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So, how exactly do children learn?

29 March 2018

  • How do Children Learn 2018
  • How do Children Learn 2018

I always seem to be reading lots of stories in the news informing me that there is new research to tell me to eat more of this and eat less of that.  A few weeks later, we are told to do the complete opposite and it becomes very confusing.   We are bombarded with so many fad and celebrity diets that it is difficult to make an informed decision about how to live a healthy life.

A similar thing happens in education.  There are so many studies and research projects aimed at trying to tell us how we should educate children: more technology or less; more student-driven activities or more teacher-led lessons; more learning by heart or more learning through play.  I can fully understand why we have become so confused about what ought to be a simple question with a simple answer.  So, how do children learn best?

There are some who claim that they have the solution and their new idea, their new book, their new piece of software or App will make learning so easy.  Well, if that was the case, why are we still trying to discover the best way to do this?  The problem is that learning is not always that easy and if it were, then there would be no sense of purpose, no achievement and no challenge to developing understanding, expanding knowledge or learning new skills.  Easy is often very boring and if it is boring, then learning rarely takes place.  So, one simple solution is to make sure that the learning is like in the story of “The Three Bears” where Baby Bear likes it not too hard, not too soft but just right.  The secret to success is finding the right balance of support and challenge. Stretching children to move out of their comfort zone into a higher-level performance zone requires greater effort, greater resilience and greater concentration and they need to know that they are being supported as they venture into that unknown space. 

The other problem is that we are not dealing with predicable machines that all do the same thing when designed the same way.  We are dealing with more complicated entities – Children! They react in different ways and respond to different stimuli.  We are unique and each of us is designed in a different way, often to do different things in life.  Recognising and responding to our differences requires patience, tolerance and understanding.  The best teachers find out how their students feel in order to find out what motivates them to learn.  They understand what excites them and take the time to discover their real interests within and beyond the classroom. 

So, how can we make sure that all children learn well?  The real secret to student success in learning is recognising that there is not one solution to the problem.  There is not one blueprint for teaching that applies to all.  Each student has a different set of needs and this is why it is so hard to answer the question in simple terms. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said that knowing oneself is the beginning of all wisdom.  From a teacher’s perspective, knowing one’s students is the key to their learning, unlocking their minds and giving them the power to explore new opportunities and ideas never before considered. The best teachers are not dispensaries of knowledge or providers of answers to the tests and exams we make our students sit. Our best teachers are flexible educators. They seek out new ways to engage their classes in a discovery of learning through practical experiences and through critical dialogue.  These teachers stimulate the minds and unleash emotions that spark new learning that leads to deeper understanding.  They will demonstrate that the best way to learn is to capture the imagination of the children by encouraging them to think, to be problem-solvers and be creative minds.  All the studies in the world will show nothing different to this. 

They say that life is a journey and, on that road to wisdom, we learn by doing, we learn by trying and we learn through discussion and debate.  Most importantly, our learning is guided and supervised to make sure that we are supported on our journey of discovery, shown the path to success and corrected when we take a wrong turn.  Teachers are not the font of all wisdom but the best ones are always wise.  They are the guides who coach us and help us to be better people, each and every day.


Dr Terry Creissen OBE

Executive Principal

Compass International School, Doha

A Nord Anglia Education School


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