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It's Not Easy, But It's (Definitely) Worth It

“We don't grow when things are easy, we grow when we face challenges.” This is something I had to constantly remind myself during the first couple of months of being an independent learner because even though I know the outcome of self-directing my learning will be amazing, I would be lying if I did not admit that the process is hard.


When I first began trying to self-direct my learning, I was met with several challenges, most of which I did not expect to have. The biggest challenge I faced was managing the learning process. Sure, I knew that self-directing my learning would be more difficult than going to a traditional high school, especially in regards to the planning involved and the discipline needed, but I had no idea how unprepared I was for directing my own learning experience.


It did not take long for me to realize that there were three aspects of school that I had seriously taken for granted: pre-decided subjects, teacher-made course curriculums and syllabus’, and constant evaluation. While I was in school, my sole job was to do the homework and assignments assigned by my teacher, but once I left school, I realized how little I had learned in regards to understanding the entire learning process. All of a sudden it was my job to decide what to learn, to plan how to learn it, and to evaluate what and how I did, in addition to actually learning material. And it was overwhelming.


But I didn’t let failure get the best of me. I wanted to do better. I wanted to learn effectively and independently. I wanted to design my life. And I wanted to learn how to do it all. Well, lucky for me, but I was blessed with a father who knew just what to do (to learn more about my dad, Matt Barnes, click here). One of the first things he taught me when I came to him complaining about my lack of productivity, was the learning cycle: Decide, Plan, Execute, Evaluate. I soon realized that the reason why I had not been efficient in my learning was not that I was a bad or incompetent person, it was solely because I had not followed the learning cycle. I had not really decided on what I wanted to accomplish, I had a very weak and vague plan, I had only a partial execution, and I had nothing and no one to evaluate my process. The learning cycle was something I had never learned about or been able to practice in school and my lack of experience was obvious when I first began following it, but with repetition and practice, I became better at “spinning the cycle”.


Most often, I would spin the cycle once a day. I would decide what I wanted to do in the morning, plan how to do it, do it, and then that afternoon or the next morning, I would evaluate my process. If I did not accomplish what I wanted, I would review my plan, change it, and try again with a different plan.


One reason why following the learning cycle is extremely important is that, if you follow it accurately, you will begin to learn more about yourself than you could have otherwise. The biggest blind spot for me that was uncovered after I spun the cycle several times was that it was extremely hard for me to accomplish day-to-day goals without an accountability partner. As the name suggests, an accountability partner is someone who helps keep you accountable over whatever topic or area is chosen. For me, my mom became my accountability partner for my learning experience and although I was still in charge of my learning (decision-making, planning, execution, and evaluation), just knowing that someone was expecting something of me at the end of each day was enough to help keep me on task and stay away from distracting platforms like YouTube and social media.


Once I had a better understanding of the learning process and how to complete it effectively, I could actually do things that I was interested in and grow my knowledge and experience in the fields that I was most curious about.


For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated and inspired by the wonder and mystery of the sea, but as climate change and plastic pollution threaten its beauty and survival, I now have a passion for change. Because I have the freedom to decide where I wanted to focus my attention and time, the world seems much less daunting and I finally feel that I have the opportunity to explore marine biology, ocean conservation, and anything else that would help me learn about how to save the sea (to find out more about the research project that I just finished on the Sea Turtle Science and Research program at Padre Island National Seashore, check it out on the "Different Thought" Blogs page). I finally feel that I can learn without the fear or burden of failing. And from this newfound freedom, the word ‘learning’ suddenly had a new definition: it was no longer tied to school and homework or grades, it was simply the process of acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or attitudes, and it could happen, anywhere and whenever.


One of the biggest things that I have so far enjoyed about independent and self-directed learning is increasing my understanding, skills, and experience in subjects that will help me reach one of my dreams of being a marine conservationist. Skills, like digital proficiency, especially in regards to videography and written and visual communication, S.C.U.B.A., critical thinking, problem-solving, wildlife photography, and goal setting, that I would normally not experience in a typical school setting are now everyday practices. And because I am self-directing my learning, I don’t have to wait until I have my degree to begin learning about and serving my community through conservation, I can start right now. I can truly live and learn without the fear of failing on a test or an assignment. More than anything, I finally felt liberated to learn and become a life-long learner.


Another thing that I have appreciated from the flexibility of being an independent learner is the ability to take the time, and really focus and discover, not just what kind of person I want to be, but WHO I want to be, and why. With intentionality, prayer, and patience I realized that I didn’t want my life to look like a mirror image of the school. I wanted it to be filled with the things that I am good at, the things that God has called me to do and pursue, and the things that I think can make an impact.


I believe that I can do so much more when I am pursuing the things I am passionate about than when I follow a model of learning that prioritizes grades over anything and everything else. And I also believe that I should not be the only 16-year-old who has the freedom to ask myself, “What would I do if I was given the choice to decide my own learning plan?”.


Greta Thunberg sums up my ideas exactly in the eloquent quote below, and even though she is referring to climate change, I still believe that what she says holds true for the traditional education system. In her TEDxTalk in Stockholm in December of 2018, she says: “We can't save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change – and it has to start today.” The world that I am trying to save by writing this blog, is the world where children, teens, and even adults, actually learn to love to learn. Because once you love to learn, you become unstoppable.


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