Self Teaching Learning Model of Education for Families

A few years ago, I interviewed Joanne Calderwood about learning the self teaching model of education. She has written The Self-Propelled Advantage and has spoken extensively about the idea of helping teach children how to teach themselves. She has 8 children of her own, 4 of whom have graduated from homeschool and are attending the colleges of their choice for free.

1. How does the model of self teaching work?

self teaching

Self teaching is a beautiful, freeing concept for both children and parents. It is not a new concept by any means, as most children of the wealthy were self-taught and/or tutored prior to the late 1800s before the advent of what we commonly refer to as public education. Families who could afford books had a distinct educational advantage over those who could not. Free time in which to read and study was a luxury that not many children possessed before the turn of the 19th century.

Self teaching or self learning allows children to get at the books themselves without an interpreter, a teacher. The public school model of education assumes that a teacher is necessary to spoon-feed information into the heads of the students and then give tests and quizzes to measure the level of understanding.

Self teaching assumes that children, once they can read and write well independently, can learn at their own speed without a teacher. Usually their “speed” of learning is much, much quicker than those of their peers who are teacher-led due to the simple fact that they do not need to wait for someone to look over their shoulder after every single thing they do. Self-learners are also much more motivated because they have true educational freedom. Freedom is motivating!

I believe my job as a homeschooling parent is to teach my children where to go to find out the information they don’t know. It is not to tell them what to do every minute of their school day.

2. What are the advantages of self teaching over other methods of homeschooling?

The biggest advantage is a motivated student. The sky is the limit when your child is motivated to learn! Self-learning will not necessarily cause your child to love school work, (after all, there is a reason why we call it “work”), but he will be motivated to dive in and actually DO the work to the best of his ability because he has control over his environment, something that kids in a classroom do not have.

Another advantage is the parent is freed up to do other things besides stand over the student and crack a whip. When I first allowed my children to start their lessons in the morning without me, it was out of absolute necessity. I had just had baby number four, and I was overwhelmed. Frankly, I didn’t care if we ever did school again at that point in my life, although I was overwhelmed with guilt because I felt that way.

I began letting my older two children, ages seven and eight, do their work without waiting for me to talk to them about each section, and then I had them check their own math and language. I was forced to trust them. Because my husband and I had put an enormous emphasis on heart training almost from birth, meaning raising trustworthy, honest, obedient, and cheerful kids, I was able to reap what we had sown in those areas. Self-learning will not work if you cannot trust your children to do what they say they are doing. Heart training comes first. Self-learners must be trustworthy, and because they are trustworthy, the reward to both parent and student is the student has the freedom to work without constant oversight which is a motivating factor for the child.

Almost any curriculum can be adapted for self teaching with the exception of unit studies which are traditionally parent-intensive. There are very few brands of curriculum that do not lend themselves well to self-learning, which means there is a wide variety of materials out there for use by self-learners. For the most part, I have used the same curriculum for all of my children over the past 17 years; we have ten more years to go, and I don’t foresee making changes now. I did, however, purchase Rosetta Stone Swedish this year for one of my teens who wants to play hockey in Sweden one day, so I am certainly flexible if I need to be.

Self-learners are used to thinking things through on their own versus raising their hand if they don’t immediately “get it.” This translates into a “Yes-I-Can” attitude. They do not give up easily when searching for an answer. Consequently, self-learners test well on the College Board exams. They know how to read a question and think it through carefully if they don’t immediately know the answer. They are confident and not easily intimidated.

Most importantly, self-learning students know where to go to find out what they don’t know which gives them an edge for life.

3. Are there any disadvantages to self teaching?

Good question, Heidi. If you enjoy the feeling of being burned out, I suppose there is a disadvantage to self teaching because you will not be feeling burned out ever again once your children are working independently. I guarantee it!

One distinct disadvantage, however, is that your self teaching children may become smarter than you are. Seriously. Wind them up; off they go. Children especially will be motivated to delve more deeply into areas that interest them most. Because they accomplish their work quickly, they have more time to pursue their interests.

Their desire to learn may challenge you to find avenues for alternative learning opportunities for them such as enrolling in college classes while in high school, job shadowing, finding a mentor or an internship. Book work is just one aspect of independent learning; self-learners often desire hands-on learning later in high school that prepares them well for college. I certainly do not see this as a disadvantage, but some parents may because it requires extra work on their part.

4. What involvement does the parent have in this process of self teaching?

homeschool learning

When children are young, say from kindergarten through about second grade, the parent is most definitely taking a hands-on approach to teaching. I love the early years of homeschooling because I am so very involved in teaching my children to read, to learn math concepts, and to begin to grasp the wonderful world of language. This is a time for snuggling and reading books together, for playing games that double as math lessons, for discovering the world of science through books and activities, and for being knit together as parent and child.

Because I feel so strongly about heart-training, I will again say that the young years are times when we as parents are setting expectations for behavior and desirable attitudes that we want to see in our children. We are molding their hearts and teaching them how to live and interact. Positive reinforcement for good behavior coupled with consequences for undesirable behavior are the basic tenets of parenting a young child, all covered with generous, daily helpings of love.

Heart-training should be well established by the time a child is four, and often children are ready to begin little math workbooks or phonics workbooks at this age. Some may not be, but out of my eight children, seven were raring to go. My last child enjoyed having everything done for her by loving siblings, and I think she just had no reason to want to read at a young age because she so enjoyed being read to. Trust your instincts in the readiness department.

Once a child can read fairly well and can follow directions in the materials you are using, he will most likely begin to have a desire to start a lesson on his own without waiting for you. My youngest, Lilie, began doing this about three months ago at age seven. It was so fun to watch. Sure, I still checked over everything she did, but I allowed her the freedom to try the workbook pages on her own. I will be checking over all of her work for the rest of her second grade year, but next year I will allow her to begin checking her own math lessons, and then I will check them to see how well she checked them.

This brings up an important topic for discussion: accountability. There has got to be an accountability system for every child. As I just explained, young children get hands-on attention from parents because they simply need it. Gradually a child will move towards working independently. From late third grade on up, my role has changed from teacher to coach. I help the students set short-term goals, and I look over their shoulders from time to time to ensure that they are learning their material to a mastery level. What that accountability looks like for each child will vary as he grows and matures, but I caution parents to have that system of accountability in place and do not let up in this department.

Teacher versus coach: I love both of these roles, but I know that my high school students do not need me to teach them. I am freed up to be teacher to my younger students without feeling as though I am torn in 100 different directions each day. I have my finger on the pulse of my high school students’ educational goals and dreams, but I am not an integral part of their day-to-day lessons. I am always here for questions, but they just don’t need me. The goal is to teach our children when they are young where to go to find out the things they do not know. This translates extremely well to success in college, by the way.

One of the most important things we do for our children is to set expectations for educational excellence. Set the bar high! Expect your children to learn to a mastery level, but make sure your students understand the steps they will need to take to meet those expectations. In my seminars I talk a lot about the setting of expectations and goals, and also setting up the rewards and consequences. I can not emphasize enough our responsibility as parents to encourage our children in excellence. We do this by laying out our expectations and helping our children set short-term goals. We review their progress regularly and reward them for their achievements.

My role in the high school years is also to help my students identify their gifts and special abilities that the Lord has given to them. My husband and I pray with our older children regularly, and we encourage them in excellence through accountability. We spend time with our teens looking at options for the future so that when the time comes to make those decisions, the students know exactly in what direction they are headed. I love parenting high school students, and it is totally different than parenting any other age group.

Most importantly, parents are essential to the educational success of their students. My attitudes about education most certainly carry over to my children. If they have my trust and my belief that they CAN work to a mastery level in every subject, they will believe this, too, and they will not think anything about teaching themselves physics or chemistry or Swedish because they know it can be done. I have set the expectations, they have seen their siblings succeed in this manner, and they know that they are expected to do the same. They prefer self teaching.

5. Do you recommend the mom getting the Self Teaching Manual and CD first to get familiar with it or can they get the student manual and be able to use it without much help?

If a parent could choose only one of the self teaching tools that we offer, I would most certainly recommend The Home School Student Planners, one per child. There is a good bit of instruction in the beginning of each planner to assist both parent and student in implementing self teaching in the homeschool. It is essential that each child has a place to record what he has accomplished each day as well as a place for setting short-term goals, recording grades, books read, and etc. The planner is the most important tool in a parent’s arsenal.

For those who would like more information on the self-teaching methodology as well as helpful and encouraging information for the self-learning home, I would recommend either The Self Teaching Manual or the 2-CD set. Both contain much information on the how’s and why’s of self teaching.

6. How does mastery learning fit into the whole model of self teaching?

Mastery learning simply means that a student does not move on in his lessons until he has learned the current material to an A level. It is obvious that in a classroom situation, a teacher can not hang around waiting for all 25 of her students to ace the material. She simply does not have the time; therefore, some students struggle because they have not had adequate time to learn what was presented; consequently, they do not master the material.

What happens in a second grade math class when a child fails to understand subtraction but the teacher has to move on to the next lesson in fractions? The child who was failing in subtraction is going to most likely turn around and fail in subtracting fractions. In education, we build one concept upon another. If the ground upon which we are building is shaky, what kind of structure will we end up with?

In the homeschool we DO have the time to spend on a lesson to ensure that the child thoroughly understands it before moving on to the next thing. All homeschooled students should be achieving an A in every subject simply because we have the time luxury of going back and revisiting any lesson that was not completely understood.

Why in the world would we allow our students to move on in a math lesson when he or she has only correctly answered 70 percent of the material? What about the other 30 percent? If the child has a bad day, that is one thing. It is our job as the parent to discern what the problem is if the student does not achieve that A. The child goes back and tackles the information again until we know that mastery has certainly been achieved. Then the student moves on with confidence.

To this day I can not figure percentages unless it is a simple ten percent. Why not? Because I didn’t “get” percentages when I first did them in public school, and I was too scared to speak up and tell anyone. It fell through the cracks. In the homeschool, a child will not be scared to speak up because not understanding something is no big deal. If he doesn’t understand something, he works on it until he does or asks for help if necessary. It becomes a challenge, not an embarrassment, and he builds success upon success.

7. Any advice for new homeschoolers?

My best advice is to trust your instincts. And relax. Homeschooling is something we naturally do with our children from the moment they are born. How hard can it be to teach them how to read and write? As one homeschool mom told me recently, “Teaching my children is the easy part; it’s the training and discipline that get me!”

Work on instilling the desired attitudes and actions in the hearts of your children first, and the schooling part will follow naturally. We are what we teach and we teach what we are. This means that if we want our children to have good habits and develop to the best of their ability, we need to model good habits ourselves, and we need to be constantly developing personally. That is kind of scary, isn’t it? My motivation for doing my best in my work each day is often to set an example for my children, and some days it is really hard. Some days I fail, but hopefully my children see that I am trying.

In closing, set expectations for obedience; set expectations for schooling excellence. Self-learning is a reward for being trustworthy, honest, and hard-working. If children are not holding up their end of the bargain, they temporarily lose the self-learning privilege. It is that simple. Students who have had the luxury of self-learning do not enjoy losing the privilege, and they will right their ship in order to win it back. If you want a self-motivated student who learns with excellence, begin to give him some educational freedom and allow him to begin the transition to self-education.


For more info on Joanne Calderwood, self-learning, or mastery learning, visit her Web site at Check out her blog at, or see what workshops she can offer you and your next homeschool conference at You can also join a self-teaching Yahoo Group by going to

You can also get Joanne's latest book

The Self-Propelled Advantage on Amazon.