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Be Your Child's Chief Learning Officer!
By Kirsten Olson,
Author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture

Schools can be frustrating and difficult places to learn, as many parents of children and young adults know. From a kid's point of view, feedback on schoolwork is often negative, red-pencilly and snarly. Learning tasks are flattening, and opportunities to choose what will be learned are few and far between. "I'm one taco short of a combination plate," a middle schooler recently told his mom. Fostering a kid's potential, especially if that kid is unusual or offbeat, can be daunting.

As my own four children faced twelve years of school, and then many more after that in college and graduate school, I've often wondered: how can I keep them engaged in themselves, liking themselves, and interested in themselves as learners in an environment that doesn't seem to see them very well, and tends to be very focused on their weaknesses and deficits as learners?

Parents can become their child's Chief Learning Officer (CLO). A term borrowed from the corporate world, and a role that emerged in the mid-1990s in response to fluid, dynamic new online learning environments, CLOs in major corporations are responsible for critically important projects and outcomes. They optimize learning in the organization, not only because it is good for people but because it dramatically boosts the bottom line. They do things like check on how people are sharing information in the organization. Do they disperse important learning outward with colleagues, or jealously guard and hoard it? How do they generate information in their jobs, and what tools do they use? CLOs focus especially on informal learning and networks of knowing. They "notice out loud" and celebrate acts of learning in the organization, and try to foster a social culture where people can take risks openly, make mistakes, and managers can be open about what they are learning -- and what they don't know. CLOs are the Pied Pipers of learning in the organization, inviting everyone to come out and play, ensuring that adventuresome learning is at the center of people's work. Because if it isn't, they know ultimately corporate profits will be affected.

How can you become your child's CLO? What can you do to optimize learning in your home environment, to foster creativity, and nurture a sense of learning self-confidence in your child?

  1. Make sure your home offers opportunities for learning in every corner. Learners need materials, and ideas to explore with. You can inexpensively pack your house with interesting stuff: puzzles, old gadgets that can be disassembled, pencils, paints, fabric to be cut up and messed around with. Subscribe to magazines that are offbeat but your child might enjoy. Put interesting books everywhere (beside the toilet!) and rotate them around frequently. Mount a whiteboard in your kitchen on which you post questions you are thinking about, and ask your kids to help you answer them. Tack up maps and visual material up, and change your displays frequently. Place a poem on your child's pillow and read it out loud before bed. Ask your child what he or she thinks it means.

  2. Notice your child learning. Since we are all learning a lot, informally, all the time, you can reinforce your child's sense of themselves as learners by noticing out loud their curiosity and drive to know. "I am impressed by the way you asked the hairstylist today about her work. I noticed how curious you were. What surprised you about what she said?"

  3. Support your child's passions. One young family made a project of collecting old vinyl records with their 7-year-old. He found one at a tag sale, they broke out their old record player, and now at age 12 he is an avid vintage opera fan. (Guess those records were easy to find.) In another family, an elementary school child was fascinated by birds. They bought used bird books and CDs of birdcalls off the internet and she created her own encyclopedia of birds -- however she wanted and in no particular order.

  4. Don't make learning a competitive endeavor. If your child makes dumpy, frumpy finger pots and doesn't paint nearly as well as your best friend's daughter, who cares? If your son loves skateboarding but isn't very good at it, your critique of his performance will be unmotivating and counter-productive. If he keeps at it on his own, he is learning critical lessons in persistence, self-discipline and ambition. You need to support his risk taking in trying to develop expertise in something so difficult. Have you tried to skateboard lately?

  5. Model that mistakes are a part of learning. Maybe the biggest part! Talk about your own mistakes and screwups, and most importantly, how you grew from them and what specifically you will do differently based on that learning.

  6. Engage with new social media and collaborative technology that supports learners. It's pretty cool the way learning can be shared using thousands of new tools. Get in there and learn about this stuff. Use it yourself! It's fantastic. Let your child teach you what these new tools offer in terms of networking and knowing. (Check out:

  7. Have a "network" orientation towards learning. In our new internet age, there are no longer single Great Experts who know everything and upon whom we must rely for The Word. Got a question? Find out the answer yourself and use networks to help you get access to what you want to know. Don't believe the experts? Great! Be skeptical and challenge conventional wisdom. Have a "sibling" orientation towards learning, rather than relying, metaphorically, on Dad. On the other hand, you may also need to help your child learn to be able to appropriately challenge online sources of information, and critically analyze who is claiming what.

  8. Be enthusiastic about learning. Learning is fun! It's exciting and magical, and fills life with pleasure.

Remember that CLOs must nurture their own learning before they can support others. What are you voraciously curious about right now in your life? How are you stretching your own thinking? How are you reading, listening or exploring outside your own zones of comfort? What connections did you make today in your own thinking that were fun? You need to take care of your own learning life, and model that for your child, to be an effective CLO in your family.

Your most important attribute as a CLO? Being a good listener, and listening more than you talk. People are learning when they are given an opportunity to talk about their thoughts, their mistakes, their dreams, and deeply valuing other people's ideas is what powerful listening is all about. Family-based CLOs know that home environments that offer forums for expression, and value and welcome differing points of view, even if this acceptance is expressed only through listening, will help a child grow and thrive.

It's all about having fun. So go put some new books by the toilet.

©2009 Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture

Author Bio
Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture, is a writer, educational consultant, and national-level Courage To Teach facilitator, and principal of Old Sow Consulting. She has been a consultant to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kennedy School at Harvard University, and many large public school systems and charter schools.

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