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What Children Teach Us about Learning

By November 6, 2020No Comments

Children are more equipped to be expert learners than we are! They have an intuitive learning style that helps them to use their brains in ways that acquire and use knowledge extremely effectively. Great educators like the staff at The Mulberry House School, understand and recognise this when they plan and develop learning opportunities and experiences for  children, whatever their age or developmental needs.

All educators work hard to create the environment and conditions that enable children to do their best learning whilst enjoying themselves at the same time. This means that school is a place where every child is encouraged to use and improve the styles of thinking and learning that come most naturally to them. Weight and importance are given to encourage the personal attributes of curiosity, independence, patience and courage that are known to be  pervading features of successful thinking and understanding. These are highly prized and seen as fundamental early learning tools that sharpen imagination, improve the depth of questioning and facilitate problem solving. Additionally, educators recognise that children’s brains work best when given time to absorb experiences and not rushed into action through artificial exercises that can often appear disconnected to reality.

John Holt in his classic educational text, How Children Learn, first published way back in 1967, was the first to make clear that for very young children in particular, learning is as natural as breathing. Consequently, perhaps there are things we, as adults, can learn from our children to reconnect with our most favoured learning style.

In this short article, our intention is to explore what our children may be able to teach us about learning. By observing them more closely we can be amazed and proud of how capable they actually are to enjoy and complete many tasks we may initially have believed were beyond them. As professionals with many years’ experience, we are constantly surprised by the intelligence, patience, skill and resourcefulness children reveal to us as they go about their daily activities and engage with the act of learning whether at home or school.

Interestingly, there are several adult behaviours that appear to frustrate children when they are in this act of learning. We believe, many of these also resonate with our adult frustrations:

  • Being given more help than is actually needed
  • Being subjected to constant supervision and instruction
  • Not being trusted to make progress independently
  • Constant interruptions
  • Being told there is only one way to do something
  • Fear of risk taking and avoidance of any perceived dangers or difficulties
  • Abrupt timetabling and scheduling that allows little flexibility for learning to flow

With this in mind, here are the top five things we think our children can teach us about teaching and learning.

  1. Isummaksaiyuq – to cause and increase thought

At The Mulberry House School, we are careful to make sure the word education is not linked exclusively to school and the traditional concept of schooling. We believe that everything about children’s engagement with the world around them should be considered as a learning opportunity. This engagement is how children develop a sense of personal agency (personal autonomy to act) and how they begin to understand that the behaviours and actions they chose can make a difference not only to themselves, but to those around them.

For example, a baby of less than six months of age is able to recognise that by cooing and babbling they are able to attract and maintain the undivided attention of their adult carer. They quickly learn about cause and effect and that by doing certain things they can make their adult carer respond and can even control the length of the engagement.

In the traditional Inuit way of raising children, children’s agency is greatly respected through the idea of isummaksaiyuq – translated this means to cause and increase thought. Adults actively use provocation in gentle ways to stimulate deeper consideration of the important and sensitive issues children engage with in their daily living. Every situation and context is seen as a learning opportunity.

  1. Natural learning power

Children are great copiers. Imitation is a strategy they use constantly to extend and develop their knowledge, skills and understanding. They watch us all the time and often, without realising, we provide a constant and immediate role model for them. What we learn from them is that in their copying, they pay great attention to detail and intuitively use deliberate practice to improve and constantly refine how they do things.  They display natural learning power that enables them to develop self-awareness, regulation and the capacity to improve on a previous best.

Holt refers to this as a sophisticated form of workmanship where children try extremely hard to please, not only themselves but also those around them. In taking this approach, they constantly refine their skills, taking care to build improvement into their actions. They apply an observe, reflect, refine process to all aspects of their learning, often with impressive results. For example, in their first three years of life children’s brains grow at a speed never repeated in response partly to their ability to copy, repeat and improve.

More recently researchers have become increasingly interested in this concept of metacognition although the best definition of metacognition comes from the work of Flavell who in 1976 described it as:

knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes or anything related to them.

From a very young age children are showing us their beliefs about themselves as learners as well as their abilities to regulate their actions in order to apply their growing knowledge and skills in the pursuit of new learning. At The Mulberry House, we use our understanding of metacognition to promote learning and support children to think about how they approach learning tasks and what helps them personally to succeed and improve.

  1. Stepping out without fear

The instinct to strive for independence is strong in children of all ages. As soon as babies realise they are separate human beings and have the power to make things happen or not happen, they become keen to pursue safe independence. Confidence flourishes if children feel safe and secure. This remains the same throughout our lives. We do our best work when we are not inhibited by fear or anxiety. There can be no doubt that any element of fear or anxiety stops learning, sometimes abruptly.

We are best able to apply ourselves, concentrate, recover from mistakes and try new things when there is no fear of failure or ridicule. At The Mulberry House School our learning environments and structures are such that children’s individual needs for security are a fundamental and ever-changing consideration. This doesn’t mean that we avoid allowing children to make mistakes. Maria Montessori, founder of the world-famous Montessori educational approach recognised the value of mistake making as an important component of learning. She wrote:

So, it is well to cultivate a friendly feeling toward error, to treat it as a companion inseparable from our lives, as something having a purpose, which it truly has.

We believe an existence free from mistake making  offers  little challenge, risk or excitement. Often children who are willing to take a chance and to have a go, accomplish significant things. However, this must all be seen within the context of safe and warmly responsive  environments.  Children like adults may feel safe in one situation and very unsafe in another. Recognising and responding to this as an ever-present dynamic that requires sensitivity, empathy and recognition from adults should always be at the forefront of our mind.

  1. The power of language and exchange

Not only do children mimic us, they also listen more intently than we may actually notice. For example, they frequently use specific phrases or sayings they can only have heard from their main caregivers, whether at home or school. Again, starting in early babyhood, they are fascinated by adult talk, the tone of voice we use and the actions and expressions we use to bring our conversations to life.

Although, clearly not as practised as us, they are keen to copy, reciprocate and join in as much as possible. We often find such attempts charming and endearing in their simplicity yet they represent so much more. Spontaneous, turn taking conversations cultivate a respect for the art of meaning making through speaking and listening. These are often referred to as serve and return interactions. They play an important part in shaping brain architecture and building the positive neural connections so important for the development of strong communication and social skills.

This meaning making simultaneously develops an awareness of how human relationships and sustain themselves, building and growing through the give and take nature of successful interaction that is both fun and purposeful.

Children intuitively know to give time to such interactions. They refuse to be rushed, savouring the richness of effective exchanges and demanding answers to the many questions such exchanges generate. Yet, all too often, we cut short our conversations with children because we are busy with other things or even because we feel they may not understand enough to be involved in a particular discussion. In doing this, golden learning opportunities are lost.

At The Mulberry House School we recognise that the best support for language development is a responsive adult able and willing to ensure every child receives the time and encouragement to say what they want to say. The impact of this is that children too, lead by example demanding respectful conversations with and between each other. The Finnish Board of Education in their core curriculum for pre-primary children summarise this approach perfectly:

The basis for emerging literacy is that children have heard and listened, they have been heard, they have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed things with them, and they have asked questions and received answers. 

  1. Children as leaders of their own learning

Research from brain science over the last thirty years has hugely increased our knowledge of how the human brain develops over the life course. What is now accepted by neuroscientists, psychologists, paediatricians and educationalists alike is that over the period birth to five, children’s brains are developing at a phenomenal pace in response to the inputs they receive from both the adults and environments around them. Central to this is an enhanced understanding of human cognition. Across the life course it is becoming evident that poor cognitive fitness is a significant risk factor and a cause of mental illness. It seems that the weaker our cognition, the greater we are predisposed to mental illnesses, both psychiatric and neurological.

Cognition is the process by which we understand, make sense of things and ultimately behave. It dictates every aspect of human thinking and behaviour. We can break cognition down into five core domains.

Courtesy of My Cognition: 2019

For children, free play, independent exploration and ownership of their learning are all critical to exercising the five domains. Respected educator, the late Lillian Katz, implored adults not to underestimate the potential of unrestricted child-initiated play as an enabler to the development of effective cognition. Children know that the play they need is open ended, unscheduled and intrinsically motivated. It is certainly not adult dependant or directed and has no pre-defined outcome. It is both natural and authentic.

To end

So, it seems that children have a lot to show us about how good learning happens. This emphasises the critical importance of fully embracing the period of human development we call childhood. When supported and encouraged with care and understanding all children will naturally teach us, not only about their immediate needs, unique interests and expertise but also what matters, motivates and inspires them. It is our collective responsibility as educators to acknowledge the individuality of each child, opening up a world of experiences and opportunities that meet them where they are whilst gently moving them forwards. Finally then, let’s reflect on the words of John Holt:

It is interesting to see how much of their later selves children reveal when they are very little.