Self-directed Learning

Recently, while baking muffins, my wife wanted to substitute light margarine for the butter that was called for in the recipe. She wasn’t sure how much to use, because this margarine contained a different proportion of water to oil than butter, and this difference could affect the outcome of the baking process. She needed to figure out how much water to subtract from the recipe to account for the difference. This is a basic algebra problem. She aced algebra as a child in ninth grade and yet could not remember how to apply that learning to this situation. I was able to help her by applying the algebra I had learned as a child. Why was I able to apply my childhood learning? I think it was because I have always thought algebra was fun. I’ve used it whenever I could in countless situations throughout my life and thus kept it fresh in my mind. My wife was bored with the subject and never applied it in her personal life.

When bored children ask their teacher (or their parents) why they have to learn algebra, a teacher might offer an everyday example using algebra, thus demonstrating how it will be useful later in the child’s life. The claim is that it’s worth all this boredom, or perhaps even pain, right now to learn this stuff, because you will use it throughout your life. But it seems my wife’s experience is quite common. I wonder what would have been different if she had never been forced to learn algebra as a child. She could have spent that time learning things interesting to her, and she would have been very likely to retain that knowledge because of its interest to her. If I hadn’t been around when she needed algebra in her life, she could have found help from someone else or decided that learning some algebra was now worthwhile. And if she did decide to learn some algebra, she would now have a direct motivation for doing so and a way to apply it immediately—both prerequisites for knowledge retention that have allowed me to continue using algebra throughout my life.

Is this situation unique to algebra or math in general? Many an English major would have you think so. Yet many a math enthusiast would tell you the same about the English courses they were forced to sit through. I tested well in middle-school social studies and found the reading somewhat interesting. I was required to know the major industries of Michigan and many other facts that I could not recall now. I had no reason or interest to apply that learning after taking that class and would have preferred to spend the time learning something more interesting to me, perhaps genetics. Many children might find social studies interesting or useful, but that doesn’t mean all children need to study it.

Externally directed childhood education, when compared to self-directed learning, requires an enormous effort by teachers to maintain the children’s interest in all required subjects, with no guarantee of added benefit and resulting in many lost learning opportunities. What do I mean by externally directed education? I mean an education where someone other than the person doing the learning determines what that person should learn and how they should learn it. That other someone is usually a teacher and all the people who tell the teacher what they must teach and how—in other words, school administrators, school boards, politicians, and parents. Externally directed education is used in almost all public and private schools. There are dramatic variations in both public and private schools, but what is common to all schools that use externally directed education is the idea that ultimately the children do not know what is best for them to learn and someone else, an expert, must tell them what is important (or at least give them a list of options from which to choose) and then force them to go along if they are not already willing. There are some rare schools that allow children to guide their own learning. I’ll talk about them later.

Self-directed learning, on the other hand, presupposes that children do know what is best for them to learn and trusts them to decide for themselves. My claim is that a child will learn more useful things and learn them more deeply by directing her or his own learning. It is not a daunting task, it doesn’t require children to draw up educational plans, and it doesn’t require them to predict what they will need to know for the rest of their lives (something that most educators feel they must do). It just requires that the children each take responsibility for their own learning and do whatever interests them or is useful to them. That may involve solitary learning, collaborative learning, or even classroom instruction, but it is all done by each child because they wanted it and thought of it. This may sound crazy, but I’ll explain later why it isn’t.

As a child, I underwent a conventional education (in other words, it was externally directed), and for those of you adults who also did, I’d like you to recall the following things. Think back to all the time you spent in the classroom listening to a teacher or working on one of the teacher’s ideas and all the time spent studying for tests or researching assignments like papers and projects. How much of what you learned or tried to retain can you recall and actually use right now without having to go back and relearn those things? Obviously, you still know how to read or you wouldn’t have gotten this far in this blog posting. You probably also know how to add and subtract and do other such things. But what about the thousands of facts and techniques that you haven’t used since your childhood schooldays and wouldn’t have been interested in learning if left to your own devices? Do you think you could use more than a small portion of those things right now without having to relearn them? You might say, “Yes, I would need to relearn them, but I can acquire that knowledge more easily the second time around.” That might be true, but will you really save that much time? And was it worth the hours and days spent learning things you were never interested in and will never use?

It may appear easier to relearn a subject you were taught as a child, but that ease may have more to do with you being better at learning now and perhaps being more motivated by a self-determined goal. It is extremely difficult or impossible for teachers to know with specificity what each student needs to live their life. This requires children to be taught a wide array of knowledge in an attempt to cover all the perceived possibilities, so children spend significant time and effort learning things they will never use in later life.

Now think of all you need to know to perform your current work (for wages or not) and conduct your life affairs. How much of that knowledge was acquired in a classroom? And how much did you learn “on the job” in an informal setting as you needed the information and from a multitude of sources? You might have taken a classroom course, but in response to an immediate need or desire, such as learning a new computer skill or how to build your own furniture. So much of what you use to conduct your daily affairs is learned as you go that what you learned early in life in a traditional classroom may be insignificant in comparison. Even the things you learned in school in your childhood and early adult life that are actually useful now may be more easily and deeply learned when you have an immediate reason for learning them.

You may say, “I did learn many useful things that I’ve used since childhood, like reading, arithmetic, problem analysis, appreciation of art and literature, and so on.” I will admit that reading, basic arithmetic, and problem analysis are useful for all of us, but those are things that will be learned in the course of any educational pursuit, no matter how impractical that pursuit may appear to parents and teachers. And as for other things that you’ve found useful and interesting during childhood and since, you would have chosen to learn them in a self-directed education, as well as many things you would have found useful and interesting but were not given the time to learn by parents and teachers who didn’t value those things.

Your childhood teachers and the people assembling your childhood curriculum put enormous effort into compiling knowledge and designing their teaching techniques. Their job was to anticipate the minimal body of knowledge that all of their pupils would need throughout their lives. It was a daunting task, even impossible to do completely. A huge part of their job was to convince their students that this material was necessary for their future success and that they must take an interest in it. A significant measure of teacher success was how well they could engage their students in the instructional projects that they designed “for the students’ own good.” Some students might have engaged themselves out of a sense of obligation, others because they had been seduced by the teaching technique, and others because they were a priori interested in the subject. I’ve watched some teacher-training videos highlighting teachers who were exceptional at engaging students in the subject that was predetermined by that teacher. The teachers used a significant amount of their time convincing at least some of their students to be interested in what the teachers determined was necessary to learn. What if the teachers had used that time to facilitate the pursuit of the students’ own interests?

Because teachers (and most other people) feel that there is a body of knowledge that all humans need, or at least that all humans in their society or culture need, they must determine whether they have successfully imparted this knowledge. This necessitates a variety of evaluation techniques that test students on their degree of fact absorption and concept comprehension. This testing and everything associated with it occupies an enormous amount of teachers’ time. If teachers (and folks in general) did not believe that there was a required body of knowledge for all students, would they need to test their students? The answer depends on what is considered necessary knowledge and who are the interested parties that require this knowledge. If we are talking about adults applying for jobs, then it’s possible that they might need to demonstrate their current abilities and skill sets. However, for children it seems impossible to know what will be required from them as adults other than basic skills that can be learned during any educational pursuit.

What is certain is that eventually, each person will need the ability to direct their own learning (for example, to learn job skills) and to collaborate with other people. These are things that children can learn and practice no matter what subject interests them. If they are left to determine for themselves what they want to learn, they will need to figure out how to learn the material and very likely will require more or less help from more experienced people (parents, instructional staff, and older children, for example). To get this help, students will need to work with other people. This will amount to a self-designed learning project that will require collaboration skills. Of course, young children won’t be experts at collaborating (although certainly they will gain experience from group play), but there is no better way to learn those skills than doing and organizing a project that will move the child toward their own desired goal. If children must decide for themselves what they want to learn, based on their intrinsic interest or a need to meet a desired goal, they will learn and practice the skills required for collaboration and directing their own learning. But most important, they will have started practicing these techniques as young children, so by the time they are adults, they will have had years of experience designing and working in groups, designing and working in their own learning projects, and working in others’ learning projects.

One of the major complaints in the modern workplace is the deficiency of collaborative abilities and the lack of communication. I feel this may be the result of children’s inability to fully control their learning environment. Even when teachers require students to work on collaborative projects, the subjects and outcomes of those projects are almost always determined by the teacher and thus limit what the student can learn and practice, as compared to what will be required of them in adult life. Even if the teacher provides options, the students are still limited in what they will experience in terms of project design and collaborative requirements. Just imagine yourself as an employer hiring a young adult who had an entire childhood of self-directed learning. That person would have twelve or more years of experience collaborating and designing their own learning projects. So many problems in the workplace that are related to people’s inability to manage themselves and others and to collaborate would be avoided.

Much of this discussion relies on the observation that there are two reasons that people learn something well. The first is that they may be intrinsically interested in something. This is often associated with hobbies, but it can be associated with work, for example, scientific research or becoming interested in the intricacies of one’s job. The second is that the knowledge may be required for a desired goal, for example, to do something well on the job or attain a personal goal. These two reasons can work in concert, but that is not necessary. In both cases, the learning is self-directed, and in both cases, there is a high degree of self-motivation. I argue that internal motivation will result in better learning and a deeper absorption of knowledge. Self-directed learning is the type of learning that most people do during their adult life. Childhood is unique in that the child is told in large part what they need to learn for the sake of learning. Of course, adults are often told they need to learn something, but the difference is that the adult is self-motivated to do the learning, for example, because they need a job or need to keep their current job.

I am arguing that there is no base set of knowledge that all people will need as adults, or at least that what base knowledge there is will be learned in the course of a child’s life no matter what subject matter they choose, as long as they have access to the knowledge. One thing is certain: People will need to learn new things throughout their lives, and for the great majority of their lives, they won’t have their parents and teachers standing over them attempting to provide external motivation. So why not practice self-directed learning throughout childhood?

In fact, children do practice self-directed learning very early in life: it is called play. Then at some point in the child’s life, adults determine that this form of learning must be subverted in favor of externally directed learning. Subsequently, the child goes through a long period of externally directed learning, only to be expected to self-direct their learning, without sufficient practice, when they reach their late teens or early adulthood. This seems unfair, and it strikes me as bad planning for adult life.

Are there any children practicing self-directed learning right now? Yes. I know of at least two types of settings where this is happening. The first involves what are called democratic or Sudbury schools. In this setting, the children attend a school but still direct and initiate their own learning. The schools are staffed, but the staff don’t tell the children what to learn; they don’t even make deliberate suggestions. The staff are there as resources for the children, to help get what is needed for their learning projects, answer questions, and perhaps teach a class if that is requested by some of the children.

The second setting is called unschooling. In this setting, children do not attend a school; they practice self-directed learning in everyday life. The idea is that learning to humans is like breathing, and it does not need to be treated as a special and separate activity. Learning happens at home or anywhere else that is part of the child’s life. Children are facilitated by their parents in their learning endeavors, for example, finding an expert in an area of the child’s interest. The families seek out other unschooling families as companions and resources for each other, and some are working on forming intentional communities where the children can play and learn together spontaneously in a village-like atmosphere (for example, see

To all you adults out there: Please examine your own life to see how you direct your own learning efforts now, and think how this can apply to children. Thinking of children as full human beings, not partial humans or humans in training, has helped me realize that what’s good for me as an adult learner is also good for children as learners.


Freedom to Learn, Peter Gray’s blog at

Selected articles from Peter Gray’s blog:

Another Explanation of How Self-directed Learning Works

Adventure Playgrounds: A Children’s World in the City

Adventure Playground – City of Berkeley, CA

Zero Tuition College

FreeLearning: a life without school

James Altucher’s 8 Alternatives to College

Radical Unschooling

Diablo Valley School, a Sudbury-model school in Concord, California

Sudbury Valley School

Beach High School

Psychology Today article about Sudbury Valley School

The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni

The Sudbury Valley School Experience

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This work by Edward Simpson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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