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.

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.

A Note from Parents

Last year, we received this affirmation from two of our member parents:

“We have been really happy with our family’s experience at Open Doors this year. Our son has thrived in the inclusive and accepting atmosphere at the Center.  Open Doors’ teen-centered approach is very effective; teens and adults treat each other with mutual affection and respect.  It has been exciting to see our son taking control of his education, developing talents and exploring new interests.” -Hilary and Mike Arthur

a happy teen member
Laughing in Film Studies Class

It can be hard for parents to visualize, but Open Doors is an alternative to school where teens learn as they were meant to learn, and they thrive.

If you want to help more families find a natural way for their teen to learn and thrive, please donate.  We are a non-profit organization and our membership fees do not cover all our costs.

If you want to learn more about helping your teen take control of his or her education, contact us.  We would love to talk.


Summertime Art

The Open Doors Prizing Your Power Summer Art Program continues.  It’s simply so fun to support teens as they explore different ways to express themselves.  We do it during our regular program, as an alternative to school, and now we’re doing it with our summer program, exploring how together we can create art to enrich our community.  Join our fun and enjoy the photos!

Fabric Art:  Towel Origami, featuring Mythical Creatures

Pink towel elephant
Meet Terry the Pink Elephant. (Get it? Terry? Terrycloth? We knew you got it.)
Towel Loch Ness Monster
Hello Nessie! (Questions we ask ourselves: would a Loch Ness monster made of terrycloth soak up all the water in the lake/loch?)
Towel King Kong
King Kong lives! (Extra Absorbent Version)

Nature Art

Acorns and husks
Nature Art: Starting Small
Goldsworthy inspired
Inspired by Goldsworthy — Nature Art
Inspired by Goldsworthy -- Nature Art
Creating and contemplating …
Parking Lot creation -- Inspired by Goldsworthy -- Nature Art
Art is everywhere and anywhere.

If you’re looking for educational options that respect teens — if you want to support those teens as they explore self-expression — if you’re looking for a community who can help you grow in these directions  — contact us.

Three Ways to Consider Alternatives to High School

1. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
-Robert Frost

path in forest
The path less traveled has a pretty awesome view.

You feel like you’ve been waiting for your own incredible journey.  You’ve been marking time until your life can start.  Leaving high school can be the first step on that path.

Brainstorm.  If money were no object and you weren’t in school, what would you do?  This frees your mind to think big.  Write down your ideas, including where you want to go and what you want to see.  Find an adult who will listen to your ideas and help you talk over possibilities.  Many of them will be closer than you think.


Everything I learned back in college
Everything I learned in high school? This goes double.

You realize that the kind of learning schools offer is now available online, for free, from a wide variety of sources.  From the Khan Academy to MIT, from John Green’s Crash Course in World History to an exploration of the Cosmos and the most interesting NOVA Chemistry Course you’ll never see in school, you can immerse yourself in the subjects you love without tests or grades.


Won't Swim in Rivers
Dare to be different.

You want an alternative to high school that’s truly different — not just a computer-based learning program, but something that supports you in being the unique and creative person you are.

When you leave school, you can explore art and craft, shadow someone you admire at their job, and try your hand at your own small business.  You can build self-knowledge in several ways:  volunteering for a community you care about, traveling, or joining an interest-based group, like a book club or foreign language club.  In a recent article, Blake Boles shares 12 ways to educate yourself, and his book, Better than College, has ideas that people of all ages can explore

In addition, Open Doors can coach you through your options, right here in Grand Rapids.  Call us.

This post is part of our ongoing “Your Life– Your Learning!” series, launched with support from the Wege Foundation.


Five Ways Our Teens Can Love Learning Again

In our last post, we talked about why many Grand Rapids teens hate school.  Alternative schools or private schools are not an option for some families, so let’s talk about ways that our young people can come to love learning again.

The most important thing is to not equate learning with only school.  Humans, including teens, learn all the time in the real world.  In fact, what they may have difficulty grasping or memorizing in the classroom often comes much more naturally in real life.  Here’s how:

1.  Meaning, meaning, meaning.  When a young person loves something — whether it’s animals, swing dance, cars, investment, or a sport — it’s because that thing has meaning to him or her.  If a teen’s interest is horses, then everything related to horses makes sense to her — if she can’t make sense of it at first, she pursues it and asks questions until it does.  The teen is fully engaged — emotionally, physically, intellectually, socially, and even spiritually.

All humans learn best when information has a meaningful context.  Yet teens are asked to repeatedly solve math problems using abstract numbers, or to recall historical dates and events without a context that feels meaningful to them.  Study after study has shown that though some students may be able to memorize well for tests, they are not able to apply their learning in real-world situations, where things rarely look exactly as they appeared on the test.

Fortunately, Grand Rapids is full of interesting people doing interesting things.  The arts, farm-to-table restaurants, environmental projects, cars, community events, more community events, games of all kinds, sports — our city offers a wide variety for the passionate teen in your life.

Swing dancing
Making Meaning from Movement: One of our members loves her swing dancing class every Wednesday night. The constant movement both challenges her and relaxes her in a way that typical physical education classes don’t.

2.  Problem-solving.  Teens know that their day is coming — soon they’ll be working jobs, managing money, and making adult decisions every day.  And yet everywhere they go, they are judged on how well they follow rules, not on how well they solve problems. How will they learn to problem-solve if they never practice?

Whenever possible, we can ask teens to join us in problem-solving.  Whether we’re working on home projects, fixing dinner, creating a blog, or scheduling a busy day, we can “think out loud” with our process and ask for input from our teens.

In a similar vein, if our teens struggling with school, homework, bullies, or a social situation, we can ask questions, including, “is there something I can do to help?”  It helps if we remember to wait for their responses, rather than jumping in with ideas.  We can invite them to write down possible solutions (even fantasy solutions) and talk over their options.

Central Station in Downtown Grand Rapids: Problem-Solving and a Ticket to the City

Because Grand Rapids is such a rich community, it’s a great place to offer problem-solving opportunities.  Would your teen like to figure out how to take the bus from the mall to their home, or from Meijer Gardens to the Art Museum to Blandford Nature Center? (And can they do the latter challenge all on one bus fare?)  Or make a day of it and ride The Rapid together for fun — it’s a great way to see the city and chat with our neighbors.  This is just one way to help teens practice problem-solving:  we’ll offer more in a future blog post.

Fortunately, others in the community have recognized the need, and teens are being invited to problem-solve more often through area programs focused on larger social issues.  Still, more needs to be done, and attending workshops doesn’t always give the daily practice needed to think through everyday situations in the real world.

3.  Getting involved in the real world.  Teens often feel they are wasting away in the classroom, cut off from the rest of the world.  Since teens are very concrete thinkers, they need exposure now, not later, to what real life feels like.

College visits,volunteer opportunities (including the zoo and a summer therapy program), opportunities to shadow professionals (including in the growing health care field), travel (even to different Grand Rapids neighborhoods), part-time jobs, and fun projects — from cleaning up the Grand River to making a movie (like the Open Doors Slender Man project) — are all opportunities to experience the world, and all are right here in Grand Rapids.

A teen works with a young child at the Comprehensive Therapy Center

4.  Spending time alone when needed.  How often are teens encouraged to really think their own thoughts, particularly during school time?  Waking up early for school, participating in after-school activities, and doing homework often takes up an entire day that could be spent observing, considering, and dreaming about the future. Grand Rapids has many community spaces where a teen can wander and think her own thoughts:  the Main Library (which also offers fun activities), the Blue Bridge and other bridges over the Grand River, the Quiet Cafe at GRCC, Blandford Nature Center, the Calvin College EcoSystem Preserve, Johnson Park, and Schuler Books and Music, just to name a few.

Schuler Books has lots of quiet places for a teen to curl up and think her thoughts.

5.  Playing and learning with others.  As Peter Gray writes,  “Teenagers have always been attracted to public spaces where they can hang out with friends, find new friends, and talk endlessly with peers about matters that concern them, away from parents and other authority figures. Such gatherings are crucial to human development; they are how teenagers expand their social horizons, share views on issues that matter to them, experiment with different versions of their personality, and develop the sense of independence from parents and other adults that they must in order to become adults themselves. ”

Our teens crave unstructured time together to figure things out — let’s give it to them.  The Friday Night Skate at Tarry Hall, grabbing a taco at the Downtown Market, or many of the activities listed in this article will fill that need. At the same time, teens need their parents and guardians to stay connected in a friendly way.   In a 2009, only about half the teens surveyed by the Grand Rapids Youth Commission reported that their parents asked about their friends, checked their homework or had regular meals with them. “We want to let parents know: their kids feel they are important.”

Teens trying out ideas and talking about what matters to them.

Offering meaningful context, providing real-world problem-solving and experiences, and allowing for both reflective times and social times to connect with friends and family — this is what the Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens does.  We can help your teen love learning again, whether they stay in school or leave the classroom for a real education in the real world.

If you have other ideas for how to help our Grand Rapids teens love learning again, we’d love to hear them in the comments.  And if you and your teen would like to continue this conversation about how to love learning again, contact us.

We hope you’ve enjoyed another installment in our series, “Your Life — Your Learning!”  

With support from the Wege Foundation, Open Doors continues to explore what learning is and how it works (and doesn’t work) for the teens in the Greater Grand Rapids community.  Our hope is that more local teens and families will find tools for claiming their own learning on their own terms, whether they stay in school or choose to leave for an option like Open Doors.

“I Used to Worry All the Time”

by Amy Carpenter Leugs

Recently, as I was working on my computer on the couch in the Gathering Room at Open Doors, one of our members came in and sat with me as she ate her lunch.  Cecilia had just come back from studying with a naturopath, Angie, with Continuum Healing in our building.   As we sat and chatted, she shared with me what she’s been doing since she left high school a few months ago.  Here are some snippets from our conversation.

Amy:  Last time we talked, you were looking for a long-term research project.  How is that going?

Cecilia:  I found one!  Fifteen years ago, my Grandma had a rare type of cancer in her throat, and due to the surgery to remove it, half of her tongue is paralyzed now.  We’ve contacted her surgeon and we’ll have a chance to refer to her records and see exactly what has been damaged and what the treatment was.  With so many medical advances over the last 15 years, plus the knowledge available from a naturopath like Angie, I want to see if anything can be done to help her.  There are other projects I want to do,  too, but this one is a good place to start.  Maybe there’s nothing we can do, but on the other hand, I might actually help someone.

Cecilia with heart diagram

Amy:  That’s great.  And you’ve found some other interesting projects, haven’t you?

Cecilia:  Yep.  This summer I’m going to do a six-week surgical internship with the horse veterinarian that I shadow, so I’ll learn a lot there.  I’ll also be going to the Grand Tetons with David Buth from Summer Journeys — it’s called a leadership adventure and we’ll be horsepacking in.

Amy:  What have you learned about your own learning style since you’ve been here at Open Doors?  I remember when you first started, you thought you wanted to do a dissection every week.  But then you realized you needed some time to diagram and write things out, to process it, right?  What else?

Cecilia:  I also need to keep searching out mentors in the fields I’m interested in — I really like to learn with people, and especially with people doing their jobs.  I want to do more internships.  So that will be a challenge for next year, to find people in the fields I’m interested in.  Over the last few months I’ve learned what works for me, and I can use that next year.

Amy:  Now that you’ve been out of high school for a few months, are you glad that you left?

Cecilia:  I am pretty glad.  The only thing I miss — I loved being with a large group of kids my age.  So next year I’m going to take yoga and choir at my high school, and have lunch period there as well.

Amy:  That’s true.  We do have more teens here on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you have different interests and so you’ve been here on Monday and Fridays, when we just have a couple members here at a time.

Cecilia:  And even now I still get to see my friends after school and on weekends.  In fact, I get to enjoy my time with them even more, because I’m not stressed out about my own homework.

That’s the weird thing — sometimes I help my friends with their homework, and I realize that it’s mostly just busy work.  I can figure it out without having been in the class. But my friends are so worried about grades and GPA and getting into college.

I used to worry all the time, too.  Even though I didn’t believe in the system — I didn’t believe that good grades meant you were really learning — I still wanted to get good grades and go to college.  And now I’m just out here, learning things and doing things.  I’m doing dissections, I’m seeing how a naturopath works, I’m helping a vet.  The other day a group of teens and I did biology in the Grand River with David Buth — we identified specimens we found in the water, and checked for mutations due to pollution.

MVI_2995 (1)



Amy:  That sounds fun.  And I agree — grades don’t reflect much about learning, though they might show how good a student is at memorizing.

Cecilia:  Yes!  I used to just cram everything in my head for a test, and then forget it all afterward, so I could cram the new stuff in.  Now I don’t forget as much — I keep building one thing on another.

Amy:  Right — I notice that you keep asking questions, and those questions keep leading you to new places.


Soon our conversation drifted onto other things.  Our talk about college placement tests led Cecilia to ask questions about my own college experience.  I explained that though I loved college and learning, I also found it quite intellectual, when I often wanted to seek out the more emotional and relational side of life.  When Cecilia asked if I ever considered going back for a higher degree than my Bachelor’s, I reflected that I had always found ways to meet those learning needs outside of college — whether through unschooling my own three boys, writing children’s books or other pieces, or working with a Jungian community in Three Rivers.  Life has always presented me with an integrated way to “live the questions,” to use Wendell Berry’s phrase.

It is always such a pleasure to converse and reflect with our teens — they are each so different and each finding their way, and I know I speak for all our staff and volunteers when I say that witnessing it all is a huge honor.

Amy Carpenter Leugs is the Outreach Director at Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens.  A former teacher, Amy unschools her three boys, reads and writes widely, plays with people of all ages, and speaks about life learning every chance she gets.

Can You Find Your Calling?

Consider the story of the famous Spanish bullfighter, Manolete (1917 – 1947), whose life was the subject of the 2008 film The Passion Within (UK) starring Adrien Brody.  No matter what you think of bullfighting, the story of Manolete’s calling has some interesting things to say about the journey of self-directed learning.

Born Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez, Manolete would grow up to change the face of bullfighting, inventing new methods and revitalizing the ideals of el corrida de toros, which some would say holds the soul of Spain.  And yet, Manolete was a timid and fearful boy.

Delicate and sickly, having almost died of pneumonia when he was two, little Manuel was interested only in painting and reading.  He stayed so much indoors and clung so tightly to his mother’s apron strings that his sisters and other children used to tease him.  Around his hometown, he was known as “a thin, melancholy boy who wandered around the streets after school lost in thought.  He rarely join other boys’ games of soccer or playing at bullfighting.”  This all changed “when he was about eleven, and nothing else mattered much except the bulls.”

– Barnaby Conrad, The Death of Manolete

As James Hillman tells it, “at his first corrida, Manolete, hardly out of short pants, stands his ground without moving a foot — and does in fact suffer a groin wound, which he regards diffidently, refusing to be helped home to Mother, so as to return with the comrades with whom he came.”

Was a dim knowledge of the call there all along?  Then of course little boy Manolete was afraid and clung to his mother.  Of course he kept away from torero games in the street, taking shelter in the kitchen.  How could this nine-year-old boy stand up to his destiny?  In [the acorn of his soul] were thousand-pound black bulls with razor-sharpened horns thundering toward him, among them Islero, the one that gored him through groin and belly and gave him death at age thirty and the largest funeral every witnessed in Spain?

… Manolete exhibits a basic fact:  the frail competencies of a child are not equal to the demands of their daimon [or destiny].  Children are inherently ahead of themselves, even if they are given low grades and held back.  One way for the child is to race ahead, as in the famous cases of Mozart and other “infant prodigies” who benefit from good guidance.  Another way is to shrink back and hold the daimon [or destiny] at bay, as did Manolete in his mother’s kitchen.

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code:  In Search of Character and Calling

At Open Doors, our teens do come to us with their code written deeply into their souls, their calling hidden among the glimpses we get of their passions, fears, and dearly-held opinions.  It is up to us, the adults, to listen and to become a student of that code.  Come to our events to find out how we help teens discover who they really are.