Saturday, August 16, 2014

What Does At-Home, Self-Directed Learning Look Like?

Often, I get asked how I teach my children at home.

More and more, my answer is, "I don't always.  More often than not, I let them teach themselves."

Take last Sunday morning for example.

Nina woke up after a night of being sick.  She looked up at the ceiling fan that had kept her cool during the night and one of the first things she said was...  

[Spoiler Alert:  If you haven't made a guess about what is pictured above, go ahead and do so now, because I am about to reveal the answer.]

"Mommy, I think I know how to make a fridge."

O-kay. I thought.  I guess my girl is feeling a bit better, and we're in for a messy morning of creative engineering and experimentation.

Thus, our day commenced.

With joy, focus and determination, my seven-year-old directed herself through a self-initiated project which hit perfectly on typical engineering design process steps.

Engineering is Elementary

Step One:  Ask

I have no idea why, but my little girl woke up asking herself how she might make her own fridge using materials we have at home that she may freely access.

Step Two: Imagine

Before sharing anything with me, Nina had already brainstormed ideas in her own mind and chosen the one that she felt was feasible to test.

Nina talks her way through her plan before moving forward.

Step Three:  Plan

Nina dispensed with writing or drawing about her ideas and got right to asking me to help her collect supplies:  a box, a small fan, tape and scissors.

Step Four:  Create

Nina's theory was that she could aim a fan inside a closed box to keep the things inside the box cool.  

In order to get the fan's cooling power into the box, she surmised that she needed a hole in the box.  She tried cutting one, only to discover that her scissors would not go through thickness of the outside layer of the box and the flaps within it.

Studying the first obstacle...

Before I could offer any suggestions, Nina problem-solved on her own.  She simply taped the inner flaps to the inside of the box, cut the outer portion of the box, and then worked on the inner layer.

Obstacle one tackled.

With great delight, she showed me her success!

Happy working the engineering design process...

Obstacle two came when Nina how the cooling air of the fan made it's way into the box.  She discovered that the fan and box did not quite align.

Tackling a second obstacle.

As Nina brainstormed solutions such as finding a new box to cut or finding a way to align the box she already had cut, I noted a pile of books near to where she was working.  Within seconds, she had her problem solved.

Nina's design was almost complete.

Nina asked if she could take some leftovers from the fridge in the kitchen to test her new fridge.  With my blessing, she transferred a small portion of pasta into a container to put inside her creation.

Testing the design...

At this point, she hit a third obstacle.  She was not sure how to keep her fridge closed.  

She proposed using tape or creating a latch.  I suggested that tape would be cumbersome because she'd have to keep re-applying it.  Then, before proceeding with latch design, Nina glanced at the book pile, then got up and fetched something else.

A chalk box that Nina had made at Lowe's once became her door closure system.

Just as Nina finished her self-constructed fridge, Grampy called in to check on how she was doing with sickness.  Obviously, engineering design is healing!

Look at how vibrant Nina is while telling Grampy about her creation!

When Nina got off the phone, I asked her how we might test if the fridge really works. 

Nina decided to put some other leftovers just outside her fridge to test which would stay cooler.

Later, when Daddy got home, Nina excitedly told him about her morning's work.  He became her assistant in testing if her design was an effective one.

Nina takes pasta from her fridge and from the container outside of it it give to Daddy.

While Daddy closed his eyes, Nina put the pasta pieces into his hands. 
Daddy had a difficult time determining which pasta was colder.

Step Five:  Improve

Daddy picked the "right" pasta, but noted that there was not a huge difference in the temperature of the pasta in his hands.  Nina proposed that that was because the pasta that she had left outside her fridge had been in our kitchen fridge longer.  (Remember, she put one container of pasta in her fridge before she talked to Grampy and the other outside her fridge after she talked to Grampy.)

She decided she would need to test her fridge again using leftovers placed inside and outside it at the same time.  However, by this time, both of her brothers were up.  So, the pasta got gobbled down, Nina's fridge pushed aside for Lego play and the rest of the morning unfolded in different directions.

My Personal Reflection

As I sat at Mass later in the morning, I thanked God for instilling a bit of his creative genius in all of us and asked Him to continue to guide me in encouraging my children to exercise their imaginations, to experiment with their own self-directed learning and to unwrap personal gifts of passion and purpose.  

Later in the day, I thought about how seasons of unschooling work for my family in so many ways.

Looking back at the morning, I realize that I delighted in observing Nina's engineering design process as much as she did in experiencing it!  I marvel at the creativity of children and the learning that can unfold when time, space, some basic supplies and imagination are put together.

What does self-directed, at-home learning look like in your home?  How might you move from being your child's teacher to being a facilitator, guide, observer or co-learner?  


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