What Interest-Led Learning Really Looks Like
Today, I’m giving you a peek inside our homeschool. This is what interest-led learning really looks like!
My children are both wildly different.
My oldest is a thirteen year old, self-professed computer geek with a strong interest in physics, non-fiction and occasionally, reptiles.
My youngest is ten, energetic and delighted with any fictional account of adventure, with strong interests in geology, gemstones and occasionally, reptiles.
My oldest is on the autism spectrum, and has debilitating sensory issues that get in the way of outdoor activities.
My youngest struggles with anxiety, dyslexia, adhd, a mood disorder, and is always happier outdoors.
They are polar opposites in most ways, but especially in how they learn.
This is our seventh year, trying to figure out this learning at home gig.
Seven years in, I have finally accepted and embraced the fact that our educational approach will likely always be learner-led.
I resisted at first.
I wanted order.
I wanted a box curriculum.
I wanted worksheets, practice drills, and quizzes at the end of each chapter.
But after a while, it became clear that what I wanted most of all, was actively engaged, progressing learners.
My idea of how this homeschooling thing was gonna go, is so very different from our reality.
It took four diagnoses, a ton of prayer, and about 73,000 pieces of chocolate for me to finally let go and settle in.
We are interest-led learners. By choice? By design? Because we can’t really be anything else? I am not sure why, but I have accepted that we simply are.
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What Interest Led Learning Really Looks Like
I am often asked how this works, in a family composed of two children with vastly different, unique needs (and a mom who would give anything to have cute little desks and a rock solid lesson plan).
I understand the question, but it is one that is difficult for me to answer.
Mostly because it can look so different every single day – and a little bit because I often feel like we are figuring it out as we go.
I thought the best way to describe our approach, would be to simply share the resources we use (no matter what the interest) and what my children have learned as a result.
Real Life Interest-Led Learning
My boys do not love books just because they are books (yes, it breaks their former, library employed, book lovin’ mother’s heart). They do however, devour books that have anything to do with their special interests. My kindle library is filled with every single, individual breed of snake care guide, and books on computer components and water cooling (don’t ask), thanks to my 13-year-old. With my youngest, a trip to the library is first on the list when a new interest comes up. I also buy most books that he is interested in (This has been my practice with him from a young age – because reading is such a struggle for his dyslexic brain, I want to encourage him to see books as wonderful treats, not something to dread). As a result, my dyslexic learner is developing reading fluency, not by practicing with curriculum readers, but with books about his favorite subjects.
My youngest son has an interest in mining, gemstones, and rocks. This year, this interest has completely taken over most of his waking hours. Enter interest-led learning.
After reading a few books, we took a quick trip to a local store with gemstones and rocks. There, he met the geologist turned store owner, who immediately took my son under his wing and showed him all the things about all the shiny things. We came home with a small, pretty little piece of amethyst, a little dig kit with various stones encased in sand, and a reference sheet to use in identifying gemstones.
We have been back at least twice a week ever since. The owners now know us, love us (I think because my son is so cute, and possibly because our gemstone purchases might allow them to put in a pool next summer) and are happy to answer all of his questions.
I have found the same to be true at our local computer store, pet store, aquarium store, and plant nursery. I love meeting local business men and women, and supporting family run businesses in our community. Often, because they are less busy than larger stores, we find local businesses are delighted to share their passion for their products – especially with two young men who feel honored that someone is taking the time to discuss their favorite topics with them.
This is the part that matters the most in terms of my sons’ ability to retain their learning, but also requires the most of me. For example, my oldest builds a computer from scratch about once every few months. It is expensive. It is time-consuming. As he increases in difficulty level, I find myself driving to a specialty computer store that is an hour away. But it’s worth it. I imagine this could be a career for him in the future, and it is amazing to see how much he has learned through just simply jumping in and doing the work.
I also have been a crazy person on amazon and eBay, looking for gemstone tailings from actual mine. My ten-year old sifts them in our backyard, identifies the gems on a chart, and is even learning how to polish and cut them.
My children no longer attend any outside programs, so I use the money we were accustomed to spending on outside classes to fund this element of my boys learning.
When I need a break to make lunch or shower or eat some chocolate alone in the bathroom, I no longer feel guilty about allowing screen time. I simply turn on a show that has something to do with one of their interests, and call it school. Some of our favorites this month have been all the Dirty Jobs episodes involving snakes and mining, Brady Barr’s Dangerous Encounters and Linus Tech Tips on YouTube.
(Incidentally, YouTube alone, if you have the time to really vet the channels, is a terrific resource for interest-led learning.)
Progressive Accountability and Incorporating Other Subjects
Finally, one of the most important aspects of interest-led learning from my perspective, is challenging my sons to continue to increase their knowledge of the topic, and learn how other subjects relate. As my boys grow in their understanding of an interest, I increase my expectations of their performance.
For example, once my oldest built his first computer with assistance, the challenge became building one all on his own. Then, once he’d mastered this step, the next was an executive function exercise planning out a build for his friend. Later, we began to incorporate in more math, as he created budget spreadsheets for builds, and analyzed cost vs. performance for each computer component.
As my boys become more and more obsessed with snakes (help me, please) they have also learned more and more about world geography. Creating a habitat for a reptile requires an understanding of where it can be found in nature. As such, our world map is riddled with notes about the various climates and terrains where snakes are found.
This is not the only way we learn, but interest-led learning is a large portion of how we spend our time. Even for the more mundane tasks in our learning, I have found there are still ways to incorporate in my sons’ favorite topics. For example, my youngest absolutely has to practice sight words in a manner consistent with his dyslexic brain. Yesterday, instead of the standard flash card drill, we placed them all around the table. As he practiced reading, he used different gemstones to mark the flash cards he could easily read, and the ones that required more practice.
This approach has made a tremendous difference in our learning. Not only are my boys showing more progress and aptitude in their education, but they are more engaged and excited about learning. I find I am not having to manage battles over school work, and can instead focus on the next activity. Everyone is having more fun and most importantly, learning.
It is imperfect, to be sure, but it works.
And when it comes to our schooling, this has captured my interest entirely.
Looking for more ideas?
Please join me today at Simple Homeschool. I am sharing all the details of a Day In Our Life, complete with tons of real life, interest-led learning examples.
See you there!
Shawna Wingert is a special education teacher turned educational consultant, and mom of two brilliant boys who have learning differences and special needs.
Shawna has also written four books: Everyday Autism, Special Education at Home, Parenting Chaos, and Homeschooling Your Child With Special Needs. A passionate advocate for individualized education, Shawna is frequently featured on Today.com, Simple Homeschool, Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers and The Mighty. She can also be found supporting parents online at her own site, DifferentByDesignLearning.com.