Self-Directed Learning works for everyone, naturally!

One type of homeschooling that is gaining in popularity is called Self-Directed Learning or Un-schooling. This is the type of learning many adults are familiar with because it’s the type of learning they do personally. How does this work with children?

Q: What is “self-directed learning” for children?

A: In this context, self-directed learning means a style of education that is controlled by the learner. It doesn’t involve a one-size-fits-all, prepackaged curriculum, nor does it require grading or testing. In short, it is a very different style of education than “doing school at home”.

Instead, it is experiential and inquiry-based, led by the interests and curiosity of the learner, and based on the learner’s personality and learning style. Rather than a method of education, it is a philosophy of life. If the learner is a child, the learning is assisted by an adult, but not directed by that adult. Rather than acting in a conventional teacher role or attempting to coerce a child to learn, the adult facilitates the process, creating a stimulating learning environment, helping contact mentors, providing learning materials if requested, and so on, in the same way a parent helps a young child learn to walk and to talk.

Self-directed learning for children is sometimes referred to as “unschooling”, a term coined in the 1970s by the late home education author and advocate John Holt. But the philosophy is more than a method of learning or philosophy of education; it is, instead, a way of looking at the world and living one’s life.

Q: Is this the same as homeschooling?

A: Some homeschoolers favor self-directed learning, while others use a teacher-directed model of education.

Q: What do self-directed children do all day?

A: They play by themselves or with friends and siblings, read, write, think, help out in the family business, dream, catch bugs, volunteer, visit neighbors, build forts, sew, sing, go to the library or museum, dance, work on the computer, do family chores, cook, experiment and anything else that has meaning for them. They learn by participating in the real world.

Q: How will people learn everything they need to know – like math, science and reading – if they aren’t taught?

A: Children are curious, independent, active, self-directed learners. They are born that way and remain that way if school hasn’t conditioned away the natural curiosity about the world. They naturally learn by exploring, questioning, experimenting, figuring things out, making connections, getting ideas and testing them, taking risks, making and correcting mistakes, and trying again. This takes time and space (both physical and psychological). This drive to learn motivates self-directed learners to “study” academic subjects in the same way it propels them to learn how to walk and talk.

Parents and other adults play a major role in this process, supporting, encouraging, enriching the learning environment with appropriate resources, modeling behavior, celebrating good ideas and accomplishments, sympathizing about errors, pointing out possibilities, and generally presenting the riches of the world to their children. They must also be careful not to meddle in their children’s learning.

For most of us, our own highly directed formal education gets in the way and makes us want to “play school”. But true facilitation means creating the learning environment, then trusting the learner to lead the way. Children don’t naturally think in terms of math or reading being “hard”; we create those feelings if we force them to learn these skills before they are developmentally or emotionally ready, or before they are interested. When people memorize something without truly understanding it, they haven’t really learned it. When a skill is mastered in the context of an interest and need experienced in the real world, it is truly learned.

Self-directed learners do very well in post-secondary environments and some universities are now actively soliciting these students, based on the success of those who have gone before. An increasing number of adults have discovered self-education as a way to improve job skills, as a path toward self-employment or as a method of self-improvement for reasons of personal satisfaction and leisure.

Q: How will I know if a self-directed child is learning anything?

A: You will know by observing them, listening to them, reading what they’ve written, and talking with them. Testing, rote recitation and grading are only necessary in school settings, when one adult must keep track of the progress of many children. Learning is a complex process and doesn’t always appear to be sequential or organized. Nor is it always obvious to an onlooker (or even to the learner him/herself) that any learning is happening. But if you are a flexible and patient observer, you will be continually surprised and delighted by the sparks of discovery and insight that light up learners’ faces on a regular basis.

Q: How do self-directed learners become socialized if they aren’t with their age peers all day?

A: Each family’s lifestyle and location is different, but generally, unschooled children develop stronger socialization skills than their peers in school. Like other children, they have neighborhood children to play with after school hours, community teams or church clubs to join, and music or dance lessons to take. But they are also exposed to a wider cross-section of society than their peers who spend most of their days with 20 or 30 others of the same age and background. During a typical week, these children might accompany a parent on neighborhood trips, participate in adult business activities such as working at a food co-op, attend a public political meeting, play with their schooled chums who live down the street, go for a swim with another home-educating family whose children range from babies to teenagers, attend a group skating lesson, take a private French tutorial, and so on.

At any rate, the evidence is that the socialization situation in many schools is much less than its proponents make it out to be; one of the main complaints we hear about school is its mean, bullying, overly competitive, hierarchical nature. Self-Directed Learning justs feels right. If you have the courage to trust your instincts or intuition, you might be very surprised at how well it works. If you take this small step to trust yourself, you might even gain a new insight that relates to your whole life.

Darrel G Hall