Teaching Kids to be Independent Learners


At our home school, we have taken some time off for the holidays.  We have taken a big, deep breath and are about to dig into our second semester of school.  During this breather, I have been doing a lot of thinking.  I have been evaluating what works in our school and what hasn’t been working.  I have been looking at each of my students and asking myself if my methods are working best for that student.  Some things are going better than I could have hoped.  Other areas need some work.

One of the things I have been working this year is teaching my students to take greater responsibility for their own education.  I want them to be independent learners.  I have always said that I would never be able to teach my kids everything, but if I could teach them to learn, they would be able to learn anything.  So it has always been a great emphasis of our home school to inspire my kids to want to learn and to take personal responsibility for their education.

Independent Learning teaches a child how to learn.  Rather than just listening to the teacher tell what he/she knows and then spitting out that information for a test, independent learning requires that the student find the information.  It requires time management, responsibility, learning to deal with distractions and focusing on the process (learning) rather than just the goal (getting an A on the test).  Even though I got good grades in school I don’t remember much from those cram sessions before a test.   I do, however, remember vivid details about the things I studied when I was motivated to learn something.  I don’t think I’m alone.  We learn best when we have a vested interest in what we are learning.  Besides, I don’t know of a single college professor who is willing to hold his students’ hands and baby step them through a college course.  Once a student gets to college, he had better know how to be an independent learner.  The same goes for the work force.  The people who get the promotions are going to be the ones who know how to learn new things and grow their own skill set — without a lot of prompting from their boss.

My oldest child, May-May, has taken full responsibility for her education.  At the beginning of the school year, I simply gave her a list of course requirements and course deadlines.  She is responsible for scheduling her own work and staying on track.  She completed her first semester course requirements with flying colors.  If giving a student this much freedom shocks you, let me relieve your fears.  Giving her the ability to decide her own schedule has freed her up to learn even more than I required.  For instance, she voluntarily spent her Christmas break mapping and beginning to track the territories of the local birds (using their songs and flight patterns) so that she will be able to locate and monitor their nesting sites this spring — because hanging out at the mall isn’t nearly as cool.  Oh, and she has been studying the International Phonetic Alphabet — you know, in case she ever finds herself stranded on a remote island and has to write me letters in a formerly unwritten tribal language.  I don’t worry about her too much…

My other high school student, Mustache, is fast on her heels.  I gave him course requirements for a couple of his classes at the beginning of the year and he has handled the responsibility very well.  I find that kids pretty much do what is expected.  If you expect them to play video games all day, they will.  But if you expect them to take responsibility for a class, they will.  Not to be outdone by his sister, Mustache spent his school break studying robotics and computer programming.  Now that he has proven himself a little, I am planning to give him a “Weekly Requirement Check-List” for the classes I have been teaching him.  This will list everything he needs to complete by the end of the week.  It will be up to him to make sure it gets done.  Of course, if he doesn’t do it, then he will have to spend his weekend doing school work while the rest of us play.  It doesn’t take long for kids to decide it is better not to procrastinate when it means they lose out on the fun things.  It’s is a great way to teach time management and responsibility.

My elementary school student, Rocket-Boy has been almost completely working with me, but it is time to start inching him toward independent learning.  I plan to give him a “Daily Requirement Check-List”.  His check-list will have all the schoolwork he needs to complete for that day.  I will monitor him much more closely, of course, to make sure he stays on task.  He is ready for more responsibility, but looking at the whole week at once would overwhelm him.  He struggles to stay on task sometimes, but I have a sneaking suspicion that when he sees what he needs to do before he can go do what he wants to do, he will fly through his schoolwork.  Problem solved.

So what will I do with myself while my students are independently learning?  I will be working more closely with Pickle Mickle, my preschooler.  She is ready for some new things, but I haven’t been able to take the time I needed with her.  I want to take the second half of the year to really focus on her.

Don’t worry, though.  I make sure that my independent learners are actually learning.  And they have proven to me that this system really works.  They enjoy learning for it’s own sake.  That doesn’t mean that my boys are doing backflips over English Grammar, but when they have flexibility in scheduling, they quickly do the classes they don’t like so they can get to the things they really want to do.  Then they experience the thrill of accomplishment, and that makes us all happy.

Have a great day!



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  1. Hi Heather from Africa again. 🙂 I don't get it! I was home schooled, and I pretended to "do school" for an entire year while actually watching youtube disney shows on my laptop. I just copied and pasted or wrote "10 minute" essays and crammed for math tests to pop out the right answers. It wasn't until college and the fear of failing that I become honest with myself about my poor habits, and then I surprised myself with how smart I actually was once I studied "for real". My mom did everything she could to home school me, but I was mad at her for keeping me out of school and wanted to "get back" at her. Man I was a nasty kid! But I'm noticing a lot of kids are smart cookies at faking out their parents when it comes to home school time. How do you get your kids to love school? Media has a strong, enticing hold!

  2. You are right, Heather. Media is very enticing, and we are careful with our use of it. We limit it, and my kids and I talk ALOT. I try to make sure they are on board with me — that they are bought in to the "why" of what we do. We are in this together, and I need them with me if we are going to get anything done. When my kids are small, we do a lot of hands on activities, nature hikes, and other things that engage their interest. It's pretty hard to fake it when you are totally fascinated. I stay pretty connected with my kids and I can tell when their heart isn't in something or they just don't get it. We don't do a lot of "busy work", so their brain has to be engaged just to be able to do the work. You can fake filling in the blanks or short essays, but it's hard to fake open-ended discussions where the kids and I really talk about what they THINK about what they read. We also do a lot of projects that require research to complete, but my kids get to pick the project (usually within the required coursework). In other words, if we're studying Ancient Egypt, they get to choose interesting topics about the time period and come up with a project to show me what they have learned. My kids have done everything from flaming pyramids to computer animated stories to show me what they're learning.

    When I can tell something isn't engaging my kids, I start looking for a different approach. I learned early on that if they weren't "bought in" very little real learning would take place. Now that some of my kids are teenagers, they can't stand it when they don't understand something. They will come to me if something isn't working and we will work together until we find a fit. The old adage says, "There's more than one way to skin a cat." When it comes to learning, there are definitely many ways to learn the necessary information. We just try to find the way that works best for each of our children. As they grow older, they become adept at finding those ways for themselves. And that is independent learning.

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