Monday, September 18, 2017

There is No Such Thing as a Reluctant Learner

No Such Thing

There is no such thing as a reluctant learner. There are, however, reluctant students.

Wait a minute! You are probably here to read "Tips for Teaching Reluctant Learners" but before you leave, let me explain how the distinction between "learner" and "student" helps me define my role as a homeschool mom and how it informs my "Tips."

Learners v. Students

For me...

Knowledge grows from within a learner; whereas,
knowledge is given from a teacher to a student.

learner chooses the subject of study; but
a teacher chooses the subject for his or her students.

The duration and location(s) of study is determined by the interest and sensibilities of a learner, exploring for longer, deeper and in many ways if possible; however,
students learn for a set amount of time and in a fixed location as dictated by the teacher.

It is OK for a learner to decide when he or she is finished studying the subject at hand; in contrast,
the teacher decides when the student is done learning.

learner is capable of discovering important topics and pursuing education;
student is unqualified to self-direct his or her education.

The relationship of a learner to his or her teacher is based on democracy, kindness, and learning together.
The relationship of a student to his or her teacher is based on power.

An Exceptional Learner, a Terrible Student

Case in point: my son. He is twice exceptional: his social skills and restrictive repetitive behavior place him in the bottom 2% of children his age, which is labeled Autism; his IQ places him in the top 2%, which is labeled Gifted. His unique set of strengths and weaknesses make him an ideal learner but an infuriating student.

He can spend an inordinate amount of time immersed in something he finds interesting. As a baby, he would lay on the floor and watch the wheels of his car or truck move while he gently rolled it back and forth. His belly time was spent flipping his thumb across the pages of my Joy of Cooking and watching the pages fall. Last week, as a seven year old, he sat with a LEGO set and assembled over 1000 pieces in one day.

But when he was a toddler and I invited him to color with me, I got a look from him that spoke volumes. "Are you delusional? Why would I do that?" it said. (He was nonverbal until he was 2.5 years old.) Nor would he imitate me and do the work of life (toilet train, get dressed, brush teeth, etc.). If it wasn't interesting to him, he wouldn't do it and he couldn't be convinced to do it either. No bribe was worth enough; no consequence compelling enough.

It was all fine and good when he was little. Young children are given a LOT of leeway. They develop at their own pace, asynchrony is expected. But now he is nearly eight years old and his quirky tendencies are more obvious and more problematic in mainstream schooling.

That is why we are homeschooling (again, I suppose) - because he is an exceptional learner but a terrible student...

An Exceptional Facilitator, a Terrible Teacher

...and I'm an exceptional facilitator but a terrible teacher (to him - I was actually a great teacher to community college students).

My strengths lie in learning with him. I am good at paying attention to his interests and finding ways to learn more together. What is more, I enjoy doing it.

On the flip side, I am terrible at helping him with his weaknesses. It isn't for lack of trying. When he is disinterested in something it is impossible to convince him to do it. Think the popular quotation by Katrina Gutleben (with a pinch of Autism-Stubborn-Doggedness):
"Learning can only happen when a child is interested. If he's not interested, it's like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it eating."
Pleading doesn't work. Reasoning doesn't work. The only thing that works is coercion.

Cost-Benefit Analysis (i.e., Things to Consider Before Coercing Students) 

Coercion, bribery, bargaining. Whatever you want to call it, it is ubiquitous in education.

It starts with children earning stickers for toilet training (which, by the way, never worked for my children) and it continues with paying for chores and then manipulating their emotional well-being in schools. Essentially, the adult offers something valuable to the child iff he or she does what the adult wants them to do.

When to Use Coercion

There are two things that inform when I use coercion:

1. When I am not willing to compromise my expectations.
Through our exploration of the world, reading, and volunteerism, we have discussed subjects of science, art, history, citizenry, politics, maths, and the human condition. We've discussed ethics of how the fire began in Oregon, reasonable consequences, responsibility, and prevention. We have discussed humanitarianism because of the hurricane. We know about history from the Magic Treehouse stories of Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci. We've learned climate change (and other science) from Jeff and Paige and music theory from Mr. Hoffman
What has not come up organically is writing down his ideas about this myriad of topics. (My daughter is a different story....she writes and writes and writes.) My expectations for my seven year old second grader is that he will become a fluent writer. 
I need this for two reasons - for evidence of his learning, and to feel satisfied with the work I do as a homeschooling parent. However, while I believe that it will probably happen naturally by the time he is 14 years old, I am not willing to wait. 
So I use coercion to entice him to sit with me daily to work on spelling, phonics, reading via The Bravewriter's Wand curriculum. He earns screentime.

2. When I am not willing to trust that it will happen naturally, organically, and in due time.
My son is Autistic; his brain is different. So different that his life skills prevent him from participating in life like everyone else. He needs therapy to bring some of his skills up to par. The way his mind and body develop is too far delayed and out-of-sync for me to stand by and watch.
For example, his eyes could not track left to right or forward and backward and needed vision therapy. Simultaneously, he needed to do a speech therapy "homework" at home as well as occupational therapy. However, none of this was easy for him. He would absolutely not do it without coercion. 
So I bribed him. I paid him $1 per day for sitting with me and doing the work with good manners.
In each of these situations, my son is decidedly a student and I am the teacher.

Methods of Coercion

I refuse to use guilt trips or emotional coercion with my children. So that leaves me with finding things that will work as bribes. In my family, stickers, candy, and high fives are not enticing enough compensation for what I want them to do. The two most sought-after commodities are money and screentime.

Screentime because we are learning our limits with screens; money because, despite our policy on allowance, they always want more.

What it really comes down to is cost-benefit analysis. How important is it? And what is it worth? ("It" being some educational goal.)

Coercion-Free Life and Learning

For most of our homeschooling life we are coercion-free. That is the power and the glory of self-directed, interest-based learning. 

Together we explore places like science centers, art museums, national and state parks, and libraries. We host parties and play games.  We attend community volunteer work days and neighborhood parties. 

We read. We laugh. We enjoy learning. 

It is so easy and so fun that you wouldn't even know we're learning.

On Trust and Mindfulness

The extent to which you trust that your child will learn to be a competent, kind, and productive member of society will dictate how much coercion you need in your life.

My recommendation to you is to be mindful of coercion.

Pay attention to the situation and ask yourself: "is this something that is so important that I need to coerce my child? Or can I let it go?"

Only you know your child, his or her needs, and your needs. We all have different non-negotiables. We all have different methods of coercion. But we should all recognize when and why coercion is the force by which our child performs as a student compared to when and why our child shows us that he or she is a learner.

GHF Changing How the World Views Education

This was written as part of the GHF Blog Hop. For more surf over here...


  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences and successes! I love your point about being mindful of coercion. I know 2e help for teachers and parents is badly needed -- thank you for providing that help!

    1. Thanks for reading! I'm not sure it is much "help" for 2e parents or teachers but I hope when people read it that it gives them food for thought. ;)

  2. SUCH great info -- I particularly love the comparisons between learners and students!

  3. Yes, yes, yes! This is exactly what people need to understand, and you've articulated it so well.

  4. Yes indeed. I found myself laughing out loud at the marshmallow quote! We also have had to do similar thing for some types of 'yuck' therapy (mostly to do with physical mobility issues). There is no obvious immediate benefit, so we have had to use a mix of explanation, begging and bribery, oh dear. (I mean, who wants to go in to surgery, right?) Loved this!

  5. Love this! Excellent discussion of the difference between a learner and a student, a facilitator and a teacher.