Baby-Steps Toward Independence

Originally Published: May/June 2006

Are you eager for your children to be able to work independently? Most of us juggle so many responsibilities that it’s impossible to direct our kids all the time. We may sometimes supplement with software, videos, books on tape—anything they can do alone. Happily, there are also activities that will train our kids to find, process, and present information—equipping them for true independence. Even better, these activities can be used again and again, so we don’t have to spend extra time planning.

  1. Assign one or more questions or a narrow topic for a child to investigate and then have him share his findings with rest of the family.For instance, during a study of Ancient Rome, ask him to discover what schooling would be like for a boy his age. Would he attend a school? What would he study? (Refer to the question section in Guides to History Plus. These can be used again and again – with any culture being studied.)Or, ask him to choose a person he finds interesting and then discover that person’s goal and what sacrifices he had to make in order to achieve it. (Discussion questions for literature and biographies are available in Critical Conditioning. Any of these can be used for independent research.)Or, let him choose an animal and provide guidelines to direct his study: Find out the animal’s (1) classification (2) structure: look for a diagram with labels, or a drawing with a description (3) development (growth): birth to death (life cycle), reproduction, life span (4) what is needed for life: home, diet (5) what eats it (if anything) and (6) places where it is most common. (These questions are available in Science Scope. Its lists can also be used to direct searches within specific science and health topics. Guides to History Plus includes additional ways to use this idea in its Activities: life science section.)
  2. At first, you’ll need to show your child how to look at books on hand, checking the index and table of contents, and skimming the pages for key words, and how to use a keyword search on the Internet. At some point, you’ll also need to show him how to find resources in the library. You’re input is brief and occasional, and his ability to learn these required reference and study skills as truly useful tools will be a real prize.
  3. Don’t ask for a written report. That makes research cumbersome instead of interesting, and he won’t work as willingly or as independently. You can occasionally use the topic researched as his composition assignment, letting him know that it will replace any other writing assignment if he’s working in a writing program. (Be fair. Eliminate any assignment that covers the same skills instead of just delaying it.)
    Mostly, the feedback should be oral. It can informal—telling you what he found out, or an opportunity for him to give a presentation or to teach his siblings. Sometimes kids will take notes as they sift through information—motivating them to learn note-taking skills (which are described in Comprehensive Composition).  On occasion, and depending on the student’s maturity and ability, a set of questions can serve as a working outline for longer independent studies in history, literature, and science. They can serve as outlines for written reports (such as a study of a country), or for taking notes which the student can refer to as he teaches on several points of a topic (such as describing how the heart works while dissecting it in front of his audience—something my son did).
  4. Require the child to use some sort of illustration—something to show the audience—when making an oral presentation. Let him choose from several suggestions or follow his own inspiration. This gives him an outlet for his favorite types of creative expression. He could simply hold up illustrations in books or become more active by drawing, making a display, dressing in costume, cooking and offering the audience a taste, or, as mentioned above, dissecting something as he teaches.
  5. Remember that you are part of an appreciative and respectful audience, not a critic. Do not assign a grade. Feel free to ask questions, but only as an interested learner, not because you want to test the speaker’s knowledge. A student that feels criticism (even if it’s unspoken) instead of appreciation will not want to repeat his investigations or presentations.Skills can be practiced. You can provide something simple—maybe a poem—and model proper posture and eye contact, letting the child practice. Any presentations or speeches to be given in front of an audience larger than the family can be treated like a recital. In that case, the student could practice with his research as you give him pointers. He could even be videotaped in order to critique himself. While this takes your time initially, it will give him specific skills to focus on later when he wants to prepare for a presentation on his own. Keep in mind, these practices can be simple and occasional. If they are overdone, he will lose interest in investigating and presenting.For older students who have done this for a while, you can make note of any content lacking (based on the questions or specific guidelines given) and have him find that information and share it with you personally after further investigation. That way he can be trained to be thorough without being discouraged by public criticism.More than giving us a break, this approach used regularly builds our children’s confidence in their own ability to learn. First, by allowing them to choose their sources, we free them to use even simple children’s books and animated video clips on the Internet without feeling judged. Their experiences, then, teach them that they are capable of finding and understanding information no matter what their age or weakness. Next, we’ve turned simple investigations into multi-sensory experiences—the best way to retain anything. Finally, we’ve given them a chance to be the boss—the teacher—even to those who are older. This not only helps alleviate sibling rivalry, but also leads to a comfortable self-confidence. So many lasting benefits, so little of our time.