Don’t Teach Kids… Let Them Learn

A teacher’s take on “How Children Learn”…

So, I was leaving the supermarket yesterday, as was a 2’ish year old girl and her Dad. She was ecstatic about her brand new toy camera – a big, plastic, bright red and yellow thing with a little mirror where the lens should be, clicky-noise buttons and a little hole for the viewfinder. She was holding it backwards, staring and giggling at herself in the mirror, poking her finger in the viewfinder hole and pressing at the buttons. Within a minute, the magic seemed to disappear as her Dad took it off her to show her “how to do it properly” – “hold it this way, look through here, point it at me and push down the button… like a real one!”. I shuddered. He was a lovely, caring father, who’d just purchased a fun goodie for his little girl. He certainly meant well. But, I saw her look confused, trying to use her new toy “properly”. My question… What was wrong with how she was playing with it in the first place?

This situation reminded me of something I read long ago in John Holt’s “How Children Learn”…

“I had thought that he might like Cuisenaire rods, and I was curious to see what he might do with them. So, one day when I visited his parents, I took a box of rods with me. We opened it and showed him all the little colored sticks. He was enchanted. Like glass bears to primitive people, these hundreds of pieces of brightly colored wood looked to him like the most real wealth in the words. We emptied the box out on the rug, and for a while he just sat there, picking up handfuls of the rods and letting them run through his fingers, drunk with excitement and joy, looking for all the world like a proverbial miser with his money. I know now that I should have let him go on playing with the rods in his own way, getting his own kind of pleasure out of them, taking in information about them through his eyes and fingers, gradually exploring their possibilities. At the same time, I felt I had to start him off ‘learning’ something…”
(Holt, J. 1983. ‘How Children Learn’, Penguin Books, England. p128)

Well you can guess how that story ends. Much in the same way the little girl I saw stopped marvelling over her shiny new mystery box, and instead started clumsily trying to use her toy “properly”, the boy in Holt’s anecdote wasn’t interested in ‘being taught’. Do you feel good when someone explicitly demonstrates your inferiority? Would you say out loud, “You’re not good enough at this, but I’m better than you, so just let me show you how it’s done”? I doubt it, but our actions just might send that exact message.

What I take away from all this is, don’t teach kids… let them learn! Traditionally, teachers were keepers of the truth and fact, demonstraters of the right way, there to fill kids up with knowledge and skills. Perhaps teachers are better off being a partner in a child’s learning. Offer them guidance, set up experiences in which they can learn, apply and make connections. Make learning natural and relevant. What do you think?

– Teachling

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11 thoughts on “Don’t Teach Kids… Let Them Learn

  1. I love your thoughts here! That was just what I needed to read at the end of a week where I’m already starting to feel the pressure about standards and benchmarks and curriculum and measurable learning. I think (I hope) that “letting students learn” is what all teachers worth their salt go into the classroom determined to do…it’s a shame that so much “stuff” can get in the way.

    • I completely agree! And those pressures you mention are coming at us from all angles- school, parents, systems. We need to try to remember that we’re facilitating the growth of young people that we hope will become well rounded, independent, curious and intelligent in all senses of the word (Not just teaching kids to get A’s on their tests!).

  2. Thanks ! nice post!

  3. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly!
    Sometimes what children learn through ‘being taught’ in the ways you describe is that they are unable to make their own discoveries and that there is only one ‘proper’ way of doing things. Critical thinking and problem solving skills are not developed and they will learn to wait to be told what to do and how to do it.
    I like your comment regarding pointing out someone’s inferiority with a task. We need to respect children as people first, then support them with their learning. Watching what they do and listening to how they think can provide opportunities to guide their next steps to discovery rather than forcing them down an all-too often followed and barren path.

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