Self-Discovery through Self-Directed Learning

by Kate Boelkins

Kate Boelkins is studying to be a secondary education teacher at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  As part of her training, she has assisted in several classrooms in the area.  We are delighted to have her as an intern at Open Doors.

Developmental psychologists agree that the voyage towards self-discovery is vital for mental growth, for emotional development, and for self-esteem improvement.

Open Doors Tapestry
The voyage of self-discovery — those who open doors discover new lands within.  If a tapestry says it, it must be true.

Yet self-discovery is often ignored or suppressed in the traditional classroom setting.

In their natural state, teens are constantly struggling with an identity crisis brought on by changing relationships, mounting responsibilities, and simple developmental psychology. Between the ages of 12 and 18 years — a mere 6 years — we expect teens to develop a sense of self, to home in on their interests, and to use those interests to outline a plan for the rest of their lives.

398px-Heroesjourney.svg
Every teen must embark on her own version of the hero’s journey, like those found in film and literature.

In theory, this period of self-discovery and identity formation is fostered by the encouragement of adults who reinforce exploration and motivate teens to develop a sense of control and independence in their lives. This encouragement should inspire self-confidence in teens and help them find their core direction in life.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the case for a majority of teenagers graduating high school and headed out into the “real world.”

Recent studies show that up to half of college students enter college “undecided”, having no idea what to pursue despite the fact they are paying tuition for their education. On top of that nearly 80% of college students change their major at least once.

Distressing research from Penn State suggests this complete lack of direction is due to a “developmental disconnect”.

These teens simply haven’t formed enough of an identity to define their interests. Why not?

  • The traditional classroom takes students and strictly defines the information in which they will be immersed each year.
  • This knowledge is comprised only of an “academic” load, meaning the traditional subjects of English, Mathematics, Science, and History.
  • The exploration within each subject is shallow and broad, and allows no flexibility for students to delve deep into an area of interest.
  • Areas outside the traditional academic area are ignored, and even rejected from the classroom.
  • Learning is transmitted through books and lectures, not real world experiences.

After graduating high school, students have been exposed to only certain areas of academic information. If subjects in school fail to grasp their interests, teens are at a loss when asked to choose a direction — nothing seems worth pursuing. When they reach college, they’ve had little time to define their own identity and find it impossible to make an informed decision.

Additionally, this lack of freedom affects the psychological state of the teen as a whole. The classroom experience is restrictive– it’s commonly noted that one week we expect students to ask permission to use the restroom, and the next we expect them to have a detailed plan for the rest of their lives.

Raising hands to use the restroom, though it helps the teacher keep order, is part of system that doesn’t support independence and self-direction.

Schools often fail to encourage and support student exploration. Teens need new experiences; it is normal to run through many different trials and errors before they have the self-knowledge to make decisions.

Instead of fostering opportunities and embracing failure, schools often try to confine students to specific ways of thinking and doing.  They look for hard commitments too early in the students’ development, without offering the tools to build self-knowledge.

Teens are then left with two poor choices.

  • Fall into a pre-described identity defined by the school climate they’ve known, which can result in choosing a post-grad path like college that is a poor fit for the student.
  • Avoid self-exploration completely.

The lack of self-discovery and identity formation in the teenage years can have life-long impact.

So how can this change? How can we as a society foster confident, strong-hearted, and self-directed teens?

It begins with adults. We have the responsibility to our teens to change our perspectives on what is important for them. Instead of ensuring they fit in the mold, we need to encourage the quest of new experiences, applaud them when they pursue what they love, guide them when they have questions, and let them know it’s okay when they change their mind.

At Open Doors, this mentor relationship is priority – teens have the freedom to explore what interests them, whether it involve traditional academic areas, video games, or wild edibles. By their side are experienced adults whose mission is to simultaneously participate in their exploration and guide them towards self-discovery and the future.

This post is part of our “Your Life – Your Learning!” series, designed to help the Grand Rapids community rethink teen learning, and brought to you with support from the Wege Foundation.

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