Child psychology: Independent learning

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By Kairen CullenCPsychol AFBPsS, Independent Chartered Psychologist and journalist

Use child psychology to help your class put their own learning wheels in motion

Graphic human head

Studies of young children have demonstrated repeatedly that the drive to problem solve and learn exists regardless of any external reward or feedback. Developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, pointed out that a major challenge of teaching is that of harnessing children’s natural desire to explore and understand. This process is easily observed in the Foundation Stage, where the generally play-based curriculum offers many opportunities for children to follow their interests and exercise their imagination. Most teachers would agree that this exploratory learning has to be accompanied by the development of self organisation and gradually increasing levels of independence.

The importance of choice

Erik Erikson, the psychoanalytic writer who proposed a ‘life span’ model of human development, considered that the beginnings of autonomy and independence commence in early childhood. As a child makes choices and decisions, they naturally become more able to accept consequences and grasp the important principle that they are responsible for their own behaviour. Studies on motivation indicate that heavily directed and adult-led approaches can result in rather passive and dependent children. Consequently, these children can become increasingly disengaged from their own learning and education in general.

Children in control

Ideally, children will reach Key Stage 2 with a firm grasp of the idea that, ultimately, no one controls their behaviour apart from themselves. Even where this is not the case, teachers can make up for lost time and support this in a number of ways. The classroom is an ideal context in which to ensure that children have the opportunity to make lots of controlled choices with regard to learning activities, ways of tackling and organising work, learning with peers and social activities. The choices on offer must be explicit though; time spent at the beginning of the school year or new term laying out the ground rules and limits is time well spent. Posters and regular verbal reminders summarising rules and expectations are also essential. This will help contribute to a well-ordered learning environment in which children can gain the knowledge, skills and confidence necessary for successful learning.

A supportive role

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