Is it reasonable to expect a six-year-old to do anything independently? What about a middle-schooler? Can a high school student learn completely on his own? These are questions that will be addressed in this post, particularly in the context of using Math-U-See.
There are moments when it hits you. It could be the day your child takes his first steps or when he first reads a complete sentence. It could be the day when your child glides down the street on a bike or behind the wheel of the family car. It could be the day when she walks across the stage at graduation or down the aisle at her wedding. The moments come without warning and with surprising intensity—the moments when you realize that your child has taken yet another step toward independence.
As parents, we know that our children need to become independent and that it is our job to help them achieve that goal. For homeschoolers, this means guiding and equipping our children to become self-directed learners. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to know what this looks like on a day-to-day basis.
Research has shown that children left on their own to “figure it out themselves” tend to become at best frustrated and at worst distracted and disengaged; in addition, students who have adults supporting and guiding them through the learning process tend to retain more information that those who do not. Math-U-See recognizes these important findings, which is why the videos and Instruction Manuals are directed toward the teacher. In order for the program to be effective, the adult is expected to watch the video, read the Instruction Manual, lead the student in guided practice, and then provide as much support as is needed while the student practices independently. The teacher then has the student teach the material back to determine whether the concepts from the lesson have been mastered and to plan next steps. While an adult should always be involved in the learning process, independence can still be developed and fostered so that, at the end of the program, the student will be equipped to assume the responsibility for his own learning, whether that be in higher education or in a career setting.
Lower Elementary Level (Approximately Ages 5-8)
Young children do not yet have the attention span, self-discipline, or cognitive skills needed to direct their own learning. Therefore, at this age, a homeschooling parent pretty much has to stay with the child during the entire instructional period. As the child becomes older, however, it may be possible to step away during periods of independent practice. If you feel your child is ready, you can begin with a simple statement such as, “Let’s see if you can do the next one all by yourself.” You continue to sit next to the child but provide no coaching or assistance. Once your student is successful with this task, add the element of physical distance between yourself and the child, perhaps going to the kitchen for a glass of water while she works through one problem on her own. Gradually increase the number of problems until the child is able to complete an entire practice page or test independently, without you physically present. Trying some of these simple suggestions will allow your child at this stage to have independence that is still within a controlled environment.
Upper Elementary Level (Approximately Ages 9-11)
While children at this level have longer attention spans and more self-control, they are not yet ready to take on more responsibility for their instruction. Your goal at this stage, therefore, is to help them develop the skills that they will use to transition into more independent learning. Now you can have your student read the Instruction Manual with you, stopping periodically to copy out important phrases, definitions, and formulas. At this stage, the student needs to master duplicative study skills (repeating information through copying and memorizing), but you can also begin building more advanced skills through discussion. As you are working with your student, ask questions that require him to think through the concepts and restate key ideas from the lesson you are studying. This will encourage him to engage with the material and will continue developing independent learning skills.
Middle School Level (Approximately Ages 12-14)
Now your student has the ability to work on more complex tasks, understand and verbalize what she is thinking, and manage her time. Armed with the study skills developed at the previous stage, your student can now move into generative activities—those that involve active engagement with the material and reproducing it in a new form. While the student may already have been watching the video and/or reading the Instruction Manual with you, now she should stop periodically to restate main ideas and concepts in her own words. Eventually these oral summaries can become notes that the student takes while watching or reading. Students at this age can also make study aids (posters, note cards, etc.) to help them remember important information and prepare for the tests. These strategies will prepare your student to begin taking more ownership of the learning process in the next level of development.
High School Level (Approximately Ages 15-17)
A student who has “learned how to learn” can now take more responsibility in the instructional process. For example, if he has learned how to identify important information for notes or a written summary, he might be able to watch the video or read the Instruction Manual on his own. If he understands how he learns and which techniques work best for him, he may be able to plan out his own weekly schedule. It is important to note, however, that students at this age still need teacher direction in these core areas:
1) Setting the State for Learning
The instructor needs to set clear goals and expectations of what is to be learned and the general time frame in which this should be accomplished.
2) Providing Guided Practice
Could you go right from reading a manual to operating a car on your own? Possibly, but most states wisely require that you spend some time with an experienced driver before going out on the road. Similarly, research has shown that more learning takes place if a student practices with a teacher before attempting independent work.
3) Monitoring Progress
Students learn more efficiently if a teacher checks their work periodically to make sure they are at the right level of difficulty. For this reason, the “teach back” component of a Math-U-See lesson is still essential. This will help you eliminate unnecessary practice for areas that have been mastered and assign more where additional work is needed.
4) Providing Immediate Feedback
Errors are most easily corrected when they are caught quickly. Therefore, it’s important that you check your student’s work every day, not just marking the answers right or wrong but also offering comments and suggestions to help adjust misunderstandings.
Helping a child become independent doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a series of small steps, tailored to a child’s individual personality and maturity, that enable you to surrender control gradually and your student to take on more responsibility. While the Math-U-See program is based on the involvement of an instructor, it can also be a valuable training ground that you can use to equip your student for independent learning.