When learning becomes teaching

I read something recently about how easily and unwittingly we adults turn a learning experience into a teaching experience. A particular scenario from our home came to my mind and the penny finally dropped. Here’s what happens. One of the children comes into the room with a question, usually directed at whichever of us they think likely to have the most accurate answer. The question could be anything from ‘When were Georgian times?’ to ‘What’s a pyramid scheme?’ to “How much would a castle cost?” – those are three from yesterday – and, the chosen parent answers as best they can. Sometimes, once we’ve provided an adequate answer, we just can’t resist the urge to carry on. This generally happens when we consider ourself a bit of an expert on this particular subject and think the child will benefit from our knowledge. Very occasionally, this extra (unsolicited) information turns out to be relevant to the child’s thoughts and leads on to an interesting conversation. More often, however, the child’s eyes glaze over, and they just say ‘Okay, thanks’, and and walk out the room. Sometimes, our unwanted knowledge is forcefully rejected with a pleading, ‘No more, please!’ or even a hand raised as if to protect them from the onslaught of tedious words. Point taken. It’s not great for the ego, but we learned a while ago that children aren’t there to boost our egos, so that’s okay.

What I realised is that all those times we elaborate in a way that seems right to us, we are turning a learning experience into a teaching experience. And, not only is it not useful to the child, it actually risks sabotaging the learning experience. When they come with a question, they are midway through a journey of discovery and there is a something specific they need from us in order to continue on that journey. They don’t want us to hijack their journey.  They’re not asking for a lecture about things they don’t yet need or want to know. Since I can’t read the child’s mind and know what all their thoughts around the question are, I can’t join any dots except the ones being explicitly asked of me.

And so, going back to those questions, it may seem relevant to me to start talking about the beautiful Georgian architecture of Bath, or to mention that not so far from us are a number of Cathar castles that we could go and visit some time. But that may all be completely irrelevant and distracting to them right now.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we never offer anything else but the answer. That would be unnatural and, after all, we all get enthusiastic about things. But, if we listen to our children, we can quickly understand how much is needed of us. And it becomes clear they’re not asking us to fill them with knowledge but to facilitate their journey.

What we’ve also found in this house is that the same topics often come up later as part of a discussion. The energy then is less urgent and less focused, and the topic, whether it’s the Georgian period, pyramid schemes or castles, flows from one place to another, often bringing in all sorts of political, moral and ethical ideas. Opinions and thoughts are exchanged, examined, agreed with or disagreed with, as everyone consolidates what they know and understands their own personal standpoint.

Another reason for not trying to turn a learning experience into a teaching experience is that it can undermine the child’s belief in their own capacity to learn for themselves. My daughter is learning to read right now and sometimes she’ll ask me what a word is. In the old days I would have read the word out letter by letter and put the sounds together phonetically. Firstly, that’s annoying for her as she needs to know that word right now for whatever reason and I’m just slowing her down. Secondly,  insisting that the letters need to be spelled out sends a message that I don’t have faith in her ability to work it out for herself. I know she will soon, so why not just let her know that’s what I believe.

If she had asked a different question, such as “What sound does this letter make?”, I would have told her the sound. In that case, if I had told her the whole word I would have been spoiled all her fun and she would, quite rightly, have been cross with me.

We can avoid interfering with our children’s learning processes by simply tuning in to what they are asking for. Their requests are usually straightforward – it’s the adults who tend to overcomplicate things by sneaking in some extra. Watch your child when you answer and see what signs they give you. They’ll let you know when they got what they needed to carry on their journey.

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