Can children teach themselves?

 In Education, Learning, Personal Development

‘When you teach a child something, you take away forever their chance of discovering it for themselves.’  Jean Piaget

It is widely, and incorrectly, assumed that adults need to teach children how to learn, what to learn, how to do things and even, how to be.

This idea that children require adult intervention to learn skills and knowledge stems from an old view that children are inferior to adults due to their lack of experience.  The authoritarian, top-down approach to education has been in place for more than 100 years and it has been difficult to shift this mindset.


However, it has been proved time and time again, that children who learn by teaching themselves, tend to have higher intrinsic motivation and higher retention of information.  Synapses in the brain fire at an alarming rate when a child is fully engaged in their learning, as opposed to partial engagement by listening to someone else.



Dr. Ferre Laevers from the Research Centre for Experiential Education at Leuven University in Belgium has devised 2 sets of indicators that are both logical and appealing to educators.  The first set, measures emotional well being.  It is clear that if a child is on the lower level of the scale, Level 1, and emotionally challenged, hungry and cold, they are not in an optimal state to learn.  A child at Level 5, or the top of the scale, is a child that has had all of their emotional and physical needs met and is open to learning opportunities.  The second set, measures levels of involvement.  A child at Level 1 shows no interest in being involved in the activity, is lethargic and quite possibly daydreaming, whereas a child at Level 5 shows continued concentration, energy and motivation, so much so that they are often unable to stop regardless of possible distractions going on around them.  The intensity of this concentration is palpable and this is the time when synapses are firing intensively in the brain, which equates to: Learning.



Dr. Ferre Laevers’ work shows us a simple way to measure learning.  It is not hard to imagine children in a formalised school setting coping through school at Levels 2 or 3.  However, give a child the opportunity to teach themselves, subject matter that they are interested in and using a variety of methods to gain that knowledge and the intensity and concentration rises to Levels 4 and 5 – active learning.  More often than not, children will be working at this level when pursuing information that is pertinent to them and of their own interest.  Whilst doing this, they are developing a plethora of areas that would, in perhaps other less interesting ways, be a struggle to develop such as specific literacy skills.

When discussing if children can teach themselves, we cannot leave out the educational research of Sugata Mitra.  A professor of Educational Technology, Mitra’s experiment of placing a computer in a hole in the wall in a slum has shown him and countless others a new way of teaching.  Mitra found that without having anyone teaching children how to use a computer, children engaged with the hole in the wall PC and quickly learned to use a touchpad to use the computer.  The children taught themselves to browse the internet, despite not knowing any English.  Sugata Mitra termed this MIE, or, Minimally Invasive Education and his research is extremely relevant to changing the paradigm of education today.


So how can parents encourage this? One way is to encourage them to question their thoughts and ideas and to allow them the time and space to independently research.  Providing a space at home for them to delve into learning and allowing them time to do so is vital to inspire them because they are born with the intrinsic motivation to do so.  Not answering their questions is also beneficial to impel them to go searching for the answer.  Simply answering with “I’m not sure or I wonder if…” allows children to test out their theories, research and propels them to go further into their learning.

Taking into account what we know about brain research and how learning creates synapses in the brain, it is paramount that we encourage, inspire and influence children to teach themselves, allowing their interest to spur on their innate ability to learn.  In this way, information will be stored in long-term memory and not short term, and will be purposeful and contextually appropriate to the child.  This is long lasting and meaningful learning which should be everyone’s (adults and children) common goal.

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