Saturday 23 February 2013

“Teaching” children

Many of us seem to have come to associate teaching with the kind of structured teaching that we also associate with schooling. We need set times and places in order to be taught things, we need set syllabuses, preferably with statements about things like teaching purposes, and we need details about things like learning outcomes, preferably complete with a battery of tests which make sure that the learner fits both purposes and outcomes, through the application of things like bell-shaped curves and normal distributions. And, of course, we need teachers.

Many of us also associate teaching children with this kind of teaching. Regular questions that I get from parents in multilingual families reflect these twin beliefs. They want to teach their language(s) to their children, and they wonder about hiring people to do so, about timetables, (online) books and exercise books, and about must-dos and must-not-dos like, you’ve guessed it, accidentally flouting the OPOLicy. Some parents are adamant that teaching languages means teaching their grammar. This isn’t easy, because learning things is never easy, they concede, but it must be taught anyway “because children need to learn something”. Many of us, it also became clear to me from similar correspondence, thus associate learning with laborious no-pain-no-gain kinds of processes.

There are several issues here. First, the assumption that learners can’t learn by themselves. The teaching philosophy behind structured teaching is that learning means being aware that you’re learning, failing which you’re unable to learn at all. Structured teaching is but one kind of teaching, of course. Perhaps not the most effective, either, precisely because it takes learning as dependent on (adult-bound) structured prompting. Second, the assumptions that if you teach little Jenny biology, then little Jenny will have learned biology; and that if Jenny has learned biology, then Jenny must have had biology taught to her. We can, of course, learn without dedicated teaching, just like, alas!, all of us teachers are familiar with dedicated teaching without learning – if you’re into teaching linguistics, have a look at those Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know. Not to mention all those bits and pieces of “hidden curriculum” that we do teach, though unwittingly. One of my students once told me that he had learned two things from my linguistics courses: linguistics, which I knew I was teaching, and my way of teaching linguistics, which I didn’t know I was teaching. And third, the assumption that learning carries effort, which is the point I wish to expand on.

Image © Clipart from

Children learn best when they’re not being taught. Do keep in mind that we’re talking children here, often toddlers, so let me rephrase that: children learn best when they’re not being taught in the ways that we adults think that things should be taught. Take, for example, what some adults perceive as “doing nothing”, as when children are mumbling away to themselves in some remote corner of the house, or staring in silence at the moon. To me, respecting the brain activity which must be going on there and then is a brainy activity in itself. Or take play, which many parents view as a waste of precious childhood time and/or as irrelevant to learning. “Idle” people strike us as no-good layabouts, including where they may be, simply, thinking – which is something that a lot of us may well have forgotten how to do, since we’re all so busy engaging in “real”, tangible activities, in order to avoid being seen as no-good layabouts.

Predictably, then, “idle” children strike us as prospective no-gooders. This is why we enrol the tiny things in assorted “schools”, to “teach” them to become proper adults like us – and this is why I have scare quotes in the title of this post. We believe that babies in nappies should be taught to sit still, obey instructions, listen to adults, do things on schedule, say things on cue. We believe that children should learn about their new world like so many of us learn about new countries, by following the hoisted flag of the standard tourist guide. We believe, in short, that children should not be children, in an intriguing revival of Victorian ways of looking at childhood.

Jean Piaget’s take on matters of teaching children makes a lot more sense to me: “When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” If the “his/himself” in this English version of the quotation irks you, by the way, it does me, too. Piaget’s original words are: “Tout ce qu’on apprend à l’enfant, on l’empêche de l’inventer ou de le découvrir.”

This is all the more true of languages, for two reasons. One, that children, like the rest of us, learn best by doing. We may not know that we’re teaching language, without scare quotes, when we’re talking about something else in that language, but we are. As I wrote in an article about child language acquisition, “language learning is going on whenever language is used around children.” The other reason is that learning languages has much more to it than following the guide. In my book Multilinguals are ...?, I noted that “the best language lessons are the ones that don’t target the languages themselves at all” (p. 72).

Structured teaching deliberately steers attention away from what we want to learn, whether we’re children or adults, to what someone else has decided we should be learning. No wonder our learning of languages, whether we’re children or adults, is often fraught with stumbling blocks. The next post has some more to say about this.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Glitches, false starts, and dead ends. Saturday 9th March 2013.

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