When you think of a child trying to learn shapes and numbers, what do you see? Do you picture a little one surrounded by colourful toys and an adult pointing and naming the manipulatives around? Do you see a group of children engaging with shapes and numbers making up their own games? Maybe you see a child watching a funny video that teaches numbers through songs?
No matter the situation you imagine, there is one important thing to consider: learners and learning cannot be separated. And as such, you cannot help a child learn if you don’t first understand learners’ characteristics.
There are three major models of learning:
1. Reception- children acquire facts, skills, and knowledge from someone more knowledgeable
2. Construction- the learner makes connections and individually makes sense of learning through discussion and individual interpretation
3. Co-construction-the teacher encourages dialogue and collaborative activities; learners create knowledge together; interaction is key
These models of learning have been analysed and in order to learn effectively, research showed, learners, need to be actively involved, take responsibility for their own learning, understand and reflect on what they are learning (Watkins, Carnell and Lodge, 2007). For many years, there was a strong belief that children need to be filled with information (reception model of learning), but more recent studies (for the past 30 years now) move away from drill and practice and focus on students’ understanding and application of knowledge (co-construction model of learning).
How can you better understand learners’ characteristics?
So how can you make sure that you are helping your children learn? By truly understanding learners and learners’ needs, you can successfully guide children to manage their learning effectively.
Here are 10 steps to help parents and teachers better understand a learner’s characteristics:
1. 1. Ask children to draw pictures of their learning: this allows them to reflect on their view of what learning is-they think about what to include/not include in the picture, what to give importance to etc.
These pictures can help you understand more about the learner’s needs, how children perceive learning and can offer a starting point in deciding how to involve the child in his own learning. A study called “Regarding learning’ asked 6-year-olds to draw pictures of learning in the classroom. All the children belonged to the same class and all of them perceived learning differently. The drawings also showed that there was more emphasis on behaviour than learning and that the teacher was always the centre of attention, not the learner.
2. 2. The human brain is primed for interaction so offer learners the chance to work together – actively encourages well-organized cooperative learning; children will negotiate, interact and cooperate with people very different from themselves, essential characteristics of a lifelong learner.
By learning co-operatively, children develop interpersonal and problem-solving skills which will help them cope in complex social networks that are part of our world today. Learning through dialogue and building knowledge together with others also helps learners take responsibility for their own learning and does not treat knowledge as something fixed, but as something that emerges out of the collaboration.
3. 3. Participation is fundamental in learning- learners need to be offered the space and time to use their voice. How do you do that?
Involve learners in decision-making regarding their own learning, offer open-ended questions to help children express their views and reflect on their understanding of the world; use dialogic teaching and approaches as talk has been proved to be a powerful teaching tool. In doing so, the children will also perceive teachers as learners and feel more empowered.
4. 4. Learners are most successful if they are mindful of themselves as learners and thinkers – teach the child to self-regulate. What do I mean by that?
Self-regulation refers to a learner’s ability to control his emotions and the learning environment in order to achieve a goal. Teach children to resist distractions, persist and not give up during a task, learn how to use strategies, and reflect on their effectiveness. Change strategies halfway through, be able to understand what worked and why and build a learner’s strength.
Self-regulation is one of the most important of the learner’s characteristics, but it needs to be taught and be practiced specifically. Learners need to know what their strengths are and learn their limitations in order to create a bridge between what they can do and what they are asked to do.
5. 5. Place the learners at the heart of teaching by observing them- learning and learners are in an intimate and intricate relationship. To discover your learner’s needs, you must first understand the learners’ background.
Document the child’s preferences, abilities, and actual knowledge level; use these findings to plan your teaching. How can you document the child?
First, learn about the learners’ previous experiences, family practice,s and culture. While doing this, use pedagogical documentation as a tool- simply watch the child and take notes of his needs, record/take pictures. You can also use learning stories- a combination of pictures and notes that record everyday experiences of what the child does, says, knows, etc
6. 6. Keep the learner engaged – teach the child something relevant and meaningful; use a wide variety of techniques- guided activity, individual task, group work, exploration and documentation, hands-on activities.
Children also feel engaged when they are involved in decision making (see step 3) and they find their interests represented in the classroom (step 6).
7. 7. Help children develop a growth mindset – this learner characteristic will guide children on a path of motivation and academic performance. How can you help children develop a growth mindset?
By discussing with them that struggle and negative emotions like frustration are natural and a useful part of the learning process. Offer praise related to processes, not the child. Avoidability labels (math whiz, lazy, genius) as they can lead to fixed mindset beliefs. Sharing responsibility and accountability with the learner can also make him/her see the teacher as a learner.
8. 8. Children learn best in cooperation with more knowledgeable others, according to the co-construction model of learning. These more experienced others can be adults or peers who model and extend the child’s understanding of the world. What the child can do in cooperation today he can do alone tomorrow.
Adults should act as counselors, facilitators, and resource people. They should ask open-ended questions (with no particular answer in mind) to encourage learners to reflect, offer their perspectives on things and discover new ways of looking at things.
9. 9. Learners need a safe and secure learning environment, one which does not stigmatize mistakes, trusts and respects the child, and does not engage in competition.
Learning becomes a pedagogy of relationship in which everyone is teaching and learning, the children are truly listened to and their ideas are met with wonder and respect. The image of the teacher as a learner helps the child recognize the fact the one constantly needs to learn, thus acknowledging in others one of the characteristics of lifelong learners.
10. Help children develop positive learning dispositions, a vital aspect of a learner’s characteristics. Learning dispositions refer to a child’s attitude towards learning. These attitudes are shaped by the interactions the child has with caregivers, teachers and the environment. The aim of teaching is to help children have and maintain a positive learning disposition towards learning. It seems very complicated, but not impossible!
Each learner needs to be sufficiently challenged to reach just above his existing level and capacity. So, offer tasks that demand hard work, without excessive overload, but rather challenge the learner. All of the above steps, if considered together, encourage a positive learning disposition, which embraces the learners’ needs, motivations, and commitment to learning.
Seeing the child as he/she is rather than what he/she could be is the most important step in understanding learners’ characteristics and meeting their needs. Learners need relationships to learn collaboratively and become an active voice in a group.
When a co-constructive model of learning is valued, everyone teaches and everyone learns, children are recognized as able, powerful, and competent, in other words, they become empowered. And so, they become lifelong learners. You can help children give voice to their ‘hundred languages and possibilities’ (L. Malaguzzi).
Written by Cristina and Monica from What Does Mamma Say.
“Our mission is to provide parents with all the means to help your children grow in every way. Realising that we need to make good use of the thousands of games, worksheets, activities we have used in our 21 years of combined teaching experience, we decided to offer you simple, efficient and tested resources to help your child’s skills grow and flourish.”
What the world can learn from the educational change in Finland, Pasi Dahlberg, (2014)
What are the foundations of effective teaching and learning?, Pollard, A. & Pollard, A. (2014)
What is effective learning in classrooms? Watkins, C., Carnell, E., & Lodge, C. (2007)
Learner agency and social justice: what can creative pedagogy contribute to socially just pedagogies? A. Hempel-Jorgensen, (2015)