Child-led Education?

By Justus Frank

The question of child-led education came up in a recent email I received and is becoming something that is discussed more often. It certainly is encouraging to see adults beginning to show greater recognition of the individuality of children, but the term ‘child-led’ is also confusing, as seen by the confused attempts at implementing it. The end result is often either finding more subtle ways of control, or attempts to abdicate responsibility.

For many people, the term ‘child-led’ brings to mind images that the child dictates their wants to an adult and the adult is to run around finding ways to fulfil these wants. When taken in this way, I would not endorse a child-led approach. That is not to say that one person cannot lead another person into an activity but rather that it should be done on a voluntary basis. Just because your child wants to play ‘princesses’ with you doesn’t mean that therefore you must comply. If you want to, you can, but the best thing is to be honest in your interactions. Similarly, just because you want your child to do a maths sheet does not mean that therefore they must comply. Positive learning doesn’t occur through compulsion, nor does taking turns at compulsion provide a good foundation for a relationship with your child.

A child’s education should be child-led in the way that matters most; leading themselves. That they grow to realise that they are their own independent person and able to have an effect on the world around them and that the effect is greatest when we work in cooperation, rather than through compulsion, with those around us.

As a teacher with numerous parent and teacher interviews under my belt, I began to see a second game of control being played to abdicate ourselves from responsibility when we see children’s lack of agency. Often it seemed like this was in the form of a ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine between the parents and myself. I was to bring the force of my authority as the teacher to bear on the students and make them do whatever was necessary for ‘learning’. In other words, I was to play the role of the ‘bad cop’. Parents, on the other hand, would play the role of the ‘good cop’ and outsource responsibility for any force to the teacher. “I know that you hate the homework, honey, but there’s nothing I can do if the teacher has said it’s due tomorrow. You can be free after that’s done.” In this sense, parents pride themselves on allowing their children the ‘freedom’ to be ‘child-led’ in the remaining time that is left in a day.

As teachers, we continue the game of abdicating responsibility. When students ask us why we are trying to force them to learn irrelevancies we reply with, “The school/curriculum/government/society expects me to teach you these things because you may need them sometime in the future,” anything to outsource responsibility for our actions. We in turn also pride ourselves on any child-led activities we do put in place.

However, learning is not constrained by time or place. A child having a child-led education would mean that they consistently have agency in their lives. Having a morsel of freedom in an overwhelming flood of compulsion does not justify a claim of child-led education.
Given all this, rather than child-led education, I think a better approach is to let go of the labels and simply acknowledge the agency and personhood of adults and children alike. To let go of the obsession with trying to figure out who is leading and how much control we have over the other person. Let children be guided by their inner curiosity to learn more about this extraordinary world we inhabit. If there are things of value in this world which you would like to see your children show an interest in, inspire them to it. Don’t coerce them. Above all, be honest in your interactions and show them with the way you live your life what is valuable. When you do so, I have found that a wonderful thing starts to happen, you begin to realise that children start inspiring you in return. Learning never stops at any age, so let’s, adults and children alike, inspire each other to what is truly meaningful and valuable in this world.