Opinion: The Magic of Learning

Opinion: The Magic of Learning

by Catherine Daly

As a parent, I distinctly remember the joy disappear from my child as she struggled with learning sight words in Prep. In her class, the children’s names were hung around the room and their names moved between sight word lists as they progressed. Watching names move across the word lists, she quickly realised that she wasn’t progressing as well as her peers. While I could see the classroom teaching intent was to help children feel success and pride, this strategy knocked my child’s confidence and her perception of what made a ‘successful learner’. With my developmental experience, I also knew that something was contributing to her difficulty. Even though we offered her extra support and care, this particular literacy skill was becoming a struggle. Fortunately, a wonderful teacher took our concerns seriously, noticed our child’s struggle and provided clear and helpful guidance.

There are lots of us who find it challenging to clarify concerns, especially when we have to do this within established organisations. It can be further complicated when it involves our children, their developmental complexity, or when we find it difficult to articulate our concerns.

The challenges of the system

Please know that I share the following thoughts with the caveat that there are wonderful teachers who have the capacity to activate their student’s curiosity, managing the layers of individual student complexity, while seamlessly introducing curriculum and core content to their students.

However, I have often wondered if the ‘magic of learning and teaching’ is sometimes being lost as we shift our attention to outcomes and academic excellence. Or, are we losing sight of academic rigour as we ask schools to manage student’s emotional well-being along with the many other roles they play? These are serious questions with no clear answers.

We know that the complexity in curriculum delivery does put pressure on the ‘process’ aspects of learning and on student’s emotional well-being. I imagine that it must be difficult to engage student’s curiosity and the metacognitive processes of their thinking; help them to develop skills to manage social-emotional challenges; or foster their critical analysis and reflection; as you deliver dense curriculum content. This is complicated by the number of students with learning differences, developmental challenges, and emotional struggles.

Achievement is also multifaceted. For some students, achievement is functionally linked to managing the sensory challenging classroom environment, being able to get to the school gate or managing the anxiety created by their learning and social challenges. For others, it may be about their progress in grades to show their persistence in a subject area.

I think we all know that it can be easy to lose perspective about what matters to students amongst these system challenges. Interestingly, when students feel safe and nurtured, like they belong, they demonstrate greater capacity to learn. More importantly, when teachers notice small things about their preferences in learning, it matters.

How do we listen to students?

There is magic that is offered in childhood when we stop, slow down and notice children’s engagement in play and learning.

Recently, I had a conversation with a very experienced teacher about how best to support a young child in their class. As we spoke, I felt that at some level there was a hesitancy to explore this child’s experience of learning. It felt like there was fear of blame in what was already a tenuous situation. As I spoke with the teacher, I felt a need to say:

“Yes, in time this child will learn new ways to manage their feelings. And, he and you are working really hard. You are helping to think about his experience, even when things appear to be falling apart. You are using yourself to show him how much he matters in this classroom. Let’s think about some simple and easy things we can do to help make this easier for you both.”

In this moment, as we gave voice to this child and his teacher’s experience, it felt like there was a chance to create hope for him, and about him with his teacher. When we notice and wonder about what drives a student’s experience, we can learn so much about them as individuals. In a technical therapeutic sense, noticing involves paying attention to what might be unsaid. A student who calls out and distracts the class might be saying:

“I’m struggling with understanding this, so I will hide my shame by calling out.”

What can we do?

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” -Alexander Den Heijer

As parents and teachers, we can speak for children, and must do so with grace, kindness and compassion. It may mean that we advocate for minor changes at the classroom level. Sometimes, it may also mean letting go of our expectations and re-defining how we see excellence and success. As we do this, we also need to acknowledge the efforts of wonderful educators who do slow things down and notice potential in students.

When things do go wrong, as can happen, adults need to have difficult conversations to address concerns, hurt and disappointment, and then find a way to trust that things will settle. This is hard work for any adult, especially with our own histories and experiences of learning and in life. From the perspective of our child, it can help to see adults safely repairing relationships. It also helps children to see adults, who in spite of their differences, are thoughtful about them and hear their needs, even when they lack the capacity to implement effective changes in the classroom.

Final thoughts for parents

I know how difficult it can be to advocate for your child in a complex system that is not easily understood. I would encourage you to share your knowledge of your child with grace, to share the unsaid struggle when they cannot do so, and to listen and clarify information shared by educators with kindness. Perhaps, if we work together in this, we can create that magic and joy that learning brings for children again.

Catherine Daly is an Occupational Therapist and Psychotherapist working with children and families struggling with emotional, behavioural, developmental and mental health difficulties.