The misunderstood “child-led learning” model

The misunderstood child-led learning model

“Child-led learning” is a misnomer, I think. It implies that your child will take the lead in learning. Mothers, exhausted from prodding and pushing, hand the reins to their children, relieved that the pressure to “teach” is off. What sometimes follows, however, is a swing from well-ordered (if resisted) structure, to unfettered freedom and aimless wandering through the house.

The insight that “child-led learning” generates is that kids learn best when they are invested—when they care and want to learn. We see the unvarnished version of this experience when our kids play an online game or teach themselves to skip count or watch them train a pet rat to jump up the stairs. We hope that this energy for focused acquisition of skills will translate into the 3 R’s…and worry when we can’t make out if that is, in fact, happening.

Unschooling (particularly its “radical” version) sometimes appears so hands off, parents become paralyzed, unwilling to “interfere” with a child’s self-directed education for fear they are undermining the purity of that educational philosophy.

But even the most seasoned unschoolers will tell you that they are involved in their children’s learning adventures. They start by honoring a child’s natural affinities, by stepping aside and not scripting a child’s daytime activities. But that’s not where it stays. Not at all.

The best learning happens in partnership. That’s true everywhere, in every context. Yes, we can teach ourselves thousands of things without school or teachers or tests. But we all depend on tools and resources to support that learning. We read books written by experts, we go to lectures, we Google and find articles or images, we consult our phone apps, we ask our spouses, we join clubs and committees, we talk with friends over coffee, we post to discussion groups, we take classes, we compare our work to the work of skilled practitioners better at “it” than us, we get advice when we are stuck or need more assistance, we practice and then we perform (whether piano, quilting, or a holiday dinner). We get feedback and let that help us become “better at it” (whatever “it” is).

You are your child’s best resource for learning bar none. You provide a link to learning opportunities your child can’t even know exist. How would a child develop an interest in Middle English without a parent who showed him the original text of The Canterbury Tales? How would a child know about The Canterbury Tales without a parent? How would you know about them without having studied them in college or perhaps reading about them in a classical education home schooling book?

The birds in the backyard may catch a child’s interest without you exclaiming: “Oh, look at the male cardinal!” But will your child know to consult a field guide? Will she have discovered local birding groups, or the National Great Christmas Bird Count on her own?

The misunderstood child-led learning model

You are the gateway to all that “child-led learning.” Your curiosity, your love of learning, your money and transportation, your decades of experiences, your connections—your kids need these! When a child shows interest in film, it’s your iPhone she can borrow.

Some interests are passing. Some flower into lifelong passions.

Your job isn’t necessarily to follow your child’s interests around. Sometimes your job is to introduce potential interests to your child, or to live your interests in front of and with your child, and sometimes your job is to enhance the interests your child exhibits! I was never curious about the night sky, but Jacob was. We wound up at the Cincinnati Observatory, we purchased a telescope, and I watched meteor showers on blankets in our backyard in the middle of the night with him. I saw Saturn (the real planet! not just a photo in a book, my friends! it exists!) through a telescope after Jacob lined it up for me. He became the teacher, and I, the student! That moment is one of the highlights of my entire life, let alone homeschool.

We are partners to our children. We are learners. We are teachers. We are drivers, companions, cheerleaders, shoulders-to-cry-on, experts, novices, check-writers, friends, and parents.

Be involved. If your child needs to learn to tie her shoes, sit with her and help her. If she loses interest today, buy clogs. A day will come when she gets the motivation to tie her shoes herself, and she will learn.

You are free to talk to your kids, too, about your concerns for their education. Why not? Why not share: “You know, at some point you may need these times tables. Let’s see what options exist for learning them, and how they relate to all the things you care about. I am interested in your input about how we go about this subject area”? Then be interested. Find a way that works for your child.

Partnership learning is the way forward in home education. It accounts for both needs—the child’s need to get an education he or she values, and the parent’s need to participate in it and direct it to some degree.

Some days (weeks, months) will be that joyful, seamless adventure of following a child’s passion. Other days (weeks, months) will be led by a parent’s vision and enthusiasm, caught by the children.

And some days (weeks, months), you’ll trudge along until you hit one of those golden educational jags led by either of you, again.

Trust the process. Be involved. Pay attention. Care. Share. Dance—your child leads, you follow; you lead, the child follows; you both get cups of lemonade and take a break.

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3 Responses to “The misunderstood “child-led learning” model”

  1. Amy Jones says:

    This is an excellent Unschooling article, and well-written. My kids are still very young, but I can already see the benefits of letting the moments be our teachers. For instance, this week thy wanted to watch the new Alice in Wonderland (Johnny Depp) for the first time. Since then we’ve read both “Alice” books, and my almost-4-year-old has been playing with chess pieces (and knows which are which)! But, I like your point about parents letting their own wisdom and education shine through. All true. Good stuff.

  2. Lisa Fenwick says:

    I home education my 7 kids autonomously and always have, this is one if the best articles on this type of home education I have in years. Clear and honest. Well written 🙂

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