The relentless learner

Published by Lori Pickert on October 29, 2007 at 04:31 PM


Yesterday, I wrote a little about my older son, the intractable child.

So, how do you work with such a contrary being? He doesn't want you to impose your will; heck, he doesn't even want you to suggest your will. He doesn't want to hear your ideas; in fact, if he hears them from you, he'll draw a big black line through them.

You may start to think, well, fine, he says no to everything. He refuses every suggestion. He shakes his head politely at every offer. He's not going to do anything! He's going nowhere! He had a great idea, but now he's doing nothing with it!

What I've found, however, at least with my intractable child, is that he not only doesn't stand in a corner, like Bartleby, doing nothing, he actually is a relentless learner.

When someone talks about something he doesn't understand or know about, he goes to look it up, or he demands a full explanation. He doesn't want to be ignorant. He wants to understand what's going on.

When he has an interest, the best way I can encourage him isn't to offer books or materials or field trips (things my younger son accepts with a smile). The best thing I can do is ask questions. What are you going to do? How can you find out about that? Is there anything I can do for you?

When we start a first project with the youngest children (three year old's), we start by listing their questions. Then we ask them, How can you find out what you want to know? This leads to brainstorming: We can ask my dad! We can call my grandma! We can look in a book!

We do this because we don't just want to learn facts about birds, or rivers, or outer space. What we really want to learn is how to learn. That is the curriculum that matters. How do we find information? How do we locate and talk to experts? How do we know when our question has been answered?

My son has been doing project work for seven years. He not only knows the process, he demands the process. He insists on being in charge.

So I go back to square one, and I ask the questions. How can you find out what you want to know? What are you going to do? Is there anything I can do to help you?

And even when I step on his toes, and he shuts down an entire line of inquiry because he feels like I got too involved, he doesn't just sit in the corner and do nothing. He just alters his course, smoothly, and keeps moving forward. Because he is a relentless learner.


Also see: The Myth of the Reluctant Learner


Comment by molly on October 30, 2007 at 04:50 AM

Our goal is also to raise children that know how to learn rather than stuffing them with information they may or may not want to learn and, given my experience being "stuffed", probably not remember. I like your angle of asking questions. I will have to work on that - such as "How will you find out how a zipper works Avery?" Perhaps I should fashion a question mark out of wire to remind myself. Loved the wire bird.

Comment by Molly on October 30, 2007 at 01:11 PM

Lori: I am enjoying your writing so much from a pure parenting perspective. Wether children are schooled at home, or in a classroom, the bottom line is that parents are the primary educators and we all need to be creative and sensitive as to how we impart information so that it is well received. Thanks for the reminder to continually assess my childrens' individual learning needs. Wish I could sit in on one of your lectures. Your fan. - Molly

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 30, 2007 at 02:52 PM

lol, i love the wire question mark! i may do that, too!

the thing is, when we ask questions, we're allowing the child to stay in control and also showing respect for their abilities. lesson taught to me by my intractable son. ;^)

thank you, molly #2! i agree with you completely. and in lieu of a lecture, maybe we'll be able to have coffee (well, hot chocolate for me) some time!

Comment by kerry on March 10, 2010 at 04:40 PM

Wow, I just found your site recently and I just can't stop reading it. This is exactly what I've been looking for. After a rough couple of weeks attempting to make my son join his sisters at the local charter school last fall, we realized it just wasn't for him, not yet anyway. Now, reading this, this is my son. This is how he learns and I need to learn how to help him. We've spent our time so far, basically just watching him, getting books from the library on whatever his interest is at the time and I'm shocked at just how much this kid is absorbing. I have so many questions can I e-mail you?

Comment by Cori on January 29, 2011 at 02:26 AM

I've loved your blog before, but now I'm reading it from the beginning. :) My son is just as you described. I am curious, does this type of learner end up doing well in groups and capable of being a team player? Is the intractability saved mostly for Mom (I feel like this sometimes)? Do you seek out more group opportunties or is this child destined to be a independent worker or entrepenuer?

I'm reading your blog from the beginning because now that we've started "formal" learning at 7 years old, I'm running into some mysterious resistance. He is a project-learner as you described and I need some help!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 29, 2011 at 02:38 PM

kerry, my apologies for missing your comment way back in march. :)

if you are still interested, and if you haven't emailed me in the meantime, you are always welcome to!

cori, thank you. :)

i can't speak for *all* learners of this type, and i'm sure they vary by degrees. everyone is a mix of traits, after all. :)

that said...

re: saving the intractability for mom .. i do think this type of learner can have some authority issues. my son has a fierce independent streak.

that doesn't translate to not working well in a group, however. group dynamics are very interesting. natural leaders tend to lead, negotiators tend to negotiate, dynamic thinkers come up with ideas, detail-oriented kids manage quality control, and etc. -- and, it's important to stress, no one child fits *only* into one category. again, they tend to be a mix of traits. in a group situation, one particular trait may stick out to the adults, and that child gets labeled and the adult moves on. but careful study and documentation can reveal secondary traits that are strong and important.

children working in a group tend, in my experience, to celebrate each child for what they bring to the group. shirkers are called out by the group. children are respected for their individual abilities, talents, and the actual value they bring. it's fascinating.

rather than pigeon-holing a child, i have seen a child thought of as shy be given status in the group because of his contributions, and he bloomed under that recognition. similarly, a natural leader was cut back by the group when he leaned toward being bossy. the group is democracy in action.

even the independent worker benefits from the group -- who else shares his enthusiasm and wants to hear in detail about what he's produced? who else appreciates it? he may chafe at suggestions but then incorporate them anyway. he may want to go off and do his own thing, but he will make suggestions to the rest of the group about what they are doing and proudly show what he's produced.

an entrepreneur definitely needs the group -- they put his ideas into action. he usually can't proceed without a staff, if you will. again, a natural leader, but entrepreneurs tend to hop from idea to idea and not excel at follow-through. one of the great things about group work is that each child develops an authentic appreciation for the contributions made by the other children and the different roles it takes to accomplish a large undertaking.

please feel free to bring up some of your issues in open thread (so others can benefit, too :) or in email to me. let me know how it's going!

Post new comment