When my son was in second grade, he was puzzled by a woman who told me she was unhappy that she couldn’t study history because she couldn’t afford to take a class. As a homeschooler who was being taught to be a self-directed learner, he knew you didn’t need to take a class to learn something. Too many adults, though, stop learning when they leave school. Margaret Mead is credited with saying that her grandmother wanted her to get an education so she kept her out of school. To many people, this seems contradictory.

 self-educationMead’s grandmother homeschooled her and felt it was bad for children to be indoors too much. She and her siblings did most of their learning outside, actually doing and viewing what they were learning about, rather than merely reading about  it in a book. Because education wasn’t something that happened in a separate building during set hours, Mead didn’t think of schooling as something only to be controlled by others in a formal setting. This ensured she knew how to teach herself things and that she would continue to learn after she left college. This is what her grandmother meant.

Why Should We Keep Learning?

As a Mormon, I believe we can take everything we learn to Heaven with us, so it is more than worthwhile for me to learn as much as I can. My life is more fun because I’m always learning. Even though I’m in my fifties, I still have so much I want to learn. Every year, I choose two things I want to study and then decide how to do it. In addition, I flit among a wide range of subjects, studying whatever I happen to be interested in at the moment. Sometimes I take a class. Sometimes I find a good book, a video, an online lecture series, or a mentor. Sometimes I start a subject which leads me to another subject, which leads me to another subject…and I end up in a place I never expected to be.

Here are some examples of how my eclectic, life-long learning happens. A couple of years ago I took a religion class—I wanted to be in a class for that subject at that time. It was taught by a science teacher and we spent several months just on the creation chapters of the scriptures. Since he was a science teacher, he gave us a lot of scientific information about aspects of creation. I’d never much liked science as a child, but I found cosmology interesting in this class, maybe because he tied the information to my faith. I spent a few months reading science magazines and books to learn more. Eventually I wandered back to the study of history, my favorite subject, but in the meantime, I had discovered science was not the boring subject I had thought it was. I’m still pretty interested in it and suspect I’ll do some more reading in the field in the next year or so.

This year I decided to learn to play the electric keyboard. I know some amazing piano teachers, but decided to teach myself, instead, using a Mormon lesson manual and the internet. I chose this method because I knew I would be terrible at it and would find myself embarrassed when it took months to learn a simple song. If I became embarrassed, I would quit, no matter how nice the teacher was about it. Since I don’t intend to ever play where anyone can hear me, that worked. (And, in case you’re wondering, I am every bit as bad and as slow as I knew I would be, but I don’t really care.)

I have written two non-fiction books, but now I am trying to master fiction, which requires very different skills. For this, I chose to read a variety of writing books, watch Brandon Sanderson’s Brigham Young University writing class. (This is a student recording of his actual class and offered online at no cost for no credit), and join an online writing group. These three methods give me a wide range of information and the online group allows me to work in a chat room with experienced authors who are happy to answer my questions. When one of them asks the others for editing help, I listen in and learn.

How to Create a Self-Learning Program

These are some of the ways I’ve been learning in recent years. Here are some tips for planning your own learning:

  1. If you are looking to learn a subject in some depth, make a plan. Search for books, videos, and classes you can take. Decide if you want a class or if you are going to tackle it on your own. Try to find a mentor—someone who will answer your questions when you have them.

  2. Figure out a budget. Your budget will impact the methods you choose. Happily, libraries and the Internet make learning less expensive.

  3. Decide when you’re going to learn it. If you don’t put it on your schedule, it won’t happen. I study my scriptures first thing in the morning and practice my music right after lunch. After a while, it becomes routine. Just to make sure, though, I set a reminder on my phone.

  4. Don’t think like a school student. The advantage of teaching yourself is that you can do it your way. Don’t memorize unless you want to memorize something. Don’t feel you need to test yourself or stick to a set pace. Take as long as you need to master the material to the point you want to master it—whether it’s just gaining a light knowledge or knowing it well enough to teach it.

  5. Study until you’ve learned what you want to learn. Then move on to something else. There is no rule that says you have to learn everything there is to know about the subject.

  6. Experiment with different methods of learning the material to find out what works for you.

  7. You don’t actually have to have a plan. You can study the Civil War today, astronomy tomorrow, and Shakespeare next week, learning whatever captures your imagination today. Watch for something in your studies that interests you and then move on to that.

Share in the comments what you’re learning and how you’re doing it. Tell us what you’ve learned from teaching yourself something and how it’s made a difference.

If you’re an active Latter-day Saint and have hands-on experience with homeschooling and  lifelong learning, and if you understand afterschooling, we are looking for someone to write weekly on those three topics (in one column) here. It’s a  volunteer position. Learn more here:

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About Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.

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