Self-Directed Learning as Transformational Practice

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun . . . or does it explode? Harlem, Langston Hughes

How we do school matters.  The structures and practices that schools enact define what education is and is not. Decisions about what students are expected to learn, how they are to learn it and how they are organized have profound implications for students, their communities, society, and the world at large.

The current educational model, enforced by federally-mandated assessment and reporting systems, equates student learning with increases in standardized test scores. It is a model that is driven by corporate needs and nationalistic interests and grounded in a worldview that favors scientific reductionism and quantitative measures. Academic superiority on the global stage is presented by national leaders as critical to maintaining economic competitiveness and national security. [1]  Education’s sole purpose-and resulting educational system-is to produce academically prepared high-achieving students. Accordingly, districts across the US utilize “value-added measures” [VAMs] to predict the impact a given teacher will have on student test scores[2] and are integrated into policy and personnel decisions. Despite widespread criticism from educators, professional organizations, and educational researchers, the practice of using VAMS to evaluate teachers, schools and teacher preparation programs persists.[3]  The reductionist view of schools and student learning “channels the educational endeavor in ways that diminish self-understanding and human development.”[4]

The focus on academic content knowledge as a measure of student learning is losing status among leaders in business and industry. Faced with diverse global markets and what has been termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution [41R], employers are looking instead for graduates who exhibit a capacity for creative and innovative thinking and an ability for collaboration and communication.[5] What were once presented as “soft skills” or twenty-first century skills are now the “essential employability qualities.”[6]

Drawing on Sir Ken Robinson’s Call to Unite[7] and Ron Miller’s analyses of trends in American education, I have argued in an earlier posting that the current educational model has proved to be unsustainable, inequitable, and unjust. I have argued that education’s many shortcomings, as detailed by Jennings and others, and the storm clouds of disease, ecological disaster, social and racial unrest, reveal the intersection and interdependence of all social and ecological systems–we are one ecosystem, a tiny blue dot in the universe. How we do education, reaches into all social and ecological spheres. In Fratelli tutti,[8] Pope Francis argues that the current ecological degradation is, in part, a reflection of our loss of humanity. Education is at its heart a moral, ethical enterprise. Education needs more heart.

School Transformation author Wayne B. Jennings and numerous others like myself are “disillusioned by a system that prizes intellectual growth and neglects the humanistic aspect of education.”[9]

During his years as a high school teacher in the public-school system in Minnesota that had adopted principles of progressive education, Jennings taught at level five which had no prescribed curriculum. Rather than being a predetermined sequence of lessons, curriculum was

built on the assumption that students should be equipped with competencies for life. That’s best done through designing a curriculum including student-determined learning activities, using student interests and accomplishing societal expectations for educated people.

Jennings writes,

Deeply embedded in my mind and something I was constantly aware of was the aim of producing people who would have the skills [and disposition] to create better lives and work for a better society. (p. xvii)

In proposing that our schools need to undergo transformation, Jennings writes:

I want to see schools with enthusiastic students who are engaged in a wide variety of activities. There should be a hum of energy as students explore their interests and the opportunity to stretch themselves. . .  (p. xxvii)

Jennings notes the gap and disconnect between schools’ aspirations for graduates and educational practice.

While most school districts acknowledge the value of helping students achieve their aspirations and accept the idea of achieving competencies for life, they fail to detail the implications of those hopes. (p. 12)

my major quarrel about schooling is not about mission; almost everyone accepts school and district broad mission statements. The disconnect comes when organizing learning to achieve the mission. (p. 37)

Imagining the education students need to flourish and thrive, and which reflects the progressive values we want to see advanced in the world, Ron Miller suggests that schools might do well to adopt principles that holistic educators have advocated for two centuries:

Building on these holistic values and Jennings’ summation of education’s larger purposes, I presented what might be four larger purposes to guide schools in their educational planning:

I identified Self-Directed Learning as a transformational educational practice that holds the promise, possibility, and potential to help schools achieve their larger purposes.[10]  I begin with research from the field of learning psychology on how people learn and build understanding. Some readers may choose to skip this portion.

How People Learn and Build Understanding

By making extended clinical inquiries following how infants, children, and adolescents build an understanding of the world, Piaget and his colleagues at the University of Geneva showed that knowledge and understanding does exist as a ready-made commodity “out there.” Nor is it located pre-formed inside children’s minds waiting to “unfold.” Children’s thought structures and object knowledge develop with their ongoing exploratory actions on the objects in their environment and their efforts to reconcile and coordinate those actions.   It is through reaching out to the world that children grow in understanding. When defined by growth in knowledge and understanding, learning involves the dialectical relationship between the child and the world, resulting from the child’s self-directed exploration of the environment. Learning is what the learner does. Learning reflects adaptation of existing internal schemes to accommodate to the environment and new experiences. Learning is grounded in learners’ experiences in larger, outer the world. While object knowledge does not reside within the child, as an entity waiting to unfold, what children do bring to the world are the capacities for action, reflection, and sense-making. Peter Gray, , describes this as children “coming into the world equipped to educate themselves.” [11] This equipment includes disposition to explore, to be curious; and they are naturally social and like to watch, observe, and play with others. 

The research sheds light on the failure of didactic and transmission instruction to support changes in how learners understand a subject matter. [12]  Children arrive at new insights and understandings of objects and phenomena in their environment as they work to coordinate and make sense of how one action and observation fits with another. Children are supported in their learning when objects presented pique their interests and curiosities, activating previously held schemas.[13] This finding from developmental psychology provided the basis for an activity- and discovery-based “science of education.” [14] Piaget decried so-called “active methods” that presume that the mere manipulation of objects results in learning, asserting:

Knowledge derives not from objects manipulated, but from the actions of the child and their coordination, . . . the most authentic research activity may take place in the spheres of reflection, of the most advanced abstraction, and of verbal manipulation (provided they are spontaneous and not imposed on the child).[15]

Genuine learning requires that learners have first-hand experience with phenomena, are free to explore observations and questions that emerge from their own activities, interests, and curiosities, and have opportunity to interact with other learners. By listening to and taking in observations and ideas shared by other learners, children deepen their own understanding. Learning is an intensely creative and constructive act as each learner, by coordinating thoughts and observations, seeks understanding of the whole. In this way, learning, while located in the work of the individual, is socially situated, supported when learners collaborate in groups, forming a learning community. Environments that facilitate learning and understanding encourage (rather than suppress) imagination, creativity, and innovation and, by their nature, generate feelings of joy and satisfaction. Development of understanding involves the transformation of thought structures.

Freedom to learn, does not mean that there is not a much needed role for a well-informed teacher, or other caring and attentive adult, who, rather than directed learning and teaching via transmitting information, instead puts his or her knowledge in the service to supporting others in developing understanding. As Dana Bennis[16] emphasized:

Eliminating coercion will not necessarily lead to the realization of freedom. Rather than needing only the absence of something (constraints), complete freedom. . .also requires the presence of certain factors, including potentially a democratic forum. . .and environment that opens up possibilities, relationships with others, and the ability to think and act for oneself. Practically, this implies that freedom-based schools, or any schools, that do not consider these additional conditions may not support freedom for students. 

Progressive educator John Dewey cautioned against the “radical fallacy” of choosing between the child or the curriculum. Teaching that center solely on the child and that which implements a prescribed curriculum both have its risks. Dewey proposed that teaching must follow and build on children’s interests and curiosities-as revealed by closely observing children’s exploratory activities and listening to their questions and wonderings. Curriculum development involves enriching the environment with materials that connect to and sustain children’s exploratory activities and which are drawn from the culture of the adult world and “occupations.” Other acts of teaching involve helping learners to observe and creating spaces for learners to share their observations and insights with freedom to pursue inquiries of their own making. Learning to “teach” in this way requires engaging in experiences that nurture these teacher capacities. It goes without saying, that learning in this way generates feeling of joy, happiness and satisfaction as children become the authors and authorities of what they know and understand.

SDL and Education’s Larger Purposes

  • Advancing Equity, Diversity, Identity, and Inclusion for All

For most families, the public education system is the entry point to access the American dream. It is a testament to our growing democracy-a democracy that is becoming more inclusive- that today’s public schools provide greater access to a wider spectrum of demographic groups than at any time in our educational history. As Deborah Meier and others have noted, there never was a “Golden Age” in education.[17] Today’s schools reflect the increasing and widening diversity of both the local communities and global world in which we are all a part. Students enter school with a wide array of talents, abilities, intelligences, interests, experiences, and gender orientations and come from a spectrum of cultures and backgrounds (economic, religious, etc.). Equity, justice, and inclusivity for all demographic groups are advanced, and students flourish and thrive, when education, rather than utilizing prescribed methods and seeking conformity, acknowledges and builds on this rich diversity.  By providing students choice in what they study and the questions and observations to pursue, the approach they select to explore and gather data, and the modalities and forms through which to express their ideas, Self-Directed Learning, supports individuality and positive identity construction, and nurtures students’ capacities for imagination, creativity, and innovation. All students have opportunity to follow their interests and develop their capacities to their fullest potential.

  • Nurturing our Wholeness and Humanity

In The Soul of Education, “whole child pioneer” Rachael Kessler[18] identified seven needs of adolescent learners: a need for deep connection, stillness and silence, meaning and purpose, joy and creativity, transcendence and initiation.  ASCD remembered Kessler “for advocating for schools that support the spiritual and personal growth of the whole child, not just academics in isolation.”  I am convinced that Kessler would have seen in SDL the attributes that she believed made for a positive socio-emotional learning environment for adolescent students.

In Teacher and Child, noted child psychologist Haim Ginott published an excerpt of a letter written by a Holocaust survivor to educators.[19] It is a document that I present to each incoming class of teacher education students. The letter reads,

Dear Teacher

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates.

So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is this:  Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

By encouraging and facilitating students’ self-directed explorations of the larger world, Self-Directed Learning meets the needs of adolescent students as Kessler describes and increases students’ interactions with and knowledge and appreciation for cultures that differ from their own. This helps adolescents to recognize their own identities and cultures as one among many and helping them to see themselves in the “other.” These relationships both nourish the human desire for connection and nurture an ethic of care, developing the capacities for empathy, compassion and perspective taking. In so doing, SDL advances the ideals of holistic education.

  • Autonomy, Agency, Competence, Confidence, Problem-Solving and Leadership

Today’s students live in a world that is experiencing and exhibiting the stresses and strains of a range of environmental, social, and global issues that they did not cause but which are theirs to address and solve. Self-Directed Learning, by engaging students in real-world issues and dilemmas drawn from their own lived experiences, engages students in Freire’s “problem-posing”[20] education in which problems that students identify and which are drawn from communities in which they live become the learning materials, i.e..,  the curriculum.

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

In this way, the approach is learner-centered, centers on “place,” and engages students in civic action. The approach respects students’ sense-making capacities and positions students as problem-solvers through which they develop autonomy and agency, and find relevance, meaning, and purpose in their learning.

  Communities and schools are revitalized, developing in reciprocal and dialectical relationship, as school and community develop and progress together. As researchers with the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment [NCIEA] found, students who experience SDL “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.”  Theydevelop their communication and collaborative capacities and gain a disposition for civic and global engagement.

  • Adapting to a Rapidly Changing Landscape

Rapid technological changes have created a landscape in which the jobs of the future are “unknowable and unpredictable.” The World Economic Forum has reported:

in many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago . . . 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.[21]

Ted Dintersmith, author of What Our Schools Could Be, presents the new employment landscape and what it means for students and society in blunt terms:

Machine intelligence is racing ahead, wiping out millions of routine jobs as it reshapes the competencies needed to thrive . . . Absent profound change in our schools, adults will keep piling up on the side lines jeopardizing civil society.[22]

The Hewlett Foundation coined the term “deeper learning” in 2013 as an “umbrella” for the competencies needed to be successful in twenty-first century jobs and civic life. Competencies include: an ability to engage in critical thinking and complex problem-solving, work collaboratively, communicate effectively to share findings and thoughts; monitor and direct one’s own learning and understanding how to learn; and an academic mindset with a positive attitude and belief about themselves as learners.

The Quality Assurance Commons created A Graduate Profile that presents “hire-worthy” graduates as: inquirers and problem solvers; collaborators; communicators; adaptable; principled, ethical and responsible; professional; learners.[23]

The World Economic Forum released Education 4.0,[24] a frameworkdesigned to help teachers develop students’ collaborative skills and innovation and creativity capacities.  The framework calls for “active pedagogies” and “deeper learning experiences” that students “will remember and internalize” such as “problem-based” and “student-driven learning.”

  • Democracy, Community, and Social Progress—freedom and liberation

With the declaration “Education is a process of living, not a preparation for living,” John Dewey[25] put forth a vision of education in which experience is the basis of all learning. Dewey justified this positioning with reference to rapid industrialization and a changing landscape. Rather than equipping students with the technical skills to meet anticipated conditions, Dewey proposed developing students’ capacities to the fullest such that they gain “command” of themselves. Students’ eyes, ears, hands, and judgement are the needed tools to navigate, adapt to, and remain in command of the changing landscape. Dewey writes,

With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell just what civilization will be twenty years from now.  Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently. (p. 21-22)

The same holds true today. A role for education is to provide students with experiences out of which they can grow and develop into the culture of the adult. Dewey advocated for active learning methods on the basis that

more active, expressive and self-directing factors  . . . are necessities of the larger social evolution.

While active methods do not by themselves guarantee liberation or freedom, through such methods:

Learning [is]. . . put into circulation. [A] distinctively learned class is henceforth out of the question . . . Knowledge is no longer an immobile solid; it has been liquefied. It is actively moving in all the currents of society itself.

School transformation, Dewey recognized, is our best hope for social progress and realizing the vision of the progressive era.

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. Here individualism and socialism are at one.

If schools are to fulfill their promise in advancing social progress and  democracy, Dewey recognized that each school must become “an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect life of the larger society.” 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)

Ahead of his time, Dewey understood that for new education movements to take hold, “rather than existing outside of and ignoring social context,” they must “take the broader, or social view.” Otherwise, “changes in the school institution and tradition will be looked at as the arbitrary inventions of particular teachers.” 

Self-Directed Learning is a way of doing education that can help school meet their larger purposes for students, advance progressive and holistic values, and foster transformative change, for both students and society. It is an education that ensures that schools, students, and society develop the capacity to adapt to a landscape that is ever-changing, unknowable, and predictable.

The time is now to be a dreamkeeper.

November 4, 2020


[1] National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk. https://www2.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk.html.

[2] See Hanushek, E. A. (1971). Teacher characteristics and gains in student achievement:  Estimation using micro-data. The American Economic Review, 61(2) (pp. 280-288). Papers and Proceedings of the Eighty-Third Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association; Hanushek, E. A., & Rivkin, S. G. (2006). Teacher quality.In E.A. Hanushek and F. Welch (Eds.) Handbook of the economics of education, Vol.2 (pp.1051-1078). Elsevier B.V. doi: 10.1016/S1574-0692(06)02018-6.

[3] Rothstein, J. (Fall/Winter 2012-13). Effects of value-added policies. Focus, 29, (2); Sawchuck, S. (2015, October 6). Teacher evaluation heads to the courts. Education Week.  

[4] Miller, R. (1997/1990). What are schools for? Brandon, VT. Wholistic Education Press.

[5] Hart Research Association (2015, January). Falling short? College learning and career success. Selected findings from online surveys of employers and college students. On behalf of Association of American Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC: Author. https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2015employerstudentsurvey.pdf; Hart Research Association (2018, July). Fulfilling the American dream: Liberal education and the future of work: Selected findings from online surveys of business executives and hiring managers. On behalf of Association of American Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC: Author. https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2018EmployerResearchReport.pdf

[6] The Quality Assurance Commons for Higher and Post-Secondary Education (2020, March). Graduate profile. Retrieved from https://theqacommons.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Graduate-Profile-2020.pdf

[7] Sir Ken Robinson, My thoughts on the Call to Unite. May, 7, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QU4Q17t4muY

[8] Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2020-10/fratelli-tutti-pope-fraternity-social-friendship-long-summary.print.html

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

[10] McDonnell blog

[11] Gray, P. (2020, November 3). Mother Nature’s Pedagogy: The Biology of Self-Directed Education, Q &A, paper presentation. Web IDEC 2020, International Conference of Democratic Education.

[12] The field of physics education has accumulated a vast number of studies that illustrate the failure of didactic instructional approaches to support conceptual understanding.

[13] Inhelder, B., Sinclair, H., & Bovet, M. (1974). Learning and the development of cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Trans. S. Wedgewood.

[14] Piaget’s research prompted mothers of newborns to place brightly colored objects above the crib for babies to watch and grasp and to seek out objects and materials for their young children explore.

[15] Piaget, J. (1971). Science of education and the psychology of the child. New York, NY: Viking Compass Edition, The Viking Press, Inc. (D. Coltman, Trans.) (original work published (1969).

[16] Bennis, D. (2006). Demystifying freedom-based education. Cincinnati, OH: Union Institute and University: Master’s thesis. In Jennings, 2018, p. 13.

[17]Meier, D. W. (1992, September 21). Myths, lies and public schools. The Nation, p.255, 271.

[18] Kessler, R. (2000). The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion and Character at School, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

[19] Ginott, H. (1972). Teacher and child: A book for parents and teachers. MacMillan.

[20] Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed. 30th anniversary edition.  (Original 1970). Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York, NY: Continuum.

[21] World Economic Forum (2016, January). The future of jobs: Employment, skills and workforce strategy for the fourth industrial revolution. Global Challenge Insight Report. Geneva, Switzerland. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs.pdf

[22] Dintersmith, T.  (2018). What School Could Be. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[23] The Quality Assurance Commons for Higher and Post-Secondary Education (2020, March). Graduate profile. Retrieved from https://theqacommons.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Graduate-Profile-2020.pdf

[24] World Economic Forum (2019).

[25] Dewey, J. (1959a). My pedagogic creed. In Dewey on education: Selections, Martin S. Dworkin (ed.) (pp.19-32). Classics in Education No. 3. New York: Teachers College Press. (Original work published 1897).

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