Benefits of Self-Directed Learning

Parents whose children make the switch to self-directed learning often remark that this is more than just a new approach to education, it’s a new way of living. This is because self-directed learning reflects a belief that people have the right to live their own lives and follow their own paths—to “pursue happiness” in their own ways, as long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others to do the same. Self-directed learning speaks to the creation of a collaborative culture, one in which individual liberties are valued and exercised in synergistic ways that support “liberty and justice for all.” It is based on the assumption that we, as individuals, will each benefit most from making the proverbial pie bigger, not by fighting over the existing pie (let alone its crumbs). It is a win-win philosophy. Some of the most significant benefits of self-directed learning include the following:

Self-directed learning promotes the natural development of self-confidence, initiative, perseverance and life satisfaction. While we do not ultimately control our lives (due to many outside factors that affect us all, including genes to environmental circumstances), we are each in charge of our own life. We are responsible for making the choices that help create our own paths, certainly once we become of age. Self-directed learning greatly increases a person’s ability to make sound, intelligent, self-affirming choices when the stakes are high. The more practice people have with making their own decisions–with reading their own ideas, feelings, wants, and needs and weighing them against available options–when they are young, the more likely they are to grow into mature, sensible, healthy, productive and compassionate adults.

Self-directed learning decreases the probability that children will suffer from the life-long wounds commonly produced by coercive schooling. This does not mean that no one will ever say anything derisive to them, call them stupid, or suggest that they are incompetent in one way or another. It does suggest, however, that they will not experience systemic reinforcement of such negative messages, such as being put into a lower reading group in the first grade because they’re not on the same schedule as their friends, or having it suggested that they are “unmotivated” or lazy because they prefer their own path over that which school authorities lay out. In How Children Fail, John Holt wrote, “School is a place where children learn to feel stupid.” This also applies to the many young people that schools deem to be “winners” by virtue of their high grades. As Holt, and later Kirsten Olson (in her book Wounded By School), have so artfully described, no one is impervious to the secret fear that she or he may, at any time, be exposed as a “failure,” when failure and success are pinned on arbitrary tests and measures devised by others, as occurs in school. Such wounds are lifetime sentences. We may try to bury them under many years of successful post-school experiences, but they don’t disappear. For many people, the battle to compensate for such feelings is a constant drain. Consider how much happier and more successful we could be if we didn’t have to keep trying to prove that we are not the dummies we were led to fear that we might be, or that we are the intellectually superior ones that we were labeled as at school. How much better listeners and learners we could be if we didn’t always have to defend ourselves and prove our knowledge to others. How much more open and inquisitive we could be—as we were when we were two—if our self-esteem had been neither pummeled nor falsely bolstered for all those years.

Self-directed learning provides opportunities to pursue a far wider range of interests than is possible in a typical school with its pre-defined curriculum, fixed schedule, and inability to accommodate the needs and interests of individuals. Even those topics that are within the usual school curriculum can be explored in greater depth, and more meaningfully, in self-directed learning—such as by actually building and sailing a boat rather than merely reading about how others have done so, or by surveying a plot of ground rather than simply calculating the area of a polygon presented on a worksheet. And if the boat sinks, one can repair it and learn from the mistake, instead of having it marked wrong and moving on to the next “project.” When the boat floats, there can be time to take it for a sail—even a long one, perhaps one that results in the exploration of an entirely new set of interests. Whatever restrictions there may be, they are not the result of some pre-determined curriculum.

Self-directed learning reinforces collaboration, within and beyond the family. Without the imposed requirements of a school curriculum, parents and youth are free to create, discuss, negotiate, design, explore—do—what they decide will best serve their goals, values and personal desires. Experience has demonstrated that this approach does the opposite of what most skeptics fear. The result tends to be young adults who are comfortable in their own skin and deeply sensitive to the needs of others. This is often reflected in their choice of occupation and manner of work: They choose to work collaboratively and empower others rather than seek power over others. Happiness breeds more happiness, and the same can be said for self-direction. People who feel in charge of their own lives are more likely to support self-direction in others and to accept the responsibilities of membership in the human family.