Snowflake Bentley And The Case For Self-Directed Learning

“I never went to school until I was fourteen years old. My mother taught me at home. She had been a school-teacher before she married my father, and she instilled in me her love of knowledge and of the finer things of life. She had books, including a set of encyclopedia. I read them all.” -William Bentley

Christmas books, kids books, book display
Winter books

Every year as winter approaches I dust off our winter season books from the basement and lovingly put them on display either in a special basket or this year, an Ikea plant stand (This idea was inspired by my friend who uses her Ikea plant stand to keep their library books separate and accounted for from the rest of their books, which I thought was brilliant). Thrown into this mix of How The Grinch Stole Christmas and How Santa Got His Job is one of my favorites, Snowflake Bentley. This is a story I read to my students every year around the Winter Solstice and now read to my kids when the temperatures drop and the ground has its moments covered in a frozen white blanket. It tells the story of William Bentley, known as The Snowflake Man, who was born in the late 1800s in Vermont and devoted his life to studying, drawing, and photographing snowflakes, as well as other miniature wonders found in nature. A real naturalist.

I was so excited when I saw that a local puppet theater was hosting a performance surrounding the story of William Bentley.  It was a charming marionette show with dolls that were hand carved and painted by the puppeteer at Puppetkabob. Big Brother sat transfixed and jaw slightly dropped as the puppets came to life and recreated the story of a little boy who was so absorbed in his passion for microscopes and snowflakes that he would spend hours drawing these magically little wonders, while other boys were out playing with popguns and sling-shots. This passion was his fun. This passion is what became his life’s work!

On our drive home from the show, Big Brother and I were discussing our favorite parts and I asked him if he caught the part of the show when they mentioned that William was homeschooled. His face immediately brightened and he said:

“Yes! He was so lucky to be homeschooled because he could spend all that time studying snowflakes and doing what he really loved.” 

Exactly! Talk about a proud homeschooling Mama moment. When Big Brother said that it made me giddy. Even at the young age of 6, he gets it. Self-directed learning is a philosophy of education that I have come to embrace and feel strongly about in our homeschooling journey. I have seen first hand how successful his education path has been when his motivation for learning is driven by pure curiosity. His passion and focus is strong when he is intrinsically motivated to learn.

We were chatting over lunch when Big Brother announced he wanted to learn more about numbers. I asked what specifically he was interested in learning and he mentioned counting by 5s, 10s, 100s, understanding money, place value, measuring, and adding. (To be fair, he wasn’t so articulate to actually say “place value” but rather the numbers on the left and right of a number, meaning the ones and tens place. Close enough!) And with that, our afternoon (as well as many of our days to follow) have been consumed by numbers. He made up a card game to learn how to count by 5s. We set up a pretend store in which he count out his coins to buy his pictures of a race car or yo-yo.  We have been talking about fact families. He’s poured himself over his hundreds chart and practiced over and over the different ways to count from 10s to even numbers. We made a paper chain, counted the rings, and then measured the chain with a tape measure and our bodies. His exploration with numbers is self-directed and because of that, the learning is genuine and not forced.

As a self-directed learner’s mom I see my job as being his facilitator. You want to learn about numbers? Great, here’s a hundred’s chart. Here’s a puzzle that will teach you the value of coins. Here’s an app that will help you practice your addition facts. I am here to guide you in the right direction, show you the way, and sometimes, I am teaching you what you are eager to learn. As I have said before, I am also a big fan of strewing or placing things in my kids path that they may (or may not) take an interest in. I don’t push or impose, I just put it out there and wait to see what sticks.

As a side note: A friend of mine whose child is in a progressive, project-based charter school was singing her son’s school’s praises saying how their students are engaging in projects the students are motivated by and spending lots of time outside of the classroom walls, exploring the community. She once asked me if I would consider sending my kids to school if the school were set up in such a way that would support self-directed learning. In a word, yes. I am not opposed to all forms of school, but I have yet to find a school that truly supports the self-directed learning style that I believe in. There are some alternative schools and learning centers that are getting it right (like Parts & Crafts or The Macomber Center). These type places will most likely be in our lives as the kids get a little bit older. Although, even then, it would only be something I would be willing to commit our time to a few days a week given one of the aspects of homeschooling that I value is the connection to our family and learning together.

A fellow homeschooling mom and friend of mine is a part of the organizing team that has created the non-profit organization The Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE) whose main mission is “normalizing and legitimizing Self-Directed Education, to make it available to everyone who seeks it.” On their site, they state:

Self-Directed Education is education that derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the person becoming educated, whether or not those activities were chosen deliberately for the purpose of education. Self-Directed Education can include organized classes or lessons, if freely chosen by the learner; but most Self-Directed Education does not occur that way. Most Self-Directed Education comes from everyday life, as people pursue their own interests and learn along the way. The motivating forces include curiosity, playfulness, and sociability—which promote all sorts of endeavors from which people learn. Self-Directed Education necessarily leads different individuals along different paths, though the paths may often overlap, as each person’s interests and goals in life are in some ways unique and in some ways shared by others.

Just like William Bentley’s snowflakes, we are all unique and driven by our own forces. Every learner must be allowed to travel their own path and experience their journey of education in the way that best serves them. Allowing learners to come to their own passions in their own time is what makes self-directed learning so powerful. Just as my Baby Girl is motivated to make her way to her hands and knees to crawl, so are my older boys driven to follow a path of education that inspires and stimulates their minds. I intend to stand by, watch the magic, and fully support them in every way that I can. This is our homeschooling world.


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