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What happens if you just leave them alone?

November 14, 2010

After attending TEDxUBC, I wrote about motivation and it is still buzzing around in my head, so here’s a follow up. 

This week, I watched a recorded webinar fromNew Media Consortium called Love to Learn featuring Lynda Weiman, founder of, which was really compelling.  She told her story as a disenfranchised student who discovered A.S. Neill. He offered a different perspective to schooling, based on the premise if you leave them alone, they will become self-directed, unschooling I guess.  She was in high school at the time, but it was formative stuff.  She also went on to a university that offered an alternative approach, which continued to nurture this notion of self-directedness.  Her story is compelling and reminded me how each of us likely has a story.  We might think our own story is pretty mundane, but others might see it very differently.  But, her message, against the backdrop of her own story, is that allowing individuals the opportunity to self-determine their own learning through a project-based approach. 

She shared an example from WriteGirl, which is a non-profit group in L.A. that pairs girls with women, to write.  These girls have the chance to participate in full-day workshops and/or longer term mentoring.  I think this is brilliant. 

I reflected as well on the fantastic William Kamkwamba’s windmill talk, on TED which I watch again and again! 

All coalescing into the concept of motivation.  I took university undergrad level psych, but did not pursue psychology in any real way.  So, as a layperson, I think it must be a combination of internal factors: personality, emotional development, values and external factors: circumstances, relationships, learned behaviour, etc. 

As a learning professional, I know that most of my clients are not as interested in learning (but performance).  Mostly, they want employees to comply with the safety regs or follow the company’s customer service protocols. 

However, as a parent and a human being, I spend a fair bit of time wondering if I can provide something (external factor) that will help my kids – and future generations –  acquire the following and I also wonder if these factors do in fact play a role, maybe a different one, in organizational settings:

  • Determination
  • Curiousity
  • Drive/Self-directedness
  • Confidence
  • Empowerment

How do you foster this?  Do all of us have the capacity to be self-directed?  Do you need to have innate curiousity to become self-directed?  Feedback must play a role here, so how much and when and by whom and in what way?  I also thought about Flip and about Dan Pink‘s Drive, as approaches that are more focused on autonomy as an essential component of drive.  I wondered if the Khan Academy‘s success is built on the premise of self-directedness? 

Lots of thinking, but no real concrete answers.  If you were attracted to this blog post hoping that it contained the answer to “what happens when you leave them alone”, I’m sorry that I don’t have the answer, I suspect that there are millions.

I was struck by a comment in this blog post by Gino Bondi.  Much more eloquent than I have written:

We need to move forward, transforming our delivery but not our core purpose: providing students with enriching experiences, positive reinforcement and enabling them to discover their own admirable purposes.

So, as a parent, that’s what I’ll do.  As a human being, that’s what I’ll do and as an educator, that’s what I’ll endeavour to figure out!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2010 2:38 pm

    Greetings Holly,

    I’ve met some amazing students that would have done wonders and enjoyed school far more if we had just left them alone. But I’m not sure that’s a strategy that would work for everyone. There is one immediate counter-factor that comes to mind with the idea of ‘leaving them alone’ and it’s: ‘Distraction’.

    I probably would have watched 8 hours a day of what I now consider ‘mind-numbing’ television if I was ‘left alone’ as a kid, (and on weekends I often did). Video games today are far more compelling than television ever was. We have a lot to learn in education from the gaming industry as they have mastered the art of providing leveled challenges that require just-in-time skill development with just enough successful plateaus and frustrating challenges to keep a player engaged. Why don’t schools do that for most? (Like you, that’s a question I’m not sure I have an answer for.)

    I think the Khan Academy is great in the same way that I think that is great… they both provide answers to those that are seeking them. Google has been an amazing teacher for me in my adult life. But as you have noted, motivation is key! Autonomy is a powerful influence on motivation, but so are critical questions and scaffolding of challenging tasks. Go ahead and ‘flip’ your lessons… I love the idea! Yet how do you engage the kid that went home and chose TV or video games instead of the lecture shared to prepare them for the class the next day? Note this is not an argument against the flip… the same kid probably would not have done their homework if the lesson was given in the traditional way! The point I’m making is that if motivation isn’t there, then we have a problem!

    Critical questions, scaffolding challenges and autonomy to explore areas of interest… these I believe are key things in providing an education that helps students get excited about learning ‘on their own’ and beyond the walls of the school. We don’t want to ‘leave them alone’… we want to leave them wanting more!

  2. November 16, 2010 2:57 pm

    I agree with David that we need to leave them wanting more. I think there are students who would be successful if left alone, and could discover great learning for themselves, but I don’t think this is true for a lot of students. Something that I heard from George Couros that I really like is that as teachers we should think of ourselves as “lead learners.” We are not the only source of information for our students, and they should be aware of that and the many possibilities and means of learning outside of school. Rather than leaving students “alone” to hope they discover learning, can we can lead them to (want to) discover learning on their own?

  3. hollymacdonald permalink*
    November 16, 2010 3:26 pm

    David and Katie –

    Thank you so much for your comments.

    I am not a school teacher, so my view is probably skewed. I do know some kids that left alone would build elaborate machines from parts they order off eBay. I know kids that would do as little as possible and spend hours watching tv/internet/video games. My own two fall somewhere in between.

    Interestingly in the recorded webinar, Lynda talks about a process of depression and near despair that she went through (common in the program she participated in), but it was a necessary part of her journey to self-directedness. Maybe – playing devil’s advocate here – we worry that they will just “goof off” – but is that always a bad thing? Maybe they need that freedom to flip the switch to self-directedness? Or, maybe some of us have it and some of us don’t?

    I would love to know how you lead them to discovery. What does that look like? How do we generate interest/curiousity/desire to learn? How do we nurture that drive? What age does it start? How do you know they are developmentally ready? How can we have parents and teachers work together on this? How would we do this systemically? And the bigger question – how can we provide options for kids (and help them understand what they need in order to learn), rather than offer the one size fits all model.

    I agree critical questions and scaffolding are big pieces of the motivation puzzle, but not sure that’s it completely, in a “you can lead a horse to water, but can’t make him drink” kind of way. So, how do we get him to drink?


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