How to facilitate a self-directed learner

A parent recently asked me what kind of online resources I would suggest they get for their 11-year old son. Their child has been out of school for only a few weeks and, in the spirit of embracing self-directed learning, they are keen to make sure he has everything he needs to stay engaged. I was reminded of myself some years ago, looking up learning materials and resources, trying to figure out which ones my children might connect with most. It seemed to me that, since it was my role to facilitate my children’s learning and to ensure they had access to a rich variety of things, I needed to lay it all out in front of them. With the benefit of hindsight, I recognise the lurking anxiety and my fear that they might miss out on things that other children were coming across at school. Was I facilitating their interests? Not really. More like trying to lay a wide pathway down and assuming/hoping they would follow it. What I didn’t realise at the time was that even the widest pathway presented by someone else can only ever be limiting. To my schooled mind it probably felt like these resources would cover most bases. In actual fact, anything we present to our children can only ever represent a miniscule sliver of all that is out there for them to explore.

Consequently, when we attempt to direct our children (even when we may call it facilitating), we are inevitably going to limit them. It didn’t take long for me to stop “facilitating” things my children hadn’t asked for. Resources I thought looked great were dismissed as boring, or were dipped into then abandoned in favour of other resources they found themselves. These, they found easily when they needed them, through enjoyable, angst-free research. These resources have, over the years, been an extraordinarily rich collection of apps, activities, platforms, courses, classes and books. There is no way that I could ever have guessed or preempted most of these. They include a platform for researching the family tree, countless language apps, a website for documenting and tracking a coin collection, programmes for learning musical instruments, online resources for graphic design, game development, history and geography quizzes, map drawing and many other things, and piles and piles of books. They excel at finding what they need and I notice that they often rely on a variety of different sources to feed their interests. So, one of them pursues their interest in politics through books, TV debates and conversation. Another, in their language learning, regularly jumps between apps, books, YouTube songs and original version films, depending on their mood and what they think will work best for them that day. As they have got older, understanding and finding what they need has become second nature to them. So, I’ve found that my main task so far as facilitating resources goes is to keep an eye out for interesting things that may not be on their radar and just let them know about them.

Accompanying such intuitive and unpredictable journeys is incredibly rich and interesting, and, by its very nature, also intuitive and unpredictable. Oftentimes, nothing is needed of me at all, except perhaps to hear about their endeavours and discoveries, offer a snack, or facilitate a calm space in which they can get on with whatever they’re doing. Other times there might be a course to sign up to, or an email to help compose. If someone is feeling stuck, frustrated at something, or ready to take an interest to a new level but not sure what that might be, then I might help them out by doing some research or lending a listening ear.

Along with being intuitive, facilitating (as opposed to directing) has no strings attached and no vested interest. There is no end goal except to help the child move to the next step if that’s what they want. Unless we are confident that we genuinely don’t care about the outcome, then any suggestion we make carries a subtle weight. When we do care about the outcome, we are highly likely to find ourselves in the directing space, and prone to using gentle coercion in order for things to go to plan. This territory is unsustainable. It is the space where we are delighted with our children making their own choices – except when we know better, or we don’t trust them.

As well as there being no strings attached, any input we have needs to go at the child’s pace. If their learning journey were a line on a piece of paper, it is highly unlikely to be straight. Rather, it would probably plod along for a while before soaring to some great height on the sheet, then swoop back down, before rising again, plodding for a while and so on. Where are they right now and what do they need? Something to help them soar? Something to accompany the slow plodding? Try to match your response to their journey, tricky though this can be. It’s easy to over-facilitate and cross the line into directing. Who hasn’t once got over-enthusiastic about one of their children’s new interests? And who hasn’t noticed their child recoil at their enthusiasm? Particularly if we’re feeling a bit insecure, or if they are recovering from anxiety or school trauma, a new interest can feel like a real breakthrough. But, too much enthusiasm on our part will often create resistance in our children. Why? Because we hijacked their journey. Our enthusiasm may feel like an expectation, or it may feel like we are trying to take control.

I think that adults often underestimate how valuable the path of discovery itself is. We are so overwhelmingly fixated on results and on getting somewhere that we forget the intrinsic joy of the process, of discerning each little step forward. Our children are doing this every day in myriad tiny ways. Understanding what they don’t want, clarifying what they do want, making choices that feel as aligned as possible. To swoop in there with solutions is to vastly underestimate this intricate, personal process that ultimately only they can undertake. This is all at the heart of who they are, and it’s quite right that they protect it from adult sledgehammer thinking.

Of course, there are no set rules to how much input you should give and how you give it. Like all things human, much will depend on the day, the mood, the topic, and on how your child is feeling. I have certainly had the experience of sitting with a child to help them figure something out, then finding that the next day they groan loudly when I cheerfully bring the topic up. Different day, different feeling. And, if you have more than one child, you’ll probably notice that they require different kinds of support from you. The suggestions and facilitating that are welcomed by one may well feel controlling and directive to another.

Here, I think it is helpful to also add some thoughts about children who have a particularly strong need for autonomy, such as (but not only) PDA children. In these cases, it’s extremely easy for us to cross the line without realising it. My experience is that a simple conversation can easily move from one side to the other in a heartbeat. Sometimes, they might spot something in our demeanour or tone of voice that suggests that this has some weight to it, that we have some expectation of them. In which case, rather than get defensive and insist that we really don’t, it’s better to back off and just sit with that for a moment. We may find that when we examine our motives, there actually is an edge of fear or mistrust. That we have suggested something, not because we think it’s a fabulous fit for them, but because we’re anxious about their learning. Equally, a genuinely innocent suggestion may cause them to feel under demand. If your child gets anxious when they feel something is expected of them, then time spent exploring this territory and tuning into their responses is time valuably spent.

As with almost everything in parenting, the best way to know how it’s all going is simply to pay attention to how it feels. When you facilitate something and your child appreciates your input, it flows and feels easy. There is a sense of partnership to it, of discovering and being curious together. You get to join your child on their path and to see where it all leads. It feels light and open-ended. The minute we are directing, or that is what the child perceives, things are weightier. You can feel the energy shift as expectations, perceived or real, suck the joy out of the room, defences are put in place and nothing flows. The open path starts to narrow, to feel rushed, controlled, limited.

And that’s our cue, to take a deep breath, to acknowledge these feelings, and to remember that accompanying and facilitating someone else’s journey is not necessarily easy. That it is about allowing them to explore and move through life in a way that feels true to them. And for that reason, it really is okay and normal for any child to resist following a path, however caringly and thoughtfully laid out, that isn’t completely and authentically their own. And it’s okay for us to just keep learning as we go.

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