Most of us have grown up and been schooled to think that learning is something passive--something that someone does to someone else--rather than an active, innate, natural process.
My first inkling about self-directed learning came when I was a graduate student at Harvard exploring alternative education. At the time, and to some extent still, the HGSE's focus on alternative education was limited to charter schools, but there was a small but passionate group that cared about the term child-led learning. This is still different, in many ways, from true self-directed learning but the ethos is the same: let the children decide, let the grown-ups guide.
It wasn't until many years later, when I became a mom and then a homeschooling mom, that I fully understood and appreciated the power of self-directed learning.
But what it is? And how does it differ from the way most children now learn?
The short answer is that all children, all people, are self-directed learners. It is a natural part of being human. We are born with the instinct to explore and discover and synthesize our world. We are born to be active learners. This process is interrupted and altered when children go to school and learn to be passive learners, when they internalize the false belief that one must be taught in order to learn.
Here is an example that highlights the self-directed learning difference:
Yesterday, the kids scootered to the nearby Harvard Museum of Natural History. When we arrived, there was a school group sitting quietly listening to the rules and requirements of their field trip visit. My gang scattered to their favorite corners of the museum: the tarantulas, the hissing cockroaches, the sifaka lemur (thank you Wild Kratts), the new underwater exhibit, and so on. My two oldest, at 9 and 7, are now full participants in each exhibit, reading what interests them about each animal and habitat and making their own connections about what they see and know. My 5 and 2 year olds are happy to explore and point out and ask me questions about what the signs say.
By the time the school group (which consisted of kids roughly my oldest daughter's age) caught up to us, I noticed that they had worksheets and pencils. On the worksheets were specific items they were expected to find at the museum, specific sketches they were expected to draw, specific connections they were expected to make.
This is a prime example of the stark difference between self-directed learning and conventional schooling. Self-directed learning has no agenda, no top-down requirements, no arbitrary curriculum determining what another human should think and know, and how.
Boston College research professor, Dr. Peter Gray, writes regularly about the limitations of self-directed learning in schools in sharp contrast to children who are unschooled. He states:
"No matter how liberal-minded the teacher is, real, prolonged self-direction and self-motivation is not possible in the classroom. In this setting, children must suppress their own interests, not follow them. While children out of school learn what and because they want to, children in school must learn or go through the motions of learning what the teacher wants them to learn in the way the teacher wants them to do it. The result is slow, tedious, shallow learning that is about procedure, not meaning, regardless of the teacher’s intent."
This slow, tedious, shallow learning was obvious in yesterday's museum visit. The schooled children went about the motions of completing their worksheets, because they had to, without the opportunity to truly explore the museum in their own way, to ask their own questions, to make their own connections, to sketch or not sketch what they observed. They were following someone else's agenda, not their own, leading to learning that was all about "procedure, not meaning, regardless of the teacher's intent."
What makes this example even more glaring is that it occurred in a museum which, by its beautiful design, is a symbol of self-directed learning. Museums are intended to foster self-paced exploration and discovery, without the need for top-down direction.
Imagine if you arrived at a museum and the docent gave you a worksheet and told you to find these specific items in the exhibit halls, sketch these particular images, and make these specific connections about what you saw. You would be outraged! (At least I hope you would.) You go to a museum to discover interesting things, and to linger at various exhibits or sections that most appeal to you. You would not want to be constrained by someone else's vision of what your museum experience should be. Now, if the docent gave you a worksheet or a visitor guide that had some questions or suggestions, that's fine. You could use it or not, but it would not be a requirement of your visit and would not define your museum experience.
Self-directed children are given the freedom to pursue their own interests, to ask their own questions, and to make their own connections, without external coercion. They are provided resources and opportunities--that's our job as grown-ups--and then allowed to learn in their own, natural way.
Just like self-directed adults do.