Why does Marissa have a tattoo of a hat and a bunch of tulips on her arm? I had been wanting to ask her from the moment I saw her arm. Then I did. So I know the story.
Marissa is here as a Workaway with us, it is no surprise that she found us, or that we found her. She is twenty two and from America and was/is a self directed learner from the age of fourteen. She is ten years on from what we are doing now, considering our girls are nearly twelve. She is a dream to have here as we can find out what is it like to be a self directed learner at the age of twenty two…
Why do you have a tattoo of a hat and a bunch of tulips on your arm?
The idea behind my tattoo is to represent natural creativity and my own endeavors in self-directed education.
I have a distinct memory of being in Kindergarten, I must have been about 5, and I was taking one of my first standardized tests. A question came up that was asking what you could put flowers in. It showed an image of a vase and an image of a top hat. I was really frustrated with this question because I saw two answers. I remember my teacher standing over me trying to help me understand what was obvious to her. They didn’t want a creative answer: they wanted a traditional one. This moment has stuck with me for a long time. For me it represents the way that creativity is lost within the public school system. So here I am, consciously choosing to put the flowers in the hat.
When you first became a self directed learner how was it for you?
It was thrilling. I was a teenager and had angst about the traditional system. For me, it was a grand new adventure with limitless possibilities.
How did you cope with the freedom?
At first I tried to find ways to stay busy and even tried to do some more traditional studying. But after a while, it became a very organic process. Personally, the community of the free school helped make it a quick transition.
What is the main thing that you have learned around directing your own education?
It is quite empowering to be given control of the steering wheel of your own life at a young age. I have learned how powerful I am as a unique person on this earth. I have learned that I deserve the respect of those around me even if they are my teacher or superior.
What do you consider success to be?
I try to set my life up in a way that I feel success often. Setting goals as I go, big or small daily challenges. I hope to always be learning and growing in various ways. This is what I really consider success. Did I learn something today? Did I make progress towards a goal or dream of mine? Am I happy? Most importantly: was I kind and true to myself?
Do you ever compare yourself to other people who have had formal education and if so how does it make you feel?
Absolutely, I think human nature makes it unavoidable to compare yourself to others from time to time. Sometimes I find myself deeply questioning some of my choices. I am happy to report though that these questions always lead me to the truth that I have in fact made the right choices for myself even if it isn’t the common and more accepted path. This process can help me find a more solid sense of self confidence in my unique decisions through life.
How do you cope with the questions around Unschooling/self directed learning?
This is an ongoing challenge that ebbs and flows based on my stage of life and situations. I think as with most controversial topics, I do my best to educate those who are open to it. However, if someone is focused on debating or judging me as a person, I certainly don’t feel the need to expend my energy on explaining something they are not open to understanding.
What would you say to parents that are considering unschooling or homeschooling their children?
If you are considering homeschooling or unschooling, I say follow your instinct. I think it’s important to let your children in on this decision; have a conversation about the pros and cons. I think giving your child the opportunity to direct their own education is giving them the opportunity to shine more brightly. Don’t worry about it being the right moment or having all the answers, this is a chance for you to organically learn alongside your child. I find that really beautiful. Like so many things in life, you won’t know if it’s right for you until you try it.
What do you see as the strengths/weaknesses in unschooled kids?
It is extremely difficult to make generalizations about unschoolers as we come in such a colorful variety!
I think that a common strength among self directed youth could also be a weakness depending on the situation and the perspective. I find that these kids are often confident, speak their minds, and see themselves as equals to adults and those in superior roles. This can sometimes mean that if said person finds themselves in a traditional classroom setting or in certain jobs, they may have a hard time going along with whatever their superior wants. However, in my perspective, we need more youth that are willing to challenge their superiors.
What would you do to change formal education if it was up to you?
I could fill a whole book with all the changes I’d make. Let’s start by cutting the standardized tests that are shrinking even the best intentioned teachers ability to teach to individual students needs!
Do you have any top tips for me and for our kids around self directed learning?
The best tip I have to anyone tackling self directed learning is to relax. Learning comes in so many different shapes and forms and sometimes the most magical and powerful lessons happen in ways our eyes aren’t trained to see.
Are you any good at maths? I say maths, you probably say math…
I have enough math skills to confidently get myself through the situations I find myself in as a young adult. I am by no means a math whiz, but my life doesn’t require that I be one. I have found that a lot of the math I learned when I was younger and in traditional school has been stored somewhere deep in my mind never to be needed again.
Is there anything you can’t do when it comes to learning? Do you think that you can learn anything even though you haven’t had a formal education? I mean if you wanted to become a heart surgeon do you think you would feel confident to follow a route to get there?
I love this question. When I have been faced with questions about if I have met the same specific marks as students in traditional schooling, my response was often something along the lines of, “I certainly don’t have all the same history dates and math equations stored away, but I have the confidence and the know how to find the answers I need and learn new skills when necessary.”
Self directed learning has given me and many others the opportunity to explore many different areas of interest to discover what we are truly passionate about. As well as the ability and space to dive as deep as we want into these passions.
Do you think that anyone can be a self directed learner?
I think that everyone naturally takes on self directed learning in different doses, whether or not it is a conscious choice. As babies and very young children, every moment is a learning experience. I believe that follows you through life.
I think the key to truly embracing self-directed learning is being conscious of all of the day to day moments that are truly learning experiences and to embrace the power of choice. Need more structure? Then seek it from another source or implement it on yourself: If you are choosing the structure of your own accord, it is still self-directed.
Are you happy with they way your education played out?
I really couldn’t be happier! My education provided me with a whole variety of experiences I couldn’t have imagined before. I feel it made me a more well rounded person with real life skills. Self-directed education helped me discover a new found sense of confidence to be who I am truly being called to be in this world. To me, that is the greatest gift.
How did you or your parents arrive at a decision to take you out of formal education?
From the time that I was 7 my parents had serious conversations with me about leaving the traditional system. They saw that I learned and processed things in a very unique way and didn’t want to see my creativity and heart squashed by someone else trying to fit me into a predetermined mold. However, at that time I was insistent about staying with my friends.
Then at the age of 14, my parents discovered a free democratic school near us and they thought I would be interested. I was hesitant at first, but I think I could feel that it would lead to big things for me. I think it is great that my parents didn’t really arrive at the decision on their own; it was always a serious topic that they discussed with me leaving the ultimate decision up to me.
Were you lonely as a self directed learner?
I wasn’t lonely at all. I consider myself very lucky to of had the community of a free democratic school. In addition, I kept very tight bonds with my friends from public school and other areas of my life. Loneliness is an interesting thing as it is quite personal and I sometimes feel that it was easier to feel lonely in a public school than in my free school. I think going against the norm can force you to foster more important, close, and dynamic relationships in your life.
Are you happy in your life?
I am very happy with my life. This isn’t to say that I am immune to bouts of sadness or depression or major self doubt. I can assure you I am not. However, something I always check in with myself about is even if I am looking towards the next thing, or even if I am facing a particular bit of discomfort in where my life is at, can I find contentedness? Can I find things to be grateful for? I strive to make the answer yes. I know that every moment is leading towards the next, and so far, life seems to be getting better in different ways all the time.
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