Open-Ended Individualized Learning

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Upon reading an article put out by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) about graduation tests and standards and how it impacts those with learning differences, it got me thinking about my children who learn differently. Of my seven children, I may have been able to press two of them to fit the mold of school. Yet, at what expense? In my strengths-based learning environment I created for my children through homeschooling, I found that there were four “given” factors or ingredients that seemed common to all my children that would preclude them from fitting into a school mold, yet are the very factors that helped them be successful and joyful learners.

Close-ended standardized learning: What you learn is carefully portioned out and systematically spoon fed.

Geography might be portioned by near to far, i.e., starting with our community and extending out to the city, state, country, continent. History may be portioned by chronological order and/or by region. Math starts with addition and goes up to higher math such as algebra or calculus. An equal portion of each subject will be  studied each year. That’s referred to as synchronous learning.

Open-ended individualized learning: A learner naturally gravitates to his strengths in the young, formative years, and expands out from there.

I noticed in hindsight and translation that each of my children navigated through what I view as natural or organic developmental learning stages. To help them benefit the most from each stage, I was an important facilitator and collaborator. Strengths-based learning occurred first, after which a sampling of a variety of subjects and interests transpired, and ended with filling any gaps or general learning and working on weaknesses. This organic process to learning seems to naturally appear asynchronous.

My question then becomes, what is natural? Evenly distributed learning all at the same time? Or do we all tend to learn in fits and starts, but ultimately, it all comes together that we are an educated person? There’s a saying in the religious world that there will come a time when “good is said to be evil, and evil to be good.” Has school promoted a similar thinking: Natural asynchronous learning is said to be disabled, and synchronous, cookie-cutter molded learning is said to be normal?

Close-ended standardized learning: What you learn is capped.

Each grade level has a measured goal to reach for each subject. i.e., First graders will all learn “x” in math by the end of first grade. Teachers create lesson plans for the day and week, and that’s what will be learned for that day. No time for other things. Even individualized education plans (IEPs) have measured goals to be reached by the end of the year. When it’s reached, the box is checked and the next goal in line is to be learned.

Open-ended individualized learning: Learn as much about a topic as you like!

In our homeschooling environment, learning was interest-based. There is no cap on any subject for any age. If my child wants to learn about penguins at 7 years old, he can take it all the way to adult level understanding. That was one of my artist son’s interests about that age. He had been inspired by a movie. His drive prompted him to learn all the different types of penguins, where they live, what characteristics differentiated them from another, and how these creatures lived day to day. I found out a geologist (Ph.D. level) friend had been to Antarctica and had filmed penguins there. My son was excited to watch and was able to identify all of them better than the doctorate-level professional.

My question then becomes, isn’t this the heart of figuring out one’s passion in life? If you have to sit at a table, and your parent then gives you a spoonful of everything on the table, carefully measured out, no more and no less, does that make a person turn off their own preferences and submit to what they can’t control? Even if something that you are served tastes good, you’re not allowed seconds, or a whole plate of it. But, if you have a smorgasbord in front of you and you get to sample and taste what you see and discover what you love and then take it and see what else you can do with it, doesn’t that ignite passion?

Close-ended standardized learning: Time for learning is capped.

Spelling time will be for 15 minutes from 1:00-1:15 p.m. each day. Writing time is for 30 minutes from 10:00-10:30 a.m. each day. If you’re in the middle of a story and the time is up, you need to put it away until tomorrow. The schedule dictates how much time will be devoted to each subject, whether a child has learned it or not, or satiated his enthusiasm for the assignment or not. I tell this story in my book, The Right Side of Normal:

Our class was studying planets in the second grade. Each child presented an oral report on a planet of his or her choice. I chose Venus. It seemed mysteriously accessible. I was fascinated by the whole idea of other planets out there. I wanted to know more! When I presented my report to the class, it simply whetted my appetite for more, so I did something I’d never done before as a shy child. I approached my teacher and asked her if I could do more to learn about the planets. I still remember her shocked expression, her hesitation as she contemplated how to answer a question I could tell she had never been asked before. Haltingly she replied, “I guess you can do another oral report on another planet if you’d like.” I don’t know what I expected, but I know it wasn’t that. I wanted something more real, more concrete, and more hands-on. I tried to create another oral report, but my enthusiasm deflated quickly.

Open-ended individualized learning: Take as long as you want to learn something!

My children could continue a project as long as they wanted. In fact, we had to negotiate project space because so many right-brained people like to have 3 to 4 projects going at once, all where each can be seen. That’s because they are creativity-infused learners…whatever strikes their creative flow that day upon visually seeing the various projects gets worked on. Because they are process people versus product people, projects don’t always get finished. That’s why in the adult world, one strategy right-brained people can do is hire finishers. They can create and be innovative and then direct the completion by someone else if they choose not to complete it themselves before they are unto a newer, more exciting discovery. On the other hand, my creative children could immerse themselves in learning a particular subject for weeks and months at a time if the process isn’t satiated. It’s not about reaching an end product for them, but making sure all that can be discovered and understood from the process was enough.

My artist son hired out his writer sister to color his drawings in exchange for him drawing her pictures.

My question then becomes isn’t this at the heart of creativity, innovation, and a love of learning? I never understood or appreciated, frankly, the little craft projects sent home by children from school. Why? Because I know more often than not, each of the pieces were pre-cut, and instructions were given or a model on how it would be put together was displayed, gluing certain things here or there, and coloring this or that. And they all looked alike. And if time was running out or a child was struggling with a part of the instruction, a “helpful” adult hurried the project to completion. I saw this as the school’s “show me work,” proof they had done something that day. Certainly it wasn’t reflective of my child’s imagination or creation! Why do we bother?

Close-ended standardized learning: It’s weakness-centered.

School scopes and sequences have their checklist. If you’re good at something, like math, and the first grade checklist for math comes easily to you, then you get to do more of the same, go off and do some other busy work while others figure it out, or just be bored. You certainly don’t get to delve deeper into math learning! But if something is on the checklist that you’re not ready to learn yet, or aren’t that naturally good at, or you’re just not that interested in it, then you have to put more work into that, more time devoted to remediating your struggle, and extra practice to bring you to proficiency for that test. In other words, it’s a weakness-centered learning environment.

Open-ended individualized learning: It’s strengths-based.

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My children were able to pursue what they were gifted at…to figure that out in their young years. What did they naturally gravitate to? Ancient Egypt? Really? Okay, let’s bring in more of that. Trips to the museum to see a mummy display? Time Traveler books? Does he build with LEGO? Okay, what else would interest you? Math manipulatives like pentominoes? Fischer Technic? A strength’s based learning environment presses to see how far the learning interest goes and how much it can expand. It teaches learners to know what enthusiasm feels like, what curiosity feels like, what creative flow feels like.

My question then becomes isn’t this the foundation for creating a life of purpose? When a strengths-based learning environment is the foundation, then when the stage of sampling other subjects comes along, their curiosity propels them. When the stage of filling in gaps or looking at weaknesses enters, it’s balanced against a foundation of strengths that lifts and prioritizes the less interesting or capable oriented subjects. What kind of writing does a computer programmer need to be successful? What kind of foreign language would best suit an artist? It now has context and purpose.

My builder son couldn’t read yet at 10, but could build a telephone.

These four attributes of what constitutes effective open-ended individualized learning creates asynchronous learning patterns because that’s how strengths-based learning develops passion and purpose. My artist son excelled in history, geography and language skills young, but later took in math and science in a balanced manner. My writer daughter excelled in reading, writing, and nature studies young, but later took in history and geography. My builder son excelled in math, science, and engineering young, but later took in writing and reading. By high school, everything balanced out. Yet, they each had a foundation of knowing their strengths and gifts and knowing how to navigate any other subject as it interrelated to that gift. By individualized assessment, each had a unique transcript and each pursued the next step of learning related to that goal.

Close-ended standardized learning creates clones conditioned not to think. We’re human beings capable of extraordinary things through the development of our gifts and strengths. The four open-ended individualized learning attributes facilitates individual passion and purpose that will be developed to bless our world. We need to press our schools to adopt practices that develop these better learning attributes. In our homeschools, we can provide this better model for learning!

7 responses to “Open-Ended Individualized Learning

  1. Wow! Every thing you say is so true and I totally agree with you. I spent 33 years in public education and I have learned more from your experiences and the experience of home schooling a grandson with learning differences than all the years of college or public education experience. Public schools nor an expensive private school never meet his needs. I have been amazed how he has flourished in the home school environment. Keep the information coming because we all benefit from your insightful observations. Mary

    • Thanks, Mary! Standardized education just doesn’t seem to have what it takes to really help children flourish, especially our creative ones! So the question becomes, is there any way to take mass schooling and have it be an open-ended individualized learning environment? Hmmm.

  2. Cindy, WOW!! I should be in bed, but I saw a post come through one of the homeschool groups announcing the discount for your book on Right Brain Learning earlier today. I sent it to a friend of mine, asking if she had ever heard of you before – not reading it all myself. She has been like a mentor to me as I just embarked on the homeschool journey with my 7yo (2nd grade) daughter in September. She said she hadn’t, but has studied right-brain learning herself and had mentioned generically a few times that my daughter may be one and said, “I sense she nails the subject well.” God clearly called me to homeschool and yet we’ve been struggling so; many, many days I’m in tears. She’s resistant, only wants to play, a struggling reader, one day seems to get it and the next not, loves for me to read living history and science books to her, balks at the workbooks, refuses to much of anything somedays and tells me that she “doesn’t want to do homeschool”.

    Oh my…what am I doing? I’ve coined homeschooling my “Joyful Challenge” and yet I knew there has to be more and a better way. I’ve spent hours reading so many of your posts, comments and responses. I am convinced I have a right-brain learner and yet I am left-brained and I don’t know what to do next. I don’t have an iPad, Kindle, Nook or the like, but I do have a computer and I want to start reading your book fast so I ordered the eBook and will get reading (THANK YOU SO MUCH for offering the discount!).
    I know you’re incredibly busy and sought after, but I would covet some time to talk with you offline. Any way at all this is possible?? You mentioned back in October wanting to post on the state/federal requirements and I would *love* more info on this because as a newbie to reporting…there’s the fear of meeting the standards and wanting to ‘do it right’ and how do I record what we’re doing if I don’t have those book titles?

    My spirit has resonated with everything I’ve read and I firmly believe you are a God-send to me this very night. Today, I am thankful for the leading to you and will be following and reading to capture the joy and release the challenges on this lifelong learning journey!

    • Hey Jennifer! Listening to your description of your daughter, she most certainly does sound like a right-brained learner. I hope my information comes to you just in time to provide the joyful learning environment you both deserve!

      As mentioned in the e-mail I sent you with your e-book purchase, feel free to contact me via that e-mail and I’ll certainly try to help you feel comfortable with the reporting needs that allows your daughter to shine in the learning path that is best matched to her learning style. Happy reading and I look forward to hearing from you.

  3. Pingback: It’s All Connected, IV « Joyful Latin Learning — Tres Columnae

  4. Great post here. Thanks for sharing. Having been an adult educator for many years (commercial nuclear power) and now homeschooling my boys, I quickly recognized that the cookie-cutter, well-scheduled approach to each subject was not going to work. One of my boys is more right-brained while the other is just the opposite. There are many styles to teaching but the one that must be pursued is the one that encompasses a huge understanding of how each child is going to learn … figure out how they learn and build your plan/approach around it.

    To that end, I found that my boys progress through subject matter (we use materials) differently and at vastly different speeds. It was impossible to maintain the schedule that Seton espouses (no fault of Seton, it just follows the classic 180d school year per grade). Hence, I moved the lessons online (, an app I developed) so they could proceed at THEIR OWN PACE through each of the subjects. So, they are actually in various “grades” of study. Yes, I do worry that they are “behind” in some subjects, but I do believe that I’ll find them catching up as you found with yours, in their later teens.

    I do think it important to achieve satisfactory completion in each course, whether they like it or not. Much of post-elementary school work is about teaching your brain how to organize and think. We all know much of the detail about what you learn you don’t use again … but how you learned it formed how you think about things in the future … and that’s the purpose.

    I also tutor kids locally and have provided tutoring online for a class of 8th graders in California. Many of them wanted to know why they had to endure Geometry … knowing they’d not likely use it again, or so they thought. My response: you’re learning how to think whether you realize it or not.

    Those right-brained students are greatly suppressed in the classic education curriculums, I do agree. They have to have a way to move forward with their learning and not become stagnant. It happened to me in the 2nd and 3rd grade. And I remember how much time was wasted where I was not engaged. There are better ways and your description of asynchronous learning should be raised up the education flag pole.

  5. “Open-ended individualized learning: A learner naturally gravitates to his strengths in the young, formative years, and expands out from there.”

    THIS! This is the visual I needed for my understanding of strengths-based learning to come together. I don’t believe in linearly organized, one-size-fits-all, one-sequence-fits-all learning. How then do children develop? The perspective that every child is different and all we need to do is follow their lead is accurate, yet requires us to follow somewhat blindly. Thinking of learning development as beginning from wherever your child is and expanding out (much like a child’s understanding of people begins from self and expands out to encompass much more) assures me that there is a flow of development and just *makes so much sense*!

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