On the Virtue of Self-Directed Learning

unnamed-148 by Sophia Tenaglia

I first began homeschooling in 2009, right after the end of third grade. Up until that point, I had been enrolled in a really wonderful private Montessori school. (The Montessori method, built on the observation that children teach themselves, is, I think, pretty consistent with the principles of democratic schooling). I had enjoyed my time there, but my brother and I were growing out of the elementary school program and neither one of us had any desire to enroll in the public schools in our district, especially considering my brother’s bad experience when he went to our local kindergarten.

My family knew we didn’t want to go back to such a stifling, competitive, and negative environment, so we began to explore other options. It was actually my brother who suggested homeschooling, and after much thought, we decided it sounded like a great way to go. At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of homeschooling; my ideas of it being very different from the way I’d describe it now. Back then, the word “homeschooling” simply implied doing normal schoolwork at home, the only difference being an absence from the pressures of school like tests and classrooms. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. As my homeschooling path has evolved I have discovered a joy of learning and discovery that nine-year-old me was definitely not expecting.

One of the biggest revelations I have come to throughout my six years of self-directed learning is the notion that learning is supposed to be fun. The societal perceptions and overall structures of most schools I have observed give one the idea that there is a time for learning and a time for fun and games, and that both of these are quite separate. I believed that when you learn, you must always be focused, but never have fun, because you are learning so that you can do well on tests and then have a good job. I always operated on the basis of “work at school, play at home” but when home and school became the same thing, learning slowly began to take on a new meaning.

However, this meaning did not make itself known for several years. When I began homeschooling, I operated following similar school hours and conventions, forcing myself to focus on and learn things I had no interest in. Often, my mom would give me certain assignments to do such as reading a book or answering a few study questions, and I followed them with much bellyaching. These years were not the fondest of my life, but they were an essential part of my process along my self-directed path; an important part of homeschooling is discovering how it is you learn best. When I finally hit the point where I suddenly realized that I was in control of my learning, the line I had previously seen between education and everyday life disappeared.

In 2011, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to a group of physicists for their historic and completely unexpected discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating, instead of slowing down (as had been previously thought) because of the presence of a force called  “dark energy.” I remember hearing about this on NPR and being completely confused by what it meant. I puzzled over it for a moment, but then stopped, thinking: “Well, I’m not a scientist, so I guess it doesn’t really matter if I don’t understand this stuff.” However, in the following weeks I couldn’t get dark energy out of my head. It was accompanied by this nagging thought: “What does it mean?”

I don’t remember what my schooling was like at the time, but I do remember putting a hold on some of the “work” I wasn’t as interested in and starting to research the expanding universe and dark energy for my own personal benefit. There was no other reason for doing this in my eyes besides the fact that I wanted to learn about and understand concepts that I had previously assumed to be beyond my comprehension. Guess what? They weren’t. Once the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place, I found myself getting more and more excited and enthralled by the work I was doing. It was fascinating stuff, and I was learning it on my own.

From this point onwards, my education changed markedly. Suddenly, I was designing my learning and education based on what was of interest to me by choosing what I wanted to learn about and when I wanted to learn it. My days became more unstructured and my schedule more flexible as I started paying attention to what I really wanted to do and what I was in the mood for. If I didn’t want to do math and wanted to read Slaughterhouse Five, then I would do that instead. If I wanted to write a story about an art thief in place of a research paper, so be it. This kind of freedom was eye-opening.

Hand in hand with this transformation, I also noticed myself becoming a more independent individual. My mom and dad stepped aside and really let me fuel my own life, and I started to feel this great surge of empowerment that I still experience to this day. This feeling showed up because I’m in control of my own learning, not my mom, not my dad, not some school or institution, just me. This is my life, and only I have the power to choose what I want to know and what I learn.

I’ve learned many amazing things from being homeschooled, but one of the most important is this: Teachers can teach me plenty of things, but when it comes down to it, I’ll only learn what I actually want to learn. If something isn’t interesting or if I don’t consider it to be beneficial to me in some way (whether it’s immediately beneficial or beneficial in the future) I’m not going to latch on, and its not going to stay in my mind; not for long at any rate. I don’t want to memorize a bunch of facts and then repeat them to a teacher, only to forget them in a few weeks. I want to supply my brain with knowledge that will satisfy my need to know and benefit me for years to come. We all have limited time in this universe, and it only seems right that each individual should decide how they should spend that time. After all, only I know what I want.

Sophia Tenaglia is a 15 year-old self-directed learner from Pennsylvania where she attends Open Connections in suburban Philadelphia. She spends most of her time absorbing and discussing stories, both real and fictional, in the many forms they come in. She is a strong believer in enjoying oneself while learning. 



  1. Jayesh Shah says:

    We too homeschool but kudos to Sophia for a well written article, that too at 15. I am sure that once the fire is ignited, then everything else will take care of itself.

    May the force be with you Sophia and hope to see how your life shapes up. We have a 13 year old now and it would be nice if you could share things with us to help us evolve and assist Govind. We live in India.

  2. Sophia, thank you for your inspiration! We just started unschooling our 5 and 8 year olds and this gives me hope that self-directed learning is right path to choose for us. I am so impressed that you are only 15 and able to articulate your opinions so clearly.

  3. I am a mother of four and grandmother to 3, and of Kate’s two homeschoolers. I am a 64 yr. old who is finally now freely attending my own home schooling. I am learning more now than during my “school years” by following up on my strong inquisitiveness concentrated on 6-7 aspects in my life.
    Your essay was profound and true and of course Kate would recognize that and share your essay. Can you do a TED talk to spreading the views in your story?
    It depicts the concept that not only learning that is based in intrinsic interest and the inner driven passion (to know or find out about what has got your attention in your life) is relavent but that relevance is found in the very process of living in
    life itself.

  4. wow. as a homeschooling mom of a 10 and 7 year old (we just started last february, pulling my son from 3rd grade) this is AWESOME to read. MORE! MORE!

Speak Your Mind