Coffee Cup

Self-Direction, Engagement, and Success
by Wes Beach
Copyright @ 2002 by Wes Beach

One of the strongest senses I have of people, gained from working with many students, is that they are different. I don't mean to make a trivial and obvious statement, but rather to say that people are profoundly, deep down, structurally, and irrevocably different from each other. My students have musical or athletic or artistic or other natural talents that I have never had and never will have. These talents are built in, and I'm sure it's largely because of the different ways brains are built.

Neuroscientists agree that both heredity and experience play major roles in shaping brains. Some differences are built in from the beginning, others are built in by experience over years of development. This leaves open the possibility that the experiential part of brain development can be guided by carefully designed learning experiences, that is, by curriculum. But at present this seems to be not possible in reality because in most instances no one yet knows enough to say that a given experience produces an identifiable and predictable bit of growth in a human brain. Genes build brains in inexorable ways, and experience builds brains in mostly unknown ways.

I think kids' inclinations and talents have to be seen as a built in part of who they individually are, and that their educations have to be designed accordingly. Racheal Brown was once a student of mine. Racheal was built to be in motion, to use her whole body in active ways, to learn through action more than through contemplation. She had, in other words, a lot of kinesthetic intelligence.

Racheal left a public high school after two years, where she had been given very mixed grades, including D's and F's. Her last grade in English was a D-. I asked Racheal if this grade represented her actual level of accomplishment, and she said it did.

She remained enrolled in my school for over two years, during which time she did no work aimed specifically at academics. She did remodeling with her contractor father, worked in a day camp and a day care center, played volleyball, was part of an animal rescue team, did some traveling, and tried living on her own. Her endeavors allowed her to be in motion.

At the end of her enrollment, she submitted an essay as a request for a diploma. Her essay was a fine piece of craftsmanship. It was very well organized, clearly stated, and covered all the required topics; her writing flowed. I asked her how she had gained her writing ability. Without having to think about it, she answered, "I read a lot." A large part of her reading consisted of John Grisham's novels. She had not read much while in school because she resented being told what to read and when to read it. Out of school and autonomous, she was inclined to read.

While working at the day camp Racheal wrote occasional letters and memos. My sense of what happened is that she became truly engaged in all the things she was doing because these things tapped into her innate perceiving/thinking/acting style. Her body was involved, and her mind followed. When natural interests and inclinations are followed, passionate engagement is possible. When passionately engaged, all of one's faculties work best, even those that are not strongest. I don't mean to say that anyone just absorbs calculus out of the air, but I do believe that more basic skills like writing sometimes improve most not when they are specifically taught, but when they are part of a stimulating and engaging life. Racheal needed to write in conjunction with her work, and this minimal practice was very effective because it was an integral part of a job in which her kinesthetic intelligence was essential and valued.

Passionate engagement is most likely when people are free to choose what they do. Many psychological studies show that autonomy itself is an important human need. While young children cannot be autonomous in many ways, kids of all ages can choose what they learn about. Even within a structured curriculum, a great deal of time can be devoted to self-directed learning.

Basic skills will develop, as Racheal's writing ability did, as a natural and integral part of what kids choose to do. If parents feel that a subject, say math, needs to be addressed more directly, it need not take a great deal of time. Daniel Greenberg of the Sudbury Valley School reports that his students routinely learn what is traditionally a six-year math curriculum in 60 contact hours. These kids learn quickly and easily because they do not begin mathematical study until they choose to do so.

But what about college? Will self-directed learners be in a position to gain entrance to colleges and universities if and when they choose formal higher education? Yes, absolutely. My private high school exists to support kids who want to avoid high school. Almost all of my students skip half or more of high school and move on to other things. The majority of them enter a community college, do very well, and transfer on to four-year schools. A few go directly to four-year schools. I can discern no connection between how much time they spend in high school and how well they do in college.

People who choose not to go to college also do very well.

Jerimi Walker contacted me after a very frustrating first term in high school. She had been homeschooled for three years before deciding to enter high school and had been entirely free to learn on her own. Her first interest was in Legos, and then she decided to learn some math along with other things. At the time she entered high school she believed her self-teaching had brought her to the level of pre-calculus, and she requested that she be placed there, after testing or interviewing if necessary. School officials did nothing to honor her request. After several discussions, initial placement in beginning algebra, and schedule changes, Jerimi was finally placed in intermediate algebra.

She sent me a portfolio that included a hologram she had made herself after learning about lasers on the Internet. I saw this to be a good indication of the level of her accomplishments, and I took her listing of what else she had learned at face value and wrote it on the transcript I provided for her.

Jerimi entered Troy State University in Dothan, Alabama, at age 15 and, after one term, earned a place on the President's Honor List. Three years later she was a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at Syracuse University. She has exactly four traditional high school courses to her credit. The independent learning she did as a homeschooler included many forays into science and math and is reflected on her transcript by course titles such as Holography 1, HTML Programming Language, Basic Electronics, and Meteorology. Her study of other subjects was limited, and the mix of subjects on her transcript is not at all traditional.

Chantalle van der Zande spent no time in high school and entered a community college. She did well, transferred to UCSC, and graduated with a degree in psychology and many academic awards. She will go to graduate school and earn advanced degrees in psychology and education. Other former students have done similar things. One has an M.D. from Stanford, another has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from UC San Francisco. These two people also began at a community college; they had three and two semesters' experience, respectively, in high school.

These are some of the most dramatic cases that represent the boundaries of my experience. I am not suggesting that everyone who wants an academic education will earn a degree at the doctoral level, nor am I saying that going to college early, as did the people whose paths I've described, is always the best thing to do. But neither do I believe that these kinds of accomplishments are out of the reach of most people.

The foremost trait that most of my students seem to share is a stubborn independence. They certainly have the kind of intelligence necessary to succeed in college, but I do not believe that they are in general extremely gifted. They are people who are confident, autonomous, and self-aware. They skip much or all of high school and find themselves sitting in college classrooms filled mainly with people who have experienced a traditional high school education that, because it is so rigidly prescribed and insistently delivered, has prevented them from making a deeply personal investment in their own learning and thus makes their high school education largely empty. It is this emptiness that my students skip, and their personal sturdiness more than makes up for what little they miss in high school.

Homeschooling encourages people to be sturdy. I believe that homeschoolers will do well in college whenever they make deeply personal decisions to enter college. If early college admission is not what teenagers want, they can find an unlimited number of productive and educational ways to spend their teen years. Traditional high school academic subjects do not have to be part of what they do. Since my students do well in college with very limited or no high school experience, certainly alternative "high school" experiences, however radically they depart from a traditional course of study, can be the foundation for success in college.

It is true that a young man or woman who wants to enter a selective college or university directly after homeschooling will have to document academic ability and accomplishment in some way, but even here there is some flexibility. The University of California will consider admitting a person with any kind of academic background if he or she can earn high scores on SAT I and SAT II. Pitzer College in Claremont makes this statement at its Web site: "The recommended college preparatory program includes four years of English (including as many courses as possible which require students to write extensively); at least three years of social and behavioral sciences (including history); and three years each of foreign language, laboratory science, and mathematics. If a student's record demonstrates his/her interest, ability, and excitement, variations in this outline will not prevent that student from being considered as a candidate. For instance, independent study may count in a student's favor even if it has cost him/her the chance to take some traditional courses."

The great majority of colleges are not highly selective; some very, very good colleges are in this majority. Even Pitzer admits 63% of the people who apply. While UC Berkeley accepts just one in four applicants, the acceptance rate at UC Santa Cruz is a little better than four of every five. Casandra Miller, a graduate of my school, chose to attend Wells College in Aurora, New York, a highly regarded women's college. Wells accepts 92% of its applicants. Derek Jansen completed his homeschooling and entered Kalamazoo College in Michigan; Kalamazoo accepts 85% of those who apply. This school is a respected liberal arts college whose graduates go on to earn Ph.D.'s at a higher rate than graduates of UC Santa Cruz, Johns Hopkins, or Brown.

Transfer admission to most four-year schools is no problem at all. California community colleges have no subject matter requirements for admission. A strong record at a community college can be the basis for transfer admission to almost any college or university in the country. While a handful of very selective colleges, such as Stanford, accept very few transfer students, the University of California gives admission priority to transfer students from California community colleges, and almost all schools are as open to transfer students as they are to freshman applicants.

A large majority of our fellow citizens are leading their adult lives without benefit of a college degree. Some of my students choose not to go to college; again, these are people who have skipped much or all of high school. Here are just a few of the occupations they have chosen and successfully entered:

This list is representative of the fact that the whole world is open to young people who are open to it.

Self-directed learning by confident, autonomous, self-aware people provides wonderful preparation for life after homeschooling, whatever that life will include. Some teens find fulfillment in pursuing traditional academic subjects. Those whose interests lead them elsewhere can easily afford to follow their interests, wherever they lead, without sacrificing any future opportunities.

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Some important points

Wes Beach serves as teen adviser for HSC. He also runs Beach High School. You can reach him at or at 831-462-5867.

HSC distributes Wes's book, titled Opportunities After "High School": Thoughts, Documents, Resources. It includes a number of transcripts he has written for his students, including those for Jerimi, Casandra, and Racheal. These transcripts can be used as models for homeschool transcripts. This book also discusses community college enrollment; preparing for, choosing, and applying to four-year colleges; and opportunities other than formal academic study. A number of resource books are described.

You can order copies at $15 per copy, tax and shipping included. Make checks payable to HSC and send your order to:

HSC Book Order
5520 Old San Jose Road
Soquel, CA 95073.

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