How to Ignite a Fire in Independent Learners

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Many schools hold to the belief that humans learn primarily and best when they are motivated to learn by an outside source. Examples of extrinsic motivators include gold stars, class privileges for high achievers, rewards for completed work, and, of course, grades. In simple terms, extrinsic motivation is a basic response to stimuli. From the moment we come into the world until the day we leave it, we respond to stimuli and learn from those experiences. In fact, we wouldn’t have survived as a species without being motivated by external stimuli. (Mastodon! Run!)
However, many people who excel in life and work are intrinsically motivated learners. In fact, many high-achievers learn not because they will receive rewards but because they want to learn period. They are curious about the world and want to better understand how it works. For them, the pursuit of knowledge is its own reward.
Nurturing such learning is the mission of Oak Meadow Independent Learning, a K–12 distance learning school in Brattleboro, Vermont, with more than 600 students enrolled worldwide. Our school’s research and experience shed light on ways to understand and develop independent learners.

Developing a Tool to Evaluate Independent Thinking and Self-Advocacy

At Oak Meadow, we sought to delve deeper into our mission — to understand just how our students evaluate their sense of independence and ability to take charge of their own learning. In 2014, we developed the Oak Meadow Scale of Student Autonomy, which measures self-perceptions of students in grades 7–12 by three statistically correlated factors:
  1. Independent Thought (e.g., I find the answers to my own questions.)
  2. Self-Advocacy (e.g., If a teacher makes a statement that I think isn’t true, I speak up.)
  3. Learned Helplessness (e.g., When I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, I don’t do anything.)
To obtain a meaningful sample, Oak Meadow partnered with several schools serving students in grades 712: a Vermont Montessori middle school, a Boston charter public high school, a Western Massachusetts public high school, and two Vermont progressive private schools. With the support of these partners, we received more than 660 responses to the survey. After the rigorous statistical analysis, we found significant differences between the average scores from the different groups.
  • The average total combined score of “Self-Advocacy” and “Independent Thought” for students in the large public high school was roughly equal to the overall average.
  • The average score from students at the Putney School, a private boarding school that emphasizes support for student autonomy, was about five points higher than the average.
  • The average score for Oak Meadow students was six points higher than the average.
Although these results are thought-provoking, the primary goal in developing the Oak Meadow Scale of Student Autonomy is to provide a context for developing metacognition with individual students.

Understanding the Qualities of Autonomous Learners

Oak Meadow faculty have been guiding independent learners since 1975, and in that time, we’ve come to recognize their common traits. Independent learners:
  • think for themselves — invent, design, experiment, explore, dream, and chase down new ideas.
  • learn best by doing, rather than by being told what, when, and how to learn.
  • have a driving passion to learn, which is often expressed through one particular focus or interest.
  • seek a comprehensive, meaningful education, often outside the confines of the traditional classroom setting.

A young student participating in outdoor independent learning at Oak Meadow. Credit: Oak Meadow

Increasing Learners’ Autonomy

Independent learning programs appeal to intrinsic motivation by granting students the flexibility to integrate their interests into their studies. As a result, students find the work personally relevant and significant, spurring an internal drive to learn and succeed. Such learning programs recognize that a truly effective education focuses on the learning process, thereby fostering a lifelong love of learning.
Both the structure of courses and the school culture can help students develop greater independence. At Oak Meadow, we encourage students to share their outside interests with their teachers and propose projects that integrate elements of these interests into the academic work. We frequently give students a choice of assignments and offer them a variety of ways to demonstrate that they understand the material.
As independent study students, they also control when and where they do their school work. We give them the assignments for the week, and then it is up to them to organize their study time. This makes room for unconventional scheduling, which further allows them to pursue their interests and passions.

High school student Marcella takes advantage of the independent learning options at Oak Meadow Independent Learning. Credit: Oak Meadow
Here’s an example of the way this flexible independent study model helped one student at Oak Meadow. Marcella enjoys challenges and knew she wanted a high school experience that would allow her to satisfy her needs and fulfill her dreams.
Taking up to four courses each year with Oak Meadow, Marcella also attends classes at her local university. An invested member of her community, she earned credit for broadcasting on a local radio show, volunteering at a nursing home, and helping out in an after-school enrichment program. In addition, she earned credit based on her passion for music. She plays several instruments, sings a cappella and with folk and pop groups, takes music lessons, and writes and records her own songs.
“I’ve had a terrific time combining all kinds of learning experiences while working toward a high school diploma,” Marcella said. “I couldn’t have wished for a better four years of high school and teen years.”
As educators, how can we support and nurture this internal drive to learn? One way is to understand the value of student autonomy. Being in charge of oneself is a universal human impulse. This applies to children as well as adults — students, therefore, display more responsibility, motivation, and resourcefulness when they can take charge of themselves and their learning. An increased sense of student autonomy is linked to greater emotional engagement and, coincidentally, is a predictor of academic achievement, according to several studies.

Developing an Effective Program for Independent Learning

Schools can develop independent learning programs with activities that draw students into deeper experiences, ones with the power to inspire and delight them while aiding their personal growth. At Oak Meadow, we have found that such activities have one or more of the following four elements in common.
1.     A network of caring, supportive relationships that encourage students to ask questions and express new ideas.
Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it needs to relate to the wider world. Students can discuss, collaborate, listen, and be inspired by interactions with a variety of people. Helping students cultivate relationships in the community can bring realism and relevance to their learning. Expanding this social network as students grow will open more opportunities for sharing ideas and collaborating in practical, purposeful work.
2.     Rhythm and physical action to calm the mind and spur free thinking.
We create rhythm by repeating a particular motion numerous times in activities such as knitting, weaving, drawing, painting, singing, and dancing. Reciting the times tables can be a rhythmic activity, as can reading poetry aloud. The repetition of a particular action allows the mind to calm down and focus. In activities that lack rhythm, the mind has to make new decisions constantly. This keeps attention on the analytical part of the mind and inhibits freedom.
3.     An infusion of creativity in the learning experience.
Artistic activities — such as clay sculpting, woodworking, painting, and drawing — as well as any activity that allows you to use your imagination to create something can bring a meaningful dimension to a learning experience. Writing creatively, acting out a historical event, crafting a model or diorama, and making a video or presentation are all creative activities, which allow students to give form to their knowledge and imagination.

Two young students share an easel for their artwork. Painting nurtures students' creativity and fosters rhythm — two key elements in effective independent learning programs. Credit: Oak Meadow
4.     A focus on the big picture.
Incorporating the big picture — a global perspective, archetypal elements, historical context, social ethics, environmental impact, or any other wider lens — gives the activity a deeper meaning. This helps both children and adults transcend their emotional and mental patterns and opens them up to expressing their natural capacity for intelligence and loving concern for others.
Employing these four elements can give shape and meaning to your program — and inspire independent learners in their own unique pursuit of knowledge.

Achieving a Milestone at Oak Meadow

In 2015, Oak Meadow became the first distance learning school to be accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, further validating the success of our independent study model. Incorporating flexibility that encourages independence can fire up every student’s motivation to learn.
Ben Mitchell
Ben Mitchell

Ben Mitchell is the director of admissions for Oak Meadow Independent Learning. It’s a distance learning school and publisher of curriculum used by homeschoolers, independent study students, and schools worldwide.

DeeDee Hughes
DeeDee Hughes

DeeDee Hughes is the director of curriculum development for Oak Meadow Independent Learning. It’s a distance learning school and publisher of curriculum used by homeschoolers, independent study students, and schools worldwide.

Michelle Simpson-Siegel
Michelle Simpson-Siegel

Michelle Simpson-Siegel is the executive director for Oak Meadow Independent Learning. It’s a distance learning school and publisher of curriculum used by homeschoolers, independent study students, and schools worldwide.


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