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The Independent Learner: Tip No.1

By Debra Bell | July 20, 2011 | by Debra Bell, The Science of Learning

Give them a choice…

When are you most motivated?

I’ll bet you find yourself more motivated to complete tasks you’ve chosen, rather than those tasks someone else requires of you. ( Think: reading the book you brought home from the library vs. doing your income taxes, for instance.)

Why is that?  We have a will and we like to use it.  So do babies, toddlers, kids and teens.  It’s human nature. We want to be autonomous in our actions.  It explains the compelling attraction of democratic ideals. It also explains why most kids eventually disengage from school in a traditional setting. Years and years of being directed, managed and controlled by others takes its toll: It is demotivating.  Think about it. Is it even possible to be an independent learner in a traditional context?  I don’t think so — and I tried.  I taught gifted teens in a public school eons ago. That experience shaped my educational philosophy. Why did I have the students with the most academic potential facing me, and so many could care less about learning? I did everything I could think of to get those kids engaged. I chose books I thought they would enjoy, my lectures were entertaining and my assignments creative. You know when I got the greatest signs of life? When I let my students choose what to read, what to discuss, or what projects to complete.

I tried to give them choices whenever possible.  But there were standards to meet and requirements to fulfill. When I started homeschooling, I vowed to go another route. I wasn’t going to let my kids become those dependent, sullen teenagers in the first place. I wanted to preserve that independent quest for knowledge I saw in my toddlers if at all possible.  Giving them choices was always the secret key to unlock their motivation to learn.

Here are 5 ways:

1. Let them choose what book to read. Guide their selection by limiting the range.  One mom I know required her kids to read at least 5 books a month: one biography, one nonfiction, one historical fiction, one Newbery award winner and one free choice.

2. Let them decide the order in which they complete their schoolwork. Set a deadline ( end of day, for instance) but they get to manage their time.

3. Let them decide what time their day begins and ends. If kids want to get a late start, fine. Most teenagers will elect this option, but they still might be at it come midnight. Is that really a problem? Some days maybe but not always. We want to set parameters — those are important, but don’t make the parameters any tighter than necessary.

4. Let them choose the topics they wish to study.  Consider history as an example. Yes, it’s important that kids eventually understand the chronological progression of history, but that doesn’t mean you have to then study history in chronological order. They can figure out chronology with a few study aids. We had a homemade timeline-in-progress for years hanging up on the perimeter of our schoolroom walls.  As we studied a new historical person, event or era; we just added it to the timeline we all could see at a glance. Our brains do not build knowledge sequentially, our brains build a web of interconnected knowledge. You can approach any subject in this way as well.  They’ll be fine. Raising an independent learner is what is most important — having a few historical facts out of place is of secondary concern.

5. Let their interests direct the curriculum. When your child is interested in a subject, that’s an indication of readiness to learn that subject. Get behind their passions. Show them how to find out more about their interests. Join them in their pursuits. Give them some of your homeschool funds to invest in tools, books and field trips related to their passions. What we are learning is not as important as learning how to learn. Use your child’s interests to facilitate this.

The independent learner is your friend. That is how you will survive long-term in homeschooling. So where you can give choice, you will find motivation, and where you find motivation, you will find independence.  That’s the road you want to take.

Hey, there are a lot more ways you can give your kids opportunity to make decisions and choose what to do.  What has worked in your home?

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