FAQs / 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.

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