The myth of the reluctant learner
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:
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.
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 capable learner.