Motivating children to learn. Planning an exciting and engaging lesson. Wondering how to provide a learning experience. All the bane of a primary teachers’ life when approaching a new topic for the term or school year. Too often, I see teachers wondering what sorts of activities to offer their students in the hope that they will be engaged and motivated to participate and demonstrate the learning outcomes sought after.
What activity shall we do? What will they find interesting? All sound questions on the part of a well-intentioned teacher. Yet these questions demonstrate a fundamentally different approach to the organisation of a classroom program than what theory would suggest regarding the way children learn.
If we are to assume that children attend school with a deficit of knowledge, that only school and parents can address by ‘filling the children up’ with content, then the approach of planning engaging activities is relevant. Children simply would not think of engaging in activities themselves that might initiate and direct their own learning, and therefore it is only right that the adults responsible for their health and well-being provide an array of activities that will ensure their educational needs are suitably met.
However, if we position ourselves to consider what children have already experienced in their few years here, as well as understand the basic biological programming within each human being, we may view the capabilities of children directing their own learning in an entirely different way. Children, when left to their own devices, naturally inquire about the world around them. If given freedom to explore, strangely enough, children will engage in activities from which they will learn from and make connections to their already existing bank of knowledge.
The question is, however, is the learning that they engage with through their own explorations valued and suitable to society’s general expectation of what constitutes knowledge? This is often where educators come unstuck. Many will agree that children, when left to explore and inquire, can’t help but learn new things. But are those things important and moreover, can they be measured to demonstrate the progress the children are making? This is where many run into difficulty. The only manageable and reasonable way in which to measure knowledge is firstly to define what is valued and then how it will be measured.
Cue the traditional ‘subject’ paradigm. For decades, knowledge has been compartmentalised into areas to be studied. Primarily these areas have been associated with vocational pathways and key skills identified and therefore taught. Qualifications attained as a result of the demonstration of the knowledge of these subjects are sought after in order to improve an individuals likelihood of employment in their chosen areas.
But is this relevant in today’s age of ‘Google’? When we have, at our very finger tips, access to any and all types of knowledge possible. With a volatile employment market, that is exponentially changing, what skills do our children need as they face their future world of work? Is a subject-based approach relevant now to our learners?
Piaget argues that intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. Knowing how to source information needed, applying knowledge in creative and expressive ways, communicating with others, negotiating, thinking, asking for help …. all skills reflective of what is now deemed to be a ’21st century ‘learner’.
How do students develop these skills? There is significant research that now points to the concept of self-discovery, self-direction and exploration as key components of building such social, emotional and cognitive skills increasingly valued in the adult workforce. These skills can only be realised and developed ‘in situ’ – that is, in the moment in which they are needed. No amount of planning or teaching can possibly provide the same authentic learning experience to a student than when they are in the midst of their own discovery and needing the very skill that is required at the time. When else does one learn to negotiate through disagreement? When the very need arises in disagreement. When is knowledge most creatively applied to new learning – when students are given the freedom to explore and create without barriers or limitations. When does a student learn to ask for help? When a student reaches a point where they realise they cannot access new knowledge or skills without seeking the help of others. If students are continually taught ‘to’ as if they are large receptacles for facts and figures, they will never be given the opportunity to be able to seek out and explore learning that is relevant to their own passions and interests. And if they do not face these opportunities, they will, in turn, be limited in the authentic experiences needed to develop the key ’21st Century skills’ in a meaningful and relevant way.
So when we, as teachers, consider our planning for the day, week, or term, and the first question we ask of ourselves is ‘what am I going to teach them now’, or ‘how can I deliver this topic to my students’ – ask yourself two further questions: ‘What might my students want to learn about?’ and ‘how can I help them discover what they would like to learn?’ It is a challenging and at times very scary place to start – the beginning of the unknown. At times teachers do not go to that place for fear that children may not respond as we would like. But then what if they did? What if the children took hold of the opportunity and rose to the challenge – seeking out new knowledge and building on important learning skills needed? By asking yourself ‘what about what THEY want to learn’ you will nevitably start on a journey into planning a far more authentic learning experience for your students that might just allow them to independently build the skills and traits needed in the 21st century. You may even assist them to develop a disposition for learning that fosters the life-long learner we all are striving to grow in our students.