“I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.”
–Wallace Stevens, “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”
On the afternoon of July 4th, I found myself walking a dusty and abandoned cobblestone street in Red Cloud, Nebraska, looking for Willa Cather’s house. The only person I saw was an upper-middle-aged man wearing upper-middle-class camping gear, eating a Subway sandwich and watching me with casual interest. The man, it turns out, was a professor of art history at a small college in South Carolina. He had just taken a roadtrip to drop off his daughter at her new job in the Bay Area and was on his way back home. I, it turns out, was taking a roadtrip to my new job in the Bay Area and had just left my family back home in Atlanta. Rather than dwell on the “what are the chances?” coincidence of our meeting, the two of us simply talked. We had each been on our own for some time, so it was pleasant to unload, share, commiserate, and reflect on the beauty and challenge of solitude. He gave me advice for the road ahead, and 1,500 miles later, I arrived for my first day of work at Khan Lab School.
In the weeks that I’ve been at KLS, I have been immersed in the concept of independence. I’ve had to type the word so many times: Independence Progression, Independence Tracker, Independence Levels, Independence Challenge. I found that the more I used the word, the more it became disjointed shapes and meaningless sounds; I even kept leaving out a syllable: indepence. At some point, I realized I needed to restore meaning (and a fourth syllable) to this word whose concept is so central to our school’s model of learning.
It helps to put concepts in context. Over the past few months, I have been independent. My family spent the summer at our house in Atlanta, Georgia, packing up 17 years of life while I started my new adventure out west. I drove cross country on my own. By myself. Independent. When friends in Atlanta asked me how I was feeling about my upcoming solo journey, I jokingly told them I was terrified – but I was not entirely joking. When they countered, “You’re going to learn so much about yourself,” I jokingly replied, “What if I find out that I don’t like myself?”
To prepare for the trip, I loaded my phone with audiobooks and podcasts. I rounded up old CD mixes from back when my wife, my friends, and I made CD mixes for each other. My father bought me a three-month subscription to Sirius XM satellite radio. In other words, I had every possible distraction from independence I could get. Independence, after all, is scary. Being on your own, immersed in your own thoughts, with full agency and (as a result) absolute ownership of the choices and mistakes you make – this can be daunting.
But independence can also be liberating and instructive. Had I made the trip with family, I may not have gone many miles out of the way on Kentucky back roads to drive up into Red Cloud, Nebraska, the birthplace of author Willa Cather and the small town on which my favorite novel, My Antonia, is set. I also may not have spontaneously exited the interstate to drive to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, the site of so much racial turmoil, and I may not have parked the car in Laramie to walk the University of Wyoming campus to pay my respects to Matthew Shepard. Conversely, had I had my wife with me, I may not have gotten lost in a small town in Utah without cell service. These are the instructive lessons of independence.
As adults, when we think back to our watershed moments – times when we felt a shift in our souls – we often recall moments of independence, times when we had to deal with something on our own. We made a mistake and recovered from it. We discovered some truth that contradicted what others had been telling us. And yet as adults, charged with bringing young people into adulthood at the right pace, it’s easy to forget the importance of self-reliance. We protect children from failure, we carve paths for them, we do too much for them – and our guidance, paved with the best intentions, can often squelch creativity, arrest self-awareness, and delay emotional, social, and intellectual development.
Recently, KLS students transitioning to Independence Level 6 were tasked with giving speeches to our community of peers, teachers, parents, and siblings. In these speeches, students told their stories of growth: discoveries, realizations, failures, recoveries. One student told a story about how, last year, she accidentally missed her Spanish class because she wasn’t paying attention to the time. “I felt really badly that I had disrespected the class,” she told the crowd. “However, nobody scolded me, nobody put me in detention, and I had to learn the lesson by myself.” The mistake she made was hers to own and deal with. And so she did. She apologized to the teacher and doubled up on her lessons to get caught up. It was a small moment of independence, but the kind of moment that can be measured like a pencil line on the wall marking a child’s growth.
Of course, the paradox in all of this is that a student can’t develop independence completely on her own. In his influential book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink explains that intrinsic motivation depends on a balance between mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Here at Khan Lab School, students buy into a shared purpose in our core values and graduate profile; are coached, guided, and instructed through mastery of academic and social skills; and are provided with gradual autonomy to figure it all out on their own. This kind of system provides a safe place for students to make discoveries and share them, as well as to make mistakes and learn from them.
Reflection is a skill we emphasize at every turn at KLS. Doing everything solo at a breakneck speed can be productive, but it’s not conducive to growth. Authentic and meaningful reflection allows students the opportunity to slow down and contemplate what they’ve learned, often with a coach or a mentor. This is what I valued so much about my serendipitous interaction with the professor in Nebraska: he had just been where I was about to go. After we talked for a bit, and he got a sense of what I was interested in seeing along the way, he recommended a short off-the-beaten-path state road that I could take as I was passing through Wyoming. It would get me back on the interstate eventually, he said, but might also get me out of my comfort zone.
When I got to Wyoming, I took the professor’s advice, but I also took a wrong turn. I got lost for about an hour before my GPS kicked in and I found my way again. So, maybe I can’t exactly say that I did everything on my own. I can, however, say that I own everything that I did.
Questions for Students:
- How can you find a balance between trying to do it on your own and knowing when to ask for help?
- If not for social, societal, or parental pressures, which interests would you pursue?
Questions for Parents:
- What is the appropriate balance between allowing your child to grow in independence and letting your child make bad decisions?
- How are you preparing your child for a life of independence?
Questions for Educators:
- To what extent are imposed and traditional structures like grades, homework, and disconnected disciplines preventing students from becoming independent?
- How much are we allowing students the safe space to fail and recover on their own?