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Self-Directed Learning
From the Older Kids column, by Cafi Cohen, originally published in the May-June 1996 issue of Home Education Magazine.



Coordinating transportation was not the most difficult part of homeschooling two teenagers, but it could be a challenge. Every morning at breakfast we discussed the day's schedule, just so no one got stranded. An entry from my November, 1992, planning calendar is typical:

On this particular morning, Jeffrey, 17, says he will alternate studying physics and clearing the driveway (lots of snow in Colorado last night). I am glad he is willing to shovel for two reasons: our driveway is long (we jokingly refer to it as "the runway"), and I have a deadline for the resources column for the statewide homeschooling newsletter. I will drive Tamara, 15, to her hospital volunteer job and pick her up a little early so that Jeff has the car for piano lessons at 11:30 AM.

At home for lunch, Tamara will clear more snow. She has volunteered to do the sidewalks. Living on the corner of a main street, we will be ticketed if they are not shoveled. She will also squeeze in some work on her correspondence Biology and English Composition classes, probably in between answering calls from schooled friends who have a "snow day" and no idea how to fill it (if experience is any guide!).
Jeff will return from his piano students' homes and organize a Civil Air Patrol model rocketry class. He has taught the class previously and simply has to get his materials together. He hopes to have enough time to write a short article for the CAP newsletter as well.

I will grab the car and accompany Tamara as she drives to her job at a local dry cleaning establishment (with a learner's permit, Tamara is not yet allowed to drive alone). Tamara is saving the job money for a student-exchange trip to Australia. Today, she will take her math book to the dry cleaner's and try to get a lesson done during her break and free time; the inclement weather just about assures a slow day at work for her.

I will run some errands: grocery store, music for my piano students, library to return books and movies. Back home, Jeff will probably be practicing piano. Around 4 PM, I will send him to pick up Tamara. He will drop her off at home and proceed to diving practice at the local Parks and Recreation Department pool.
Tamara needs to work on harmonies for a vocal piece she is learning for church. She also plans to help with dinner, so we will have everything ready when Terry, my husband, and Jeff return. After dinner (and the inevitable tussle over who does the dishes!), I will drive Tamara to Tae Kwon Do practice. Jeff will immerse himself in college application essays.

And so it went. According to my record, we accomplished everything planned, except the Tae Kwon Do. The streets iced up, making driving too dangerous. Instead, Tamara spent the evening at home, reading a novel and writing letters to friends. (As part of an on-the-move military family, Tamara always seemed to be writing to someone.)

Looking at journal entries like this, I realize that after several years of homeschooling (we began when the kids were in grades 6 and 7 and continued through high school), my teenagers had finally "made it". They had achieved my primary goal in homeschooling: they had become independent, self-directed learners.
What does that mean? In our case, it meant that both Jeffrey and Tamara planned their schedules and made good use of time. Their activities reflected goals and priorities - both theirs and the family's. Given good instructional materials, they could teach themselves. Most importantly, they had learned to locate their own resources (people, materials, classes, interest groups) in the larger community.

What a long way we had come. Initially, both kids, conditioned by years of school, had waited for me to set the pace, to make decisions, and, in effect, to entertain them. How did we get from that inauspicious beginning to my description above?

It did not happen overnight. Through trial and error, though, we eventually discovered several family attitudes and practices that encourage self-directed learning. Here they are, in no particular order. Some techniques work better in some families than others. Some teenagers respond better, some worse, to certain approaches.

1. Encourage and support any self-directed activity. Self-directed activity is an activity the student will do on his own, without your urging. It is what the student does when nobody is telling him what to do. It may or may not look "academic" (although unschoolers show us how most of it can be cast in academic terms).
Why is it important to encourage self-directed activity? Because self-directed activity leads to self-directed learning. Examples from our house included drawing, reading, hiking, re-arranging furniture, cooking and baking, planning meals, working with educational computer programs like Sim-City, corresponding via e-mail, caring for pets, fixing things around the house, and cycling.

2. Get rid of, turn off, or restrict TV and mindless video games. My first choice was to get rid of the tube. My spouse disagreed, and we settled on a compromise. We restricted the kids to no more than one hour of TV daily, an hour which could not be "saved up". (By the way, this practice also proved to be beneficial to us adults.) With TV not an option, most kids will only stare at the four walls for so long. As time passed and our children involved themselves in various projects, they often did not even watch their daily hour.

3. Listen to your teenager. Discuss priorities and short range and long-term goals frequently. Add and drop activities as appropriate. The first couple of times you ask questions like, "What would you like to do this month (or year)?" or "What are your interests?" be prepared for blank looks. Try more specific, but less threatening questions: "What are you currently wondering about?" is a good opener.

4. Be a facilitator, not a full-time teacher. Help your teenage homeschoolers follow up on their wonderings. Libraries and librarians are an excellent place to begin. Consider other community resources. Our daughter learned sewing through 4-H. Our son studied electronics with the local amateur radio group.

5. Choose academic materials intended for self-instruction, and involve the homeschooler in the selection process. In reviewing texts and other materials, read the promotional literature and the prefaces and introductions. Very often, if the author intends that the material be used without a teacher, some statement has been made to that effect.

If possible, borrow a copy of whatever you are considering and try it out. If your teenager gives something a fair trial and declares that it is not working, look for something else. Pretty, academic-looking formats, even good reviews, are no guarantee that certain materials will work well. Expect occasional dead-ends. The good news is that, as home educators, we can fix mistakes as soon as we detect them. We do not have to wait for the next school year.

6. Create a rich home learning environment. Accumulate books and magazines (garage sales, library sales, school give-aways), movies and documentaries, cassette tapes, tools, art supplies, musical instruments, etc. Budget for a computer. Our teenagers often got more out of books that they "tripped over" in our home than they did from reading assigned by their correspondence courses.

7. Be aware of cycles and plateaus. Some times your kids will race through a subject and understand it thoroughly. Or they will happily explore uncharted territory completely on their own. Inevitably, also, there are those times when kids seem to accomplish nothing concrete for weeks or months on end. Do not be so set on your program or educational philosophy that you fail to take into account the natural rhythms of learning.

8. Freely admit your ignorance. As a friend of mine says, every homeschooling parent "hits the wall" sooner or later: the student wants to explore a subject in which the parents have no expertise.
It happened to us when Jeff first expressed an interest in piloting an airplane. No way were we getting involved in that! Jeff eventually did earn his private pilot's license--through Civil Air Patrol. He not only learned to fly a single-engine aircraft, he learned to locate resources in the larger community to help him satisfy his goal.

9. Involve kids in family "adult" activities and decisions; and (here's the hard part) take your teenagers' comments and suggestions seriously. Do they have ideas for meals, pet care, house improvements, the budget? Take advantage of the creative potential of home-grown brain power.

10. Model self-directed learning. Pursue your interests to become a lifelong learner. Does this mean you should sit down with an English Literature text each night? Not necessarily. Your activities might range from Chinese cooking and computers to weight lifting and woodworking. Take classes, join community groups, and teach yourself. Your teenagers may or may not find the same things appealing. Where your interests coincide, you will have fun learning together. Where they do not, your kids will see a daily example of adult self-directed learning, and absorb that.

- Copyright 1996, Cafi Cohen

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