Two key differences

The Independent Learner model of education features two key differences from most other schools, whether public or private.  First, students learn independently of one another. Unlike the modern approach to education, where students spend 13 years walking largely in lockstep through a one-size-fits-all curriculum, students in an Independent Learner school learn at a their own pace, a pace that fits the abilities that God has given them.  As they mature, their education is also adapted to the aptitudes and passions they have been given.  

Second, students learn largely independently of the teacher as well.  This is quite contrary to the familiar paradigm, where the teacher spends the day presenting all that the curriculum guide has for that day, regardless of the students’ ability.  The downside of the Independent Learner approach is that students must become independent learners. The upside is that they will become  independent learners and, once they do, there is nothing to hold them back.  Independent learning is not quite the chief end of the school, but it is certainly the school’s primary distinctive.  Glorifying God and enjoying him forever is the chief end of man, and consequently the chief end of the school.  A student capable of learning and accomplishing things on his own is well-equipped to progress toward that chief end.  

Advancement through mastery

At Sea Island School, students advance through their studies as they master their studies.  In contrast to modern education (which we refer to as the factory school), students continue with a certain assignment as long as they need to and no longer than they need to. 

For example, in modern education, a class of fourth graders is learning how to add fractions with like denominators.  At some point the teacher gives the test and moves on to the next level, adding fractions with unlike denominators.  For a few students the timing of the test and the advancement to the next level are just right, but for most students they are too soon or too late.  Some students are bored and frustrated because they had mastered like denominators ten minutes into the first lesson and were ready to advance then.  Other students have not mastered like denominators and do not have the foundation needed to move on to unlike denominators, but regardless they must advance as a class in lockstep.  

When this happens day after day, week after week, frustration sets in for those who are struggling to keep up, and such students tend to give up. For the students who are being held back, boredom sets in, and bad behavior and bad attitudes follow.  In contrast, take a look at a typical day in the Independent Learner classroom.

An education to fit the child

There are many advantages to the Independent Learner model, but one of the most important is the flexibility to adapt the curriculum to the abilities and interests that the child has been blessed with, especially as he matures.

The paradox of modern education with its one-size-fits-all curriculum is that the subjects that hold the least future for a student are the ones that take up all his time and energy, and the subjects that are most promising (and rewarding to the student) get the least time and energy.  A student who is a gifted writer and a struggling mathematician does not have to work hard at all to get an A in writing. But he does have to expend many frustrating hours with math, and probably won’t even attain the A.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around? The independent learner has the ability, with guidance from parents and teacher, to invest more time and energy in the subjects that are the most promising, about which he is most passionate, and for which he will get the most reward.  

There are some things all children need to know. Someone who is not a “‘math person” still needs to know the basics of math, but she does not have to be on the same path and pace as someone whose future involves calculus.  Not everyone loves history, but everyone needs to know an outline of US and world history, and how to find his way around a globe.  At the younger ages, there will not be as much flexibility in studies, as every student needs math tables and such. But as students get older and their strengths rise to the top, there should be room to accommodate those strengths.  The curriculum should fit the student, not the student fit the curriculum.