The myth of the reluctant learner

Published by Lori Pickert on August 22, 2012 at 08:41 AM

There is no such thing as a reluctant learner. If there was, you’d have a child who didn’t want to learn anything at all — nothing about Minecraft, Spongebob, Pokémon, or sharks. Nothing about fairy tales, superheroes, dinosaurs, or LEGO.

No child is reluctant to learn. Every child strives to learn as much as he can. There are only children who are strongly resistant to being told what to learn and how to learn it. There are children who are more stubborn about being forced to learn things that don’t interest them or don’t seem useful. There are children who are less able to tolerate boredom and children who are less able to tolerate sitting still for long periods of time trying to focus on something that has no importance or meaning to them.

It is both inaccurate and unfair to label a child resistant to a style of learning (e.g., sedentary, authoritative) as a reluctant learner. When we do so, we’re reinforcing the issue as an educational or intellectual one. We’re saying, “Hey you, you’re bad at learning.” Does that help the problem or exacerbate it? No child is probably going to mind being told that they’re bad at something they don’t want to do anyway. Meanwhile, they start self-labeling as hating learning or being bad at learning.

For parents even more than teachers, a child’s resistance to authority is upsetting. It feels like disrespect; it feels like defiance. It can be hard to control our own adult emotions and see the situation plainly for what it is: We have failed to connect with the learner. And he is letting us know.

I’ve written about my son the intractable learner. Intractable is not the same as reluctant. My son has never been reluctant to learn — he is a relentless learner. He just wants to be entirely in control of the process. Luckily, our goals have always been, if not identical, at least aligned. We all want him to direct and manage his own learning; we all want him to be well educated and properly skilled.

Working with this son, who demands autonomy and control, is very different from working with our other son, who is easygoing and compliant. Yet we work with both of them the same way. Ours is a negotiated curriculum. We take our sons’ interests, desires, and ambitions very seriously. We tell them what we believe is important for them to know. Then we hammer out a learning plan that meets each of our goals.

Never, at any point, have we considered our son’s reluctance to bow to our authority as a reluctance to learn. Instead, we see him as strong, independent, and confident. We don’t give in, but we are willing to spend the time to show him why we believe a strong foundation of knowledge and skills will benefit him and allow him to do what he wants to do. We’re pretty sure we couldn’t get away with anything less. We don’t abdicate control, but we are willing to share power and decision-making. We want him to be a part of the process; we want him to get experience managing his own learning.

As he’s grown older, he has become more (and not less, as the standard anti-teen propaganda might imply) open to what we deem important to learn. He takes our opinion seriously. Where at age eight he might have argued passionately against something in which he had no interest, at age 15 he says, “If you think it’s important, I’ll do it.”

We reached this place — where he respects our opinion — by respecting his. He has learned that we won’t waste his time. We don’t assign curriculum arbitrarily. We prioritize his unique interests, talents, and goals. We show him what’s required to meet his goals because we want him to understand it’s not about our whims; it’s about what the work itself requires, what the world requires. We want him to understand his place in that world and what he needs to accomplish to achieve the things he wants to do.

What will be required of our children in the future? They will have to be in charge of their own learning. As college students, as adults, as entrepreneurs, as tradesmen, as parents — they will have to make important decisions and figure out how to get the knowledge and skills they need. When do we start helping them learn how to direct and manage their own learning? When they are teenagers? When they are in college? We need to begin now.

In a discussion of MOOCs (massive open online courses), Peter Gow lists what is needed to be a good learner:

- genuine interest

- confidence

- comfort with the medium

- dedicated time

Will Richardson responds by wondering

I don’t think anyone knows exactly how this all plays out, but is it fair to say that if we’re not shifting our emphasis to helping kids develop as learners who can take advantage of these informal (perhaps soon to be accredited) learning experiences, we’re shortchanging them?

Turn that into a statement: If we’re not helping kids develop as self-directed learners, we are shortchanging them.

The successful learner isn’t going to be the kid who can sit and listen and regurgitate back on the test. The successful learner is going to have to be and do a lot more. He’s going to have to take charge of the learning process. And the first step is deciding what is worth learning.

Peter Gow expands on why genuine interest is a requirement for success:

I have to care enough about the course material to wrestle with the big ideas and small details — and the homework — all on my own. If I don’t actually care that much about what I am supposed to be learning, each task becomes drudgery. Without this, the rest is irrelevant.

“Without [genuine interest], the rest is irrelevant.” Genuine interest is absolutely necessary for success. If this is true for an 18-year-old, is it not true for an 8-year-old? Genuine interest is the magic ingredient that makes learning meaningful — and it’s what learners require to make their best efforts. 

When we label a child as a “reluctant learner,” we’re making a big mistake. Not only are we focusing on the reluctance rather than the learning, but we’re telling a child that he has a problem learning. We’re missing the fact that it’s we who have the problem, because we have failed to provide our child with a learning experience that is interesting, relevant, and useful.

We can start by crossing out “reluctant” and relabeling our child as a passionate, independent, ferocious, idea-filled learner. We can honor his interests and his desires by investing time and effort in helping him learn what he wants and needs to know. We can make him part of the process. We can help him begin to design his own curriculum. By allowing him to do the big things he wants to do, we can help him learn — on his own, without threat or coercion — that skills and knowledge are necessary to accomplish anything meaningful.

We can help him own the learning process, and we can help him label himself as a master learner — someone who knows how to get the knowledge and skills he needs to do the things he wants and needs to do.

 

The new PBH Master Class (beginning May 5) is enrolling NOW!

27 comments

Comment by Phyllis Bergenholtz on August 22, 2012 at 10:43 AM

How do you handle a situation where you feel you want to equip your high school aged student to take the SAT and enter college and yet he feels that subjects like Algebra are meaningless and doesn't want to learn it? He has always struggled in math and I have always been a gentle teacher in that respect, but I would hate to leave him in a situation where he suddenly after graduation feels he needs to learn algebra in order to go where he wants to in life and is trying to cram it before he can get into college and cannot cram as fast as he needs to because of his difficulties with learning math. I do not mean to be critical or adversarial at all by asking this question. I genuinely want to see your point of view on this matter.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 22, 2012 at 02:45 PM

 

hi, phyllis. :)

i don’t think your question is at all adversarial! in fact, let’s consider that word: adversarial. it represents a lot of parents and children when it comes to schoolwork. and that’s what i think should change.

my suggestion is that parents and children should work together as partners. education should be customized for that child. he should have time and support to work on what he cares about most. and he should understand that his education is primarily meant to prepare him to be an independent adult — to attend college, learn a trade, or run a business. to control his finances. and maybe to get married and raise a family if that’s his (or her) desire. education has a *purpose* and children need to see that. if they just see dull, meaningless assignments and can’t connect it to the real world, they may well lack the motivation to apply themselves to the work. it’s our job to help them make that connection.

my suggestion would be to sit down and make that teen start taking on responsibility for some of his own education. set his own goals. consider his career alternatives. consider what *he* thinks he should be doing with his time. tell him, look — we consider it our responsibility to make sure you’re ready to either go to college, enter trade school, get a job, or start a business when you’re 18. (add in any other routes you want open for him.) this is what you need to do that: x, y, z. now let’s talk  about what *you* want and how we can help you do that.

you might also look at alternatives for him to get that algebra done if doing it at home with you isn’t working. community college, a local math program, co-op class, self-study online high school course, open online course, local tutor, etc. it’s okay to say, i get this isn’t working — let’s explore some other things we could try.

i could write more about this, but i’ll refrain. :)

let me know if this answer doesn’t satisfy, and i’ll try again!

Comment by Phyllis Bergenholtz on August 23, 2012 at 08:21 AM

I want you to know that I showed this to my son and we both agreed that it was a most excellent answer to my earnest question. He thought about it for a few hours and then asked to do his math work. It is not really the exploration you described, but I am sure we will get to that. Meanwhile the objections have stopped while we both ponder. Thank you.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 23, 2012 at 08:51 AM

thank you! that makes my day. :)

Comment by patricia on August 22, 2012 at 11:01 AM

This is such a meaty post, Lori. I can't tell you how many fellow homeschoolers say things to me like, "My kid doesn't have any interests," or "You're so lucky that your kids have interests." Funny thing is that my 10-year-old's current obsession is with the game Magic, The Gathering--an interest which he shares with many of the kids whose parents say such things to me! I think it's hard for some parents to understand how such an interest might be valuable and worthwhile--although I do try to gently help those parents understand. (I'm mentally working on a blog post about how I think conversations with my kid about Magic are helping him develop writing skills! Of course in his mind, he's just talking to me about what he loves.)

I especially love your posts like this--and The Intractable Learner one--that share your experiences with your own kids, Lori. I realize that there are dozens of reasons why we don't always write about our own children, one of the main ones being that our kids may not want us to! But those personal details ground these posts in a special way. I so enjoyed reading back on that post from 2007! (My oldest was a particularly intractable learner as well. It was difficult but a good thing, ultimately. He forced me to change my views on how to best help him learn, and the entire family has benefitted from that.)

"Where at age eight he might have argued passionately against something in which he had no interest, at age 15 he says, 'If you think it’s important, I’ll do it.'" This has been our experience as well, with both of our older kids. It's a beautiful thing.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 22, 2012 at 02:29 PM

 

thank you, patricia.

i had my 15yo son read and approve this post before i put it up! :)

re: thinking kids have no interests, i ran into the same thing when i was working with teachers. they would sadly tell me that their students had no interests. after a few hours observing their classroom, i would hand over a list of ideas. the problem isn’t kids having no ideas — the problem is kids having no ideas that adults approve of or find worthy of study. part of coming to a meeting ground with kids and working together is being willing to entertain the possibility that kids’ interests are worthy of study *specifically because they have the potential to ignite kids’ learning*.

Comment by annie on August 23, 2012 at 07:51 AM

Can I just say that as soon as I glanced down and saw the words "meaty post" I said to myself "This has to be Patricia!" But you are right. There is a lot here to think about. I have been known to refer to my girl as a "somewhat reluctant writer" and yet, the other night, given the opportunity to trick her dad by writing a fake news article about the discovery of flying penguins, she sat down and typed away. At one point she said "Now, mama, is 'logical explanation' one word or two? Because it is one thing?" I think we'll be all right.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 23, 2012 at 08:49 AM

yeah, i think you will be. :)

my older son would have been labeled a reluctant writer as well, because he absolutely balked at writing assignments. flat out did not want to do them. yet homeschooled and left to his own devices, he grew into a serious writer — someone who writes thousands of words a day and researches how to improve his craft.

 

when children find a purpose for obtaining a skill, they use it, they practice it, and they work to improve it. if they don’t have a purpose, *that’s* the issue that needs to be addressed.

Comment by dawn on August 22, 2012 at 12:58 PM

YES!!!!!! this is such a timely post for me, as i have discussions today with my 9-year-old about what we want to explore in our upcoming year (or semester, or probably just the next month, as we tend to reassess quite often). i'm suggesting subject areas and offering lots of options; she is selecting the specific topics and determining the extent to which she wants to explore. we're building in protected time, thanks to posts you wrote previously.
lori, i LOVE coming to your blog and seeing what you have to share. i'm really excited for your book to arrive and am full of optimism and enthusiasm for this year, thanks to you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 22, 2012 at 02:46 PM

thank you, dawn! that is wonderful to hear. :)

Comment by amy21 on August 22, 2012 at 03:15 PM

My son is not a reluctant learner, not at all, although he will often say he hates anything that sounds "schooly." He IS oppositional. He doesn't have a diagnosis and I'm not looking for one, but the descriptions under ODD? It's like they observed him for a week and wrote down what he does. I've been pondering posting about this but I'm really hesitant to share so much about him--but I sure would love some "been there, here's what I learned" advice from other parents with kids like this. It goes WAY beyond intractable. Intractable, I get. I do feel that the past three years of school have exacerbated his natural tendencies so the balance has tipped, and he didn't display this behavior at school (not like he does at home, anyway, but his progress report was full of evidence, to me, that he was exerting his will in a manner more acceptable to the environment).

I don't want to get into specifics out of respect for my son, but often EVERYTHING is a battle and I'm exhausted and depleted and weeping. He wants to homeschool, but he doesn't often want to listen to a thing I say or ask him to do (such as, fold his clean laundry--he'll not only refuse, he'll unfold whatever his siblings have already folded). Typical behavioral strategies do. not. work. I try to direct my energy to the positive and not the negative but oh, it is so hard sometimes. 99 times I'll be patient and the 100th time that I fail--that's what leaves me weeping.

We are beginning at the beginning with history and focusing on Egypt--his choice. (Through 2nd grade they taught NO history. None. This makes my head kind of explode, really.) He chose chemistry for science, so that's what we'll do. He'll have project time. The required stuff--which includes the history and science he's chosen--I doubt will take up much time. But even things he's chosen, even things he wants to do, he will often fight me over it, because fighting has become his habit. My hope is that not having to go to school, tuck it all in for six hours per day, sit through things that didn't interest him--that the behavioral issues will improve. But, any advice at all on getting from here to there with a textbook oppositional kid? And not just leaving his soon-to-be-4yo sister by the wayside as he sucks up all my energy, time, and patience?

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 22, 2012 at 03:42 PM

 

amy, feel free to start a thread about this in the forum.

i feel like whatever advice i have to give you have probably already considered. e.g., picking your battles - does he really need to fold his laundry? (i don’t even fold mine. :) and you already mentioned attempting to reward positive behavior and ignore negative as much as possible. (99/100 sounds like you’re doing well there.)

the fact that he was able to keep it together for school makes me hopeful that he can also find a way to keep it together at home.

i will e-mail you.

Comment by Rachael on August 23, 2012 at 05:09 AM

Hi Amy,

I'm really hesitant to offer advice - really hesitant! But a couple of thoughts came to my mind when I read your comment and I thought "why not." But if I say anything stupid or inadvertently offensive, please forgive me! I have a "difficult" son and a "reluctant schooler" (as opposed to "reluctant learner") - two different kids! - so I really sympathise. You have something to work with in that your son wants to homeschool - work with that as a motivator.

I don't know how old he is or how relevant this may be but, you've already done a great job in letting him chose some topics - can you go a step further and let him chose the books too? Can you avoid too many textbooks, maybe just one reference book per topic, and offer up a selection of "living books" Charlotte Mason style instead? Set him a budget and selection to choose from, or let him loose on Amazon - without the password, ahem! - to find some books that look interesting to him? Or less risky and cheaper, take him to the library? Try not to make suggestions if he is automatically oppositional. Let him make poor choices without comment. He may be making the right choice for him rather than something to your taste, or he may be making a genuinely poor choice. If so, he'll (probably!) get bored of rubbish eventually - if you don't turn those choices into fodder for conflict - and learn to make the right choices in time. It's a scary wait though!

Let him know what criteria you have to meet with the authorities to allow you to homeschool and plan together how you will meet them. If he knows that these things are outside your control and essential to achieving what he wants he MAY see that you are working with him, not against him. Offer him any help he wants, but give him as much ownership of his learning as possible. One last thing; try not to be too focussed on producing something tangible to show for the learning time if your son isn't so into "doing" as in "finding out." Some kids love to produce things as a way of learning. Others (like my "reluctant" one) just aren't there yet and are more spongelike, focussed on the absorption phase of learning. So long as the bare minimum evidence is achieved, try to relax. It's amazing what leaks out in random conversation about what my son has learned in all those hours that I feared were a waste!

Sorry to be long winded. Good luck and courage to you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 23, 2012 at 07:11 AM

 

rachael, thank you for your very thoughtful comment!

“Let him know what criteria you have to meet with the authorities to allow you to homeschool and plan together how you will meet them. If he knows that these things are outside your control and essential to achieving what he wants he MAY see that you are working with him, not against him.”

this.

“reluctant schooler” — exactly! love that term! thank you. :)

Comment by amy21 on August 24, 2012 at 05:49 PM

Thanks, Rachael. Nothing offensive, no worries, it's hard to get offended when somebody is genuinely offering help anyway. ;) Yes, I'm planning lots of library trips--I'm not using text books, although I did buy a couple of chem experiment books to get us going, but we can take it further, deeper, etc using library resources, the local science store, etc. I picked up Story of the World only because I was having such a hard time, myself, fitting everything into a historical timeline and I want both of us to be able to place what we learn into a context, but I didn't even look at the activity book because what fun is that?! The library has lots of Egyptian books and if he finds some that just need to live with us, we'll order them.

And that's a good reminder, about doing vs finding out. I have had to adjust my expectations in the past--I like to do both. It's so hard to "prove" the learning took place without the "thing" at the end of it...but I'll be documenting in other ways and I hope that will remind me to take the pressure off and let it unfold.

Thank you for both your advice and your empathy! Both are welcome and appreciated. :)

Comment by TJEd meets Reggio on August 23, 2012 at 08:44 AM

Amy I'm right with you and have no advice to offer. I was the original poster who said my son was a 'reluctant learner' (in the forum last month) but you know exactly what I meant. Just this morning I looked up ODD bc it wouldn't get out of my head and yes, my 6yo exhibits all these symptoms. I don't want an official diagnosis (as I don't 'believe' in them at this point) but the cluster of personality/skill traits is very heartbreaking to read as I see my little boy dealing with all of it. I'm off to the library today to pick up two books (The Explosive Child and What Your Explosive Child is Trying to Tell You: Discovering the Pathway from Symptoms to Solutions) hoping for some insight into how to change my parenting to help our situation.

My son isn't a reluctant learner, but he IS totally reluctant to get any 'learning help' from me. He asks me 20 times a day what [whatever word he is looking at] spells, and he gets mad (as in furious) at me if I help him sound out a word he doesn't know bc he wants to do it himself, but he also says he 'doesn't want to learn to read' but clearly he just means he wants to teach himself.

And yes I'm learning now to ONLY OFFER THE HELP HE ASKS FOR. And yes I totally get the folding clothes example. Any kind of request for help in the house, even for him to pick up his own three cars off the dining room table so we can eat, are refused or fought over. 'Pick your battles' is important, and yet people do need to learn how to help out in a family and whether it is folding clothes or picking up your toys, parents can't walk on eggshells all the time thinking 'no, he doesn't HAVE to fold clothes, or HAVE to clear the table'. That doesn't deal with the REAL issue of why it is such a difficult thing for the child in the first place.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 23, 2012 at 09:04 AM

i want you to know this post was in no way aimed at you, and i didn’t remember that anyone had used the phrase “reluctant learner” in the forum — my apologies if you took any offense at all.

i was actually motivated by a flurry of posts i saw in blogland over the last week where writers were talking about their reluctant learners.

re: picking your battles, i agree completely that all children should have to learn to help out in a family. however, i wonder if this couldn’t be approached in a way that was less oppositional and less authoritative. as in: this is what’s required — this is what each of us needs to do — now take responsibility for doing it. and then make sure it’s something that *is actually required*. i think i’m a little oppositional myself. and i hate authority. :) i would rather be responsible, know exactly what i’m supposed to do, and be left alone and not micromanaged while i do it.

the children who attended my small private school came from a variety of family situations and had a whole slew of different ideas about responsibility, chores, etc. they had to adapt to what we required. and amy mentioned that her son seemed to do better at school that at home. maybe that’s partly because at school, the way things are done and each person’s individual responsibility is laid out at the start, and then natural consequences are dealt out if things aren’t done properly. whereas at home, it’s a neverending stream of do this, do that, take that upstairs, fold that, tidy that, etc. a lot of “oppositional” kids used to get funneled into the military and a lot of them would do really well there — again, maybe because expectations are laid out plainly and there is rock-solid follow-through.

just an idea. :)

Comment by amy21 on August 24, 2012 at 06:04 PM

It is heartbreaking, isn't it? And the longer it goes on, the more entrenched he gets in his habits, the harder it is not to reinforce his own low self-opinion because he sees how frustrated I am. It's such a terrible vortex sometimes. And YES we are all tired of walking on eggshells. My older son often has to put up with more than I think he should, and my youngest is learning behavior and language I don't want her to. There are five of us here, and I get picking the battles, but at some point, that becomes letting one kid skate through without any responsibilities, and I'm not okay with that. And really, I don't ask them to do much...

I am writing up a "home learning contract" though, for both of us to sign, with both our responsibilities, because I need him to make an effort and understand what is required, and exactly what *I* am doing to make this work too. He can have input into the contract, but he's got to follow through, or I won't homeschool him, because I do want him to recognize it as a privilege--and I can't have him fighting against me for the very thing he says he wants so much. It's too tiring! I think it is for him, too, but it's a habit he's gotten into. I think it must be very hard to be him most days; I try to hold onto that idea when I'm most frustrated with him.

Comment by sarah pj on August 22, 2012 at 07:36 PM

This was super timely for me as well. Without a super long story, we started out in one place on her project, and after me observing her and her frustration for a while, we sat down and talked again about *what* her project was for and *why* she was doing it. Once she really understood that my only interest was in the process of the project itself and not in the subject being "educational" then she relaxed and we were able to discuss what she was really interested in and what she wanted to do. To my surprise, she chose the most academic thing on the list she wrote about things she likes. She was under the impression that it wasn't worth studying. She's another one who will read/work with gusto when the material interests her and who has no interest whatsoever in what she "has" to do, unless she sees how it benefits her life. (like all of us)

I will confess that I crossed TV and interactive computer games off her list of potential subjects for this project, but told her that once she's older and won't just use her project time to watch My Little Pony videos, then those things can go back on the list. I know that's me stepping in, but I know her and there would be no project work. Just game playing/TV watching. She doesn't take those things to new levels at this point in her life.

So thank you again. I'm glad you're back.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 22, 2012 at 07:54 PM

 

“Once she really understood that my only interest was in the process of the project itself and not in the subject being "educational" then she relaxed and we were able to discuss what she was really interested in and what she wanted to do.”

i love you for sitting down with her and talking it out to figure out where it had gone off the rails.

“I will confess that I crossed TV and interactive computer games off her list of potential subjects for this project, but told her that once she's older and won't just use her project time to watch My Little Pony videos, then those things can go back on the list.”

and i applaud you again for compromising! this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to me. you’re allowed to put the kibosh on whatever you want, obviously, but even though you have reservations you’ve made it clear to her that she can earn the chance to try it.

you are doing the hard work. i’ll do anything i can to support you!

Comment by Tracey on August 23, 2012 at 09:54 AM

I love how you handled the TV and games. My son would quickly put video games on the top of the list for project ideas. I don't want to kill this interest, especially because it has so much real educational value, but like you said, I think at this point he would just spend his project time playing games and not really learning about them. Thanks for the idea!

Comment by Magic and Mayhem on January 11, 2013 at 10:46 PM

Wonderfully said! Sharing this. :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 12, 2013 at 11:18 AM

thank you! :)

Comment by Kelley on May 27, 2013 at 08:06 AM

I must have an "intractable learner" as well (I'll have to read that post next). He loves to read if I haven't asked him to, write if I haven't asked him to, create if I haven't asked him to.....but if I have asked him to write or draw about something we have read about together, even though he loves to draw and write, he is more than resistant. That's where I think your suggestion of having the parent keep a project journal and record observations of their children's learning process is really brilliant. Stepping back to observe that my son reads, writes, draws, etc. on his own has helped me to see that he is improving and developing in these areas. It has also helped me to see the educational value in activities that you would never find at school.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 27, 2013 at 10:30 AM

 

He loves to read if I haven't asked him to, write if I haven't asked him to, create if I haven't asked him to.....but if I have asked him to write or draw about something we have read about together, even though he loves to draw and write, he is more than resistant.

ah, that sounds just like my #1 son. ;o)

That's where I think your suggestion of having the parent keep a project journal and record observations of their children's learning process is really brilliant. Stepping back to observe that my son reads, writes, draws, etc. on his own has helped me to see that he is improving and developing in these areas. It has also helped me to see the educational value in activities that you would never find at school.

YES! it neatly turns things around and puts the focus on what they *want* to do, and feeding that, you create more of what you want to see. so much easier than trying to force the unforceable child.

i’m so grateful for this kid who has always insisted on relevant and meaningful learning. i already held the conviction that children need to know that learning is for *them* — he knew it from the outset and would never accept anything less.

thank you for your great comment, kelley! :) and good luck with your intractable learner. ;o)

Comment by wanderingsue on August 19, 2013 at 02:58 AM

I think I have an "intractable husband." Or, ummm, an "intractable home-schooling parent" for a husband. Or something.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 19, 2013 at 12:32 PM

good luck with that. :)

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