Self-Directed Learning and the “New Normal”-Part 2

Blog posting, October 22, 2020

COVID 19 has resulted in significant disruption to the education system.  The temporary closure of our public schools creates space to rethink the purposes of public education, its grounding framework, and the way we do school. As one reporter put it,

COVID-19 has created a strange natural experiment in American education: Families who would have never otherwise considered taking their kids out of school feel desperate enough to try it.. . . Although some of these parents will likely put their kids back in school once the pandemic is under control. . . [s]ome families may find that they want to exit the system for good. [1]

In a video message recorded in front of an unseen audience just weeks before his passing, Sir Ken Robinson, dropping the humor that we know from his TED talks, looked squarely into the camera and asked: “As we prepare to hit the reset button and look ahead to getting back to normal, What is the normal that we want to get back to? Is it the normal that we left behind us?”[2]  

For Robinson, perhaps many of you, and others—such as students who, dis-affected by their experiences, opted out of school; employers who look for graduates who have the skills to successfully engage with a workplace and society that is increasingly global and diverse; and those who see education as preparing students for civic engagement and the engine for building and actively constructing an equitable and sustainable democracy–the answer is clear. No.

Imagining and Envisioning What School Could Be

Sir Ken Robinson left this earth all too soon, amid the summer heat of COVID 19, a loss and disruption of cataclysmic proportions, creating shockwaves across educational circles. Yet, Robinson is with us in spirit. Through his many talks and public presentations Robinson sketched a vision, framework and new paradigm to guide us as we work together as an “ecosystem” of persons united by a shared concern for the flourishing of children and youth, our communities and society and the world at large. We must draw on this inspiration to imagine and dream the world that we would have, a world that lifts up and sees value, possibility and potential in all people, and create a new educational model for the “new normal.”

Speaking in 2018 at the Reimagine Education Conference,[3] Robinson was emphatic that this work necessitates that we “reimagine that learning can [and does] change the world.”

We must re-imagine schools as places that “re-ignite learning” and nurture curiosity, where students have an identity and “develop a sense of promise,” as they come to “understand their relationship to earth and their communities.” In these places, curriculum is “where [students] discover themselves most fully” and teaching is “facilitating knowing.

Most fundamentally, the current educational paradigm, rooted in the industrial era in which school responded to societal needs to compete in a rapidly growing marketplace, and which equates increases in student test scores with national economic superiority, is “unnatural,” “unsustainable” and deeply flawed. Rather than focusing on test scores as measures of learning, teaching and school effectiveness, suggests Robinson, we must look to other “outcomes.” These outcomes are the human attributes of curiosity, creativity, criticism (critical thinking), communication, collaboration, compassion, composure, citizenship.  Ron Miller, a historian of progressive education and founder of Holistic Education Review, agrees. Miller finds what Pope Francis knows. The current system emerged from a “consensus consciousness” and worldview that prioritizes scientific reductionism, capitalism, nationalism and “restrained democratic ideals.” From Miller’s perspective

Our nation is not at risk because the schools are failing; schools are failing because our nation, our culture, have entered a period of serious decline. . . . educating our youth for the sake of national economic superiority is a profoundly self-destructive mistake![4]

In the current model, like fruit produced by industrial farming, “our students wither on the vine.”  Fruit produced by industrial farming cannot provide the nourishment and nutrients we need to survive. It does not have to be that way. Indeed, as organic farming is replacing the corporate industrial farm, “another way is possible.”

Now is the time to make “radical decisions” about how we do school that, to quote Pope Francis in his October letter to educators, [5] “can shape not only our way of life but above all our stance in the face of possible future scenarios.”

The value of our educational practices will be measured not simply by the results of standardized tests, but by the ability to affect the heart of society and to help give birth to a new culture. A different world is possible and we are called to learn how to build it. This will involve every aspect of our humanity, both as individuals and in our communities. [Para 12]

Robinson, having deep trust in our  “boundless capacity and innovation,” illuminated a guiding vision but left the path and creative constructive work for attaining and reaching the vision and dream to us.

Self-Directed Learning and “Catching the Dream”

Self-Directed Learning [SDL] is a creative and innovative way of doing school that provides a path to Robinson’s vision for schools.  The benefits of SDL are such that it should be a part of all redesign projects, available to all students, and scaled-up to the greatest extent possible in our public schools. SDL embodies what we know about how people learn and build understanding and resolves the dilemma of the student-teacher relationship, while helping schools achieve theirlarger purposes.” As an approach to doing school, SDL creates a dynamic and dialectic relationship between school and community that provides schools the flexibility to adapt to the challenges of an ever-changing and unpredictable environment.

Self-directed learning is

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.[6]

Currently, there are families who choose to make SDL constitute the entirety of their student’s educational experience.[7] These students, typically less than 4 percent of the school-age children and youth,  are either homeschooled or attend alternative schools outside of the public system. Each fall, approximately 57 million students enroll in state-funded elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States.[8] Students within the public system, may experience SDL as one part of their schooling, perhaps as a capstone project.

Self-Directed Learning and School’s Larger Purposes

Few schools in the public system put the attributes that Robinson identifies in Creative Schools-and which likely many of you hope to see nurtured in school- at the center of educational planning.  As Wayne Jennings has commented[9]

As presently constituted, schooling operates out of syc with modern principles of learning, recognition of individual differences, and attention to societal needs and is not managed with contemporary organizational procedures. The present model is simply outmoded in the same way that the nineteenth-century practice of medicine is obsolete today. (p. xxii)

In School Transformation, Jennings builds on his research of studies in the field to identify four goals to serve as foundational cornerstones for school transformation projects. Preparing students as responsible citizens for life in a democracy; productive workers, lifelong learners and fulfilled learners.  As a way of doing school, SDL aligns with recommendations outlined in a Generations Citizen report, a call to action, for policy-makers, stakeholder-students, educators, school leaders, parents-that encourages use of approaches that are “student-centered, experiential civics education to prepare students as civic actors ready to participate in a sustained, equitable 21st century democracy.”[10]

I reorganize Jennings’ “larger purposes” as:

I elaborate on how SDL supports each of these larger purposes for public education in another posting.

SUPPORT FOR SDL: “Self-directed learning is vital in today’s world.”

Support for SDL comes from an in-depth study conducted  by the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment [NCIEA].[11] Researchers found that students who experience SDL

have a heightened ability to adapt to changing social and contextual conditions . . . feel more empowered to take action when oppressed . . . are more likely to reach self-actualization. [And] as adults, they are better equipped to learn new skills, remain employed, and nurture their own long-term career success.

The report concluded:

Self-directed learning is vital in today’s world. People in developing countries now have access to massive amounts of data and virtually ubiquitous access to information. This creates conditions for rapid societal change and presents challenges for educational institutions to fully prepare students for demands in the workforce. These demands extend beyond content knowledge to include skill-based competencies such as problem-solving, curiosity and reflection, creativity, written and verbal communication, collaboration, accepting and applying critical feedback, applying knowledge to real-life problems, and managing and supporting constant change. To survive in today’s workforce, individuals must know how to take charge of their learning—to plan, develop, adapt, and change in a digital, interactive and global society.

A different world” is possible . . . and it begins with how we do school

Our best hope for social progress and realizing the vision of the progressive era is, as Sir Ken stated, in how we choose to do school. Indeed, as Dewey noted, how we do school is a direct reflection of our values and how we view society. It will shape the future of our humanity. A more peaceful and humane world that values and nourishes the creativity, possibility and potential within all people is reflected in and shaped by how we do school.

As John Dewey had said 100 years ago,

All that society has accomplished for itself is put, through the agency of the school, at the disposal of its future members. All its better thoughts of itself it hopes to realize through the new possibilities thus opened to its future self. (p. 7)

Only when schools are successful in accomplishing this aim,

we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious. (p. 29)

In the words of Pope Francis, taken from his October 15 letter to educators

it is time to subscribe to a global pact on education for and with future generations. . . . [para 11]

. . .  We have the space we need for co-responsibility in creating and putting into place new processes and changes. Let us take an active part in renewing and supporting our troubled societies. [para 13]

Covid 19, so small that it cannot be seen with the naked eye, but with impacts that reach beyond all walls, has unveiled the interdependence of all social systems and the deep inequities in society. Change happens through disruption. Through the dust and ash, new life emerges.

Our social problems and failures-those of disease, poverty, and education- cannot be solved with technologic innovations. Eradication of disease, as Paul Farmer, “the man who would cure the world,”  has said, starts with eradicating poverty and the inequities that exist throughout or social-economic-cultural-educational systems. Eradicating social inequities and disease begins with how we do school.

Robinson reminded us:

We created school. We can reinvent school.” We are the system-what [we] do next is the system.”

Now is the time to catch and realize the dream and to be dreamkeepers for all.

[1] Green, E. (2020, September). Politics. The pandemic has parents fleeing from schools-maybe forever. The Atlantic

[2] A Call to Unite,


[4] Miller was referencing the controversial 1983 national report, A Nation At Risk, which attributed America’s so-called educational declines to “a rising tide of mediocrity.”[4] The Committee’s response: demand that schools put even greater emphasis on academic content and test scores.

[5] Video message of his holiness Pope Francis on the occasion of the meeting organised by the congregation for catholic education: “Global compact on education. Together to look beyond”.  Thursday, 15 October 2020.

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

[7] I present the definitions for SDL and SDE in a pervious blog posting. For a listing of SDE schools go to

[8] In fall 2020 56.4 million students were projected to enroll in a public school and just 5.7 million will opt for a private school.

[9] Jennings, W.B. (2018). School Transformation. North Charlestown, South Carolina: CreateSpace, an Company.

[10] Citizen Generation  Through an Action Civic Lens.

[11] Brandt, C. (2020). Measuring student success skills: A review of the literature on self-directed learning. Center for Assessment, National Committee for the Improvement of Educational Assessment [NCIEA].

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