Parents are understandably cautious when their kids start nosing around expensive stuff, like computers or cars. Young children are indiscriminate in their attention and might be just as likely to blow the horn as they are to lower the handbrake and start sliding out the garage.
But with age comes understanding and a greater ability to focus on what matters. Long before they can get a student license, kids know that driving is important and may want to practice parking. A few years later, they may seek training in automotive trade skills to jump-start their career in this sector.
When children demonstrate this capability for self-directed learning, those in charge of their education will do well to pay attention. Adjusting their instructional approach can make a big difference in the outcomes.
Differences in learning
In education, children are taught using the framework of pedagogy, a Greek term meaning “child-leading.” It refers to the way instructors are given the responsibility for the learning experience, from methods to timing and even the content itself.
Pedagogy is a necessity for young learners. Children possess an immense interest in learning but lack the tools of knowledge. Their parents and teachers play a vital role in guiding them through the learning experience.
However, adults themselves have markedly different characteristics as learners. We bring a considerable breadth and depth of previous experience into every learning activity. And we also exercise greater autonomy over our time and efforts.
This means that adults are highly self-directed learners. We want to learn things because they matter to us in some way, perhaps enabling career or lifestyle aspirations or giving us the tools to solve problems. We also prefer the ability to choose how to engage with the material.
Therefore, instructors of adult students operate under a different model, called andragogy, which is Greek for “man-leading.” Allowing the mature learner to lead the way facilitates the experience and improves outcomes.
Conversely, forcing adults to learn via the pedagogical route can only frustrate them and disengage them from the educational effort.
Uneven paths to transition
Ideally, we teach children by leading the way in their early years and then shift to adult-led learning when the time is right. But when is it the right time to make this change in approach?
Every child matures at their own pace, which results in unequal learning abilities across a classroom of same-aged students. Some kids may also carry unseen cultural or emotional baggage that affects their learning curve and may make them seem slow or disengaged.
Yet broadly speaking, our educational system seems to believe otherwise, treating students as a fairly homogenous population.
For instance, children are expected to learn complex fractions in the fifth grade, moving on to algebra at middle school. That’s a one-year window to keep pace in a difficult subject not all kids find interesting, often simultaneous with other major changes such as puberty and increasing social development.
Should we be surprised if kids struggle with math during this period? They may be mature enough to envision career paths where math doesn’t seem to be that important. Other children acquiring the characteristics of adult learners might raise similar objections to reading literature, or coding, or physical exercise.
Continuing to teach these students as though they were children incapable of self-direction will only prove counter-productive.
Making the adjustment
An instructor could adjust by shifting to andragogy, highlighting how the course material actually matters to that student. You can do that by grounding the content in real-world examples relevant to the student’s interests.
Once that interest to learn has been sparked, the student will also benefit from autonomy and choice. Gamification techniques are being applied in education to create a sense of progress and give students control over how they engage with content.
These steps will help you to achieve better outcomes than simply adhering to the pedagogical standard. But you have to know when it’s appropriate to change your approach, which can only happen by being an astute observer of each student.
Don’t judge students on age or the outward semblance of maturity. Probe for their intrinsic motivations, and you’ll find that some subjects interest them on an adult level, while in others, they retain the need for guidance.
Teaching isn’t just giving information, any more than learning is about mere memorization. A teacher’s real job is learning about their students and devising the best strategy to motivate them, effectively fostering a desire for lifelong learning.