How to empower kids to own their learning

Teachers and parents play crucial roles in children's education. But empowering them to own their learning is perhaps the biggest advantage we can give them. Here's how.

how to empower your child to own learning
Cluey Learning Friday, 27 September 2019

Quality education is a huge part of our national identity. In Australia, we dedicate hundreds of hours to discussing, dissecting and making decisions about the best approach to schooling. We look forward to Pasi Sahlberg’s publication dates the way we count down to the next Harry Potter or Game of Thrones release, and Gonski is a national hero.  

But where are the kids in all of this? 

With so many variables when it comes to education, there will never be a one-size-fits-all blueprint for success. One thing that does stand out as a sound step to improving our daily experience of school is for every individual student to take responsibility for and intentionally find enjoyment in their own learning. 

As adults, we love to learn. It makes us more valuable in the workplace, more interesting conversationalists, and more ‘woke’. The growth of short-form, free online learning platforms like Coursera and FutureLearn, as well as the proliferation of MOOCs and the worldwide trend of Graduating Grandmas, shows that there’s a keen population of learners all over the world.  

So how can we help our kids embrace, enjoy and own their own learning experience in the same way adults have? 

Create a culture of learning at home

Children will mimic their parents’ behaviour in all areas of life (unless, of course, it involves picking up socks). The more you normalise education in your home, the more your kids will seek out learning opportunities for themselves. This doesn’t mean trading your TV for a set of encyclopedias and running pop quizzes through dinner. It might take the form of bringing your learning to family discussions, making a habit of finding answers or researching things together, and being intentional in the emotions you express about education. 

What does that look like?

Sure, you’ve just had a long day of compulsory training covering content that you already know backwards, you’ve got pen on your face from where you definitely didn’t fall asleep in the meeting and your to-do list is growing like a rabbit’s family tree. There’s no need to be dishonest — but you can frame it positively. Share the struggles and frustrations of your day, then raise a few of the issues you faced with your child. Ask them what they’d do in your position. Do they have any ideas about how to look after an upset client? Showing young people that learning can be hard but rewarding will help them to cope maturely and with resilience when they re-learn the colours in French for the umpteenth time. 

Do education together

Be proactive about making learning a positive pursuit in your home. Doing education together is an emotional game — that’s why we feel so much safer doing it alone, with no questions asked unless it goes off the rails. Start by celebrating the victories — did your teenager attend all their classes today? Put in more effort than the day before? Remember their PE kit? Memorise a new musical piece? Finally crack simultaneous equations? Finish a Jane Austen novel? Celebrate! If your kids feel safe sharing their learning experience with you, they’ll be better prepared to take educational risks. 

You can also build intentional learning opportunities into family life by involving your children in the functioning of the family. Rather than writing the grocery list alone, get them to do it. The price of everything is online so get your child to do the food budget too. Kids love the opportunity to help in real ways and they’ll learn more about the value of geometry from assembling a shed or bookshelf than they will from memorising a formula from a textbook. There are also several opportunities to learn more passively — Netflix is loaded with documentaries that provoke discussion, the museum or library is a fun alternative to the movies and you can have scientists, as well as superheroes, attend birthday parties these days. 

Stay positive about learning

If nothing else, remember that emotions are contagious. If you have negative emotions about school, show stress on the commute to school, or react to assessments with a sigh, that negativity will start to seep into your child’s experience of learning. 

Give your child the responsibility and tools for learning

If you’ve built a culture of learning, you’re halfway there. You won’t have to force your children to do arbitrary, school-like activities and your valuing of education will be embedded in your daily habits.  

The next part is perhaps the hardest: step back. 

Give your children the space to take responsibility for their learning in ways that suit them. Yes, their handwriting may be appalling and their habit of tackling assignments the night before the due date is truly harrowing as a parent. But if they’re getting their work done — if they’re happy and following their curiosity — then they’re learning crucial self-management skills that cannot be taught.  

Stepping back will look different for every parent. Perhaps it means making bedtime stories a purely parental performance instead of a soul-crushing slog of ‘chunking’, sighing and feeling inadequate. It might mean listening to a podcast in the car instead of singing the multiplication tables, or asking your children to remember the moments they were proud of themselves that day. Stepping back doesn’t mean giving up or isolating your children, it just means moving to the passenger seat instead of driving them yourself. 

Once you’ve given them space, make sure they’ve got the tools to learn alone and know how to use them. Most schools have a Mathletics, Reading Eggs or Spellodrome subscription, but you can get private subscriptions too. Duolingo is fun, free and diverse. Tutoring can be invaluable when a child directs the learning. Libraries often run read-a-thons and Goodreads suggests new challenges every month that could prove fun for the whole family. When you empower your children to learn, they’ll run with it, so be prepared for them to absorb your personal library, to want to teach you new things and, occasionally, to swear in multiple languages. 

Help them manage their own learning

Once you’ve prepared your child and their environment to take on the world, you’ll need to help them structure their educational adventures. We all need support to negotiate what we can tackle and how we can tackle it. 

One of the most empowering goal-setting habits is to create two criteria for success. 

  1. Identify the goal your child wants to meet in order to be satisfied with their performance
    Is it homework to be submitted? A minimum overall assessment mark to be met? This is the success criterion to celebrate routinely.
  2. Identify the possible outcome of meeting this goal
    This is a fantastic opportunity to imagine what success would feel like. Homework might be submitted on time and with perfect responses. This will encourage your child to recognise the feeling of a reward and challenge them to set their own goals and visualise their own successes. 

Once a young person is equipped with the framework for taking charge of their own learning, the only variable left that they can control is the effort they put in. It’s therefore important to focus on, and reward, their effort more than their visible achievements. If your child can honestly say ‘I did my very best today’ then they’ve taken ownership of their education and will be well-prepared for the world beyond school.  


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