Written by Sloane Mak.
On Dec. 8th FamilyPlace organized a talk by Professor Emeritus Gary Confessore, (Ed.D) of the Higher Education Administration of George Washington University who was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to lead a discussion on “Self-Directed Learning”. The talk was held at a venue in Kota Kemuning which was attended by about 40 parents of homeschoolers and homeschoolers-to-be. (here)
Prof. Confessore (he insists we call him Gary) applauds those present who have taken the initiative (or are considering) to home-school their children. Despite the early opinions of homeschoolers as religious fundamentalists who stayed away from mainstream schooling, the results today show otherwise. The children of parents who were pioneers of the homeschooling movement in the U.S. have reached college going age and how they have turned out has indicated that perhaps those parents did something right which traditional schooling got so wrong.
The parents of these children boast none of the usual credentials of being ‘certified’ and ‘state-qualified’ or ‘highly-trained’ teachers. Yet, they succeeded in raising children who have turned out to be so well-adjusted, highly functional and academically successful. These young people not only aced scholastic aptitude tests and scored better in reading and math than the national average but also impressed college entrance interviewers with how well-adjusted and confident they appeared.
These homeschooled children entered college going age at the same time the American public schooling system showcased publicly how it was suffering from a systematic failure across all boards. Over the past decades, across the Western hemisphere and spreading quickly to the East, we are witnessing social outcomes that are symptomatic of this schooling crisis. An examination of and discussion with primary and high school teachers in America, Western Europe and Australia will show that even in ‘developed’ countries, the problems that plague us exists as well. The only difference is that their earlier awareness and openness to admit the problems have initiated research and responses to the crisis.
This system failure is being replicated around the world and Malaysia is not immune to it even if we deny the bigger question and fiddle around with piecemeal solutions. As I write this, I am resonating with an eerie déjà vu of a book I read not long after I finished secondary school, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. The bestselling book, published two decades ago paints a picture that I believe is not exclusive to America but is unfolding right here on our very shores. Even though the premise of the book talks about contemporary American higher education, as a student just out of secondary school and skeptical of what university life was supposed to offer, I drew a parallel which saw what I experienced during my eleven years or so of schooling as a precursor to the same failing or closing of the Malaysian mind.
I had always strongly believed that was happening in universities was simply an extension of what was happening in schools. With bated breath, I was hopeful that Malaysia being a younger nation would avoid the pitfalls of the schooling systems in developed country and yet be able to hitchhike on the advancements they had made in research and approaches to teaching, especially in the field of learning skills and language acquisition.
Two decades later, I see that this systematic failure of schooling has traversed time and space and is played out as much here as it has elsewhere in the world. We are witnessing an increase in parents and teachers experiencing anxieties induced by disenchantment with what is happening in mainstream education. This anxiety transcends (almost) all economic and racial barriers. Yet this situation is not unique to Malaysia. It is a uniform effect of the failings of the traditional model of schooling.
Faced with an impossible situation of being educated enough to not surrender the fate of our children to the failings of the system yet unable to extrapolate and digest empirical studies that would give assurances about making alternative choices for our children’s future it is understandable that parents and teachers alike feel stranded on a highway going nowhere. Seen in this light, it is worth acknowledging the decisions of the pioneers of homeschooling who have taken the plunge decades ago. Their efforts have provided the first set of data to suggest and support the viability of an alternative form of learning which challenges the traditional practices and approaches and which goes beyond schooling as we know it.
For most of us, we bear witness to an era in modern human civilization where the ‘Separation of Parent and School’ (as opposed to Church and State) has carved a distinctive psychological divide between Parenting and Teaching. If a parent has chosen a path to home-school, how does a parent start crossing that divide? There is something to be learnt from the pioneers of homeschooling. Remember, they were neither ‘certified’ nor ‘state-sanctioned’ teachers. In fact, in some states, it was illegal to home-school your own child due to a belief that one needs to have special qualities and aptitudes that were the exclusive of state-trained and approved teachers. What magic then, did these homeschooling parents conjure that helped them consistently deliver star-quality learners to college? What qualities did these pioneer parents possess or acquired in the course of their homeschooling which provided a bearing indicating a direction where learners acquired the skills and knowledge they needed to succeed in life yet managed the equilibrium between academic and emotional success?
What that magic was was that, through an inductive process, these intuitive homeschooling parents have discovered the importance of understanding how different personalities and styles of learning affect outcome. Research in the past few decades have supported this notion and it has repeatedly pointed educators and teacher-trainers in a radically different trajectory from traditional practice. This has been the path pioneer homeschooling parents had boldly gone where mainstream schooling had not gone before. The traditional teacher-centered approach to teaching assumes that students are like raw ingredients that can be put on a conveyor belt and manufactured to fit into neat moulds which were convenient for instruction and testing. The pioneer homeschoolers’ ability to cultivate intuitions about their children and their children’s learning was what made them highly-effective teachers in spite of a lack of formal training, which in turn, produced highly functional children who became autonomous learners.
So what exactly is the ‘official’ definition of an autonomous learner? There is tons of literature out there on the general and specific definitions but here’s one I find concise enough to sum it up – A self-directed learner (autonomous learner) can be summed up as someone who is highly confident of their ability to learn which enables them to study entirely on their own, acquire a set of learning which can be learned and applied in self-directed learning, take charge of an inborn capacity which is suppressed by institutional education, take responsibility for the methods, measures and achievements of their learning goals and is capable of recognizing their right to determine the direction of their own learning.[i]
These ideals seem very lofty and unattainable. However, there is a possibility it sounds that way because we are products of a “Boxed in School of Thought”. – So what does Prof. Confessore’s area of expertise in self-directed learning mean for parents who are looking for alternatives beyond schooling?
The theories of SDL (self-directed learning) provide a general direction that can lead to sought after answers for parents who need to have some ground to touch about the validity of learning that goes beyond traditional schooling. There has always been a canyon that divides the inroads made in academic research and its applications in the general populace those studies are supposed to benefit. It does seem unfortunate that it takes decades before we could apply what research has discovered to benefit the development of ourselves and especially that of our children. Generations of young learners would have forgone a window of opportunity for learning. Not only that, the core-beliefs they cultivated about themselves as learners due to ineffective teaching can further impede their own chances of later becoming a self-directed learner.
On an average day parents often look to teachers who together look to government policy-makers or popular trend for clues to the most sound and beneficial approaches for their children’s learning. The disenchantment is real while the optimism towards the promising results of ‘Malaysia’s next schooling experiment’ dissipates. The sense of urgency felt by teachers and parents is compounded by a perception that the window of opportunity for learning can swing either way – be damaged by neglect or killed by over-drive. Arguments are rife about whether less or more schoolwork and pressure is beneficial for the school-going child and are clearly illustrated in the sekolah kebangsaan – sekolah jenis kebangsaan divide.
The idea of ‘autonomizing’ learning is indeed very novel to us and on the surface it seems to fly in the face of the enormous resources and effort dedicated to curriculum design, planning and implementation. How can learning happen if the learner doesn’t accept expressed learning objectives or teaching instruction? Autonomous learning does not do away completely with teacher intervention. However, the confusion between autonomous learner and self-instructed learner would require a separate article.
How fortunate for us though to have information about the latest developments in self-directed learning distilled and delivered by the speaker who is an international leader in the field of self-directed learning. What is also interesting to note is that the speaker has extensive research and teaching experience in the field of curriculum design and specifications as well as teacher-training. Translating academic findings to the mass in order to manifest meaningful developments that go on to benefit the formative years of young learners seems like a protracted labor and it looks like we have had a great opportunity to induce the labor and get it going.
When it comes to learners, Prof. Confessore illustrated a distinction between two extreme groups of learners; the DDs (Dysfunctional Dependent Learners) and the DIs (Dysfunctional Independent Learners). DDs are described as learners who are so completely dependent on direct and step-by-step instruction from a learning authority that they would be completely paralyzed without very clear guidelines. These learners would be unable to neither induce meaning and learning objectives nor absorb content and message without being explicitly told. Most Malaysian parents are aware that this is the preferred outcome for our teachers who have inherited their teaching-style without much examination and applied it by default. In plain-speak, it’s described as a ‘spoon-feeding’ method, a practice validated by punishments if students dared ask further questions or have their own interpretation of their learning.
In contrast, I am reminded of what Prof.Confessore said about one of his doctorate students’ reactions when she first went to the US. Being Asian, she was completely aghast that students in her professor’s class were raising their hands and asking questions and challenging the validity of the information their Professor had just presented. It made me wonder whether our children would still be capable of curiosity, critical thinking, meaningful reflection and intelligent questioning after having their ‘fragile’ nature packaged and delivered through those years of mandatory schooling. If these packages (our children) arrive in undergraduate programs and slave through graduate programs ‘damaged’ in their intellectual and critical capacities, how much can tertiary education do even if parents have all the money in the world to pay for it? It’s a reality that few would get an opportunity to do graduate and post-grad studies overseas in acclaimed institutions. A majority would have to carry on with life being the only learners they knew how to be – Dysfunctional Dependent ones.
On the other extreme, Dysfunctional Independent learners were described as people who possess a high drive to learn and explore but whose sense of seeking eventually leads to dysfunctional learning consequences. This situation can be seen in American society where crime is disproportionately represented by Black and Hispanic minority groups. By refusing to conform to and rejecting outright the norms of being educated (based on a deeper sense of resentment or disillusionment with the circumstances they have found themselves in) they re-express this intent through aggressive behavior which often leads to them being innovative gangsters, drug-dealers and perpetrators of other forms of criminal activity. This scenario can also be seen played out here in our streets regardless of whether they were from vernacular or kebangsaan schools. We have our version of the law-defying pirated DVD-peddlers and the death-defying Mat Rempits or less dramatically, seen in children we know are highly intelligent but utterly repulsed by the thought of schooling.
A healthy balance however is manifested in a learner who can express cognitions such as goal-orientation, conscientiousness, engaged learning and emotional intelligence in their learning. In my opinion, the most significant message coming out from this talk is that parents are capable of beginning their journey as self-directed learners and it is this self-directedness that their children model after and eventually apply to become highly successful learners. In an age where the playing field has been leveled by the rise of literacy around the world, the Information Revolution belongs to the self-directed learners who can swim, surf and sift through the waves of information; to know who they are, what they want and how to get it. The distinction can no longer be made between the successful learner and the autonomous learner for in a world where knowledge and information is freely available the successful learner is the one who can navigate between all that to distinguish him/herself and his/her value in society.
Despite the fact that the talk was organized by homeschooling advocates and attended by parents who have found themselves at a crossroads where mainstream schooling may no longer be an option, it is worth noting that there is no rule that states learning beyond schooling can only be done by people who have completely rejected the norms of schooling. In fact, the complete picture of homeschooling goes beyond self-directedness in a significantly more holistic approach. However, autonomous learning remains a central and important theme within the scope of homeschooling.
[i] P.Benson & P.Voller, 1997