Homeschooling autodidacts

Published by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2008 at 07:04 PM

I want my children to teach themselves.

How do you teach someone to teach themselves?

The other day I saw this sentence: “The goal of classical education is to teach the student to enjoy investigation and learning.” How do we teach a child to enjoy investigation and learning?

If you believe (or want to believe) that children are powerful and can construct their own learning — do you believe that about yourself?

Often we champion one form of learning while trying to transmit it in an entirely different sort of way.

Thus: The school that hired me to teach their staff about Reggio-inspired, project-based learning, but wanted me to ram it down their throats in a traditional “learn it, memorize it, repeat it back, start on Monday” sort of way.

No wonder education majors and new teachers are a bit wobbly when they are told “follow the interests of the children … and do it exactly like this.”

“We want to encourage curiosity, individuality, and self-expression … for the children, not for you. You, we want to follow directions and do as you’re told. Stick to the script.”

To champion a form of learning for your children that you wouldn’t use yourself seems … hypocritical at best.


If we want children to teach themselves, can’t we accomplish this best by modeling it? by teaching ourselves the things we want to know and sharing that process with our children?

If we want our students to be self-directed learners, shouldn’t we trust our teachers to find their own paths as well?

Can you homeschool an autodidact without being an autodidact?


Comment by Annika on December 8, 2008 at 08:48 PM

I think my head just exploded. "If an autodidact falls in the woods..."

Comment by Paula on December 8, 2008 at 08:53 PM

"To champion a form of learning for your children that you wouldn’t use yourself seems … hypocritical at best."

Interesting how such an obvious statement brings such clarity to me. So much intellectual sorting to be done on so many different levels. I like who I am becoming on this homeschool journey of teaching my children!

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2008 at 09:05 PM

annika - !!! - is that a good explosion or bad?!

paula, excellent. clarity is good. ;^)

Comment by Annika on December 8, 2008 at 09:11 PM

I don't know! I was a bit overwhelmed by the cyclical nature of the question. And I can't imagine NOT being an autodidact.

Comment by Terra on December 8, 2008 at 09:12 PM

My grandmother finished high school but never had any schooling beyond that. She loved reading Jane Austin and other British classics. She taught herself to paint well enough to teach others. She taught herself to identify the flora and fauna on their mountain well enough to teach me. She wrote a book. She never stopped learning and didn't shy away from trying something new and complicated (like a computer).

Looking forward as well as backward, I think about how my grandmother's example encouraged us simply because she was pursuing her own interests, not because she was trying to teach us. I hope our example encourages and fortifies our sons in the same way. I marvel at people who tell their children to read more but never read a book themselves. If it is so important for children to do it, why isn't it important for the parents to do it as well?

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2008 at 09:18 PM

lol, annika, sorry if i crashed your hard drive. ;^P

terra, fantastic example. lovely. and *yes*, i have thought that so many times about the reading issue!

Comment by renee @ FIMBY on December 8, 2008 at 09:26 PM

oh.. I love this. I've finally in the last couple years given myself permission (now that my babies aren't babies and don't need me so much) to follow my own creative paths. To extend to myself the same grace and learning freedom I give my children. Do it, explore, don't worry "if it works", try that, have fun - all the things I've been telling my children I am now telling myself.

I have no idea what an autodictact, opps autodidact is (self learners or teachers I'm guessing). I'm sure you'll tell me *smile*. But I do know I want to be free to learn just like my children are free to learn.

Comment by Sally on December 8, 2008 at 09:49 PM

Interesting post. I have been struggling with this one myself lately. It takes a lot more self control to let my kids lead me. But, the rewards are amazing.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2008 at 09:56 PM

renee, autodidact = self-taught person. :^)

as much as we say “do as i say, not as i do”, children always seem to do as we do .. so it seems to me we need to live the values we want for them, not just espouse them.

sally, yes! all about making new habits for ourselves .. so we can help them learn those good habits. :^)

Comment by JoVE on December 8, 2008 at 11:42 PM

I stumbled on this idea myself when I was having math angst. So I decided that it was me that needed to know more about mathematics, outside of the model in which I was taught, and got some books and other resources and started reading and thinking. i've not been very systematic about it but it did help alleviate whatever angst I was feeling about what Tigger should be doing and put the focus back on myself, which is where the problem was to begin with.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 9, 2008 at 12:19 AM

JoVE, very interesting -- i feel like our anxieties go down when we do the things ourselves. e.g., i feel no anxiety about my boys reading, because i myself love to read; i think that translated to a lot of confidence. anxiety would then go up when it’s an area we are not strong in, or experienced with. if we try to do something only for our chlidren, then, presumably our anxiety would lessen if we actively participated ourselves.

Comment by Mary on December 9, 2008 at 12:57 AM

While the approach is generally a lot different and it stresses having a mentor more than being an autodidact, this is one thing that really stands out to me in the Thomas Jefferson Education philosophy: you see yourself as a student and pursue that intently, and the children follow your example as you learn. It's a difficult change of mindset for many today where most people think you're done being a student when you finish formal schooling, outside of some occasional continuing education required for professions. I have always known that learning was much more than formal schooling but organizing my life to allow me to pursue my interests along with meeting the needs of my family requires intentionality.

A few posts and ensuing comments here have brought to mind this recent post from Tammy at Just Enough and Nothing More:
Whether we consider ourselves unschoolers, classical, Charlotte Mason, project-based or anything else, looking at the world as our classroom can open up so many doors for us. With our current deschooling (which is taking longer than the sometimes cited one-month-for-every-year length), it is a big adjustment for us to make and even harder to explain to friends and family who want to know what we're doing.

And back to the subject at hand and sort of tying it all together, what has been most helpful to our family has been for my husband and I to pursue interests, investigate answers to questions, tackle problems one piece at a time until we have it figured out. Then our son is more likely to check things out for himself or ask for help solving a specific problem instead of waiting to be handed something.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 9, 2008 at 01:25 AM

thank you, mary. since we have always been self-employed and we are passionate about learning, self-teaching comes naturally to us. so, homeschooling seems very natural. over the years we’ve heard over and over again from other people that they could *never* start their own business/work with their spouse/start a school/homeschool/etc. if nothing else, i know that my sons will really *know* that they can take on any challenge and step off the common path, because they are already immersed in that life. do things always go the way we want them to? nooooo. which is a great learning experience in itself.

when my first son was around five, my mother asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. he said he wasn’t going to have a job. my mother pointed out that he would need to work to make money to live. he said, incredulously, “i’m going to *work*! i’m just not going to have a *job*!” proud moment for a self-employed autodidact mommy. :^)

Comment by Jessica on December 9, 2008 at 01:35 AM

I recently went to a piano recital of my nieces and nephews. Later in the recital, the man in front of me got up and played a piece. He had been sitting with his wife and two young girls, and his son had played previously in the recital. I was so impressed and inspired to learn that he had been taking lessons for only a year. I just thought it was such a good example for his children, that he not only did something that not a lot of other people do (go ahead and learn that thing you have been wanting to learn, however you can), but that he also humbled himself and played in a recital where he was the only adult.

Comment by Theresa on December 9, 2008 at 01:51 AM

Very true. I don't see how it could be any other way, really. Children will follow our leads, for the most part. We have to really be mindful of where we are leading them. I hope my children will see that all of life is about learning and growing and stretching yourself, and there is SO much joy, pleasure, and satisfaction in that. Why would we want it to end? I hope to God my education is never "complete."

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 9, 2008 at 03:11 AM

jessica, that's wonderful. a few years ago, my older son took tae kwon do. after i watched him for several months, i also started taking lessons. it’s great when children see you (1) doing something worse than they do it ;^) and (2) pursue activities that maybe you aren’t incredibly gifted in but still enjoy. something i couldn’t enjoy when i was a perfectionist child, but a lesson i have taken to heart now, and hope to share with my children. :^)

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 9, 2008 at 03:13 AM

Theresa, agreed! As long as we are living, we are learning — and vice versa.

Comment by Stefani on December 9, 2008 at 04:19 AM

Tell me, are there any homes for sale near you? An RV park at least? Cuz I really want to be your neighbor, and I really want my boys to hang with yours :-)

Comment by sarah on December 9, 2008 at 04:27 AM

how is it you are so awesome ! ? ! :)

[my hotmail account has been frozen, so i haven' tbeen able to read your reply to my 'what would i do without you' questions :) hope your monday was great!

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 9, 2008 at 04:43 AM

stef, i kind of have an RV park growing in my *yard*. :^P i know! i say that to estea all the time, too. :^) that would be so great. aw.

hi sarah :^) i don’t know! but dang, that’s an awesome compliment! :^) lol, i’ll try to forward them to your gmail. xoxo

Comment by Juli on December 9, 2008 at 05:59 AM

I think I was doing this without even knowing what I was doing. I love to read and learn new things and my children are always learning along with me. Sometimes they pass me up, too. Probably because they have more time to pursue their interests than I do.

Comment by Rose on December 9, 2008 at 06:03 AM

Jessica, thank you for sharing that! I had been taking my 4yo to violin lessons because he expressed an interest in a friend's violin. But due to his lack of participation during lesson time (still interested outside lesson time), I rented my own violin and started learning too. I was feeling like I was being somewhat selfish in taking over his lessons and still dragging him along, but what a different perspective that offers. And his interest is sort of focusing again, now that he's seeing me learn to play actual *tunes*, so it's probably good for him overall.

(Lori, I'm loving being able to subscribe to the comments! Thank you!)

Comment by kirsten on December 9, 2008 at 01:28 PM

This is something that is so important to me, and it is what I say when talking to friends or family about homeschooling. I want my kids to KNOW HOW to learn. Which is part of my problem with that writing program I was telling you about last week, Lori - they kinda assume you're stupid. I hated that feeling as a kid. The thing is, it kinda MAKES kids stupid, by teaching them that they can only do something a certain way (at a certain time and pace).

And I think you must be an autodidact to school one. I wouldn't have thought that so much before, but watching someone I know school her kids - she just definitely isn't an autodiadact, so she is really not instilling that to her children.

Comment by Susan on December 9, 2008 at 03:04 PM

Thought provoking post! I think the best teachers inspire you to teach yourself with their passion for the subject. That is what I try to do with my 3 girls, with varying seems to work with writing, but I squelched their budding interest in chess with an excess of enthusiasm. Schooling can often instill in kids the belief that they need a teacher or class to learn. I am happy that my kids don't have to unlearn that.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 9, 2008 at 04:15 PM

juli, yes — but then, this gives us a good reason to take time to pursue our own interests! we need to really live the values we want our children to absorb, and not just pay them lip service. if we take time to keep learning as adults, we set the best possible example of that hackneyed phrase, “life-long learner”.

rose, great! i’m glad you’re enjoying it! :^)

kirsten, i agree, but i also think you can *learn* as an adult how to teach yourself .. if you want to. there are people who are hugging their curriculum and folders tight who know they want their children to become self-motivated learners .. they feel in their heart that they want their children to just not acquire skills but be *eager to use them*. but -- and this was what i was attempting to articulate in this post -- they are used to transmitting knowledge and skills in a traditional, teacher-controlled way. and how can you *teach* someone to teach themselves? by example.

susan, thank you. i agree with you so much. i remember my teacher in third grade reading aloud to us for a half hour each day before lunch .. she really transmitted a love of learning to us through her obvious *love* of books and reading. thinking of it still gives me shivers. and because she was a wonderful person *and* passionate about books, we all wanted to be great readers, too. what a great way to energize kids about reading, and so simple, too.

lol re: squelching with over-enthusiasm .. i write about that on the blog all the time! :^) it's important to let the child keep the work and not get so excited we accidentally take it away from them. but it’s hard sometimes. :^P

i think the best schools and teachers (and they are unfortunately out of the ordinary) teach children that they can learn about whatever they want to learn about — just like the best homeschooling/unschooling. but you’re right — way too often, the kids become dependent on someone else to tell them what to do and how to do it; they become trained to do a task for a reward. and that is *not* what we want.

thank you, guys, for your great comments!

Comment by Tammy Takahashi on December 9, 2008 at 10:05 PM

It doesn't make any sense, does it? Teachers are teaching kids how to be like them. And the kids either have to submit to that, by doing the "do what my bosses tell me to do, and I can't question" sort of work, or by rebelling and trying to escape. Teachers who rebel get fired, students get... well... you know what happens.

The teachers that inspire us are not the ones who follow the script. That favorite teacher we had in school? It was the one who did things differently. The one who LOVED his topic, worked on outside projects and showed them to us, who didn't try to teach us so much as share his excitement for learning. That's getting harder and harder for teachers to squeeze into the day.

Homeschooling parents have no choice - if we want our kids to succeed beyond what public school would offer, we have to be the change we want to see in our children. We have to model what we want them to be. No matter how much we beg, bribe, coerce, or manipulate, our children will not be inspired to take on their own education if they do not have a model to show them how awesome it is.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 9, 2008 at 10:35 PM

teachers — the ones who want to inspire their students and share their love of learning — have a heavy burden to carry: red tape, standardized testing, being forced to walk in lockstep with the other teachers in their grade.

a few years ago a young teacher shared with me that she had started a book group in her class of sixth-grade students, and it got them really excited about reading, then talking and writing about books. they were on fire with this project. she was told by the administration to chill — it was making the other teachers “look bad” and no one else had the time or inclination to copy her example. if they *all* didn’t do it, she wasn’t allowed to do it.

many homeschooling parents do choose a more traditional curriculum; i don’t want to ever tell someone that they have to *completely change* what they are doing to help their children do this kind of work. i only ask that they try changing *one thing* and see where that goes. i would much rather see a parent set on a traditional curriculum make room for their child to do self-directed project learning than make it an all-or-nothing proposition. because it really isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. some may prefer to make it their entire curriculum, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. just as i would advise a parent to ease an unsure child (perhaps a deschooling child) into self-teaching, i urge parents to let *themselves* ease into it.

we need to let parents define success for themselves and their children, and that can look a lot of different ways for different people. i champion self-directed learning, and it can work with *any* method of homeschooling. i think the most important message is, leave space for your child to manage their own learning -- not just acquiring basic knowledge and skills, but specializing and *using* those skills.

Comment by meagneato on December 10, 2008 at 02:22 AM

I want to put something clever and insightful here, but I think my brain is done for the day. :)

I really enjoyed this post!

Comment by Estea on December 10, 2008 at 03:07 AM

8^ )

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 10, 2008 at 03:39 AM

thanks, meagan! hey, a compliment always works! :^)

e, when did you get here?

Comment by melissa s. on December 10, 2008 at 05:04 AM

great post, great questions. searching for these answers myself lately. I'm wondering, Lori - did you have clear answers to these questions yourself when you first started homeschooling? I feel like I have alot of unlearning/relearning about learning to do right now.

Comment by shaun on December 10, 2008 at 02:49 PM

What an interesting illustration -- I never thought about how you would teach teaching parallel to homeschooling. I've never even thought about my own college teaching experience in relation to homeschool! Though as Elsie and Joe and Elsie Deluxe once said, classroom teaching (of any style) and homeschool are really apples and oranges.

I have always been self-employed and self-teaching, which as others have said is why homeschooling came fairly naturally to us (my constant angst is not a product of homeschooling, but my personality). We don't "do" Thomas Jefferson Ed., but one thing I took from that book is that we have a learning lifestyle pretty much in place. Thank goodness! I do not change that easily.

My observation, which I hope is not condescending, is that often homeschooling parents can learn to be autodidacts from their children. If they are open to it, they rediscover the joy of learning and awaken new (or old) interests for themselves. Reading around the blogosphere, it seems like many people have come to TJE through this process.

I do wonder now whether some (not all!) of the people who say "I can't imagine ever homeschooling" consider their own educations over.

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 10, 2008 at 03:12 PM

melissa, well, i don’t differentiate between homeschooling and schooling, in a sense. i knew i wanted a very specific kind of learning experience for my children. it wasn’t available in any public or private school in my area. so i had two choices: homeschooling or starting my own school.

i was nervous to homeschool in my area because we had no community here (my husband and i are hermits) and i felt that to get what i wanted, i would have to start a homeschool co-op in the next town over. so i weighed my options and decided to open a school.

i ran that Reggio-inspired, project-based school for seven years. when we closed the primary program, my sons were 5 and 8, and they began homeschooling.

the only discernable difference between their lives at school and homeschooling was the need to find alternate ways for them to collaborate on projects. there was no difference in the way they learned.

people told me several times that my school was “like homeschooling at school!” we had multiage classes (children 3-5 in one class, 5-10 in another), art studios for each class, a full-time studio teacher .. it was really a dream situation.

i love homeschooling so much that i am tempted to say it is better, but really they were both wonderful.

to get to the nut of your question, i educated myself thoroughly before i started making choices. i really am an autodidact. ;^) i had zero background in education and within five years i had a school that had a wide reputation for its Reggio-inspired work, and i was working as an educational consultant. i trained over 100 teachers in my state, and i traveled across the country to work with other schools to create similar programs.

(when people would ask about my background in education, i would say, “i have no background in education. it’s all foreground.” ;^)

SO .. (are you still reading?!) .. i think i went in with my own baggage, having had a miserable schooling experience, researched thoroughly, and came up with what i felt was the best path toward the learning experience i wanted for my children. and i left room to apply my own real-life experiences and incorporate any great new ideas i found. and that’s what i continue to do today! :^)

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 10, 2008 at 03:16 PM


i have also always been self-employed and as i explained in the previous (incredibly long) post, i am also an autodidact. ;^)

i don’t think it’s condescending at all to say that adults can learn to be autodidacts from their children; in fact, that is what i was trying to express up above in this thread about parents who are still most comfortable with traditional curriculum — they may be putting the first foot on a path toward autodidactism when they reach out for it as something they desire for their children.

Comment by jocat on December 11, 2008 at 04:31 AM

i truely appreciate the wonderness of your blog - your writtings really hit
the spot. my question though (as a new homeschooler of a very shy 6
yr old & outgoing 3 yr old) is how 2 get a rythem going when the children
are teaching themselves? my daughter must ask me 3 or 4 great questions
per day and i'm having a problem trying 2 answer (research) them as well
as trying 2 schedule other "school" work or crafts and house chores also.
i really need 2 work on her self confidence and this article seems to stem
around that - any suggestions on how 2 proceed?
much thanks - jocat

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 05:58 AM

jocat, it’s important to remember you can’t turn every question into a project .. you can’t support every single interest as a months-long investigative project. so when you decide to try project learning, take the time to choose carefully, then give that topic your best attention and support.

all those other questions should, as time goes by, be answered by the child, who becomes project-oriented .. likely to grab resource material (a book, the internet) to find answers to their own questions. and that’s the whole point .. to help children be able to direct their own learning.

if your schedule seems too full, remember that if you do a project, it will remove some other things from your schedule .. for example, certainly your child will be drawing, painting, constructing, so that’s art. project work will allow you to cross off *some* of your curriculum needs, so it doesn’t add time to your schedule; it just repurposes it.

Comment by jocat on December 12, 2008 at 04:38 AM

thank you for your prompt response & wonderful words of wisdom.
todays post was inspiring as well, and i'm enjoying looking through your
"project based" section which is helping 2. i have forwarded your blog
2 other homeschoolers i know in hopes that it will bring light to their
days as much as it has mine.
happy holidays - jocat

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 12, 2008 at 05:08 AM

thank you, jocat, and happy holidays to you as well.

Comment by Barbara on December 12, 2008 at 10:07 AM

“i have no background in education. it’s all foreground.” love that!!

great post. :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 12, 2008 at 02:58 PM

thank you, barbara! ;^)

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