Thursday, July 28, 2016

Learning To Be A Self-Directed Learner

"We like to say that we send children to school to teach them to think. What we do, all too often, is to teach them to think badly, to give up a natural and powerful way of thinking in favor of a method that does not work well for them and that we rarely use ourselves." ~ John Holt, How Children Learn

Have I told you that my seven-year-old is going to be a professional basketball player? 

Given that Brian and I are 5'8"" and 5'4"" respectively, it's probably a long shot. But you never know.

He discovered basketball just about three months ago, when he started watching the kids play at nearby city parks and then got his first ball. Since then, it's been 'round-the-clock basketball playing and researching. He plays basketball at the local courts with other kids that he meets, often who are much older and better, and who have been so gracious and kind and helpful in including my son in their play and teaching him tips and tricks. He plays basketball in his room with the little foam hoop that follows him everywhere. He reads books from the library about basketball history, techniques, and players. He watches countless YouTube videos about dribbling and shooting, and then practices these moves endlessly. When basketball season comes around again later this fall, he wants to take a weekly basketball class for kids his age at the local YMCA. We may plan a trip soon to western Mass. to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He tells everyone that he is practicing and preparing to be a professional basketball player.

I think a big component of shifting from a schooling culture to a learning one is to appreciate the myriad ways that children learn how to learn. With our schooled lens, we grown-ups may think that a child who focuses deeply on a so-called "extra-curricular" activity is not really learning. Playing, yes. But learning? Probably not. And yet, learning is exactly what these children are doing. They are learning how to be self-directed learners. They are learning how to follow their passions, dig for more information, use the tools of our culture to expand their knowledge, read and listen and observe, collaborate with others in a shared endeavor, and practice, practice, practice. They are learning how to learn.

It is unlikely that my son will become a professional basketball player, and likely that his passion for basketball could fade in the coming weeks or months as new interests emerge. But this time he spends immersed in basketball research and discovery, in practice and play, teaches him how to be a self-directed learner. As he grows, he will use these skills of self-direction to explore increasingly more complex topics. He will know how to dig deeply into a skill or subject that interests him all on his own, to use various community and technological resources to help him expand his knowledge, to work with and learn from others, and to commit to intense practice in order to improve.

Our job as parents is to facilitate our children's self-directed learning. We can begin by removing our own schooling lens with all of its associated myths about learning, and instead appreciate that our children are natural learners. They know, instinctually, how to use the tools of their culture to pursue a passion and expand their knowledge. They need us to respect and value their nascent interests, to give them abundant time, and space, and freedom in which to learn and play, to connect them to various tools and resources, and to not stifle their self-directed learning intuition with our own judgments about what is "extra-curricular" and what isn't. 

Our children need us to shift our thinking away from schooling and toward learning. 

Because they already have.

1 comment:

  1. My son is also enamored of basketball and went through a similar period as a child. Besides playing basketball as often as he could with his sister and the neighborhood kids, he listened to the Celtics on the radio. One of my fondest memories is of being in the house of a summer, listening to the running soundtrack of my son's commentary waft in through the window, calling his own "game" as he spent hours in the driveway, dribbling and driving toward the hoop. His first real piece of writing, at age 11, was about basketball, too. He still follows the Celtics, but now he's a musician :)


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