Encouraging Meaningful Engagement in Home Learners

First of all, I think we can all stop calling it ‘home schooling’ now. Most home educators don’t relate and pretty much every parent I know has finally reliased that teachers are the unsung heroes, that they all deserve a pay rise, that they’ve forgotten pretty much everything they learned in school and that what is currently happening at homes around the world is nothing like ‘school’.

I’ve already talked about how I keep getting people coming to me saying ‘I don’t know how you’ve been doing this all of these years’ and I have to reply by reminding them that this is not what I’ve been doing all of these years. (Ummmm, because we’re in lockdown, which no one ever has been in before, so how on earth could I know what I’m doing?) Anyway, this is not what this is about.

What is being realised by thousands (perhaps millions?) of parents and teachers, after just 6 short weeks of lockdown, is that what they thought ‘home schooling’ was going to look like is completely unworkable; it’s failing to provide stimulation or engagement and pretty much is a waste of time for a vast swathe of kids, parents and teachers. 

Worse than that, they’ve realised that the carrot and stick structure of the traditional school model is completely ineffective in this new home-based reality. Without the four walls of the classroom and the threat of bad grades, detention or whatever, kids have started to realise that a lot of it is just bunk.

So all of a sudden schools have got to stir up some intrinsic motivation and passion in a group of kids who’ve done little besides jump through hoops in the hope of earning gold stars for the past ten years. Educators have got to work out how they can craft a new model which engages children on their terms. Schools are having to acknowledge that if something isn’t meaningful to the students, its irrelevance is being magnified by the current cirucmstances and the fact that, from the comfort of their pj’s and beanbags, kids are simply not going to do what they don’t want to do.

So what do educators need to work towards, moving into perhaps 18 months of educational change necessitated by social distancing guidelines? Traditional schools are going to need to embrace what we home educators have known for years. Children ‘learn’ best in an environment based on autonomy and intrinsic motivation which follow a process-driven approach.

For those of you not familiar with these terms, I have extracted some of the sections from my new book in three further blog posts where you can read in detail about autonomy , intrinsic motivation and the process-driven approach.

What all three of these concepts have in common is that they all rely on the learner being invested in their own education. And this investment comes not for the sake of their grades at the end of the year but because the activities they’re participating in and the things that they’re ‘learning’ are relevant to their own lives.

Now, this is where schools face their biggest conundrum – how do you get a class of 30 kids to each invest in something unless you are going to let each kid follow a different path? That sounds like a logistical nightmare. Well, guess what? You’re going to have to. Because the alternative is you keep trying to get them to learn what you want them to learn and they’ll keep spending the afternoon zooming their mates.

So before we start talking about what that kind of self-direction looks like in practice, let’s address that question that I always get at this point…. ‘but what about the kids who would rather sit around and do nothing?’ OK. Yes, by secondary school there are plenty of kids who are so thoroughly disengaged with their own education that they genuinely would rather sit around doing nothing than have anything to do with ‘learning’ whatever curriculum the system has decided it is necessary to shove down their throats.

But that is not the default state of affairs. To quote my new hero, Alex Beard, children are ‘Natural Born Learners’ and we grown-ups (especially you dastardly politicians and yes, you know who you are) are doing our level best to knock that right out of them with our curriculums, standards and rubrics.

The default state of affairs is that children (and yes, teenagers too) are naturally inquisitive, interested in the world and their place within it, and are frequently crying out for ways to engage meaningfully with society at large. So step one in this process is to acknowledge that if you’ve got a child who you suspect would rather sit about doing nothing than opt for traveling down the path of self-directed education, you need to accept that it’s the school system that made them that way – and so the school system is going to have to help them get back out.

Start with this useful tool from Self-Managed Learning, a programme which poses 5 key questions that learners must first address before they can begin to identify their personal learning goals:


The act of answering these questions could take up a significant chunk of time because a) these are really tricky and thought-provoking concepts and 2) the answers will change with time and so deliberating over the ideas will necessarily mean that students’ thinking has moved on since they first started the process. Whoah – I do love a good paradox.

Anyway, individually coaching learners through these 5 questions may be time consuming, but it will mean that they are already on the right path towards identifying what it is that they need or want to learn or acquire. Wow. When you think about it, if you could send every 18 year old out into the real world with a firm grasp of these 5 questions and their current thinking on the answers, they’d probably all be really well-adjusted and happy and, well, smart. Huh.

Ok, so let’s assume that you have got your students to engage with the self-managed learning style and they have identified some really important things that they feel that that need to investigate. AND NONE OF THEM HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH HISTORY WHICH IS WHAT YOU TEACH!!!!!!!

Fret not my friends. I’m going to let you in on a little secret here: you know those kids that got an A in their history test? They didn’t all learn those bits of history. The likelihood is that they shoved loads of information into their short-term memory, regurgitated it on a test paper and then promptly purged it to make room for more relevant information. Because (and here’s the secret) learning can only happen when a person feels engaged and invested in the task at hand. True learning is the ability to take that information and then apply it in other circumstances.

If you want your students to spend their time engaged in real learning while they are at home and outside of the control of those four walls, you are going to have to be prepared to release those traditional curriculum-based distinctions and embrace the notion that all learning is good and it is rote filling in of worksheets and working to the test that are bad.

So don’t worry that your student has decided they don’t want to pursue any learning that has to do with history. You know why? Because history is really interesting. And if a person grows up being an engaged, interested and stimulated learner then they will eventually get to it. And when they get to it, they will get it – straight away. Because they wanted to understand it – because it had meaning in their life – because they felt that the information was going to help them to achieve their goals.

OK – so, on a daily basis you are going to want to come up with some sort of routine so that you can (sorry, it’s making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up to write this) track their progress. There, I said it. As I was recently very rudely reminded, I have not taught in an actual classroom for the last 8 years. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand what it is that teachers are up against when it comes to miss-smarty-pants over here telling you to let the kids learn whatever they want, yada yada. I get it. I’m an idealist, not an idiot.

Teachers will need to feel that they can track and record what their students are doing and the first step in doing that is by encouraging children to set their own intentions at the start of every day. Now, my children set intentions every day and they usually sound like: play lego, eat cookies, go on a bike ride, etc. For me, with young children my intention is to help them realise the value of having intentions. (do you see what I did there?)

So get your students to set their intentions at the beginning of every day. And make sure that they understand that their intentions are entirely up to them. Following that, the teacher (who I’m now going to start referring to as a facilitator, for hopefully obvious reasons) needs to check back in with the students halfway through the day so that they can identify whether they’ve done any of the things they set out to do, whether they want to add anything to their list and how they’re feeling about what they’ve achieved. It may be impossible to do this personnally, so encouraging the young people to establish a habit of checking in with themselves at lunchtime is really the ultimate goal (after all, nobody checks in with me to make sure I’m keeping up with my intentions!) This process then needs to be repeated at the end of the day.

Et voila! Teachers have a record of something. And the students have decided what they want to achieve and taken responsibility for determining whether or not they met their own expectations.

Some of you may find that adopting an ‘inquiry based’ learning model works (particularly if you’ve got senior managers to sell your ideas to) because this provides a sort of structured approach to the autonommous learning I promote. In the Inquiriy-based model we start with children posing questions related to a particular topic (and yes, that will probably be curriculum-based, ho hum.). The teacher is not there to direct the flow of thinking but rather to facilitate the process of recording and positioning so that children with similar interests can work together, various questions (inquiries) on a similar theme can be combined into one set and to ensure that groups are facing the right direction when they start their research.

For those of you in schools who simply cannot down tools and walk away from the curriculum, you may want to take a look at Mitra’s Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLE). This approach makes it possible to enable some of the autonomy and personal responsibility for learning that I discussed above but dove-tailing that into a curriculum. Although it breaks my heart to say it, this could be a productive avenue of exploration for the home-based learning strategies that can’t stomach being radical and ditching curriculum. (But hey – it’s only 18 months. Why not give it a try?)

Moving onto the concept of ‘process’; you may want to scroll up and read that link about process over product before you read on if you’re not sure what that looks like. But basically what you are going to have to accept, is that the fundamental driver in learning is a person being engaged with the task at hand. So the process that they are participating in has to be the goal – not the achievement at the end.

And you know what this means – you have to stop giving them tasks to do.The outcomes have to go. The expectations have to go. The success criteria (shudder) have to go.

Instead, the students need to create activities for themselves that allow them to explore their interests and achieve that hallowed state of flow whilst they’re working. And yes, if the only place where they are going to achieve that state of flow is playing their guitar in the basement, let them.

Remember, your goal is to encourage meaningful learning learning and engagement – you cannot force ‘meaningful’ on someone if their heart isn’t in it.

Let’s look back to our friend that ‘would rather sit around and do nothing’ than take responsibility for their own independent learning. For too long, this learner has been sat in a room being told what is important and why x,y&z need to be learned. After years of having information that seems too distant, too boring or just plain useless presented to them, they have finally switched off. You are going to need to believe that they can switch back on if given the right level of trust and freedom. They will.

But they are going to need a skilled facilitator who thinks about what sorts of prompts or invitations to lay scattered about around them to help them engage with something. Some really organised home educating parents do an excellent job of taking cues from their children and then, every night, setting out small tasks or games which might be of interest to the child in the morning. I know, right? We are not that house.

The idea though, is sound and will be hugely useful in prompting previously disaffected learners to engage with this new mode of self-directed learning. Although, since your students are all at their homes you won’t be able to set up enticing and beautiful displays or activities. You’re going to have to think of digital prompts.

Those prompts could be curriculum or content based but just as useful would be some really engaging non-academic prompts. Suggest that they go to the basement and retreive a broken appliance and try to fix it. Perhaps they like cooking and so could be tasked with researching and preparing a meal from a country of their choice. Maybe they could be pointed towards some charity work taking place in their community that they might like to engage with.

Another avenue to explore would be to try posing ‘essential’ questions to your students. Wiggins and McTighe developed this notion of essential questions which are those that lead us to explore porblems, quest for knowledge, demand critical thinking and even work towards real-world solutions. If you look up ‘big inquiry’ questions or ‘essential’ questions you will be presented with 100s of ideas for this type of prompting. But the idea is generally that you pose big, concept based questions and allow students to follow their own paths in exploring that question.

As above though, you really do need to commit to the importance of not judging/grading outcomes though. Question prompts need to lead to process-based thinking just like taking a part a toaster is not necessarily going to end with the toaster put back together. Yes, you may discover that the toaster has been turned into a robot, and that in itself would be an outcome but it is an outcome arrived at through full-hearted attention to the process, not because it could have been predicted before the start of the exploration. Likewise, you may find that all your left with is 1000 tiny pieces of toaster all over the kitchen floor – and from that a person may well have learned that they really have no interest in assembling toasters. This, like so many other realisations, has merit and should not be dismissed as unimportant simply because ‘Explore whether or not you are interested in toasters’ is not a curriculum topic.

A good facilitator is someone who can stand back and observe the learning that is taking place without having to interfere. They offer up a multitude of options without any pressure on learners to choose one thing over another. They create environments (physical and virtual) that are filled with engaging and challenging concepts. They listen to the child and guide them towards new concepts that they think might stimulate a child further. They use all of their knowledge and experience to gently nudge their learners in the direction of new ideas. All of this while trusting that humans are, by their very nature, desirous of knowledge and learning.

When providing students with learning prompts there should be no need for them to present you with an essay, a report or any ‘evidence’ of their learning. If you can accept that those worksheets that you’ve been sending home aren’t really evidence of learning either, you can probably take the leap towards understanding that traditional ‘evidence’ just gets in the way of engagement with the process.

As soon as a person knows what the end ‘product’ needs to look like, all of their attention will become focussed on bringing that product into existence (if they’re a ‘good’ student) or shrugging their shoulders (if they’re like me in my AP English class). By telling them what they need to produce at the end, we’ve stopped them engaging with the process.

Imagine if all you ever talked about with them was the process? What they are enjoying, what avenues they’ve gone down in their explorations, what they are going to change about their intentions now that they’ve learned what ever they’ve learned. Then they’d have to engage with that instead now wouldn’t they?

The last of this triumverate of learning engagement is intrinsic motivation. Briefly, this is the process whereby a person is motivated to act for their own personal reasons rather than because they’re hoping to get a gold star at the end. There’s so much evidence to show that gold stars (and any other kind of reward) does so much damage to the learning process and self-esteem in general, that I simply can’t cover it all here. Let’s just say that every time a child is made to do something for the promise of a good grade, their motivation to continue to do that task in future drops.

And since we’ve already discussed how the traditional methods of evidencing learning are not really evidence of anything other than worksheet-fill-out-ability, it stands to reason that the awarding of marks is also evidencing not much beyond the person’s ability to jump through your hoops. So the fact that these grades are actually harming students’ engagement with their own learning should surely be enough to illicit a change in tack.

If we are going to focus on the process over product and encourage children to set their own targets then there is nothing to really assess at the end anyway. But this means that students are going to need to come up with a different way to document what they’re doing with their time. If this is presented as a way for the teacher to ‘monitor’ their learning though, it isn’t going to work. It needs to be an opportunity for the student themselves to see what they’ve done and what they still need to do.

Eliminate the product and there is no need to assess. Allow the student to guide their own learning and there is no need to cajole. Provide a rich and stimulating environment alive with possibility and they will engage with their own learning.

This all relies on trust. Without trust, a learning programme can never truly be self-driven. And without that, there is no hope of meaningful or engaged learning. Trust in the child’s innate desire to learn – this is the most difficult concept for educators in the traditional system to accept. Now that we are moving away from the traditional, trust must be at the core of the new system.

Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.

Maria Montessori

(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)

These blogs are being written and are free for you to enjoy, read and share. If you feel that what I write has value and you’ld like to donate a few pounds to fund my writing time so that I don’t have to give it all up and go work at the McDonalds drive through, please do. But if not please don’t feel obliged – a share on social media is great for getting the word out!

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