Observing and learning

DSCI3940Katie says she doesn’t want to learn. What she means is she doesn’t want to be taught. She’s learning all the time. She’s four, she can’t stop herself. She refuses most formal attempts at education: sulking, clamming up, monkeying around or storming off whenever Julian or I offer an opportunity to read or write or learn some basic maths. She even resists games that might have an educational purpose, so we have to be very subtle. If she gets the slightest whiff of something being ‘taught’ she gets mad.

Yet the other day, when I asked Lily ‘What is 4 times 3?’, Katie whispered in my ear (while Lily was still thinking) ‘12’. And when left to herself, she writes letters and numbers, spells a few words aloud, and solves number problems.

While it’s generally not helpful to compare siblings, or any children – one was doing this by this age, so why isn’t the other one – I think observing differences in learning styles is instructional. And Lily’s and Katie’s learning styles are radically different. It’s difficult to put those differences into words. There are subtle and not so subtle differences, and methods used to facilitate Lily’s learning have not worked with Katie.

Lily seems to progress gradually, going from step A to step B to step C. She takes constructive criticism and wants to please us by doing good work. We can look back over a month or a year and (if we were so disposed, which we are not) plot the steps she has taken to get from where she was then to where she is now.

Katie, on the other hand, can give the impression that she is not learning anything, until one day she does or says something that stops us in our tracks and we scratch our heads and ask ‘When did she learn that?’

Her handwriting went from chicken scratches to legible seemingly without any intermediate steps. While Lily’s writing gradually improved over time, after Katie’s first attempts she sulked and refused to write for months. Then one day took up a pencil and her chicken scratches had become writing. I guess in the intervening time her manual dexterity had improved by doing other things like drawing, colouring, painting and using cutlery.

And then there was the day when Julian was showing her some animal words on flash cards, and asking her to spell the words aloud. At first she seemed not to know. Indeed, she kept saying ‘I don’t know’. But then a light went on in her head and she seemed to realise that if she told Daddy what he wanted to hear, then he would leave her alone to get back to the fun stuff. She rolled her eyes, put her hands on her hips, sighed and flawlessly spelled the words on all the cards Julian held up to her.

As parents who take sole responsibility for our children’s education, dealing with such different attitudes to learning can at times be challenging. While Lily generally enjoys written and mental maths and writing stories, lists and letters, we have had to learn to give Katie more space to learn on her own. Formal approaches to teaching don’t work (or at least they don’t work at present – they may work in the future). But more subtle forms of learning – playing, helping with number-based chores such as laying the table, sharing out food, following recipes, etc, all allow her to learn without realising she’s being taught.

The rest of the stuff that isn’t reading, writing and maths – the geography, history, science, art and languages – are all the stuff of our day-to-day lives that we all learn together, each one of us delving in at a level appropriate to our ages and life experiences. Katie is gradually making her way to independent reading, writing and maths, but she’s taking quite a different route to that taken by her sister. Julian and I are learning to step back, give her space and trust her to learn in a way that makes sense to her.


3 thoughts on “Observing and learning

  1. Hi All, lovely to have your updates on your Adventure.
    Reading your last instalment it occurred to me that my 2 children also had very different ways of learning. Verity’s method was identical to Katie’s. She is very intelligent and got frustrated with doing things in a set order…..still is. Leigh however is more of a plodder. He enjoys order and the discipline of learning. Both have done well educationally (now 30 and 32) but have chosen completely different adult routes. Verity is an Entrepreneur having spent time after uni in the army (rascalandroses.com) and Leigh was his niece’s Manny for a year and revels in IT, now a data analyst for NHS.
    However, it transpired whiilst Veriy was in her 1st year at Uni that she is dyslexic. She had worked out her own method of dealing with it through GCSE’s and A levels and it didn’t come to light til she started PPE at Edinburgh, with all the reading that was involved. She has a tremendous memory and counted on that to remember all she was taught at school. I’m not an Educational psychologist, but I am a Lecturer and I completely missed it. So I thought I’d share my experience with you. Katie clearly does have an alternate method of learning, and has a good memory. That may be all there is to it. She may also be dyslexic. There are many levels to Dyslexia, Verity is borderline but had loads of 1-1 help from a tutor in Uni and still uses the methods he ”showed” her, today.

    Sent from our terrace in the sun in The Pyrennees.


    • Ah the Pyrennees!! It’s very true that we all have our different learning styles and one way or another, with dyslexia or other difficulties along the way, we end up being productive and successful adults. My friend and her sister both have dyslexia. And now, in their 40s, my friend has just completed her BA and her sister is about to complete her PhD. Horray for them!!!

  2. In some ways I think soaking up knowledge by just getting on with life in the “real world” is the best way – after all, the only reason we ever need to know anything is because it came up in life. That’s not to say there’s not value in systematic learning, but it surprises me when people can be resistant to the idea of just letting children get on with it however they see fit. It’s good to see that both your girls are free to learn the way they choose.

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