By Rebecca English, PhD, education lecturer at Queensland University of Technology, www.rebeccamenglish.com
I speak to many parents who want to continue through the school years with the loving, child-led, engaged parenting that they practiced when their children were younger. I also speak to many teachers and soon-to-be-qualified teachers who yearn to develop strong attachments with their students and encourage them to be effective learners. What these two groups have in common is that they are focused on child-led learning.
In their book Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner advocate for what they call an inquiry approach to learning. The authors argue that, rather than what they call lineal/mechanistic approaches to teaching and learning, a more effective approach to education is child-led and allows children freedom to learn in their own time, at their own pace. This approach, unlike many current practices of education, is one that considers children’s needs and supports children in developing a love of learning, which is surely a great gift to give them.
Postman and Weingartner discuss nine attributes common to what they call “good learners” that sets them apart. For the purposes of this article, the term “self-directed learners” will be used. These nine attributes seem to flow naturally from parenting practices that promote secure attachment and child-led learning in the early years.
1. Self-directed learners have self-confidence
Confidence can be born from a number of places, but it usually comes from the strong attachment relationship the child has experienced in early life. In his book Dumbing Us Down, John Taylor Gatto states that a family that has provided loving, caring guidance may inoculate children from the death of confidence that he sees in schools. He states, “If you’ve ever tried to wrestle into line kids whose parents have convinced them to believe they’ll be loved in spite of anything, you know how impossible it is to make self-confident spirits conform.” Gatto suggests that students who have confidence in themselves because they know that no matter what they do they’ll be loved by their parents are much more likely to be effective learners.
2. Self-directed learners enjoy problem-solving
Just as a child who has never been rushed to learn in his family is able to take the time to master new skills so, too, self-directed learners practice and practice the skills they are trying to master. Parents can assist children in this by: making it safe for children to take their time, respecting and supporting them in their endeavors, trusting them to learn in the way that suits them best, and understanding their children’s inner rhythms and scheduling around them. This will potentially set a pattern that allows children to develop patience and tenacity in solving problems.
3. Self-directed learners seem able to recognize the skills and knowledge they need to survive
Just as a baby whose cries aren’t ignored comes to trust her instincts and caregivers so, too, do self-directed learners trust their instincts and feel able to rely on parents or good teachers when they have needs that they can’t satisfy themselves. The ways that parents respond to their children, for example by providing a safe environment for discovery, may assist children to develop this attribute.
4. Self-directed learners recognize that people don’t always know what they are talking about
According to Postman and Weingartner, self-directed learners distrust authorities that discourage them from relying on their own judgments. Children growing up in families that focus on secure attachment, autonomy and child-led learning will have had experience with being free to rely on their beliefs and judgments. Parents who respect children’s feelings while trying to understand the needs they express allow children the freedom to establish what they believe.
5. Self-directed learners are able to change their minds
Self-directed learners are able to learn new things that conflict with what they used to think and to update their attitudes accordingly. Children who learn that they will be supported in all their explorations from birth may feel safer in their ability to change their minds because they have always been free to explore with consistent, loving, caring adults.
6. Self-directed learners are not fast to answer
Self-directed learners are not always fast to answer and may sit back, observe and wait to gather as much information as possible before forming a conclusion. Parents who are prepared to listen and tune in to what their children are communicating will model this attribute, which can assist children to develop their ability to observe and answer when ready.
7. Self-directed learners are flexible
Self-directed learners are flexible because, while they hold a point of view, they are not fixated on that perspective. They see their perspective as related to a time, a place and a situation. This may follow when children are treated with kindness, respect and dignity, and are allowed the freedom to explore and learn, knowing that their ideas will be nurtured in a safe and positive environment.
8. Self-directed learners are inquiring
Self-directed learners ask questions until their needs are met. The skill of inquiry is promoted when asking for help, freely speaking about feelings, and looking for answers has been accepted and lovingly encouraged. It also seems a parenting background that encourages children to develop self-discipline and self-control would support learners to be free to inquire.
9. Self-directed learners do not need to have a final answer
Self-directed learners are able to live with uncertainty, to cope with change and to prefer honest assessments of a situation, even if that means that a person says, “I don’t know.” Learners may be better able to cope with change and uncertainty because they have a solid foundation of attachment to their caregivers, and they feel safe and able to rely on trusted others to help them when they are unsure.
10. Self-directed learners see learning as an end goal
I would like to propose a tenth attribute, which also seems to come from an environment that promotes secure attachment and child-led learning. I believe that self-directed learners see learning as an end goal. Grades, certificates, applause, degrees and graduations are less important than the joy of learning. These learners are motivated intrinsically to achieve their learning goals, and thus extrinsic rewards are not as important. Attachment Parenting seems to support this intrinsic learning motivation through using gentle or positive discipline. This type of discipline eschews rewards and punishments, encourages creative use of incentives and care when offering praise, and cautions against using labels. Thus it seems to help children to trust their own judgments, which supports them not only through their life’s journey but also through their learning journey.