Self-directed learning: the neglected subject?

Published by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 08:26 AM

Last week I tweeted a series of thoughts…

I had run across the umpteenth request by a parent for suggestions for resources for a child’s deep interest — and the child in question was a teenager.

What does it mean if we have teenagers who still aren’t capable of building their own curriculum — even if it’s something they’re really interested in?

These days, children might enter school at age 3 and not leave again until their mid-20s. It’s possible to make it all the way to adulthood without ever becoming a self-directed learner — without anyone in charge of your education saying, “Oh, and I guess I should probably show you how to drive this car as well as ride in it.”

You can sit back and let someone else provide the learning agenda, rustle up the resources, plan the “fun” activities, organize the classes, then arrange to assess whether or not you successfully absorbed the knowledge and skills they think you need.


If your child is four or six and really wants to learn about, say, space shuttles, then he or she would be much better served by doing all the work of figuring out where to find out more about space shuttles, going to the library and looking through all the books and films available and choosing the ones that seem most promising, looking for websites and places to visit and so on. All of that learning is truncated when a parent does it for them. Boom! Here you go, kid — a stack of books, fun Pinterest activities, and we’re going to the planetarium tomorrow. With any luck, we’ll burn through this by Monday!

When adults do all the work of making learning happen, children lose out.

They say that cutting wood warms you twice: once when you split it with your axe and again when you bask by your fire. In the same way, project-based homeschooling is twice the learning. You learn about your project and along the way you learn how to learn. Instead of dumping it out of a box, you have to go out and build it from scratch. It warms you twice. - Project-based homeschooling curriculum

I’ve seen parents mention how fun it was to pull together books and activities for their child’s interest — totally oblivious to the fact that their child could have had that fun.

Project-based homeschooling — self-directed learning supported by thoughtful mentoring — offers three levels of learning:

- Primary: learning about our interest.

- Secondary: Acquiring the skills we need to do the things we want to do.

- Tertiary: Learning about learning, making, doing, and sharing (meta-learning).

When adults keep cutting the learning meat for their kids until they’re adults, they never get the chance to experience all of these levels. We’re not just making learning less fun, less meaningful, less useful, and less relevant, we’re actually making it less educational.

This weekend I came across this article in the Harvard Business Review:

Before Karen was promoted to vice president, her annual evaluations had included detailed comments that guided her professional growth. This year, she was determined to elicit specific feedback, especially since she had just endured a stressful year leading a major project that defined the company's future.

But when she pressed for more specifics, the president simply said, “I trust you to continue doing what you do so well, and I expect you’ll ask for my help if you need it.

In that moment, she realized something profound: He was telling her that she was free. She was in charge of her own considerable domain — and her own life. Somehow, amid the pressures to meet operational goals and balance budgets, she had failed to notice the full implications of that shift.

She wanted to make sure she understood correctly. “You mean to say that I can push the envelope as far as I want, as long as I believe it is in the best interest of the company, and you'll tell me when I’ve gone too far?”

He nodded his agreement. She was buoyed by the possibilities that her newfound freedom presented, and at the same time, she felt the weight of the responsibility this change implied. Before she even made it to the door, Karen started thinking about how she could take ownership — and advantage — of this situation. — Claim your freedom at work

Here is an adult who apparently has made it through college and the early part of her career being successful by following orders — someone who is floored to realize they are now being handed the reins and given responsibility for being in charge.

Self-directed learning — or working — is not mandatory in America today. You can just be quiet, follow instructions, and get all the way through college and halfway into a career without ever being self-directed.

Someone else can set the agenda, lay out the expectations, and deliver the rubric — all you have to do is connect the dots.

A major reason Karen hadn’t recognized, until her moment of truth, how much freedom she had was that she had never received formal leadership training. She is not alone. … [T]he qualities that made them exceptional individual contributors didn’t prepare them for the challenges they later faced leading teams or projects.

Along with the freedom that comes with being the boss is the obligation to know what you don’t know and secure the resources you need to excel in your role. — ibid.

Why do we need to make sure self-directed learning is part of our children’s education? Because without it, you don’t know what you don’t know — and you don’t know how to find the resources you need to be successful at what YOU want to do.

If you never transition from being a passive recipient of knowledge and skills to being an engaged, self-directed, self-motivated learner, you never learn how to find resources and experts, how to weigh the relevance of research materials, how to set goals and break them down into tasks, how to build and use community, how to find places where you can get the skills you need to make your ideas happen.

And if you only ever learn how to connect someone else’s dots, you end up with whatever picture they plotted out for you.

If we want our kids to take control of their lives, first we have to help them take control of their learning.


Comment by amy21 on September 9, 2013 at 10:20 AM

In my first "real" job, my boss said, "This position is brand new. You get to make it up." So I did. No lie--this was stressful. I was given almost no parameters, and I also had no concept of what was enough, so I ran myself ragged. And, honestly, I think my boss didn't want the work of figuring those parameters out. He wasnt exactly mentoring.

HOWEVER, I was completely capable of creating my own position. I have had very few jobs that didnt require me to do so, at least in part. I'm not sure I know any other way.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 11:16 AM

i’ve worked with fifth-graders who became immobilized with anxiety when they were told they were in charge of their own project — i imagine there are young adults who feel the same!

Comment by amy21 on September 10, 2013 at 03:11 PM

Well, it was sink or swim for me. I'm fairly certain my boss hadn't been on board with the new partnership that resulted in my job, and he didn't feel like figuring out what it should be, so he was passing the buck. But I am also the type of person who resents being spoon-fed. I mean, I've taken some jobs that were very straight-forward--data entry, for example--as a means to an end (I was back in college, taking classes that required my problem-solving side), but in general, I don't want to be a robot/cog. I have no idea how I got like this, though, because I had a very traditional education in public schools, and I played *that* game very well. I'm going to think on it though because I think it's just as interesting to figure out how some kids are given no opportunity to create their own education yet end up fully capable of taking ownership as adults.

Comment by Jenell on September 9, 2013 at 11:11 AM

How does this work with kids with learning impediments--we all have hurdles--but I mean severe difficulties in translating information--like dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia?

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 11:15 AM

a child with these issues can still set a learning goal — e.g., “i want to build a treehouse in the backyard” — then seek out resources (they don’t have to be books), experts/mentors, break down their big goal into subgoals, figure out how to get the tools and skills they need, face problems and deal with mistakes, and so on.

we have PBHers with dyslexia and dysgraphia who build projects around art, nature, science, computers, etc.

Comment by Jenell on September 9, 2013 at 11:28 AM

There's no magic bullet?! I suppose I know this. It's just so damn hard to not rescue them, you know, when things are already difficult. You just want to clear the way so they can feel some immediate success. But I suppose success is only truly experienced through direct engagement and effort.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 12:13 PM

we all have issues — some of them are more obvious than others, some get named and paid more attention to, but we all have them! no matter what else is going on, we have to do the work of figuring out how to get what we want in life. i think it’s fun, though. ;o)

Comment by Jenell on September 9, 2013 at 02:09 PM

Yes! Life is good.

Comment by renee @ FIMBY on September 9, 2013 at 06:11 PM

My son has dyslexia, I don't consider this a severe disability in translating information though, maybe it's just mild for him (he's just now reading competently at age 12 1/2). In spite of his dyslexia, he is still able to direct projects and when he was younger and still a bit now, we have to help with some parts of the reading and helping him communicate his finished projects (we write and spell for him as necessary) but but the ideas and vision are his and we come in a support team, not the "take over" team.

Comment by Emma on September 9, 2013 at 01:43 PM

I have a question, if you don't mind. I am trying to develop PBH with my 4yr old, but we keep floundering as she doesn't know what's out there. For example, she loves dinosaurs so we have been to a zoo that had a dinosaur exhibit (which I heard about from another mum), we went to see 'walking with dinosaurs live' (which I saw something about online) and we're planning a trip to a huge museum that has a massive dinosaur exhibit (most famous museum in our country so I knew it existed). As adults we find out about things like these regarding our, or our kids, interests by reading newspapers, seeing snippets on the news, clicking about on the internet, chatting to people with similar interests - but she isn't doing any of these things yet. Do you think, if we are finding these things out for her now, that she will eventually wonder if there's a dinosaur exhibit near where we are going on holiday (for example), or with a future interest ask if there are museums about whatever it is? Will it evolve naturally like that? Or is there something we should be doing to help her see that she can look for things herself? I already take her to the library frequently and give her free rein in the non-fiction section, so she knows there are books about anything and everything. But it hasn't translated over into trips or art projects or anything like that yet - she just doesn't seem to wonder what's possible, iykwim! What do you think? Thanks.
(PS - sorry for the mini essay!)

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 02:32 PM


Hi Emma. :)


first, please join the pbh forum!


short answer here:


pbh isn’t about learning about her interest — dinosaurs in this case. it’s about helping her figure out how SHE can learn about her interest.


it’s easy as pie to pull together a stack of books, some activities, make a date to go to the dinosaur exhibit, but none of that turns your daughter into a self-directed learner.


take a look here: 10 steps to getting started with PBH


if you have the pbh book, look at the list of “things you might do” on page 51.


start with her questions. if she loves dinosaurs, what does she love about them? what does she know about them? what does she want to know?


then talk about where you can find out the answers to her questions — or just find out more about dinosaurs. where can we look? rather than giving her free rein in the library, you might remind her, “do you want to look at their dinosaur books?” when you read aloud for her from library books, she might discover that they have dinosaurs at museums and she might ask you, “can we go to a museum?” so even a four-year-old CAN get there on her own if we leave her the space.


(i’m not telling you to cancel your trip! ;o) i’m sure it’ll be great.)


she doesn’t read the newspaper or watch the news or click around on the internet, but she can look at books and magazines from the library and if she asks the librarian for help, she might find educational films as well. you can help her look on the internet if you’re willing, and you can make her a little private blog so she can browse on her own.


YES she will evolve into asking if there are museums — you’re about to take her to a museum and she’ll remember what she saw there. that adds to her knowledge and resources.


to help her blend making with investigating, you can set up a workspace for her, make art materials accessible, sit down and draw/paint/sculpt/build with her regularly, and then fill her workspace with reminders of her interest.


to talk more (and read about others exploring the same ideas), please think about joining the forum! :)

Comment by lisahassanscott on September 9, 2013 at 02:19 PM

Hi Lori,
Thank you for your post: it's an issue I've been thinking about a lot, so I hope you'll forgive me if my comment seems long.

My daughter is 10 and has been out of the school system for about 9 months. I immediately noticed that she was unable to self-direct her own projects. She was used to being spoon-fed information and completing worksheets. So although my ideal is to let her take the lead, I have found that she has the same reaction as Amy21, above: she doesn't seem to know what to do next and needs considerable mentoring. She generally has a clear idea of what she wants to learn and what she would like to produce, but the *how* is what frustrates her.

She might say, "I want to find out more about X. How do I do that?" And I'll say, "Sounds like you're not sure where to go next." And she'll say, "Yes."

Cue protracted silent pause.

So I have taken to saying, "Would you like some suggestions?" Or, I might take a few books off our shelves that could be interesting to her and casually leave them around the house where she might find them. We go to the library as a family and *I* say, "Do you want to take a look at some books about your project?" (She always says, "great idea!")

At no point does she say, "I need to go to the library to get more information about x." Or, "I'm going on the laptop to find out more about y."

I'm trying to trust this process. I wonder whether I'm giving her enough freedom/control, or perhaps too much. It feels like a balancing act at the moment because she seems to be indicating that she's not *quite* ready to take charge.

I'd love to hear your take on this.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 02:53 PM


hi lisa :)


are you journaling? is she journaling?


when she says she has an interest, what’s the next step *you* take?


are you writing down her questions and ideas and plans?


does she have a workspace, and does it reflect what she’s working on and what she’s interested in?


when she says, “I want to find out more about X. How do I do that?,” you could sit down with her and brainstorm together — make a list of ideas. you could prompt her: “what did you do when you wanted to find out more about X?”


are these small passing interests or has she latched onto something that she is really engaged in?


i’m wondering if it’s self-motivation that is lacking (she just isn’t *that* interested — not enough to remember on her own or to give her the oomph to make a plan) or if it’s confidence (she doesn’t want to misstep and be judged so she’d rather you took point). is it that she’s not quite *ready* to take charge or not quite *interested* in taking charge? maybe she’s perfectly happy to have you take that role.


if your goal is to help her become self-directed, then you have to tap into a deep, authentic interest — something she wants to do badly enough that she doesn’t want to wait around for you to figure it out for her.


amy21 up above actually said she was “completely capable” of creating her own position — she wasn’t sure what was *enough*, so she ran herself ragged — but she didn’t have a problem doing it. but i have worked with a lot of kids coming from a public-school background who did not like the idea of being in charge of their own learning — they just wanted someone to continue telling them what to do and how to do it. it’s what they were used to, it’s what they were comfortable with, and they were at sea when they were encouraged to take over.


i don’t think it’s that your daughter is *unable* to self-direct — she was just never asked to do it before and she got used to an entirely different, more passive way of learning. it’s no wonder that a child who has always been “spoon-fed information” doesn’t know what to do when she’s handed those reins.


but i would say she is fully *able* to self-direct — she just needs to be mentored to learn how to do it. you need to help her figure out that she *is* capable and she *can* make her own plans and figure out how to see them through. to do that, you have to show her what to do and not do it for her. you have to communicate to her that you are certain she is capable and it’s just a matter of figuring out what needs to be done. and if she declines (perhaps because she doesn’t feel confident?), then she doesn’t really want it very badly. so i would look for something she really, *really* wants to do — because then her motivation will kick in and she’ll be more willing to do the work.


if you want to join the pbh forum, we talk about these things quite a bit. :)

Comment by lisahassanscott on September 9, 2013 at 03:07 PM

Hello Lori, Thank you so much for your response. Here are some replies to your questions.

**are you journaling? is she journaling?

Yes I am, no she isn't.

**when she says she has an interest, what’s the next step *you* take?

I get out my notebook and start taking notes on what she's saying. I get out a clean sheet of paper and write down her ideas so she has a copy, or we write them on a white board and take a photo of it afterwards.

**are you writing down her questions and ideas and plans?

Yes. When she seems stuck I remind her of them or encourage her to check the brainstorm/question-idea list.

**does she have a workspace, and does it reflect what she’s working on and what she’s interested in?

This part is trickier because of the -ahem- destructive nature of her brother. All of the supplies are where she can reach them; she doesn't have to ask for them-- but they aren't all out in one place which would be my ideal. Additionally, everything she creates has to be put in a safe place afterwards. The tears, oh the tears, she has shed when her brother has got hold of her project...

**when she says, “I want to find out more about X. How do I do that?,” you could sit down with her and brainstorm together — make a list of ideas. you could prompt her: “what did you do when you wanted to find out more about X?”

I'm encouraged by what you're saying here, because it's what I am doing!

**are these small passing interests or has she latched onto something that she is really engaged in?

Now THAT is the question. The baking project certainly seems to be the thing that has interested her the *most* of anything she's done. Luckily for me.

Yes, it's a priority for me to get more involved on the forum. Thank you again. Lisa

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 03:14 PM


another question i should have asked is — are you doing regular project time?

(dedicated project time post:

because it looks like what’s needed is a little more habit and structure built around the process.

workspace helps that and it sounds like you could try something there — even a bulletin board out of brother’s reach and maybe a high shelf.

going at each new interest/question in the same way helps — project notebook, list, question, hang up question on board, etc.

and if you have a regular time to work together during the week, that slots everything you’re doing into a structure. you start out by reminding each other of what you were doing before (using your journal as a tool for remembering), you talk about plans for today, you talk about what’s going to happen and what might go wrong and what you’ll do if it does, and when it’s over you talk about how it went and what you plan on doing next time.

it doesn’t *have* to be a set-aside special dedicated time — but structure can help reinforce all those steps of self-directed learning.

keep me updated!

Comment by sarah pj on September 9, 2013 at 03:54 PM

I love this. With kids at totally different ages/stages of development, I can see that the learning how to direct their own work comes along slowly. My 15 year old gets it. If he wants to do something/learn about something then he finds the resources himself. He may ask me for help in seeing if we have personal connections to resources, or for obtaining supplies, but he runs the show. My 11 year old is great about obtaining the stuff that she needs (usually from my studio. Ahem) and finding instruction online, but still has trouble seeing how to take her work further and push herself into uncomfortable territory. The 3 year old is at the very beginning of the road and is luckiest of all because with her, I won't have to undo anything. It's all a clean slate of supporting her in finding her way. Sometimes I get pretty discouraged with the middle child until I look forward and back and remind myself that it's a process. The self directed part also has to be learned and mentored. It will have ups and downs, but it will get there because we're feeding it. At least I hope so.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 04:40 PM

i believe it will!

Comment by andrea_r on September 9, 2013 at 04:28 PM

And we have ot let our kids fail and screw up and occasionally fall in the dirt.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 04:40 PM


kids could learn to be self-directed in the classroom — but they usually don’t. and they pick up a lot of bad learning habits — like the fear of being wrong, the unwillingness to head down a path unless they know what’s expected of them, the desire to just be left alone…

it’s so much easier to learn to expect and manage mistakes when you start this process very early.
Comment by kirstenf on September 9, 2013 at 04:39 PM

Gosh, Lori, this is seriously powerful stuff!:-)

I must just be totally self-obsessed, but when I read this I just think about me. I was educated in a spoon-fed way, and although I definitely developed self-directed learning skills at university, I still find it hard to get the impetus to do this myself. There are loads of things i want to learn about - I make list upon list - but rarely actually manage to do it. There have been a few people in my life, of whom I've been quite in awe, who have led their lives in this way. One in particular was home-schooled and I always put her attitude down to that...

Anyway... I found this really inspirational, because it's what *I* aspire to. Both so that I can start living the way I want to live, and so that I can inspire and mentor my children.

So thank you for getting grumpy!


Comment by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 04:42 PM


you’re welcome! ;o)

i think it’s a proof of authenticity when it’s something we can and would apply to *ourselves*.

how many of us would be willing to learn the way most kids in public school learn? not me, that’s for sure.

you can learn to be self-directed at any point in life. that’s why my new book is about…

Comment by carlee on September 9, 2013 at 05:17 PM

My youngest is sick today so I sat down with my 6th grader to work side by side all day, when usually I am available for questions but not right there (other than math). At the same time I was feeling like she was grasping more of what she was learning than she does without me, she told me that working with me makes her start to feel like she is dependent upon me. How do you balance her need for self directed learning (which she is great at..from choosing some curriculum/topics to digging deeper and even developing how she demonstrates what she has learned) with helping her truly grasp new concepts and information (today was the water cycle and pollution)?

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 08:22 PM


she doesn’t have to be in charge of ALL of her education — but if you want her to be self-directed, there should be *something* — a project of her own — that she *is* in charge of.

if she wants more autonomy over her normal work, i would think you could work that out — have regular conferences, have her review the work for you so you know she got it, and so on. if she knows you’re going to let her take more control, she will probably be willing to come to you to ask for help when she needs it. if she prefers to be independent and she thinks you’ll take over, she’ll probably avoid asking for help.

Comment by janet on September 9, 2013 at 06:51 PM

!!!new book??!! yyeeeesss! i'm smitten, lori. even though i've been reading along with you for a few years now, it never fails me to go back to the beginning when i feel lost. today, after reading your new post, i was feeling sad that since we moved o hasn't had much interest in minecraft, hasn't spoken about his long project list (but wouldn't let me erase it either). then today, today! i *asked* him about it, and he noticed i was writing what he said in my journal, and i noticed a sparkle in his eyes. among his brand new plans: starting a company.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 08:23 PM


fantastic. :)

janet, e-mail me — i want to involve you in something i’m working on right now.

and thank you so much about the new book! :)

Comment by MarloJen on September 10, 2013 at 02:02 AM

For a couple of months now, I've been keeping my PBH braintab open, always plugging away at keeping this neglected subject up there with math and writing! I love that you've put that on my radar in a new way.

And I'll be using the exchange between you and Lisa as I work with my ten year old daughter as well. She has never been in school, but I experience these things with her, too. Her style is different from mine (I'll let you fill in the blanks there...). It's a slower process with her, but I think maybe there's value for me in having it that way -- I have to really work my way through each step.

Great stuff!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 10, 2013 at 08:41 AM

thanks, jen :)

Comment by Kristy on September 10, 2013 at 09:04 AM

Oh boy, I recognize myself in the example of finding an interest of my child's, getting a stack of related books I know they'll like from the library, taking a related field trip in the near future, and "finishing" within the week or the month! Ack. I think I need to get your book. And definitely to ponder this post. :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 10, 2013 at 09:11 AM

thanks, kristy! maybe your library has the book! :) if you read it, hope you enjoy. :)

Comment by amyiannone on September 10, 2013 at 12:01 PM

I struggle with this as well as my 7, almost 8 year old is shy and a bit anxious. She would NEVER talk to a librarian...yet. But I decided to start teaching her how to really use the computer and the library on her own. She will also ask her older friends for help doing things when she needs it. Not really me:-/

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 10, 2013 at 12:50 PM


that’s good if she isn’t asking you! branching out is a good thing. asking peers, excellent.

you might help bridge her to asking the librarian herself by having her make a list of what she wants to ask and then you use that for her — having a script might bump her up to feeling able to ask herself one time.

always look for a way for her to get partway there even if she’s not yet ready to go all the way.

Comment by MarloJen on September 10, 2013 at 02:30 PM

I thought my daughter would never talk to the librarian either. One day I left her at the library with her dad for an hour, and I came back to find that she had taken it upon herself to ask a librarian to help her find something (her dad didn't know how)!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 10, 2013 at 03:19 PM

yay! :)

Comment by jenny on October 28, 2013 at 11:03 PM

At university we had a wonderful lecturer who gave assignments where the whole purpose was to learn how to research using the internet (this was back in 1996) and the databases. She wasn't worried about the content, just was just worried that in second year some of us still didn't know how to go about finding the information we needed.

My husband also tutored university chemistry informally and we both found that actually pulling together all of the material and explaining the concepts in an easily digestible form for the students actually robbed them of the chance to learn the material properly themselves. The got the basics quickly, but lacked the in depth understanding you only get from going through the all of the readings and asking questions and thinking about the concepts yourself.

Thanks again for the thought provoking article. I'm determined that my boys (nearly 3 and 3 months old) will be given the time and responsibility to seek out the information themselves.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 29, 2013 at 08:35 AM


we both found that actually pulling together all of the material and explaining the concepts in an easily digestible form for the students actually robbed them of the chance to learn the material properly themselves. The got the basics quickly, but lacked the in depth understanding you only get from going through the all of the readings and asking questions and thinking about the concepts yourself.

beautiful. perfect description of why learning through projects is so superior.

we had a visiting educator marvel that our preschoolers were doing more research than the fifth- and sixth-graders at her school. build it yourself and you really do remember it longer and understand it better!

I'm determined that my boys (nearly 3 and 3 months old) will be given the time and responsibility to seek out the information themselves.

how can we not demand our kids get this experience in school?! it’s a mystery to me.

thank you so much for your thoughtful comments!

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