A Short Guide for Building an Independent Study Course (with an example included!)
Gifted children are often interested in topics that aren’t typically offered in traditional school curriculums, or they may be ready to study something that isn’t offered until later grades. Sometimes, families are able to find community-based or online classes that allow their child to pursue their interest. But, other times, it may be easier, cheaper, and more meaningful to pursue those interests independently. Some gifted children may want to explore topics without a lot of structure. Other gifted children—including homeschoolers, children seeking enrichment outside of school, or students looking to pursue an independent study course within their school—may want more structure. We designed this guide to help you plan a more structured study of any topic you choose!
- Decide what to study. Is there something that your child has really wanted to learn more about but hasn’t had time? Or, was there something at school that they studied but wanted to dive deeper into? Do they want to get a general understanding of a subject or build expertise in a particular topic?
Eleven-year-old Yara decides she wants to learn more astronomy. It’s something she’s been interested in for a while. She’s read about space here and there, and now she’s excited to start making connections between what she’s learned.
- Build a read/watch/listen list. As you’ll see on our list of educational resources, there are a lot of avenues for good information: books, magazines, podcasts, video/lecture series, documentaries, etc. Encourage your child to spend some time researching and choosing different materials. Then, they can decide which order they want to work through them and set a few small goals on when they want to do this. By doing this work now, they won’t have to worry about what to do next when they finish reading or watching something.
Yara emails her local library to see if they can help her find some good books on astronomy. The librarian suggests several, including Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry, The Astronomy Book, Finding Our Place in the Universe: How We Discovered Laniakea The Milky Way’s Home a book by Helene Courtois and Nikki Kopelman , and Exploding Stars and Invisible Planets. Yara does a little internet research and finds a CrashCourse video series on astronomy. She already knows about the show Cosmos, and she adds that to her list. Her dad reminds her that their local NPR radio station airs a program called StarDate. Yara decides that, each day, she’ll watch one CrashCourse video and listen to StarDate (that’ll be less than 15 minutes a day). Each week, she’ll watch two episodes of Cosmos and read at least one of her books. She decides to start with Astrophysics for Young People in a Hurry; it sounds like the most fun.
- Apply the learning. Have your child find a few activities that are inspired by what they’re reading and watching. There’s more to do at home than you think!
When she was researching ways to study space, Yara found Planet Hunters TESS, a Citizen Science Project, that she can participate in through Zooniverse. Through this project, she is helping researchers find exoplanets; it’s easy, she discovers. After she reads Night Sky: A Field Guide to the Constellations, Yara is inspired to start keeping a star-gazing journal. She records the weather conditions and which constellations she can see from her backyard.
- Connect with others. Talking about what you’re learning helps digest that information and make connections. It’s also helpful to bounce your thoughts and questions off someone else who’s also interested in the topic.
Yara asks her mom for help to find individuals who could answer some of her additional questions via email or phone. They look to see if there are museums, observatories, universities, or stargazing societies in the area. Yara and her mom send out a few initial inquiry emails. In the meantime, they also sign up to Skype with a Scientist. Through this program, Yara and her family will be able to have a video chat in their home with a scientist for free.
- Make something, and share the knowledge. Your child could: make a book about what they’ve learned and send it to a relative; write and present a short talk on the topic to family and friends via Skype; review the books they read on Amazon or Goodreads; or, start their own blog or YouTube series. They could also use what they’ve learned to write something to be published or to enter a competition.
Yara decides to make her own astronomy museum exhibit. In the hallway between her brother’s bedroom and her own, her dad helps her hang some dark sheets. She then uses safety pins to hang paintings she made of the sun and each planet in our solar system. Yara also pins cotton balls between Mars and Jupiter to represent the asteroid belt. She writes a script based off of what she’s learned. She then invites her family to the “grand opening” of the exhibit and leads on her scripted docent tour of the solar system. Later, she gives her grandparents a special tour via her mom’s phone and FaceTime.
You can empower your gifted child by helping them take the reins in their education with this sort of project. They can decide what to read, what activities to include, and when to make it happen. The plan can be flexible and change over time. It can be five minutes a day, once a week, or just a one-day project. In college, this is called creating a syllabus (in fact, if they wanted, they could borrow some ideas from college syllabi on MIT OpenCourseWare). But they don’t have to wait for college. They can do this now!