Autonomous Learning

Autonomous Learning
My mother has been the ultimate example of autonomous learning.

Book club. Where it all started.

Grand ideas. Isn’t that what everyone possesses when they’re young? I had graduated from Purdue University with a bachelors in elementary education, having just completed my student teaching experience at Happy Hollow Elementary school in West Lafayette, Indiana. However, my education wasn’t the only new acquisition. I also had the sweetest, new baby girl. I immediately fell in love with this beautiful creation the instant I saw her. How couldn’t I? She was gorgeous, complete with wispy blonde strands and bright blue eyes. I knew she needed a unique name to match her beauty. A baby princess could never have just any common name. Her father and I named her ‘Rhaine’ which means queen, a beautiful gift from God. How perfect!

I, of course, unlike every other parent, knew that my little girl was special. She was going to be intelligent, brave, gorgeous. Everyone would love her. She’d never cause me trouble or make me stay up waiting late for her when she broke curfew. She would be as perfect as the name I gave her -solving world hunger, earning a Pulitzer and then moving on to raising my perfect grandchildren. She would break the mold. All parents would be jealous of my daughter, wishing their children were as magnificent as my Rhaine.

Rhaine at 6 months
Rhaine at 6 months.

Okay, my expectations (or delusions) weren’t quite that extreme, but I couldn’t help but cradle the little pink bundle and wonder what she would accomplish in her life. I rocked her to sleep every night (until she was nearly two years old) and promised her that I was going to do everything in my power to help her succeed at whatever she wanted to be, whether it be a doctor, lawyer, teacher or a mother. We’d work together on her challenges. Then after we had a good cry during a girl movie (preferably something of my choice), we’d laugh off the frustrations and dive into some chocolate ice cream or death by chocolate cake.

Book club altered my perceptions faster than anything else. Every month, I met with some of my dearest friends who were more like sisters. We’d choose a book to read, sketching out a calendar for several months in advance including the place to meet. I looked forward to those Thursday nights with a passion. Book nights were written in red pen on my calendar. I wouldn’t dream of missing one. However, visiting together and snacking after one of these book club nights set my mind spinning.

“I so hope my husband did the homework drill with the kids. Book club is my only night off,” lamented one of my friends. She continued sharing her greatest frustration. Every day after school the battle began. Fighting to get her children, of varying ages and grades from middle school to elementary, to do their homework. They complained, fought with each other and then finally settled at the kitchen table with mom. Learning was nothing more than a chore. They hated homework. They hated school. They hated the drudgery of having to do some school task every night. To ensure the homework did get done, my friend would sit at the table for hours, helping, answering questions, and sadly, being little more than a drill sergeant.

Rhaine in Ecuador
Rhaine in Ecuador, 20 years old.

I sat in silence, listening as another friend chimed into the discussion with the same fervor. I looked at my little girl, only a few weeks old, sleeping soundly in my lap. Never had the thought occurred to me of fighting my child to learn. I loved to learn. I loved to learn about anything and everything. I’d dive into a topic and search for information until I exhausted my resources and became obsessed with something else. Then, the cycle began again. But, what made the difference? I pondered this question for weeks, months and even years as my family grew, both in size and age. Finally, after great reflection, an answer came to me.

My mother. The answer was a soft ping in the back of my mind.

My mother had been the ultimate example for me. She loved to read, learn and try new things. I remember her deciding to learn how to plant a garden and start canning. Pears were her first canning experience. Some were hard as rocks and others were mushy. For months at dinner, we ate ‘rock pears’ or ‘mushy pears.’ We also did applesauce. Ugh! I was a teenager by then. The kitchen was an apple gooey mess. We never did applesauce again. She taught herself to knit. When my parents opened a business, she learned accounting. Now, with 25 grandchildren, she continues to learn. Periodically, she sends out an e-mail or message to her family, sharing something she learned or a quote she read. She even sends out challenges to learn something.

I needed to build on my mother’s example.

Investigating the issue, I learned the correct term was becoming a self-directed learner. I studied everything I could. Then, I opted to get a masters in education. During this process, my sweet princess was joined by five siblings. (Yes, that would be six children.) She graduated from high school and went to college. (As a side note, she did break curfew. Made her mother worry. Injuries. Illnesses. Pranks. Dented the car. Kept a messy bedroom. But, she still made me proud. She worked to pay for her education. She attended church each week, studied hard, served in her community and participated in many clubs, youth groups and sports. I couldn’t be more proud of her despite my weaknesses and deficiencies in mothering.)

Through this wonderful ride as a mother and educator, I have learned many tips, techniques and helps to make homework time more enjoyable. I’ve learned to laugh at frustrations when I want to cry. But, overall, I am proud of these people. My children are not perfect students, but they are autonomous learners (or at least on the road to becoming one -depending on their varying ages). We still have days when life comes apart. There are those days when I put my hands on their cheeks and beg them to do as asked so I don’t have to find a way to hide the body. (This humor works especially well for boys. The youngest girl would not be amused.) I have learned their individual strengths and weaknesses. I’ve learned that despite these strengths and weaknesses they can each become an autonomous learner.

By Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.