Self-Directed Life Newsletter: Own or borrow?
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Hey guys,

How was your week?

My 17-year-old and I have been discussing when it’s better to buy books vs. when it’s better to borrow them from the library.

He feels guilty about spending money and likes the idea of “learning for free.”

I think when it comes to deep learning projects, there are distinct advantages to owning at least some of your books. Personally, especially when reading nonfiction, I like to highlight as I go, make margin notes, open related books and compare passages and ideas as I’m reading, and more.

Of course I want to encourage my son’s frugality, and I want to respect his personal priorities and his process. It may be that *he* learns just fine borrowing books and my reasons either don’t apply to him, don’t apply in this situation, or both.

In any case, my job isn’t to overrule what he wants to do — but because we have a long history of discussing our work with each other, I feel comfortable sharing my thoughts with him. He still gets to decide, and he knows that.

Project-based homeschooling — self-directed learning supported by thoughtful mentoring — offers three levels of learning:

Primary: learning about our interest.

Secondary: Acquiring the skills we need to do the things we want to do.

Tertiary: Learning about learning, making, doing, and sharing (meta-learning). — Self-directed learning: the neglected subject?

There are at least two issues at play here:

      - owning vs. borrowing


      - a general hesitation to invest in our own self-directed learning.

When it comes to investing in any learning tool or resource, figuring out when to borrow and when to own is part of the multi-tiered learning process — and the learner should be in charge.

If you have limited funds to buy books (or other tools), that’s something a child can take into consideration. She can learn to manage a budget. She can figure out which books can be borrowed (from the library, from friends) and where books can be bought for the least amount of money, both in the community and online.

She can do this with books, tools, art and science supplies, LEGO, and so on.

There is no simple answer to when it’s best to own and when it’s best to borrow — or how to choose the point when borrowing no longer suffices and it’s time to buy. That’s what makes it such a rich area for exploration, discussion, and experimentation.

Simple answers are boring. This is something we have to figure out on a case-by-case basis, and every time we wrestle with it, we’re learning something new.

You might ask why I spend so much money on books when I could just borrow them from a library. First, my local library is unlikely to have all the books I want to read (more on that later). Second, when I’m reading a good book, I want to read it actively. I want to write in the margins. I want to make notes. I want to make it my own. If you get a library book you can’t do that. — WTF? I just spent $1,207.40 on books?

In my son’s case, I thought he might be edging into the second issue: hesitating to invest in his own projects, trying to save money in a way that could be working against him.

I’ve talked to many parents who have this problem — they put off investing in their own interests and ideas, their personal projects and experiments, even though they know that it’s the best way to help their kids lead a self-directed learning and doing life: by living that way themselves.

It’s somehow easier to invest in a class arranged by someone else than in a learning experience you designed for yourself. Local college classes cost hundreds of dollars — and that’s before you buy textbooks. (The college textbook industry increased their prices by 1,041% between 1977 and 2015 — how many people keep using and rereading those books?) One of the online classes my son took last year cost $90. From toddler classes to college, how is it we so swiftly and easily justify the cost of “formal” education while struggling to justify the cost of self-directed learning?

Designing a learning experience for yourself develops an entire set of learning skills on top of the focus of your project. You learn how to find and choose resources, how to find and talk to experts, how to manage a budget, how to find answers to your questions and solutions to your problems, how to define what you want to know and determine when you’ve learned it, how to think, how to create, how to learn.

And your child can do this as well, if you let him.

Isn’t that worth as much as most organized classes?

(And isn’t it a vital experience alongside organized classes?)

Somehow we find it easier to invest in learning experiences designed by others, even though they are less valuable because we miss out on all the extra learning of designing the experience ourselves.

That seems backwards.

We should be *more* willing to invest in self-directed learning experiences: those where we not only acquire knowledge and skills but sharpen our ability to direct and manage our own learning, making, and doing.

For our children, this means thinking about how much you would pay someone else for a history, science, or nature class and then comparing that to how much you’re willing to spend on your child’s self-directed interest.

For ourselves, it means thinking about why we struggle to feel we deserve adequate resources, tools, and time to pursue whatever it is that interests us just because someone else didn’t organize it and put a price tag on it.

Whether we achieve expert status in any particular area isn’t as important as investing in our growth as learners. It’s true for us, and it’s true for our kids.
I am convinced that there exists no method superior to self-education for accomplishing one’s goals, whatever they may be. The reason for this is simple: When you control your own education, you also control your destiny. And the only tuition is desire.

… [S]elf-education through self-directed inquiry is a natural way to gain control over your life. — Charles D. Hayes, Self-University
Remember that a large number of people become certified or degreed by furnishing other people’s answers to other people’s questions. — Charles D. Hayes, Self-University

Great success story from the mailbag:

“So I finally did what needed to be done. I found a spot in our living space for everyone to have their own work table. For my youngest, the most inclined to visual arts, it has inspired explosive amounts of creativity. Before he worked on our ‘dining’ table, which would occasionally get cleared off, but usually just became a big mess. We always have all the supplies at hand, but now he has a glue gun out at all times and piles of supplies and things he’s made. My husband is working on designs for his projects. My oldest is constantly reading, writing, and thinking about his interests.”

Have you set up a supportive environment? Start small and see what happens.


“In my idleness last night, I spent a long time just tickling my 5-year-old daughter, pretending to scare her, and lying on my back with her in ‘airplane position’ while she perfected a move she called the hummingbird. That was the best half-hour of my year so far. — I trained myself to be less busy — and it dramatically improved my life


The advice in the article quoted below to “write tomorrow’s to-do list tonight” reminded me immediately of ending one dedicated project time by discussing plans for the next — so next time, you have an easy place to start.

Children don’t have to stick with their plan — they are free to change their mind and do something else instead — but remembering what they were doing and having a plan (their own plan!), even if they decide to change it, provides a jump-start.

“If I wake up with a clear picture of my key priorities, I’m infinitely more productive and relaxed. What’s more, I’m also much better at deciding what not to do and which requests to turn down, because what I need to do is already mapped out — I’ve already decided. By contrast, kicking off the day without a plan opens you up to working reactively, letting other people’s demands dictate what you do with your day.

It’s a lot easier to say no to unwanted additions to your to-do list if you’re crystal clear on what you want to accomplish and why.”Five ways to say “no” so you can finally reclaim your focus

Schedule your project time and give it the same weight as commitments you give to other people. Then when you get an invite, you can fit it *around* your big goals instead of pushing them to the bottom of your to-do list.


Some great things I’ve read lately: this interview with Mo Willems (thanks Allie), this one with Jim Jarmusch (thanks Austin), this essay by Alan Jacobs on his history as a reader, and this one by Ursula K. Le Guin on “the alleged decline of reading.”

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Have a great week!
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