What Is Inspiring? (Part 4–Autonomy and Learning)

Did you ever sit in front of your baby, the spoon hovering in mid-air, and desperately try to get them to eat “just one bite” of their strained carrots . . . or peas . . . or rice cereal? And did you ever have the triumphant moment when you finally slipped the spoon in between their pursed lips . . . only to have everything come spraying back out, with the triumphant look now on your baby’s face? Ah, the power struggles of parenthood!

Trying to force someone to learn something is a lot like trying to get a baby to eat strained carrots if he doesn’t like the way they taste. Sure—you can try to shove that information in. But if it’s not wanted, it’s not going to stay there, and you’re going to have a huge mess to clean up.

The hard part comes when you know you have information that is good for your kid. You know that it’s something that he needs. So how do you get him to want to learn it? How do you take something that has the potential to be at least uninteresting or boring and possibly completely distasteful and make it seem desirable?

You accept that your kid has to own their own learning. You give your kid autonomy. You recognize and honor the division of labor between your kid and yourself.

Your kid is responsible for taking the information around him, keeping it in his memory, and using it to make new connections and create new ideas. It’s his job to play, to explore, to experiment, to discover without you getting in the way—much like when you let your baby crawl around and play with everything he can reach in the lower cabinets while you’re cooking. That’s his job.

So stay out of the way and let the learner do his job. You have a different job to do. Your job is to make the environment as inspiring as possible and to make sure you expose your learner to information in inspiring ways.

And to do this, you must recognize your leaner’s need for autonomy. Several years ago, I had the chance to travel around southern England with my husband. As part of that trip, we decided to do the large hedge maze that is at Leed’s castle. I’d never done a maze like that before, and I was so excited for the challenge. As we got started, we noticed that there was a tower at the center of the maze—not the solution, but the center—where a volunteer was posted to help people who got stuck. Because we were the only people in the maze that day, and because the volunteer must have been very bored, she began to shout out “helpful hints” as we walked along. “Try going left.” “Try something that doesn’t seem like it would work.” After a few times, I wanted to shout, “Shut up! I want to do this by myself! Don’t help me!” But because we were in England, I said politely, “Thank you so much for your assistance. But we’d like to figure this out on our own. If we need your help, we’ll let you know.”

I was mad because she was taking away my freedom to learn how to do the maze on my own. She had crossed over from her side of the division of labor—to make sure my environment was safe—onto my turf, which was to explore and experiment until I found a solution.

So if you are committed to fully supporting the need for autonomy in your kid, and you are ready to allow your kid to be completely responsible for his learning, what do you actually do to motivate—or inspire—learning?

You focus on what you can do and trust your kid to do his part.

This week, take time to notice any learning that your kid is doing all on his own. Does he sit and read? Does he build something? Does he stare out the window and daydream? Does he ask questions? Does he pretend? Does he work on a project?

What does he learn when you get out of the way?

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