How Do Children Learn?

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Recently, we were asked the question of ‘how do children learn?’. We are both involved in lots of interdisciplinary conversation the field of childhood studies. As researchers within the field of education, we often encourage colleagues from other disciplines to think carefully about and avoid making assumptions about the processes through which children learn. However, when trying to answer the question ‘how do children learn?’ directly, we both felt stumped. We found ourselves thinking, ‘why can’t we answer what seems like a simple question? Shouldn’t someone working within the field of education be able to easily answer this’?

We wonder if the reason for this difficulty is that education (and in particular our field of early childhood education) is dominated still by quite traditional models of learning, mainly from development psychology, such as Piaget and Vygotsky. The work we are doing seeks to problematise these models, but that means there isn’t a simple (non-problematised) answer that we feel comfortable giving people! One of the problems for us is how do we talk about processes of learning without relying solely on developmental psychology, and which don’t create binaries in which children are helpless and disempowered, and adults are experts scaffolding them? In addition, we are also wary of theories of learning that emphasise ‘conditions’, for example student-centred approaches suggest that if the conditions are right then learning will just happen. But these conditions are never value neutral, and some form of learning must surely be taking place regardless of what conditions are or are not in place?

So lately we have begun to think the problem is perhaps with the word learning, and that maybe other terms are less problematic. We have both found that we resist using the word learning to describe how children are engaging/participating with the world. In doing so, we tend to draw on models that reflect how children come to be part of and participate in their worlds, rather than trying to pin down models of learning in terms of skills and knowledge being transmitted from adults or older children to younger children. This perspective therefore disrupts the assumed directionality implied by the term learning, where people’s learning is deemed to become increasingly sophisticated as they age.

We have begun to think about what terms we do use to describe children’s dynamic spatialities, which is our area of interest within the field of early childhood education. One of these is meaning making – how do children make meaning of the worlds they inhabit. We like this term because it feels like we are moving away from linearity. However, this has led to further reflections on whether this term misses the significance of the body, emotion and unconscious in children’s participation in and with the world. That is a question that could perhaps wait for another post!

We wonder whether learning is a problematic word in itself? Or do we just need to reclaim it from developmental psychology?

Abi and Lisa


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