – which has the potential to cultivate a mindset that constantly seeks remuneration in exchange for effort – is simple recognition of what your child has achieved. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I am always namedropping Sugata Mitra, whose ‘grandmother technique’ of teaching got a group of deprived students in New Delhi to learn biotechnology. Essentially, the concept is to always be present with your children, always nod, smile, approve and tell them what a fantastic job they are doing. It spurs them on. Picking up on errors has a time and place, but in children under the age of ten, what you are trying to cultivate is confidence and a love of learning. Try not to knock this on the head straight away.
Trial and Error. This was in many ways the point of my post on Monday and also something picked up on in the brilliant Dope Black Mums podcast recently, where I learnt a Jamaican parenting technique: ‘you have to feel it to understand.’ How very true. This is why we must, occasionally, let our boys go a bit too fast on their bikes and learn what a nasty fall feels like. They will hopefully grow up into responsible young men who drive cars and motorbikes with care. When it comes to education, we must also allow our children the freedom to make false statements about the world, or incorrectly spell a word or complete a sum wrongly. It is not always advantageous to immediately correct them. Instead, ensure that they are exposed to a rich learning environment and most children will – on their own – form the connections. The learning is far more powerful this way.
Kinaesthetic Learning. Research shows that our brains are most receptive to learning when we are physically active, which is great because kids are always on the go. Classroom teachers and home educators alike agree on this, but it is a challenge to implement this level of freedom in school. The logistics of numbers simply doesn’t allow it and so, mostly, learning happens sat at a desk. Whether you are homeschooling long-term or simply during the pandemic, use this time to allow your kids to move as they learn. Bluetooth headphones are a great resource and aren’t expensive. Learning a language while practising skateboard skills in the back yard is immeasurably more effective than sitting down rote-learning phrases with the old ‘cover, copy’ technique. Similarly, taking the dog for a walk and quizzing each other on geography knowledge or Maths calculations is a sure way to have bodies and brains buzzing.
Time to Digest. One of the problems with school – and I felt this most keenly when I was teaching in a large, results-driven academy in London – is the relentless nature of children’s schedules during term time. In a way, nobody is to blame and everyone is to blame here. It’s to do with a lack of joined-up thinking. Because the day for many children starts with finishing off a piece of homework, or preparing their book bag, or once more going through those tricky spellings with mum or dad, because – I get it – you want them to be prepared and the best they can be. But then they arrive at school and often the day is organised around a highly academic timetable (PE, Art, Drama and Music happen in many schools only once a week and that’s on a rotating schedule, meaning your budding artist might only cover art twice in an academic year). Every teacher thinks their subject is most important and expects the class to settle immediately to concentrate, regardless of whether they have just done this back to back for four periods straight. Even lunchtimes are packed with spelling club, poetry club, extra Maths support, detentions. And after the bell rings? It’s extra-curricular activities and homework for most children most of the time. Then screen time and bed. Without the space for young minds to relax and reflect, there is very little point in cramming in all this learning and experience, because they are barely digesting it. Slow down, now that we are all at home. Allow learning to come naturally in short bursts. And provide plenty of time for the body to relax and the mind to roam.
If you like this post, you will love the general content of my blog which can be found here. For more information on how children learn and practical tips to support this, check out the new weekly podcast Homeschool Coffee Break and make a note to check out my first book ‘Homeschool Works: A Teacher’s Take on the Benefits of Home Education’ when it comes out later this year with Hawthorn Press. Don’t sweat it, guys. Learning happens all the time and you too can feel empowered to recognise when it’s taking place. And look, you didn’t achieve ‘nothing’ today, did you? Doughnut.