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.

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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.

“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.

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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.

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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.

For a Laugh

College can be a great option for many.  Those planning on a career in the professions — such as teaching, medicine, or law — should plan on college, as should those who know they want to enter the corporate business world.

But a four-year liberal arts degree may not be the right solution for everyone.  Here’s a funny take on those colorful college ads we often see.

At Open Doors, we help young adults build self-knowledge before they undertake a large financial and work commitment such as college.  Natural learners are admitted to and graduate from good colleges all the time.  They also succeed in other paths, such as the trades or entrepreneurial ventures.

Call Open Doors at 616-965-6968 or visit us at 1324 Lake Drive in Eastown.  Come to one of our regular events and see for yourself.  Let’s talk about building a solid foundation of self-knowledge for your teen’s future today!