General Questions About Self-Directed Learning:

Is self-directed learning for everyone?

It’s hard to know what this question is really asking.

If the underlying question is, “Does everyone immediately thrive in an environment where they are free to direct their own activity (as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others to do likewise),” the answer is no. Some people need a period of time to discover their own interests, especially if they’re used to being told what to do. (This is as true for adults as it is for children and is one of the reasons so many businesses are calling for a radical transformation in what we call education: They want self-starters and creative thinkers, not yes-men and -women who merely respond to directions, external praise and/or punishment.)

If the underlying question is, “Must everything learned be the result of self-discovery or even self-initiative?”, then again, the answer is no. Sometimes people ask for direction or instruction; this can take many forms and be more or less other-directed, depending on the situation and the learner’s personality and desires. For example, if you want a job as a brain surgeon, you will have to follow a fairly well-established-by-others course in order to be able to do so legally. The self-directed part of the process, however, is that one has chosen to follow that course. The same is true with any such area of skill development or knowledge acquisition: The instruction takes on an entirely different flavor if it has been invited by the learner.

In his book “Never Too Late,” John Holt writes about learning to play the cello at age 50. He set clear boundaries on the sort of teacher/mentor he would find useful—more of a colleague than a master, ie. someone who will work with him rather than on him, as many teachers are wont to do. He is clear that he is in charge of the learning process: It is his interest, his skill development, and his ultimate enjoyment that are driving this system, not the instructor’s agenda. This is what this site is saying about learning in general: that ultimately it is the learner’s purposes that drive the decision making, rather than the agendas of such external bodies as boards of education, legislators, or even education philosophers and pedagogues.

How do various “progressive” types of schools (following such approaches as Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, or project-based learning) compare with what you are advocating? Aren’t they proven models of the same thing?

First, we must be careful to distinguish between the original intentions of the founders of any educational philosophy (e.g., Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia) and the variations in interpretation and practice of its followers. A visit to any two Montessori schools, for example, will reveal differing interpretations with often significantly differing outcomes. Given the variations in human personalities, how could one expect otherwise? Hence, to generalize about what one would experience in any particular school that has, say, Montessori or Waldorf in its name is somewhat risky.

That said, some of the basic attributes of each of these three philosophies, as well as the kind of “project-based” curricula of other school programs, are universally consistent and aligned with self-directed learning as it is defined on this site. Many children find their methods and materials useful for learning key concepts. In addition,  there is some freedom of choice granted to the students. However, in the last analysis, the adults are still basically in charge of schedules, of the options that are available (as in the creation of Montessori’s “prepared environment”, with its specially designed materials, or Waldorf’s highly selective choice of what is, and is not, permitted for use), the music to be taught, etc. There is not the overall basic sense of openness and freedom of choice that exists in the self-directed learning life, where the school, community or family as a whole set the boundaries and enforce the rules.

Similarly, a certain method of learning is imposed on all of the youngsters (some of the children in a Montessori classroom can’t choose to follow the Waldorf way, or vice versa). As thoughtfully designed as any such approach might be, it is still relatively inflexible from the students’ perspective. This is how John Holt described the difference between the Open Classrooms that were once tried in American public schools—designed to incorporate many of the same principles as these other options—and traditional classrooms: In traditional classrooms, children were shown the hoops that they were expected to jump through; in the Open Classrooms, they hid the hoops behind a curtain. So even though it was unspoken, students nevertheless knew there was an agenda they were expected to follow. They were not as “free” as the teacher had suggested they were.

In the same way, there is far less room for true experimentation and exploration in a classroom that, by its design, has its own agenda. For those who value these opportunities, schools with such defined curricula and methods are likely to be too confining–for both the youth and the parent.

The best option is for people to arm themselves with information and then go see the different approaches for themselves. When that is not practical, they can at least watch videos and talk to people with experience.

Is self-directed learning the same thing as “unschooling”?

“Unschooling” is a term commonly used to describe self-directed learning based in the home. Unschooling parents allow their children to learn with as little coercion as possible – the children get to decide for themselves how they will explore, make sense of, and act upon the world. However, there is a broad spectrum in terms of how much freedom is granted to the children and how much initiating/directing the parents do, with some parents using a hybrid approach that falls somewhere between homeschooling and unschooling.

Is self-directed learning incompatible with instruction?

No. It is uninvited instruction that is most problematic. (Invited instruction, if it is no good, can also be problematic.) In general, it is fine for a self-directed learner to ask for, and receive, instruction. It’s one thing for your child to point to something and ask what you call it; it is quite another for you to go around the house (and the rest of the planet) pointing to things and calling out their “names.”

Will there still be a role for teachers and other adults?

Yes, certainly. There always has been, and shall likely always continue to be, a role for adults who want to assist self-directed learners with their education. People of every age know the value of finding someone else who knows what you want to learn, or who can help you figure out how to learn it—whether that means how to write a compelling story, change a flat tire, conduct a scientific experiment, play a flute, cook a soufflé, direct a play, measure the angle of a ramp, or calculate the arc of a doorway. What changes is the nature of the relationship between “teacher” and “learner.” Gone are the power struggles, the uninvited instruction, the forced curriculum. If you want to be an Olympics-level performer (whether in sports or elsewhere) and you determine that only the strictest instructor can help you get there, you will accept his/her demands because you want the desired result. The more responsive to the specific needs—intellectual, emotional, etc.—of the learner the teacher is, the more likely he/she will have a fulfilling role in the lives of self-directed learners.

If children learning to walk and talk and do many other things on their own is proof that humans are hard-wired to learn, without being coerced or even taught, why hasn’t this led to a society in which all adults know calculus and speak multiple languages? Don’t we need teachers to introduce us to new material and instruct us in its application?

There is a technical distinction between human learning and human development. (For a more complete discussion, see Furth and Wachs, Thinking Goes To School, 1975, Oxford U. Press.) You can learn something without actually understanding what it means or how to use it (see examples below). Whereas, simply put, development refers to the full integration of a body of knowledge and its application, like an ability that can be applied in a wide variety of circumstances. Hence, we don’t actually learn how to walk—we develop the ability to walk; and once we develop walking, we can pretty much walk anywhere.

Similarly, babies develop language. They understand the concept—that certain sounds have specific meaning that can be communicated to other individuals—well before they learn what those sounds (words) actually are. We may teach a child any number of words—in fact, this is usually quite helpful. For example, a toddler says “abble,” and the parent says, “Yes! Apple!!” In this case, the child has “learned” that the name of the fruit is apple and yet is still in the process of “developing” the ability to say “apple” instead of “abble”.

So why don’t people learn calculus naturally? Because most of us do not develop the underlying schemas needed to make sense of the math we are supposedly being taught. Even algebra throws many people for a loop, because the system we have memorized (i.e., learned, not developed) is represented by numerals, and algebra replaces many of these numerals with letters. When we are then taught that ax means “a times x”, it is as if we have entered a whole new world, where none of the old rules apply. With time and patience, children can grasp these new concepts, but they can’t do it on someone else’s timetable, and many can’t follow along and simply give up.

Because they are in control, self-directed learners develop their understanding as they learn. Yes, they benefit from instruction (when they are open to it and are interested in what an instructor has to offer), but only when they have the underlying mechanisms for making sense of the new material. Otherwise, it is like giving a lecture in Russian to the average American adult: No matter how “smart” she is, if she doesn’t understand Russian, she’s not going to get much out of the lecture.

I was forced to learn some things that I only later found useful; shouldn’t we require students to study certain subjects, so they won’t be at a disadvantage should they need the information sometime in the future?

First, how can you be sure that you wouldn’t have learned the same material on your own had you not been “forced” to learn it in school? Most likely, you think you wouldn’t have learned it otherwise because (a) you acquired a distaste for the subject as you were learning it, leading you to believe that, had you had a choice, you would have rejected it; and (b) when you did learn it, you learned it outside of any meaningful context, thus suggesting that, had it not been imposed upon you, you never would have known about it in the first place.

This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Most of the things you do know and learned outside of school weren’t imposed upon you (and even if they were, they certainly weren’t introduced in the same way). You saw older children playing ball and thought, “Ooh, that looks like fun; can I play?” Or you saw a parent cooking, playing an instrument, reading and writing (not to mention walking and talking). Your dad loved learning about the Civil War and took you on weekend trips to Gettsyburg and Antietam, or the family visited Monticello and Mount Vernon, where you voluntarily took in information about their great thinkers/inventors and the world they inhabited. What a great introduction to the significance of Watergate was the movie All the President’s Men! And how many astronomers got their start by watching Star Trek or reading Isaac Asimov or Michael Crichton?

At the same time, look at all the things you weren’t required to learn—because they weren’t seen as part of the Core Curriculum of their day—that you later had to learn in order to do your work effectively? Or similarly, those current interests of yours (poetry, opera, history, puzzles, or what have you) that, if they were even covered in school, were addressed in such a way that you have since developed your passion for them in spite of your schooling. (The former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, said, “High school is where poetry goes to die.”)

The bottom line is, no one knows ahead of time what will serve them best in the future, other than the most basic level of the three Rs, and even those are debatable in certain circumstances. What matters most are your motivation and your ability to find out what you need to know in a timely fashion. The process of discovery is infinitely more important than the value of mere regurgitation.

Why do you think kids will “naturally” learn what they will need to know to succeed as adults, without lots of adult guidance?

Because many people have (with their own eyes) seen it happen again and again and this has been backed up by studies; because, historically, this has been the way that people learned most of what they knew for thousands of years; and because so many of the people we revere in our culture today have succeeded largely by pursuing their passions. Using the language of our legal system, we believe that schools are based on the assumption that young people are born guilty of the crime of ignorance and must “serve time” until they attain the age of 16 or 18. In fact, just the opposite is true: babies and toddlers are brilliant young scientists that learn at a rate never to be equaled, which is how they develop language, motor control, social awareness and so many other life skills in such a remarkably short period of time. Of course, they benefit from the support and input of others—adults and older youths.

But the key ingredient is that they are in charge of their own learning. They seek out the answers to questions that they themselves have posed, not the ones that adults have told them they are supposed to ask. Theirs is a nature-perfect process. (Of course, there are the statistically rare exceptions, such as the mentally challenged, or those who possess certain forms of autism, etc., who need and deserve extra support. But even these young people are being seen in a different light these days, with some of their so-called handicaps masking special capabilities and talents.)

In short, childhood used to be seen as an opportunity. Now it is being treated as a problem to be overcome. We think this is tragic, and the statistics on the number of youths now on drugs for “learning disabilities,” the number who are committing violent crimes and committing suicide, the number who report a distressingly low happiness quotient in their life generally, are indicators that the way we are treating our children must be seriously challenged.


Isn’t all of this talk about “learning through play” merely feeding into the mythology that all of life should be fun and games, as well as into the sense of entitlement that pervades youth culture today? Sometimes you can’t escape the fact that much of learning – like adult work, and life in general – is simply grind-it-out hard work, right?

This is yet another issue that is more complex than it might first appear. To begin with, it is a given that everyone’s life is a mixture of good and bad times (though it’s great if you can maximize the former and minimize the latter). And self-directed learning doesn’t make all learning fun—in fact, some of the best learning moments are anything but fun at the time. And some learning is simply a natural by-product of engaging in a purposeful activity—such as learning to spell certain words because you want to write a letter that your friend or grandmother can comprehend. One might be pleased with the result–”I wrote this all by myself”—even though the actual process of composing it didn’t feel “fun.” The reward—the pleasure—comes from the desired result, not necessarily from the action itself. And it rarely comes from doing something one doesn’t really want to be doing (in the sense that one didn’t ask to do it and doesn’t see the benefit of doing it, and it replaces another activity that one would much rather be doing).

Where adults tend to get most judgmental about young people’s unwillingness to put out effort is when the child balks at doing something that is primarily the adult’s agenda. In such circumstances, the issue is not laziness or lack of gratitude on the child’s part. It is the fact that the child’s sense of autonomy has been violated. They—like the rest of us—do not like being told what to do. We all like to feel in charge of our own lives, especially in the moment. Thus, it is not the content that matters—whether it’s solving a math problem or doing the dishes. It’s the process of not having a say, of feeling obligated or required to do this or that. When young people are faced with scaling a wall (literally or figuratively) that is acting as a barrier to something they really want, they will exert all manner of effort and intelligence to get up and over it. When, on the other hand, they are told to climb the very same wall “because I said so,” or “because it’s your job,” or “because if you don’t, I will be sorely disappointed in you”—well, don’t be surprised if you see “laziness,” a search for escape, a plethora of excuses, or any other of a number of barriers to achievement. You will see the same behaviors in adults, by the way.

What’s so bad about children being bored at school? It prepares them for life and work in the real world.

Perhaps this sad view of life derives from schooling. Of course, life has its ups and downs, in adulthood and in childhood. But there are plenty of opportunities to learn to tolerate unpleasantness without adding unpleasant schooling to the mix. Research has shown that people of all ages learn best when they are self-motivated, pursuing questions that are their own real questions, and goals that are their own real-life goals. In such conditions, learning is usually joyful.

There is no doubt that people learn better when they are “self-motivated,” but if motivation was all it took, everyone would have six-pack abs and an almost complete absence of fat tissue. Some things are hard, including math and science beyond a certain point, and some external motivation is required by a lot of people. Right?

Self-motivation is one of those terms that has many facets, and thus varying implications. In the book “The Path of Least Resistance,” Robert Fritz reveals some interesting layers of meaning, including the critical importance of understanding why one is motivated toward a certain end. Do you want to get good grades to please Mom and Dad, or do you want to get good grades in order to get into Harvard? And do you want to go to Harvard because you like what is offered there, especially in your area of interest, or because you want the prestige of having matriculated there? Or is it because your sweetheart just got in and you want to be re-united there? Similarly, do you want six-pack abs because you think they’ll make you look sexy and more attractive, or because they are an indicator of greater strength in the core, meaning you will be able to work harder without straining your back?

Self-motivation is most relevant when we are talking about core values, à la Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy—things that you want just because you want them, not because they will make it easier to get other things, especially the esteem of others. If you really want to understand and be able to use certain math and science principles, you will be willing to do the work of mastering them—and the work, however “hard” it may be, well might be enjoyable as you do it. Otherwise, it does not mean you are not lazy; it just means you didn’t want those things badly enough, and that should be your rightful choice.

How can we ensure that all of our young people learn the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic)?

Ours is a population filled with college graduates who can’t divide fractions or even add double-digit numbers in their head, let alone divide them; who can’t write coherent sentences, let alone persuasive essays on college-board tests or in-class exams; and who refuse to read any book longer than 200 pages. (These are all common complaints of college professors and test examiners.) There is no reason to believe that young people in self-directed learning environments will fare any worse than their school counterparts, and the research we do have indicates they are achieving at a significantly higher level. (You can also ask your local homeschooling group what they are experiencing.)

Some unschooled children still can’t read at age 10; isn’t that a concern?

This is a multi-layered issue that deserves much discussion. A good place to start is by asking why Johnny isn’t reading more/better than he is. The likeliest explanations include the following:

  • Normal variation in human development, as also evidenced in the development of speech, locomotion, toilet training, etc.
  • An immature or malfunctioning vision system that makes it highly uncomfortable, if not impossible, to sustain the near-point focusing and tracking that reading requires. (For further information, see Thinking Goes to School by Furth and Wachs, The Suddenly Successful Student by Ellis Edelman, www.vision-therapy-pa.com or www.visiontherapydc.com. Please note that the typical “eye exam” that involves eye-drops and pointing which way the E goes is not an effective diagnostic process in this situation.)
  • Improper instruction, or at least inappropriate for a particular student: Some do best with phonics, some with look-say, and some with a mixture. (See Frank Smith’s Reading Without Nonsense.) (Also see the question about whether instruction is compatible with self-directed learning.)
  • Lack of specific interest in reading by the youngster, who may be consumed with experiencing the outdoors, or building with Legos, or taking apart mechanical objects to see how they work, or any number of other pursuits that are more important to him at this point in time.

There are many 10-year-olds—more often than not these are boys—whose “late” mastery of reading is more than made up for in passion, expertise (faster, with far better comprehension) and enjoyment as a result of their coming to it on their own schedule. In short, this is yet another situation where something is a “problem” primarily because it is a problem for standardized schooling; it is the well-intentioned enforcers who thus make it a problem for the youth.

How are we going to ensure that children following this approach learn everything else that adults “should” know, in order to be effective citizens and compete in the workplace?

Schools teach only a minute fraction of the world’s available knowledge, and there isn’t even agreement as to what constitutes the most important content to include in that fraction. The names of the generals of the American Civil War? The political philosophy of the Mugwumps? How to conjugate verbs, solve quadratic equations, or convert from gallons to liters?

Many books have been sold extolling the significance of “What Every Third Grader Should Know.” But pick up a copy, and you’ll see that most successful adults (perhaps including you) would be unable to answer many of the questions. Does a doctor really need to know how to diagram a sentence or interpret Finnegan’s Wake? Does an artist really need to know the names of all of the bones in her body?

Data is only data until it becomes relevant to the individual; then it can be converted to information. As John Holt wrote in How Children Fail, “The true test of intelligence is not how much you know how to do, it’s how you behave when you don’t know what to do.”  The Internet, among other sources, gives us instant access to infinitely more data bits than even the most extraordinary schooling could even attempt to dump into the minds of students. It is far better to know how to access the information as it becomes relevant, and to be able to think logically about how to use it, rather than to simply regurgitate it.


Is all testing of children a bad idea?

No. What is important is: Who is being tested, by whom, in what manner, and for what reason. The main concern is tests that are inappropriately designed, interpreted and imposed—which describes most tests used in schools, whether they are of the standardized variety or specific to a particular course. In How Children Fail, author John Holt described the “games and strategies,” as he called them, that schoolchildren adopt in order to pass without actually mastering the material that has supposedly been taught. For these and myriad other reasons, test results are often highly misleading and worthless, yet they inform decisions that greatly effect individual lives. (Consider the fact that every bad driver has passed a driving test.)

Standardized tests are similarly undependable—you can get a high score without even reading the questions, if you know what you’re doing, or a low score if you are too creative in your answers—and that’s not even considering the ever-increasing pressure to cheat on the part of the test administrators (whose funding may depend on group scores).

The most useful tests are those that actually measure what they are intended to measure—for example, how skilled is someone at writing a computer program to do this or that—and those that are used diagnostically, to see where someone is in his/her understanding, so that an instructor knows how to be most helpful moving forward. When test-takers consent to taking a test and know that they will not be punished for revealing their true level of understanding, the results are much more reliable, and the constructive purpose of the test is more likely to accomplished. The unfortunate school student, on the other hand, has them imposed on a regular basis, thus feeding the downward spiral from natural inquisitiveness to fear of failure and/or obsession with external rewards.

How does the decision to pursue self-directed learning affect family relationships?

The parents of countless self-directed learners (whether they learn primarily at home or at a democratic school) report that their relationships with their children, and the relationships among siblings, are vastly superior to what they previously experienced, or what they see and hear about from their school-entrenched peers. Obviously, this is no panacea for serious issues such as dysfunctional marriages and bad parenting. But the mere absence of battles over homework assignments, getting to school on time, grades, and the myriad other aspects of forced schooling against which young people rebel is a huge contributor to maintaining peace in the home.

The nasty competitiveness between children in different grades (leading many siblings to play one-upmanship with younger brothers or sisters) tends to be replaced by the pleasant (if not joyful!) collaboration between siblings who now can work/play together on shared interests, learn how to get along with others with seemingly conflicting interests in a democratic school or resource center (or in an adult workplace), and then bring those skills home for the enjoyment of all.

It all begins with how adults treat children: This sets the standard for the youths to emulate. Nagging begets whining, and constant criticism begets resentment and withdrawal. When parents are viewed by their children as true allies, rather than as co-enforcers, the family is much more likely to be a happier and more productive system.