My first full time teaching position was in 1991-1992. I took some short breaks from teaching since then, but for the most part, I have worked as an educator for almost 25 years.
I have been working to open my own independent, self-directed learning center for almost five years now. I assembled an amazing team and, last October, opened Ingenuity Hub, Personalized Learning Collaborative.
Self-directed learning is a simple concept – learning happens best when the learner controls the learning. This is not only common sense, it is also backed up by decades of experience and research.*
At Ingenuity Hub – and dozens of other self-directed learning centers all around the world – we put young people in charge of their own learning. Our role is to create a space, provide time and resources for them to pursue their interests, and connect them to others in the community who offer advice, volunteer opportunities and internships.
Our goals are the same as traditional education: help young people develop the skills and knowledge they need in order to live the kind of lives they most want for themselves. But how we achieve those goals is very different. Self-directed learning looks and feels as different from traditional schooling as you can possibly imagine.
Herein lies our problem.
In order for us to grow our program and make self-directed learning available to more families in our community, we have to do two things. First, we have to do everything a new non-profit organization must do: communicate a clear mission, connect to people who need the service we provide, and build collaborations with supporters. Second, we have to address the misconceptions nearly everyone has about young people and their motivation to learn.
Nearly everyone in our society attends or attended traditional schooling. This system was built firmly on the belief that young people will not or cannot learn without being forced to. This incorrect notion is so deeply ingrained in the day-to-day operations of the system that it also forms the major lesson of the curriculum. The system teaches young people that they cannot learn on their own, and they learn this lesson well.
They then become adults who believe this about the next generation, especially their own children.
When we try to talk to parents about the ways self-directed learning can help, we are almost always dismissed out of hand. Parents of children who are struggling in school are rarely open to the idea that the solution is to put the child in control of learning.
Children who are struggling in school… This is an idea that requires a lengthy explanation, one that I will write about another time. For now, I’ll stick to the general idea almost everyone agrees with: many young people are struggling in school.
I see them every day. Sometimes their struggles involve factors well beyond my control or influence: illness, neglect, or worse. For these students, all I can do is try to create a positive environment for them to be in for up to an hour a day. I hope I do.
For many other students, though, I know I can contribute to alleviating their struggle. Often I am prevented from doing so, and I find this to be more than just frustrating. It is infuriating and painful for me. When you know you can help, but unnecessary obstacles prevent you…
I can help three kinds of struggling students:
- Some kids are failing one or more classes. They may be trying their best, or they may have given up. Many of these students decided at very young ages, often as early as third grade, that they are just not “good at school.” They stop seeing themselves as the curious, natural learners all human beings are. They have talents and interests, but school does not acknowledge or value them, and worse, misses powerful opportunities to help these kids see themselves as successful, contributing members of the community. These students, by the time they are in high school, say things to me like, “Do we have to learn stuff today?” and “I don’t like to learn.” (Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in: young people who actually believe about themselves that they don’t like to learn…)
- Other kids are “doing school,” passing their classes, but learning very little that is meaningful or lasting. They get B’s and C’s and the occasional D, but they realize they can do this and still move on to the next lesson, the next class, the next year, and do far less work than the kids who spend hours and hours studying and doing homework, especially in subjects they care nothing about. No one ever talks about what a 60 in Algebra means, and these kids don’t even bother to think about it. All they know is that they “passed” the class.
- Still other students appear to be doing very well in school, getting high grades in their classes, but they’re not being challenged to go further or push their abilities farther. These students have figured out how to “do school” very well. They look at rubrics before they do an assignment, figure out what the teacher wants them to do to get an A, and then they do it. What’s the problem with that? These kids could do better or more interesting or more creative work, but they don’t even try. Many of them have never even considered that they could do better, or deeper, or more interesting and creative work. Even if they did consider it, though, these so-called “top students” develop a visceral, powerful aversion to failing. They would never willing go above or beyond the teacher’s requirements, because their attempt might not work. They might fail… and there is no worse sin a “top student” can commit in the cathedral of coercive schooling than failing. This is a disaster. These kids need to experience failure – especially in efforts that challenge their abilities – so they can test their limitations and grow beyond them. Instead, they are becoming incompetent adults: what will they do, how will they react, when they inevitably experience failure in life? Will they always avoid experiences that risk failure? What lessons will they be missing out on, and what learning will they neglect that could lead to improvements for all of us?
The solution for these students is not more traditional school. Telling these students to try harder in school will not work. Offering them rewards or threatening them with punishments to do better won’t, either.
Almost all of these students would do better in a self-directed learning environment.
We need their parents – and other adults who have control over their lives – to let them try. Give them the time and opportunity to decide for themselves what to learn, how to learn, and why to learn.
We need parents to challenge themselves, to put aside the notion that, “My kid can’t do what he’s told to do now in school. If I let him make decisions about learning, he’ll just sit around and do nothing all day.”
We know this is simply not true. When given the support, time, and resources, young people rediscover their natural curiosity and hunger for learning that all humans possess. It may take them some time to rediscover these qualities, but they are young. They have time. The time it takes them to figure out what and how and why to learn is the best investment we can make for them. Because once they do, they cannot be stopped. They begin to engage in learning that is deeper, more meaningful and lasting than what they were pretending to learn in traditional school.
Traditional school works for many kids, but my 25-year journey through the field of education convinces me that for a growing number of other young people, it simply does not. Continuing to force them to “do school” won’t improve their lives. They deserve access to an option that will work better for them. Let them try.
Please contact me at email@example.com to begin the conversation about how self-directed learning can help your teen or a teen you know.