Self-Directed Learning and Mastery

Our family watched this great lecture given by Robert Greene at Oxford University. Robert Greene is a historian of sorts- he’s written several books, a couple which I have are Mastery and the 48 Laws of Power. He gives us a look at three individuals who, through their own self direction went on to accomplish many great things in their lifetime. They were Leonardo DaVinci (developed sophisticated flying machines, detailed navigation equipment, etc), Charles Darwin (discovered the Theory of Evolution) and John Coltrane (one of the finest self taught jazz saxophonists).

The dictionary’s definition of mastery is a “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment.” I find this particularly interesting because through self-directed learning, one has substantial time and autonomy to pursue one’s interests in a deep and meaningful way. One is allowed, without permission, to follow their own desires and curiosities.

Philip and I have conversations about self-directed learning- it helps us gain clarity and validates our position that it allows a child to develop their talents, allows them the time to discover things about themselves, gives them the confidence that it is their path, not a pre-packaged path.

Self-directed learning looks very different from traditional schooling- we don’t cover several subjects everyday, we don’t have a set schedule, we don’t test them and we don’t assign a grade. What we do is sit down and talk to them. We ask questions to stimulate conversation. We find out what makes them excited- we tailor their activities to support their interests. Then we engage them in these areas. We support their curiosity. Much of our learning happens simply by talking in conversation. What often ends up happening is the initial conversation will lead to another conversation. It all happens rather organically.

Our youngest daughter Natalie asked us if she could play the violin. She was eight years old. She did a six week beginner class with her teacher and has continued to excel at the violin for the last two and a half years.  She has great musical mentors who inspire and push when there is a challenging piece of music, but for the most part, Natalie pushes herself, she thrives on challenge.

We see our kids staying naturally focused on what drives them, what excites them (without coercion from us). I sadly feel that traditional schooling does not allow for the kind of depth that allows one to truly master anything. I know when Olivia was in public high school last year she felt she could barely keep up with the pace- there were too many subjects to fully grasp the content and little allowance for individuality or creative expression of ideas. Yet, teachers expect the equivalent of mastery, an A. It’s not the teachers fault, they are just doing what they’re told. It’s a corporate and conformist model of thinking and we need to find a better way for our children. If you look at education like a company, one that produced poor results continually (in this case decades), they would be out of business. So why hasn’t change come to traditional schooling? That’s another topic for another day…

From my own experience, when children are allowed to follow their own path of discovery they are on their way to mastery. I see it happening in my own kids. They will continue on their path, and this path may continually change, but it’s their path. I simply have to show them love and enable them a safe place to explore and grow. Ultimately, they will grow into young adults with the confidence that they have made their own choices and decisions about their life.

Mastery in an area is a journey of discovering oneself and self-directed learning is no different. Allowing this natural process only deepens understanding and therefore allows us to follow our own path. I often say, the world takes all kinds of people, and to grow as people we need to be who we are.

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Alternative Schooling

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I have been reading some interesting books like (this) and (this) to learn more about alternative schooling. Our family has been homeschooling for nearly seven years and have been really happy about our decision. However, more recently, through curiosity, I discovered the Sudbury Valley School model. The idea is to let kids lead their own learning through self direction-without the coercion of adults. I was interested to know more…

At Sudbury Valley School, children arrive at school and have no agenda. There’s no set curriculum, no classrooms with rows and rows of kids being “schooled”. They are free to do anything they want (this is a democratic school, so there are some rules to abide by). If they choose to play outside, they’re free to do so. Play cards with friends, same. Visit the library and read-they can do that too. Here, children decide what they are going to give their time and energy to. Adults are on hand if a student should inquire about further study in a particular subject. Only then does an adult help them understand what it is they want to learn more about.

Daniel Greenberg, Founder of Sudbury Valley, says “It’s the hardest school to be in because they have to ask themselves what they really want to do. Children need to prioritize their time. This allows them to find out who they are.” It’s about discovering the self. Isn’t this what we want for our children? We want them to discover who they are and to follow their passions and dreams until ultimately, they are living a real life that they created; not a life where they have been told/manipulated/coerced to go down some superficial “safe path”- get good grades, get accepted into college, get a high paying career, and spend the rest of your existence living up to others’ expectations or in some un-fullfilling job that you hate. Through unschooling, like the Sudbury Valley model, children learn on their own by making decisions for themselves. Not by adults force feeding them their own ideas of what they think is right for them.

The most interesting point Daniel Greenberg makes is that “When you wanted to learn something, how did you do it? You found something you were curious about, and you immersed yourself in studying it. You had a desire to progress in your learning.” For me, all of the things I have ever become interested in I have done because of a natural curiosity. No one has forced or manipulated me into thinking I “needed” to do something.

I’ve seen this with my own children. They have their own wills, their own internal compass. My girls are so different from each other. I have witnessed through homeschooling my girls, how they get frustrated when it’s time to do a subject they don’t care about. They are not interested. They just “get it over with”. Over the years I began to understand their learning styles. I thought this was important. Truthfully, I thought by knowing this, I would be better able to teach them. I have come to the realization that it’s not my job to “teach” them. They will do it for themselves.

Over the last week we’ve been unschooling, or rather, deschooling. The funny thing is, it’s been rather enlightening to me. The kids are less emotional. Less fussy. There is less tension in our home. The girls laugh together, play together. They have been spending a lot more time outside, riding skateboards, exploring ponds, catching tadpoles, playing Scrabble, learning calligraphy, drawing more, reading more. I see no absence of learning happening. I’m simply allowing them to do what makes them happy. Ultimately, isn’t this, as a parent what we want for our children- to be happy? I think it’s a worthy endeavor for all of us, especially children.