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Be the Guide on the Side

instead of the sage on the stage.

I heard this and my whole being yelled “YES!!!” We educators, parents – adults – all too often preach or meddle when we should be sitting back and watching kids shine. Children are natural learners, constantly grasping tools laid out before them, so why not hand them a few more? Of course, we should provide instruction and guidance. Of course, we should share our own experience and knowledge, but we need to treat kids as capable individuals who have an inherent thirst for growth. If all our lessons feel like lectures, we distance ourselves from the learner and their needs. We don’t know where they are in their learning and cannot meet them there to help take them further. Connection and trust should inform our choices as educators.

We don’t have to be dictators to fall into the trap of being too controlling, and we all do at times, and with every good intention. Sometimes, we lay out fun activities with templates and cutouts, work on projects with predetermined outcomes, or show kids a finished product before they even start.

We are tacitly telling them

what to do,

what they will learn,

and what they will produce.

It’s color by number, it’s how-to-draw-a (fill in the blank), it’s cookie cutter learning.

Learning is so much more than mimicking and following instruction, and children’s brains aren’t empty vessels for us to stuff with dictated knowledge.

Before anyone starts pelting rotten tomatoes: I am not demonizing adult-led activities. They are a helpful tool and there is a time and place for them: to learn specific techniques, to practice and hone skills, and of course, to produce a specific result when needed. After all, that’s what recipes and instructions are, and I personally like a consistent carrot cake and a bookshelf that stands. It is the overuse and abuse of instruction and its priority over relationship that kills the thirst for knowledge and stunts true learning.

We are facilitators, getting to know and aiding children in their journey of lifelong learning. We’re not televangelists preaching from stage and “HALLELUJAH! YOU HAVE BEEN HEALED from your affliction of ignorance, and knowledge has flooded your desert brain!” It doesn’t work that way, nor should it. We also don’t have all the answers, hold all the knowledge, and none of that matters to a child anyway if it is not meaningful and relevant to them.

As with so much in education, there is no black and white here, no clear demarcation or measures to decide when to instruct and when to step back.

However, there are some questions we can ask ourselves:

  • Am I facilitating or forcing?

  • Am I providing or limiting?

  • Am I suggesting or demanding?

  • Am I supporting or dominating?

  • Am I explaining or commanding?

If we have provided the children with enough tools and explained how to use them, then maybe we should step back and watch them tweak their own learning.

Let them own it.


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