What exactly does it mean to “teach your child how to learn”? Are there specific techniques to do that? Are there books or DVDs that will teach you how to teach your child to learn? Do children actually need to be taught how to learn?
As I wrote in my post, 10 Goals of Self-Directed Homeschooling, one of my primary goals as a self-directed homeschooler is indeed to teach my children how to learn. After that post got shared in the Facebook group page for my friend, Jennifer’s McGrail’s Free To be Unschooling Conference, Jennifer – who, by the way, I find to be one of the wisest minds that there is inside the unschooling community – said that she disagreed with the idea that children need to be taught how to learn. She said that learning is just what human beings of all ages do.
And that got me thinking about the nuances of what I meant when I said that teaching my children how to learn is one of my main goals, and how that might fit in (or not) with Jennifer’s perspective. I don’t disagree with her assertion that human beings learn all the time, and I can’t even disagree completely with her contention that they don’t need to be taught how to learn. I just can’t completely agree with her, either, and here’s why:
It may be that Jennifer’s children have just naturally known exactly how to get from Point A to Point B without any guidance, but my children have often run into obstacles that they did not know how to get past on their own as they have been working diligently on learning something – especially as the things they’ve wanted to know or do have gotten more difficult or more sophisticated. My experience with my children has shown me that when it’s needed and requested, explicit instruction that shows them how to navigate the intricacies of learning something reduces their frustration and increases the odds that they will be successful.
I wrote, “Kids need to know how to ask the right questions, to identify and separate what they know and what they don’t know, to locate and evaluate resources, to study, and to determine when what they’ve learned is enough. Those skills are much easier to teach in the context of something that is meaningful to them than in something that kids haven’t claimed as interesting or useful for themselves.” So now, to use a phrase from my favorite pastor, let’s unpack that all.
It just so happens too that I have an excellent example from today to use to illustrate the whole process! Erica is 14. Most of her friends are either already in school or are seriously considering going to school next year. She is expressing dissatisfaction with what she’s learning and accomplishing in an environment without much structure or accountability. Since self-directed homeschooling is about being responsive to a child’s wants and needs, the dialogue about school or taking a more schoolish approach to her education at home has been opened. I’ll put each element of my post about teaching my kids how to learn into bold below, explain more about what I mean, and follow up with what that looked like today with my daughter.
I don’t have a “critical thinking class”. Teaching my kids how to learn isn’t a one-time event to be checked off my to-do list. There isn’t a book or a DVD. Instead, it’s something that I purposefully and intentionally do every single time a natural opportunity to do so comes up.
What does it mean to have kids know how to ask the right questions? Have you ever wanted to learn something but felt so overwhelmed by the task that you ended up mired in analysis paralysis? When you either have too many ideas and questions, or there’s simply too much that you don’t know, it’s tough to formulate the right questions. Ironically, though, it’s forming the right questions that is the key to breaking that paralysis.
As I was writing this post, I came to a point where I was looking for a particular word for a literary device that relies on a reader’s background knowledge in order to understand it. I could not, for the life of me, remember it, so I turned to Google. Google answers questions, and the answers it yields are only as good as the search criteria provided. I had to ask and re-ask several times to get the right answer. Being able to rephrase questions is important. As an adult now with lots of experience with evaluating and sorting questions, I don’t typically need much help here. But I only know what to do and how to do it because it was modeled for me explicitly over and over again when I was a child.
So here, rather than leaving my kids to languish in a state of overwhelm, I step in and help. Notice help. Not take over. I start the brainstorming process. I ask clarifying questions. I prod them to ask themselves the sort of questions they’ll need to answer in order to evaluate the questions they have.
Thankfully none of my kids are prone to doing things just because their friends are doing them. I still wanted to understand what’s driving Erica’s desire for a more schoolish approach to education, though. And more importantly, I want her to understand it…and both require those critical thinking skills. I started with the obvious, “Do you want to go to school?” I waited and listened while she answered. Erica said something about wanting to be caught up with her peers in all of the subjects they’re learning, and something else about wanting a well-rounded education. The person who doesn’t care (or doesn’t know) about asking the right questions will accept that at face value. The person who does will dig a little deeper into what each of those mean to her. When I asked her, it was apparent that she hadn’t thought to think about questioning her own statements, and the discussion subsequently continued but it was more reflective and introspective after that.
What does it mean for kids to identify and separate what they know and what they don’t know? Have you ever had the very frustrating experience of not understanding something, but not being able to quite identify what it is that you don’t understand or why you don’t understand it? Have you ever sought to learn some information, thought you understood it, and then been surprised to discover that you actually didn’t understand what you thought you had understood when you went to use the skill or information? Have you ever had to expand on a base of knowledge or skill that you already have?
As Erica and I were talking about what kind of experience she wants to have and what she wants to learn during her high school years, we also talked about what she already knows and what she doesn’t know yet. She expressed an interest in having me either buy or create a class about government for her. With the benefit of having taken a government class before, I was able to advise her that it would be beneficial for her to do a comprehensive study of US history first. I’m never one to be a slave to sequential learning, but I do see the value in having a certain background knowledge first in some instances. Because I want her to exercise those critical thinking muscles, I didn’t tell her that she had to take a US history class first. I asked her probing questions to allow her to expose for herself the value of doing so.
What does it mean for kids to locate and evaluate resources? To me, one of the most awesome things about homeschooling is the tremendous flexibility we have to utilize whatever resources we want in order to learn something. The resources out there are seemingly un-endless! But they aren’t all created equally. And they aren’t all going to be the best or most efficient resources for everyone.
I’ll date myself here, but I remember the card catalog in the library. I remember having to sort through card after card to find the bibliographical information and the location of the book inside of the library. If someone had dumped me in the middle of the library and told me to find Book X, Y, Z but hadn’t ever shown me how to locate it, I’d have been lost! If no one had ever talked to me about the importance of critically evaluating the sources of material, I may believe that The Enquirer is as good a source as Encyclopedia Britannica. These days, kids have even more information to shift through than I did as a child. While they don’t have to go card by card through the catalog, they do need to know where they can possibly find reliable resources for the skills and information they want.
Going back to my discussion with my daughter today, we talked about the different options that were available to her (that she hadn’t even considered). She could take an interior decorating class from Landry Academy. She’s already using Khan Academy now that she’s decided it’s important to her to learn more math. But did she know that Khan Academy also has science videos, history videos, and civics videos? And now that she does know that those are available, how can she evaluate them for quality and worldview? She could take lab sciences at community college. She can search online for free courses to improve her computer skills.
What does it mean for kids to study? Or, what do I mean when I say that it’s important to me that my kids learn how to study? I mean that there are efficient and inefficient ways of learning things. There are efficient and inefficient ways of taking notes. There are efficient and inefficient ways of tracking information and projects. There are efficient and inefficient ways of managing tasks. Those are basic life skills. They’re also highly personal; what works for one person may not work for another.
Erica is looking for more structure to her learning and for ways to track or measure her progress. The answer to that, as I told her, isn’t necessarily to go to school (although we could certainly discuss that as an option). The answer to that lies in finding an efficient way for her to track the scope and sequence of what she wants to learn and an efficient means of getting clear feedback on her progress. Those are skills that she hasn’t currently mastered. I’m well-equipped to help her discover what works best for her, but it will take an intentional, hands-on approach.
What does it mean for kids to determine when what they’ve learned is enough? When someone else has designed the scope and sequence of your education, your education on the topic is over when you turn the last page or fill in the last bubble on the answer sheet. When you have control over what you learn, the education on the topic is over when you quit seeking out more information. But how do you know when to do that? When is enough, enough? Sometimes it’s obvious. You have the information or the skill needed to perform the task. Your interest is waning. Other commitments are crowding that one out. Other times, it’s less obvious.
I published this blog long before I’ve learned everything I think I should know about WordPress (and, eh-hem, other skills associated with building a blog online). If I had waited to publish until I knew everything I needed to know about WordPress, Divi, and online marketing, this blog would remain unpublished for years. There will always be something new or more to learn. I want my kids to know that sometimes it’s okay to move forward with good enough.
Erica and I talked about what she wanted to learn. She wants to me to craft a US History and literary analysis combo for her for this next school year. I can certainly do that, but now I will have to figure out where to stop! What’s good enough? What’s actually really important to know? What’s particularly interesting? How many connections do we want to build? How long can we spend on it? I can see myself very easily devolving into that state of analysis paralysis that I talked about earlier because there is so much information out there that it’s impossible to cover it all, if I’m not able to make the determination about when we’ve covered enough early on. Making that determination is something I can and will model for my kids. I’ll get Erica’s input, and talk through my thought process as I’m creating it.
If your kids have been in school, they’re used to someone else telling them what to learn, when to learn it, how much of it to learn, and which resources to use to learn it. Speaking from my own experience as a student, when it’s not personally meaningful, it becomes very easy just to open up, let someone else shovel it in, and then swallow. Critical thinking skills atrophy. The right questions become the ones on the test. If they can memorize, they can coast through a lot of classes without ever having a true understanding of what they’re supposed to have learned and more alarming to me, without ever questioning whether they’ve truly learned anything. There’s oftentimes no need to locate or evaluate resources; they use what the teacher gives them. The learning is over when the bell rings or when they finish the final exam. If you’ve pulled your kids out of school, teaching them how to learn becomes, in my opinion, more important than what they learn.
When I say that one of my goals as a self-directed homeschooler is to teach my children how to learn, I mean that many (if not most) people learn best by having someone somewhere along the line model for them what they’re trying to learn. It may be heresy to say in an unschooler’s community, but I don’t believe that direct, explicit instruction is a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing in my mind when it’s compulsory and forced upon someone. I want my kids to be comfortable benefiting from the wisdom and experience of other people who have successfully done what they are trying to do. I want my kids to appreciate the power of a collaborative effort. Learning how to learn is a respectful process that typically starts with one of us expressing an interest in something another is doing. Teaching my kids how to learn is really about helping them live life in a deeper, more meaningful way than they would if they never took the time to ponder, reflect, and question.