When adults don’t measure the learning…

Something I’ve noticed over the years is that even when other adults can appreciate the depth of a self-directed child’s learning, they can rarely hold back their questions about how the child will turn this learning into something demonstrable, i.e. an exam score or a job. It is extremely hard for them to separate the learning process itself—and the intrinsic satisfaction and joy that comes from finding things out because you want to—from some kind of output or outcome. It seems unfathomable in our society that a child might delve into a topic for a day, a week, or maybe even years, for the simple reason that they want to. Often, the adult gaze translates into comments like, “So how will you make a living out of that?” or, “You should get GCSE in it” and, of course, when in doubt, “But what about maths?” There is an irresistible desire to nail it all down, put it into a neat order, get some proof of learning and to sort the worthy knowledge from the unworthy. Because, it seems, if you can’t prove to everyone that you know this, then it doesn’t really count in life. If we can’t measure it, it has no meaning, so it must be a waste of time.

When did we get so profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that learning is what humans are naturally driven to do? Learning isn’t just a means to prove our worth in the world. It goes far deeper than that. It is our own unique way of developing and creating our path through life. There is little more rich and fulfilling than discovering new things and mastering new skills, just for the joy of it. Most of us will have had this experience as adults, so why would children be different?

Just watch a toddler learn to speak. It’s an entirely self-directed process, driven by the desire to communicate and to take part in life. If we thought we knew better than our toddlers and attempted to direct that process externally we would almost certainly sabotage it. We would take it from being an intrinsically motivated journey of discovery, to being a difficult struggle about learning the right words on the right day and fitting in the necessary daily hours of speaking. We would correct them, try to rush them on to full sentences before they’re ready, and worry about their progress. Rather than them seeing delight on our faces with their early attempts to speak, they might see our concern that they’re not doing it quite well enough, that they are behind. Learning to speak might well start to be more about pleasing the parent and getting things right. No more happy experimenting just because it’s fun.

In the same way, deep learning comes from the inside and follows a path that only the learner can dictate. When I look at my teenage sons and their journeys through life so far, I am fascinated by the intensely personal nature of their learning and how it evolves. Theirs are unpredictable, organic journeys of discovery, driven by their own curiosity and desire to know. Their areas of knowledge and interests overlap, but are also quite different, because they are different people. The lack of any set curriculum gives them the freedom to explore whatever they want to explore. The fact that there is no end goal means that things can go wherever they are meant to go. No one is assessing what they are doing, comparing them to someone else, suggesting ways to do it better, telling them they should make more effort, or attempting to change the direction of it. Any one of these would stifle the process. The most they need from us is a listening ear, someone to converse with about what they are interested in, and sometimes the offer of resources, or suggestions of ways to expand on it all.

As they share thoughts and discoveries with us, it is obvious how fulfilling their learning is for them. It follows interesting roads, makes twists and turns, goes off on tangents, and sometimes comes full circle. There are a number of cheerful catchphrases in this house which I hear multiple times a day, and which include, “Do you want to know something interesting?”, “Fun fact!”, and “Can I show you this video?”

It is also quite mind-blowing to me. I was a fairly typical student, reasonably good at some things and motivated mostly by the negative implications of not doing well on tests and homework. I ticked enough boxes and did well enough in my exams. But, if I compare my box-ticking learning to how deeply my children’s learning fulfils them and becomes a part of them, my “good” GCSE results pale in comparison. Sadly, it is no secret in this house that on many topics I am falling behind. My eldest son gave up explaining something to me yesterday, because I lacked the ground knowledge to grasp what he was talking about. He graciously told me that he didn’t really have the energy to start from such a basic level. I spend a lot of time Googling things…

Since most of us went to school and because society is so fixated on measuring outcomes, valuing the process of learning itself over the outcome is perhaps one of the biggest deschooling challenges, and where many parents, new to life beyond school, feel some anxiety. The result can be a sort of halfway house, where the children are mostly trusted on their learning journeys, but have to tick some boxes just to soothe mum and dad. The problem is though, that you can’t have things both ways. The minute we impose some external goal on something, it changes its course. The learning of a self-directed child is joyful precisely because it is free of external measuring, and an untrusting adult gaze is likely to only undermine their confidence in their journey.

Of course, none of this means that self-directed children don’t enjoy learning with other children, or being taught by people who really know their stuff. My children have all sought out groups and tutors in specific things when that has felt right to them. And, none of this means that a self-directed child won’t choose to take exams if that’s what makes sense to them. Both of my sons have chosen to study English and maths so that they can take those exams if and when they need them. The process for these could not look more different from their other interests, even though technically these classes are also their own choice (though I think they would both argue that they are a choice imposed on them by society). This is passion-free learning carried out specifically for the purpose of passing an exam. My older son has done his best to make maths more interesting. He sometimes uses a Chinese abacus and has a fascinating book on mathematics that he hopes will spark more enthusiasm. But ultimately, the life force that is brought to other interests is mostly absent. I just published a podcast with Dr Naomi Fisher (author of Changing our Minds) and she makes the point that two children learning the same thing may look the same, but the one who is doing it out of genuine choice is having a very different inner experience. Measuring learning and ticking boxes may feel superficially soothing, but true learning is an open-ended exploration that comes from a place of deep curiosity and lasts a lifetime. It’s really worth reassessing our relationship with those boxes in order to see our children lit up by what is truly meaningful to them.

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