Do you every worry it won’t work out like you’ve planned?
A few years back, one of our “test ideas” bombed and it went something like this…
Going “All In”
Observing Duncan’s self-directed approach to programming games, inventing new (programmed) devices, and crafting visual stories was both spark and kindling for me. His interests inspired and guided him far better than I might, pushing him through frustration and challenge, demanding his focus and attention, and delighting him with personal accomplishment. What might be possible if we created a context in which he could follow his interests along every vector?
I was fired up! So, I did what I always do: I started reading everything I could find about self-directed learning. Between books and online articles, I found out about schools designed to foster self-directed learning, discovered how to set up the context to support it, and grew more and more convinced of the benefits. Then at some point, I felt suitably prepared to let curiosity lead Duncan where it may. So, we talked it over, agreed about how to proceed, and changed our homeschooling approach overnight to set out on a new adventure—we decided to test the idea that Duncan would flourish through full scale self-directed learning.
Riding Bareback Without a Care in the World
At first, Duncan kept to the old “directed” schedule, asking for assistance when and if needed. Indeed, it seemed we were so sure-footed within our first two weeks that I began to share (brag about?) our successes with friends. I was proud of Duncan; proud of me for having the courage to let go so that he could explore on his own. I painted a rosy picture.
It reminded me of when, years ago, I climbed onto the back of my sister’s horse (Leo, won in a lottery for $2.00). Though he’d not been trained for riding, Leo was extraordinarily sweet. Acquainted through daily brushing, petting, and snacks, we’d formed a sort of friendship. He’d let me prop myself up against him to read when he was laying on the ground, I’d let him lean against me while giving him an extra-long brushing (a challenge because he was heavy). Getting on his back was the next step in trust and we crossed the threshold without issue. Leo seemed to barely notice and neither of us had a care in the world.
…Until the Horse Bucked
At this point, both stories turn, slightly. For me and Leo, it came in the form an aggressive smack to Leo’s hind end—delivered by my dad to get the horse moving. Which he did. But, not as Dad intended. Leo began bucking, I began slipping, and Dad began worrying about my safety. He hadn’t anticipated this response from Leo because his previous experiences with horse training hadn’t played out in the same way. Within seconds, I was laughing (bucking is sort of wild and fun experience), lost my grip completely, and fell off of Leo to land in the soft sandy desert near his hooves (thank goodness).
Duncan’s fall was less abrupt. It took him several weeks to realize.
Why so long? Well, getting through important lessons can take a while. Plus, I wanted to give Duncan time; time to experience the journey, to self-correct, to find his own way. Therefore, I chose to be an observer, watching him while resisting the urge to meddle. At most, I’d inquire about how things were going, checking in on his progress against a set of learning goals we’d established together at the beginning of the year. I hoped to provide opportunities for him to ask for help.
Here’s what I observed:
- He began to read more and more and from various disciplines.
- However, he slipped out of a regular schedule by the end of his third week. While his goals remained within his view, his sense on when to achieve them seemed to be unraveling.
- When he was in his learning groove he seemed highly self-directed.
- History—a favorite of his—he ignored altogether in order to watch videos.
- I began to establish my own schedule, separate from his. Then, when he’d ask for help, my schedule would be dashed and I would grow stressed.
- When our schedules meshed, it felt wonderful—each of us settling into flow.
- When things were rough, they were very rough. Hey! Where did that rosy picture go?
- Some days, he accomplished a great deal and felt elated. He would write, create art, and complete several science investigations.
- Other days, he grew more and more stressed about not meeting all of the goals he’d established for himself.
After eleven weeks, Duncan came to me in tears saying, “I can’t make myself do it. I want to, but I just can’t. I need a schedule and I need you to make me follow it. Also, I don’t know what I don’t know. I want you to help me, please.”
Talking through it all, I realized just how well Duncan understood his own needs. In addition, we uncovered four truths about ourselves:
- Duncan needed and wanted an accountability partner.
- He wanted a tour guide to point out interesting attractions.
- Though applied differently for self-directed learning, teacher agency is as important as learner agency. (And, I hadn’t fully internalized what that meant for us before our experiment.)
- To reduced stress—for both of us—we needed to reserve specific blocks of time for learning to:
- Ensure that we’d be on the same page at the same time.
- Prevent interrupting each other from something else.
Another thing I realized was that I was in for a major dish of crow the next time I saw my friends! That rosy picture I bragged about wasn’t so rosy in retrospect. Yet, rather than a dish of crow, my friends gave me support and greatly reduced my embarrassment. They are such good friends (and, thanks again y’all)!
Getting Back on the Horse
On the surface, our adventure in self-directed learning might have looked like failure. Duncan indicated that he couldn’t do it. But, that’s not how I saw it. To me, Duncan’s requests demonstrated self-awareness earned through experience. He turned his frustration into a constructive solution that served him. Letting himself get to the point of tears was like tripping and falling in a larger journey towards mastery. And, just as I got back upon Leo’s back (and I did, eagerly!), Duncan got back up on his own proverbial horse to continue his learning pursuits.
Here’s something else: His request, besides taking courage, was self-directed. He was asking for what he needed to accomplish the goals he had for himself. Further, his request was an invitation, completely empty of the resentment one can feel when guidance is imposed. To me, that was a huge gain life-wise and in terms of self-directed learning.
Our adventure was a great reminder, too, that learning is a process—for both of us. Duncan was right, you don’t know what you don’t know. You have to discover it, explore ideas, think them over, and make adjustments. We are always evolving, changing from moment to moment. How we learn does, too. Luckily, homeschooling makes it both easy and fast to do just that.
Better as We Go
After reflecting on the experience, we crafted a new approach informed by what went well and what didn’t go well. In the end, nothing was lost because of our experience and so much was gained. This, I think, is the beauty of our Better as We Go mindset. It gives us permission to test ideas, learn by bombing or succeeding, and strive for better.
In the Comments Below…
Please share your thoughts, ideas, and experiences with missteps, recoveries, and “getting back on the horse.”
Thanks so much for reading, commenting, and sharing!
Wishing you many good things,