The secret to getting your kids to fall in love with learning (or at least not complain as much as they used to)

In one word:

Autonomy.  That’s it.  Give your child control over his learning.

Ok, don’t freak out.  I can just hear some of you.  You don’t know my child.  If I give him an inch when it comes to his work, he will do anything BUT what he’s supposed to do!  Yep. Mine too.  But ever thought about why it is he doesn’t want to do his work?

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink explores why people, including children, are motivated to do what they do.  He explains that if an individual has control over the task, time, technique or team involved in a job, they will be much more inclined to produce more creative work, in a more efficient way, and be much more motivated to complete that job with excellence.

Said in another way, if our children have a choice or some sense of control over what they do, when they do it, how they do it, and/or whom they do it with, they will be much more motivated to learn.

When it comes to autonomy, home educators have a far superior advantage.  Although there are some amazing micro-schools that are implementing self-directed learning methods, the home is by far the easiest place to give your child control over these 4 areas of his education.

Autonomy in what our children learn:

self driven quote

Let your child direct as much of the content of learning as possible.  How much is that?  Well, it’s ultimately up to you.  Parents who “un-school” their children allow their children to make 100% of the calls about what they learn.  Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum of home educators who follow a standard course of study just as meticulously (if not more so) than their local school system does.

Pink describes companies such as Google and 3M who allow their employees “20% time”.  This means that 20% of their work week can be spent on working on projects outside of their specific job, but still related to the company.  That’s one out of 5 days!  Perhaps you are thinking, how do they ever get anything done if they are allowed to spend so much time on their own side projects?  Well, when a couple examples of these “20% time” side-projects end up being gmail, the post-it note, and masking tape, I’d say they are doing ok with the idea.  The opportunity that the employees have to delve into their own curiosities pays off big-time for these corporations.

You can probably see how this might translate into our child’s “work week”.  Even if our kids are required to complete certain assignments that are chosen for them, we can set aside at least 20% (One day a week or a couple hours a day) for projects or activities that are chosen and driven by our children.  Try it.  Watch your child surprise you.  Perhaps you can plan to have a group of your child’s like-minded friends over each Friday and they can collaborate on a project, business plan, etc. together.   For some inspiration check out:  http://www.20time.org/.

(On a side note:  When’s the last time you took some 20% time?  Why not join your children and take a bit of time each day to pursue your own passion?  It will be a breath of fresh air to your mind and soul.)

Here are some online learning platforms that may help spark that curiosity in you and/or your children: Skillshare, Udemy,Coursera, MOOC, EdX, Alison, OpenLearn and FutureLearn.  Or spend some time at the library, in nature, or allowing them to simply tinker with “loose parts” (like whatever is in the recycle bin), or with art supplies.  As their ideas become more concrete, feed them with more resources to allow them make their ideas a reality.

Autonomy in when our children learn:

when quote

If our children are in school, we don’t have much control over this one.  Actually we have no control.  They must follow a certain calendar, wake at a certain time, be at school at a certain time, take certain classes at certain assigned times, take a certain amount of time in each of those classes, take a certain amount of time on the tests given in those classes, come home and take a certain amount of time to do a certain amount of homework.  Not to mention the time for sports, piano, tutoring, etc.  It’s exhausting just thinking about the hamster wheel that so many families perpetually run on. 

As a home educator I LOVE that we have control over when we do what we do and can give our children a lot more control as well.

Our mornings are typically relaxed.  Our almost-teenager can get those extra minutes of sleep that her adolescent body needs.  We can choose to tackle harder things when our brains are fresh, and the more mundane or creative things in the afternoon when our brains have let their analytical guards down.

When it takes our children a little bit longer to master a subject, we let them.  Because that’s the point, isn’t it?  If something is worth learning, then it’s worth learning well to the point of mastery.  To allow a child to “pass” a class with a C or a D is an injustice and affront to that child because what you’re saying is “It’s simply not worth the time for you to get to where you need to be”.  And yet it makes perfect sense in a broken system where kids are moved along and sorted out so that a few can be honored in the end.  We have a gift to be able to give our children as much (or as little time) as they need to master any given skill.  Some of the math units we require our children to trudge through are torture in their monotony.  Cut it short!  Skip it.  Once it’s mastered, move on.  No need to beat a dead horse.  They’ve got it.

When your child needs a break (or when you do) take it.  Do something stimulating that is enjoyable, physically active, and/or social and then settle back in for another burst of learning.

breaks and recess quote

Talk to your children and observe their daily patterns:  When are they most alert?  This is the best time to do the “harder” work that requires more problem solving or analysis (this might be math or language study or music, for some).  When is their “trough” period (Drive, by Daniel Pink)?  For me, it’s when I reheat that 2nd cup of coffee.  Have that be a time of free writing, read-aloud, or art.  Something where their brains don’t have to be “on”.

Evenings and weekends can be (and should be) reserved for rest and play and fellowship with family and friends.  We were in the library as a family on Saturday morning and next to our bench was a girl who looked to be 14 or 15.  She and her young teacher/tutor were working through what seemed to be an essay or some sort of writing assignment.  (The reality was that it was mostly the tutor giving her pupil “suggestions” and the girl saying “yeah” to affirm her tutor’s ideas).  They were already seated when we got there a little before 11 and were still there when we left at noon.  It happened to be a beautiful, unseasonably warm day in January and these two were discussing the thesis of this poor girl’s paper on Animal Farm.  No thank you.

Vacations?  Take one now if your family needs it.  This is the beauty of being autonomous over when we learn.

Autonomy in how our children learn:

When it comes to home education, the “how” is the most exciting part.  Those of us who sat in a classroom for 16 years (and then taught in that classroom for several more years) have a really hard time getting over the fact that our home does not have to (nor should it) look like a mini-version of the classrooms we inhabited for the majority of our school-aged hours.  The idea that kids are expected to sit still and quiet for the bulk of their day goes against anything that you read in sound educational research today.  Yet for so many institutions it’s the most efficient way, and therefore the only way to go about teaching children.

How not to instill autonomy:

  • Worksheets (or anything disguised as a worksheet).  If you are a home educator who is trying to find the best worksheets for your child, then it’s time for you to re-think what education means and what it’s goals are.  Our goal is not to see if we can make our children as bored as they were in their classrooms.
  • If it’s boring, pretend it’s not.  Please don’t do this. Be honest with your child.  If they are watching some dry videos to learn math or working through some monotonous exercises, say something like, “Wow.  That seems pretty dull.  Do you think there is another way to learn how to ________?”  My son was learning how to calculate averages this past week and I told him that instead of taking a test, he only had to figure out one thing:  The average player height on the UVA  basketball team.  And after figuring it out, he was to come up with a hypothesis as to whether or not average team height had anything to do with the success of the team.  (After comparing Virginia’s average height to that of NC State, it was clear that taller does not mean better.  Sorry, Pack!)
  • Give rewards and punishments to motivate. Even businesses are finding that the old “carrot and stick” motivation techniques are not producing superior results and are certainly not producing motivated workers.  So why pull out those carrots if you don’t have to?  If they are learning for a reward, like a certain grade or score or GPA, then motivation will become harder and harder as they get older.

punished by rewards quote

So how do we give our children more autonomy over how they learn?  We can start by asking ourselves (and our children) if there is a different way they could be doing a certain task.

Have a struggling reader?  Read aloud to him or allow him to listen to the audio book version.  Think about the point of reading those books.  If the objective is to change the way he thinks about himself or the world around him, then why trudge through chapters of difficult-to-read words and top it off with loads of comprehension questions?  Why not sit down for tea after your child has read the book and discuss what impacted him most or what he would have done differently if he had been in the shoes of the main character.  Here’s a good rule of thumb:  If you wouldn’t want to discuss it at your own book club meeting, then perhaps you might reconsider its relevance for your child.

List of vocabulary words?  Craft a story with your child using the words.  My kids love this.  We are doing something together and I can evaluate very quickly whether or not they understand the words.  Simply choose someone to start and take turns adding to an original story using one word at a time from the list.

Rote math problems?  Give her a dry erase board or some chalk outside or have her teach you.

Does your child stress out about tests?  Opt out.  Come up with another way to evaluate your child’s understanding of a particular skill, and there are so many, including asking your child, how could you show me that you understand this concept?  Begin to build a portfolio (or even better, have them build it) of their authentic learning experiences to remind you and your child that they are growing and learning and mastering difficult things in wonderful ways!  Google Sites, Wix, and Squarespace are some easy platforms to use for the digital portfolio.

Autonomy in who our children learn with:

This is another area where home educators have the potential to soar far above their schooled peers.  There is some cross-over with how the students learn since learning in a group is quite different and not always preferred to learning independently.  Your child may prefer one social learning scenario to another, but the social benefits of home educating are endless:

  • Think history or social sciences.  Come up with a topic, share it with a group of other home educators and set a date to get together to hold a forum on the particular topic.  You can start here for ideas: https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-lessons.  In doing so, children can apply and think critically about important aspects of history and sociology instead of simply trying to cram a bunch of google-able facts into their brains.
  • Authentic learning in the community- apprenticeships, self-chosen projects that benefit a local charity, organization, museum, library, etc.
  • Book clubs
  • Study groups- This could be just a group that is studying quietly together the topics that are not the most thrilling (misery loves company), or a more collaborative learning experience where a problem a being a solved, a business idea is being organized, etc.
  • “20% time” groups- Reach out to home education Facebook groups to get a group of like-minded students together to tackle an idea. Or maybe it is simply your child and her friend working together on face painting or magic show ideas.
  • Mommy time- spend 10 minutes a day doing something with each of your children that they love. Or perhaps sit with your child while he tackles a subject that he’s not too crazy about and find ways to commend the effort he is giving, or the creative methods he is using, etc.

Try to make this promise to your child:

 “I will not make you learn anything that is not relevant to your life.  I will make sure that you have as much control as possible over what you learn, when you learn it, how you learn it, and who you learn with.”

Make that promise and I guarantee that you will think differently about the way your children learn and the way you facilitate their learning.  It will also give them the freedom to call you out and ask “What does this have to do with my future?” or “Is there another way I can do this?”  And that’s a good thing because we want our children to be thinking critically about what they do.

Giving autonomy builds a child’s desire to learn for the sake of learning, as opposed to “because Mommy told me to” or “my teacher said I had to”.  That is who we want our children to be when it is time for them to leave our homes.  Autonomous.  I mean, we still want them to come back to visit, but to have my daughter own her learning and be passionate and driven about it as she strikes out into adulthood would make this mama proud!

3 thoughts on “The secret to getting your kids to fall in love with learning (or at least not complain as much as they used to)

  1. pricelessgifts says:

    Wow Brittany! This is great! Super thorough, well researched (less we ever expect anything less than well researched from your brilliant brain!), and wonderfully practical!
    A personal addition for us has been field trips for autonomy. My kids are constantly intrigued by how things work– so when they are, I call up the owner of said establishment and we go check things out! We’ve done this at ice-cream shops, a video-game programmer, farms, an auto mechanic, our list is growing and growing! I think this is especially true for children who are more hands-on learners. My son was learning why a car needed new brakes and was teaching me after a mechanic friend walked him through it. Or he learned why math and proper handwriting skills were necessary after learning how to make ice-cream recipes and then write out the name of the ingredient for the customers to see it legibly. They are God-wired to be naturally curious and I’m so glad you are encouraging this aspect of who they were created to be and become!

    I think the only thought I would kinda push back on is the “no control” if you don’t homeschool. I wasn’t homeschooled, but I had plenty of autonomy in my extra curricular activities within school and on the weekends. My brother was really into sports, and I wasn’t– so I pursued choral and drama as well as a lot of volunteer efforts that compiled into a great CV of community service hours. I went on a ton of missions trip in the summers and it shaped who I am today! Or a lot of my summer reading was composed of whatever I was interested in! When I came home from school before doing my homework I loved watching Oprah with my mom while we folded laundry– whereas my siblings loved playing outdoors before diving into homework. We each pursued different means of autonomy that fostered who we are today. I’m so thankful we get to homeschool– it is a gift. But there’s plenty of scenarios where families can’t homeschool (countries where it is illegal or for whatever reason God doesn’t work it out) and perhaps there should be space for them to incorporate this too– obviously it is on a more condensed level; but still applicable nonetheless!

    All that to say, I love this post! A really great topic that we should dive more into! I can’t wait to pick your brain on this issue more soon!

    ~Joy

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    • Brittany Burton says:

      I love those ideas! You are right. There is always the opportunity for choice in the form of extracurriculars. With the growing pressures of homework, grades/GPA, and testing, parents have to work even harder to guard those opportunities for their children. And there are some fabulous options and models all over the world that are doing just that (Finland Phenomenon, Agile Learning Centers, Alliance for Self-Directed Education)!

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