As our children grow, we excitedly watch them become more independent. There is a happy jig when they learn to feed, dress, or bathe themselves. And, oh how beautiful to have a child who can complete chores independently or even prepare a meal for the family!
We thrill over their growing independence in homeschooling, as well, as they learn to process on their own through instruction and teaching material and their need for our constant attention and interaction decreases. For years, we have engaged heavily with our children through lessons, games, and activities that help the facts stick – even facts that our children do not yet truly understand. But starting in about fifth grade, new light bulbs come on for them as they begin to understand connections between the facts they have been learning throughout the early years. These middle school years are actually a great time to encourage increased independent learning, especially when our children engage, explore, and process with excitement as they make new academic discoveries.
What About High School?
Because independent learning is often so successful in the Beginning to Understand years (5th through 8th grade), we naturally tend to assume that it will only increase during high school. Yes, the subjects are harder, more advanced, and more complex. Yes, the stakes are higher, especially for a college-bound student. But, they need to learn how to handle life on their own, whether they are preparing for college or for life in general. So, independent learning is the best way to help prod them along. Right?
Or is there perhaps more to be considered?
If the high school years were only about harder academics, independent learning would be a completely logical option for teenagers. But, there is more to it than that. High school is a time when students are learning to take the facts they have collected since preschool and the understanding that has clicked in more recent years and begin to reason through it all. They determine what they believe about those facts and connections, and they establish a worldview and moral foundation of their own based on those beliefs.
If you were to interact with homeschool graduates who processed through their high school years independently, you would probably hear mixed reviews of the process. Some would rave about it, saying they had the freedom to continue learning at their own pace, exploring the depths of their subjects without being slowed down by a classroom or even by a teacher.
Others, however, would speak of the struggles. They would tell of the difficult they had learning the complex science or math concepts. And as you listened, you would discern that the struggle came more from the lack of sounding boards and discussion opportunities than from the lack of strong teaching. They lacked community.
Although the academic development of high school students frequently needs the assistance of fellow students or teachers, it is actually the reasoning development that cries more strongly for the dynamics of a group. Students need to be able to hash out what they are thinking. They need the input of others. They need argument and debate. They need reinforcement and confirmation. They need to be challenged to keep digging, keep thinking, and keep advancing. This can only happen when they actually have others around to help. Additionally, while teens possess the ability to tackle more challenging learning, they do not inherently possess the maturity or experience necessary to establish well-grounded belief systems on their own.
Does this automatically mean that all high school students should attend school? Are parents neglecting their students’ development by encouraging independent learning through the high school years? Not necessarily. But, it does introduce food for thought.
- What type of learner is your child? Does he get easily frustrated by being “held back.” Does she constantly talk out what she’s learning, even if no one is around? The way our children learn not only lets us know what sort of curriculum they need, it also shows us the environment needed.
- Are certain subjects a struggle? No matter what the grades show, how well is your student engaging in the subject? Retaining the information? Putting the pieces together to help him or her understand other subjects and the world at large? The default solution during the elementary and middle school years is to try a new curriculum. But, sometimes – especially during the high school years – group engagement is the missing dynamic that will make the information click.
- Does it have to be all or nothing? Sometimes it does. We can either enroll our student in a school or keep them home. We can participate in co-op, but we have to be there all day and engage in multiple subjects whether they fit the need or not. In these cases, it is very important to evaluate whether or not the group environment is worth the cost in time, energy, and finances. Other times, however, there is the option to balance group and independent learning. Students can choose which courses they take through the local high school or only enroll in co-op or enrichment classes that meet a specific need.
- Are friends using the same curriculum? When students get together, they inevitably start comparing notes. “Have you started reading Great Expectations yet? What do you think?” or “Ugh! I’m trying to learn how to balance equations. Do you understand that at all?” It is not always necessary for students to be in class together to benefit from group learning. Sometimes the casual interaction can be equally beneficial.
- How much are you, the parent, able to engage with your student? Can you take the time to discuss his literature with him? Can you talk through ramifications and ideologies behind the stage of history she is pursuing? Do you carve out opportunities to discuss Scripture and theology with your student or evaluate the worldviews promoted through scientific studies? Do you make sure there is somewhere to go when math is just too confusing? Students need to hash out ideas, reason through philosophies, and get help, not just when they think they need it, but on a regular basis – daily, even. Your student needs an outlet for academic engagement. It’s a need that runs as deep as the need for social development.
There is no doubt that independence needs to be cultivated during the high school years. But, this is also the primary opportunity you will have to help your student reason through what he or she is learning in such as way as to prepare for life. Whether that is accomplished through intentional engagement with you, weekly participation with a co-op or enrichment opportunity, or enrollment in a class or school depends upon a multitude of factors that only you and your child can evaluate. Be intentional and choose well!