Here at Open Connections it is liberating, for young people and Facilitators alike, to invite and welcome the interests and curiosity of the youth into the planning and exploration of our weekly activities and projects. Intrinsic motivation typically follows because in truly self-directed learning there is no need for convincing or persuading because self-directed learning is the natural pursuit of answering our own questions, satisfying our own curiosity and achieving our own goals. Peter Gray, author (Free to Learn) and research professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College, shares the fundamentals of self-directed learning in a short video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YoE480mzrk0). He states that education is the individual’s responsibility (vs. minimally doing as they’re told) and that youth need:
Self-Directed Learning and Real Work are valued and encouraged at Open Connections, both support Natural Learning and Hands-On Learning, which are at the foundation of the OC philosophy(1).
There is something simple, organic and natural in the way things unfold when you actively engage body, heart and mind in Real Work. New learning and skill building occur in a rich and rewarding way, meandering on many paths and encountering diverse content in personally meaningful ways. The young people ask the questions. They do the investigating and research needed to build knowledge and discover possible real-world solutions, all with intention, agency and purpose. Listening and communication skills may be challenged and grow as the youth collaborate. In addressing curiosity and determining a solution there are creating and adjusting, finessing and refinement. Organizing, prioritizing and modifying may be necessary when navigating limitations or meeting deadlines. Engaging in Real Work can develop real life skills, have real life impact, and provide young people with autonomous empowerment and a true sense of accomplishment.
At the start of this program year, Tuesday Group Tutorial III youth shared their concern about those impacted by the hurricanes that wreaked havoc in Florida, Texas and Puerto
Rico throughout the summer. Every last one of them expressed a sincere interest in doing something to help. Together we looked deeper into the impact and needs of the communities hit the hardest. The group declared that they wanted to host a fundraiser, something that would generate a respectable cash contribution toward the relief effort. A self-directed, real work, multi-step project; how could I refuse?
As a Facilitator and parent, I find my role to be a delicate balance of awareness, patience and trust. Sometimes I reflect and/or paraphrase thoughts, sowing the seeds of ideas, or ask questions and perhaps ignite a spark. I try to only offer insight (or better yet resources) when invited. I make myself available as a guide in areas where development may be lacking, typically with time management or a “reality check, facilitating meetings or workshopping” as needed.
Honestly, this does not necessarily come easily. It is not at all unusual for this approach to fuel some anxious thinking and feeling. What happens if they fail? Am I doing my best at seeing that needs are being met? Am I fulfilling my responsibility to the youth? Families? Community? Sure I‘ve read the research and certainly support the notion that successes and failures both contribute to new learning. More often than not, it’s probably the failures that inspire truly creative, flexible thinking and innovation. Supporting young people in their learning requires trust. Say, “YES!“ and trust in the young people and the process of sorting out the details as things progress. Say, “YES!” and hold the space for the youth to feel responsible for themselves and their own learning. Know when to get out of the way. Reframing the doubt and questions can help put things in perspective: What if they succeed? What if they fly? What if more of their needs are met? What if their success or failure addresses the needs of the families and community as well?
The Tuesday Group Tutorial III youth brainstormed, shared and considered a variety of ideas. They responded to a deadline and some limitations, dividing into smaller groups to more efficiently attend to every aspect of their vision. Which charity would be the recipient of their donation? How would they inform the community about the cause and the charity? What might the event look like? With minimal guidance, some research, and a whole lot of intrinsic motivation, it was decided; they would host an Empty Bowls inspired event. They would create and perform an informative skit for the community. All Hands and Hearts Smart Response would be the lucky charity awarded the fruits of their labor.
A multi-step project like a fundraiser is sure to engage more youth as the group encounters different types of challenges requiring different types of skills. How are youth to learn fully if we don’t allow them the full opportunity? Every youth has the opportunity to get involved either individually or with a group. Critical thinking was needed to evaluate and select a charity that was a good fit. The writing, casting and staging of a skit, including a group performance of an original song, requires a host of skills, academic to interpersonal. Some youth set out to research and create a prototype of a bowl design that could be easily replicated. Quantities were debated. How many bowls? How much soup? What fee do we charge? Youth discussed the most effective ways to let people know why, when and where the event would take place. Another team of young people acquainted themselves with the tools and technology needed to film and edit the skit, so that it could be played and replayed to reach a greater number of people with their message. Naturally, there were differing opinions to be heard and disagreements to address.
Youth worked outside of program time, sometimes at home, to contribute to getting the job done. Given the scope and time frame of the project, it was practical to recruit help from other programs. This event had momentum, and the enthusiasm was infectious. In the end, nearly $500 was raised, in an estimated 10 hours of program time devoted to preparation, start to finish. Imagine the sense of accomplishment and pride. In reflection, one youth shared that he really appreciated how involved they all were in the decisions they made. All were grateful to have successfully reached their goal.
In addition to the very full, real-work experience of following a project through from start to finish, youth had the freedom and opportunity to explore academic, tech and life skills as they naturally presented themselves. Youth could engage in new learning or develop and share familiar skills in a meaningful way. The efforts, failures and/or successes of the experience had a distinct purpose, one far more fulfilling than an imposed curriculum. All of the challenges and skills experienced have real-world applications. After completing this project, I’m guessing the young people understand the content more deeply, will be more likely to remember what they’ve learned and be better prepared when they encounter new opportunities in new situations. With any luck, I too will remember what I’ve witnessed and learned time and again, and perhaps be less anxious as I trust and get out of the way.
(1) See Open Connections Glossary of Terms for a full explanation. The Glossary can be found in the Parent Resource Library at OC.