How do children best learn – a message to parents
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How do children best learn – a message to parents

Parents can support children in their learning – and this may be in addition to what school provides - or instead of school.

We did research on adults to find out how they learned when they were younger. We studied senior leaders in organisations as well as experienced professionals. We asked them initially to identify what made them effective. There were a multitude of different qualities and capabilities that people valued. We then asked them how they had learned these when they were younger. We had examples of learning from reading, from travel, from parents and others in the family, from friends, and so on. We actually found more than 57 ways that young people can learn and that are valuable. What we found, through interviewing many hundreds of people, is that school, college, university and other formal education contributes at most 10 to 20% in making a person capable in what work they choose to do.

Too often there is an assumption that there is one best way to learn things. And yet we find that there is very little in common between people. For instance, there is an assumption in some quarters that young people these days would prefer to learn from a screen in a digital environment rather than from books and worksheets. In Self Managed Learning College we have 9 to 16-year-olds who can learn anything they want in any way they want. We find that generalisations about screen use are false. Often students will say they prefer to read a book than read something off a screen. Or they want to spend time chatting to an experienced adult.

What can happen if young people are exposed to only one main learning mode, such as the classroom, is that they might find it difficult and start to assume that they’re not good learners. An example in our College was a 12-year-old boy with ADHD. He would say to a staff member, please give me a worksheet on maths and tell me when 10 minutes is up so I can take a break. And then he would lie on the floor and work for 10 minutes and then be told his 10 minutes was up. He would have a run around then was able to come back and do another 10 minutes. ADHD does not necessarily mean you can’t learn. Similarly, children with autism can find classrooms very difficult to deal with so want a quieter environment where they can learn at their own pace.

A student, who had been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, decided to learn law in order to be able to do a GCSE when she was 15. She was learning the law syllabus from a textbook. I asked if she would like to meet a lawyer to help understand how the law worked and she said yes. So we were able to bring in a lawyer to have a dialogue with the student. I also asked if she would like to see the law in action such as visiting the magistrates court and she jumped at the chance. So we organised a trip for her and a small group.

Often young people feel trapped in a narrow range of learning modes and it’s really helpful if they can be exposed to other options. For instance, here is a film about the work we did with the University of Sussex in schools -

If you watch that you will see that there was a girl who enjoyed netball and wondered about becoming a netball coach She was encouraged to talk to her coach, and that is shown on the film. Another boy was interested in becoming an author of children’s books so the group that he was in invited in a children’s author to quiz her about how she went about writing.

These examples show how important it is if someone is interested in a particular career to help them to learn about the reality of that, as opposed to just assuming that, if you are good at something, therefore you might want to do it as a career. In one of the programmes that features in the University of Sussex film, I worked with a girl who was brilliant musician. She thought she might like to be an orchestra musician as a career.  She and I sat down at a computer and I searched information on job satisfaction. Orchestra musician comes out as equivalent to a prison officer in terms of job satisfaction. What was described was the life of an orchestra musician, which is often precarious, a need to live out of a suitcase and a requirement to do what you are told by the conductor. Some clearly might like that - others might not. It wasn’t my aim to tell her what to do to but to help her to have information so that she could make her own choices.

I hope that I have made the case that parents can be creative in supporting their children in what and how they want to learn.