Is Interest-Led Learning Really Child-Led Learning….or Something Else?

by ChristinaPilkington on June 16, 2012 · 16 comments

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When I first heard the term child-led learning I thought it was wonderful. Letting children take the lead in their learning was a new and exciting concept for me 8 years ago.

But in the past few years, that phrase started to bother me.

I want my kids to be self-directed learners. I want their interests and passions to be at the center of their learning.

I also thought about the term facilitator- a word that’s usually used alongside unschooling. Parents of interest-led learners help their children get the resources they need to accomplish their dreams. They take them places and give them assistance.

 But even the term facilitator didn’t really articulate the role that I play in my children’s lives.

Then I heard a conversation a few weeks ago where someone described their role as an unschooling parent as a guide. I had finally found the word I’d been searching for to describe my role as an interest-led learning mom!

Traits of a personal tour guide

Picture yourself in a new city. You’ve read some guidebooks and have some idea of the types of things you’d like to do while you’re there. But you decide to hire a personal guide because he has inside knowledge about the city and can suggest just the right things for you to do.

So what can a personal guide give you that a guidebook cannot?

#1 Insider knowledge

A personal guide knows what time is best to go to a popular museum, the best place to eat on your budget, and local events and places of interest not mentioned in guidebooks or big travel websites. A guide will also answer your personal questions on the spot while you are touring. You can have an immediate back and forth dialogue about what you are seeing.

As interest-led learning parents, we have special insider knowledge, too. We’ve lived a lot longer than our children and have knowledge that they don’t. We can suggest activities or resources before they ask for it because we have had more years to develop that type of knowledge.

We can guide our children to places they’d never heard of before, or ideas and topics they might not otherwise consider.

#2 Suggest things to do that match your current interests and warn you of what to avoid

A great guide will ask you lots of questions about yourself and your interests. He won’t plan a tour without knowing what types of things you’d like to see and do.  Once he gets to know you better, he can suggest things to do that will match your current interests.

A personal guide will also give you great tips on places and things to avoid.  He knows the places that don’t really live up to the hype. He knows what types of things will really just be a waste of your time. If you ask him about going to a certain place or doing a certain activity, he’ll tell you his honest opinion.  He’ll still take you there if you really insist on going, but he’ll provide reasons why it’s best to avoid it.

We know our kids well because we spend so much time with them. When we ask them questions about what they love to do, we get a better idea of what they want to spend their time doing. We observe and see what things make them come alive.

We also know the things that drag them down. We know the activities that hold no interest for them and that leave them frustrated and depleted. We’re in a unique position as their personal guides to point out activities and topics that might not be best for them right now. We don’t want to stand in their way, but we want to point out obstacles and hindrances they might not be able to see.

#3 Introduces you to places to go or things to see that you might not have considered otherwise.

A personal guide doesn’t wait until you ask to see something to show it to you. He knows from his questions and conversations with you if you might be interested in something. He doesn’t wait for you to ask about a particular place to visit or activity to do; he readily provides suggestions without you asking.

He will also share interesting tidbits and trivia about whatever it is you are seeing together. He points out unusual or interesting things along the way. He will often share knowledge and information that you never would have thought about asking before.

As interest-led learning parents, it’s our privilege to show our children as much of the world as we can.  Along the way, we can share interesting things we have learned – things that have fascinated us and that we think will fascinate our children, too.

The most important thing about a personal tour guide is that he is there for you. He doesn’t come with his own agenda. He may come prepared with suggestions and ideas, but he lets you set the tone and pace for the tour. He leaves you filled with fascinating new information, a new perspective on what you have seen, and most times, a desire to learn even more on your own.

That’s the type of personal guide I want to be for my children, too.


Photo Credit: David McKelvey

What are your thoughts on being a guide for your children?


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  • MomsMustardSeeds

    This is one of the very best articles I have ever read about Interest Led Learning…..not just having the child tell you, but mentoring and guiding them on the path created for them!

    • christinapilkington

      Wow! Thank you so much :) Having a guide does help you get to where you want to go sooner and it brings you more of the things you’re interested in, too.

  • Shannonmorris4374

    Loved the article but I have a question on interest based learning. What do you do when your child expresses an interest in a topic and then half way through (in our case it’s a unit study on The Olympics) he decides he’s actually not all that interested anymore. Do you push through and have him finish it, or move on? I’m new to this and even though I was a public school teacher for over 10 years, I’m really at a loss here on what to do when it comes to being a good “tour guide” (love that term by the way). Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    • christinapilkington

      I’d have to say that if my kids want to stop studying and learning about something than we stop. If you haven’t already read it, I’d suggest reading my post called an Untraditional Unit Study

      I really like the idea of unit studies, too, but there are some parts of them that bother me. I like that kids can decide what topic or idea they’d like to study. But often it’s the parents putting together the resources and setting up a schedule to follow. I think when it’s done that way, it takes some of the curiosity and excitment out of the topic for the child. Instead I’d advocate spending some time researching different resources you could use to learn about the subject: books, DVDs, places to visit, people to talk to, things to do. Brainstorm them all out on a sheet of paper with your child. Then together you could highlight the things you find most interesting to do. Then start doing them! Along the way you’ll probably run across new resources you could add to the list. Maybe you’ll start a book or go on a trip and find you didn’t really like it after all. Then just stop and move onto something else on the list. When nothing on the list or topic sounds interesting any more, than move on to something else.

      Some kids will want to study something for just a few days. That’s ok. Sometimes they will want to stay on a subject or topic for months. My daughter has had an ongoing interest in learning about all types of animals for several years now. She also has read about different countries of the world for a few years, too.

      I used to be a public and private school teacher for about five year, too, so I can feel where you’re coming from . I’d like to make up a plan and then stick to it until the end. But I found out even when I was teaching school, that if they kids are not into it any more, than there really is no more learning taking place and we were just wasting time. I wouldn’t ge upset if your son wants to stop something after just a few days. He may become interested in the topic or subject again at a deeper level in a few years. The main thing is to keep him excited and interesting in learning the things he finds facinating.

      I hope this helps! And thanks for stopping by.

      • Tracey Becker

        I agree with this. If you push their interests past the point that they are actually INTERESTED anymore, then they tend to come to you with ideas less and less. TRUST ME. I’ve made this mistake. I have pushed too hard and made the fun idea into a chore. And nobody remembers much about the chore past the moment they’ve “learned it” to shut mom up. Keep the information present and bring it up occasionally, or just start working on it yourself. You’d be surprised how much attention a mom can garner if she is sitting at the table, surrounded by books and what-not.

        • christinapilkington

          Thanks such a great point, Tracey! Whenever the kids say they don’t want to do something, they will almost always want to do it later if I take it out and start working on it by myself. I think sometimes as moms, we’re the ones who get excited about projects and we’re the ones who really don’t want to stop! Then we should keep going with it, even if the kids want to quit. Oftentimes the kids will jump in too after a while, and if they don’t, it was a great learning experience for you :)

      • Shannonmorris4375

        Thank you! It certainly does help!!!!

        • christinapilkington

          I’m so glad :)

  • Lauryan

    I love this! Thank you.

    • christinapilkington

      You’re welcome :) Thanks for reading!

  • Susan

    I really love this comparison! It’s just right!! I completely agree with Kelly’s comment, and I also will be sharing this post :)

    • christinapilkington

      Thanks so much, Susan :)

  • Kelly @ The Homeschool Co-op

    Christina, this is a really, really great piece. Funny how sometimes it just comes down to semantics, isn’t it. You’ve known your role all along, and yet, it is great to have it defined. I appreciate this article so much, as it’s exactly how I feel about the learning I do with my kids. It addresses the problem of unschooling sounding too much like lazy or apathetic parenting (which it isn’t), and child-led learning sounding too self-centred, and limited. Sharing this for sure. :)

    • christinapilkington

      I guess there’s always problems when we try to put labels on things, right? I’ve also not liked to use the word unschooling for the reasons you mentioned, too. I always thought there’s so much more to what we’re doing than what we’re not doing. And thanks so much for mentioning this post :)

  • Elizabeth

    YES!! THAT IS IT!! A guide. I completely agree. You know I have grown to dislike the term unschooling and even interest lead learning as they are both labels, and so is facilitator. But nonetheless I use these terms for clarification. I feel my kids are like interns for their young lives, where I am there to literally guide them through everything, from how to cook and homesteading to how to me entrepreneurs, to how to speak French and do maths. I like how back in the day internships were very prevalent in all trades, and kids interned with their parents.

    • christinapilkington

      I love the idea of internships, too! Even if teenagers have to go to a school, I’d like them to take no more than three classes a day (and those classes should be of their own choosing) and then spend the rest of the day in internship opportunities.

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