Why Self-Directed Learning Should Be Available to All Students-Part 1

Why Self-Directed Learning Should Be Available to All Students

This summer I attended a 4-day online conference organized by the Alternative Education Resource Organization [AERO]. Presenters talked on a range of topics including “self-directed learning,” “self-directed education,” and “unschooling.” This blog posting consists of two parts. In Part One, I provide a brief overview the terms and concepts. In Part Two, I make four arguments for why self-directed learning should be available to all students.

Part One: Terms and Concepts

Self-Directed Learning

In Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, Malcom S. Knowles, known primarily for his scholarship in the field of adult education, defined self-directed learning [SDL] as:

a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.[1]

Sharan B. Merriam, also in the field of adult education, presents SDL as

a process where individuals take primary charge of planning, continuing and evaluating their learning experiences.[2]

A significant feature of SDL is that the

responsibility of learning shifts from an external source (teacher, etc.) to the individual. Control, active involvement and consent of the learner in the learning process is crucial in the process.[3]

A recent report by the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment[4] observes

self-direction is best viewed as a continuum that exists in every person and learning situation.

All learning experiences fall on a continuum somewhere between a teacher driven, teacher dependent to self-determined, self-developed. The report includes a chart to assess where a given learning experience falls on the SDL continuum.  The same report finds that an individual’s environment and social interactions play a critical role in shaping the learning process and the development of self-directed learning skills.

Finally, whereas students who attend a conventional school may have opportunity for SDL as one part of their education (perhaps as a special project, capstone experience, project-based learning, problem-based learning, experiential learning, competency-based learning, or inquiry learning experience), some families opt out of conventional schooling to make SDL constitute the entire educational route.

Self-Directed Education

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education [ASDE] (https://www.self-directed.org/) contrasts Self-Directed Education [SDE] with “conventional schooling,”  a system that “imposes” and “forces curriculum upon individuals, regardless of their desire for it.” Conventional schooling

is generally aimed at enhancing conformity rather than uniqueness, and it operates by suppressing, rather than nurturing, the natural drives of curiosity, playfulness, and sociability.

Self-Directed Education [SDE] is that which

derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the person becoming educated, whether or not those activities were chosen deliberately for the purpose of education.

SDE is the educational route of families who

have chosen not to enroll [their school-aged children] in imposed schooling, but, instead, allow the children to take charge of all of their education.

Educative Drives. The Alliance identify four specific aims or goals of SDE, which it presents as the “four educative drives.” These drives aspire to Curiosity, Playfulness, Sociability, and Planfuless.

Optimizing Conditions. The Alliance also identifies six conditions must be met for the educative drives to be fully realized:

  • recognition that learning is the learner’s responsibility,
  • unlimited time to play,
  • opportunity to play with the tools of the culture,
  • access to caring adults who serve as helpers not judges,
  • free age-mixing among children and adolescents, and
  • immersion in a stable, supportive and respectful community.

SDE-aligned schools satisfy the legal requirements of compulsory schooling laws while giving students as much freedom as possible to direct their own education. ASDE maintains a listing of schools in the US and around the world that provide learners an SDE experience.


John C.  Holt (1923-1985), the recognized leader of the homeschooling movement, introduced the term “unschooling.” Patrick Farenga, co-author of the 2003 re-edition of Teach Your Own” The John Holt Book of Homeschooling, explained the origins of the term:

[W]e are practically programmed to teach [at home] the way we were taught in school. . .. We’ve all spent so much time in school, it is difficult to imagine that there are other ways to live and learn in our current society. . .  In response to the prevailing definition of school, John created the word unschooling to describe how we help children learn without duplicating ideas and practices that we learned in school.[5]

The Freechild Project (https://freechild.org/youth-and-unschooling/) inspired by Holt, defines unschooling as:

living life without any structure in life that resembles schools. Rather than relying on curriculum, schedules, teachers and tests, unschooling can give young people opportunities to learn with life as teacher.

Unschooling School (UnschoolingSchool.com) seeks to create Unschooling Schools within the conventional school. The organization, a community of students, parents, educators, propose to

[make] space for change within schools by choosing not to comply with the age-segregated, curriculum-driven, testing, grading, and homework-laden nonsense. . . [with the insistence] that our children be allowed to choose what they want to do at school.

An innovation of this organization has been the invention of a new designation for students: The Free Learner (or FL). Students who declare themselves to be a Free Learner and receive the FL designation will require accommodation in the class and school. The accommodations will vary and depend on the wishes/interests of the FL child and parent(s).

In Part Two, I present four arguments for why ongoing opportunities for self-directed learning should be available to all students.

[1] Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. Cambridge: Englewood Cliffs.

[2] Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., and Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in Adulthood. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[3] Boyer, N. R., and Usinger, P. (2015). Tracking pathways to success: triangulating learning success factors. Int. J. Self-Directed Learn. 12, pp. 22–48.

[4] Brandt, W. C. (2020). Measuring student success skills: A review of the literature on self-direction. Dover, NH: National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment.

[5] Holt, J. C. & Farenga, P. (2003).  Teach Your Own: The John Holt Manual of Homeschooling (original published in 1981), Perseus Books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s