Before I studied education, I rarely (if ever) gave any thought to educational philosophy. Teachers teach, students learn. It’s simple. It’s like a math equation. Teaching equals learning. If I want my child to learn things, someone will need to teach her those things. I never questioned my belief in how it important it is for loving adults to teach children all the things they need to know. It was a simple truth of our world. But of course, nothing is ever simple when you look beneath the surface.
Teaching equals learning? Well, not exactly. Teaching is no guarantee of learning. Anyone who regularly attempts to teach children things will attest to the fact that it is entirely possible for children to sit through lessons and learn exactly nothing at all of the subject matter. A lot of resources and effort is spent on making sure that the teaching is the best teaching, using the best materials and curriculum. And we put a lot of effort into making sure the students are prepared to learn. And yet, sometimes, despite our best efforts, they just don’t.
And learning happens without any formal teaching all the time. As long as they spend enough time on the floor, babies teach themselves to walk. As long as someone talks to them, toddlers teach themselves to talk. Children learn a mind-boggling amount about their world before they ever start school. Learning these things is just part of their normal development. It is what they are built to do. They do this self-teaching when they’re two years old, and four years old, and eight years old, and twelve. They do it in school, or out, asleep or awake, wherever they are. This constant learning is fairly well accepted at this point. There is growing evidence that in our highly literate, Facebook and text-messaging society, kids will learn to read, whether or not anyone intentionally teaches them. The same is true of math, at least the sort of math that we all make use of as we go about our lives. Even higher maths like calculus can be self-taught if a student has the right resources. And good luck teaching calculus to a student who doesn’t want to learn it, and has no use for it in her life. How many adults actually remember anything from the higher math we learned in school?
But there is pretty widespread agreement that kids do need to be formally taught some things. The question that every teacher has to answer for herself, and I would strongly encourage every parent to consider, is how much do kids need to be formally taught, and how should that teaching happen, and when?
This question is at the core of some of the biggest educational controversies. Should education be teacher directed or child directed? Who should decide what kids learn, and when? The parents, teachers, or the children themselves? Traditional school systems tend to lean heavily towards teacher-directed learning. Unschooling families and Sudbury style democratic schools lean heavily towards child-directed. Some specialized schools and programs, such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia exist on the spectrum between the two general approaches. All approaches have been shown to be capable of producing competent and successful adults.
In college, we learned about a variety of studies that have been performed to compare direct instruction approaches with open-ended, child-directed learning. In these studies, children were presented with a toy that did a thing. When the researcher (or ‘teacher’) taught the children how to make the toy do the thing, they learned quickly and efficiently. When they were simply handed the toy, with no instructions whatsoever, they still learned to make the toy do the thing. It took longer, but they eventually figured it out. And along the way they explored, investigated and played, discovering many other things that the toy could do. Things that the researchers themselves had not considered. The learning process was driven by the children’s own curiosity and creativity.
So, there are pros and cons to both approaches. If the goal is to make sure kids learn specific information as efficiently as possible, direct teaching is best. If the goal is to promote the child’s overall development, and unleash their creativity, curiosity and self-confidence, it’s best not to teach them, and simply provide them the materials and resources they need to discover things for themselves.
As for me, I choose a mix of both, with a strong emphasis on child-directed learning. Letting Cat’s creativity and curiosity flourish, and fostering things like independent problem solving and internal motivation are the most important things to me. They are important on their own, but based on my study of the research we have now, I am coming to believe more and more that gains in those areas will actually lead to better results in traditional academic subjects like reading and math. I’m seeing evidence of this already. I don’t teach her to read, or solve math equations. I simply provide her with resources and assist her when she asks me to.
Piaget once said “When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of learning it for himself.” This quote bothered me for a long time, until I really understood it. The idea that teaching can take something away from a child seemed monstrously wrong at first. But I can’t ignore Piaget. He’s the developmental theorist who first proposed the notion that kids construct their own learning. Most of my work with children is based on ideas that originated with his work. And I’ve come to agree with him entirely.
So, now I consider carefully before I tell Cat anything. I weigh the benefits of directly teaching her – just telling her what she needs to know, versus waiting and letting the world teach her its lessons. I teach her how to safely cross the street, but she directs her learning with books and blocks and toys. I make decisions about things like toothbrushing and sunscreen. She makes decisions about things like screen time consumption and bedtime. There’s no right answer to how to balance these things. Every family is unique and deals with unique circumstances.
I have to work hard to overcome habits built up over many years of doing things differently. Sometimes I have a voice in my head screaming “Be careful! Don’t use so much glue! Don’t dump the toys everywhere! That toy is not a hammer! Please do not pour that on your head. Look at this mess! Here, let me show you how to do it.” But I try hard to keep thoughts like that to myself. I try very hard to either keep silent, or replace my warnings and instructions with non-judgmental observations or open-ended questions. “Does that feel stable to you? What are you going to do with that glue? I see you pounding the nail with a piece of plastic fruit. How is that working out for you? Your hair is blue! Would you like a mirror so you can see?”
The delightful thing about switching from warnings and instructions to observations and questions, is that I’ve entered a world where Cat and I learn side by side, and teach each other. We have made discoveries about the possibilities our world offers that never would have happened if I was determined to exert more control on Cat’s learning.