self-directed learning

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.

When I was a child, things were different.

There were no screens to speak of — we had no cable TV, no video games, and no one I knew owned a computer yet.

When the summer sun dawned hot and relentless, we would pull on our shorts (cut from last winter’s jeans) and our striped Garanimals T-shirts and head outside.

That billboard I complain about would have been proud: we didn’t have video game controllers clutched in our dirty little hands — it was always a frog or a turtle, a handful of crabapples, a chunk of splintery wood, or a rusty hammer.

Every summer tended to be defined by large, lengthy, all-consuming projects. Projects that took up all of our time and energy, from dawn till dusk. Projects like digging a really big hole. Or trying to break the Guinness Book of World Records’ record for pogo-sticking. Or hammering 8,000 rusty nails out of old planks of wood with an eye toward making a fort or maybe a treehouse.

We spent weeks working on deep intellectual problems like how to catch a crawdad with a broken plastic bucket and a piece of hotdog as bait. No one’s mom appeared with a Pinterest post about how to build a crawdad trap and then, once we had him, how to turn his captivity into a teaching moment about biology and our polluted waterways. We just caught him (finally), then examined him at our leisure, played with him, named him, watched him crawl around in the grass, tried to feed him bologna, and then, if we didn’t kill him with too much scientific curiosity, we put him back in the creek. And no one even knew we had him in the first place.

When I was a child, things were different. We went swimming; no one was on a swim team. We played baseball; no one was on a baseball team. We hatched plans that required stealing balls of string from every junk drawer in the neighborhood; no one came at us with a Pinterest plan and a hopeful expression.

What has changed since then?

It’s not the screens.

It’s not video games or Minecraft or cartoons or comic books.

It’s freedom.

Not just the freedom to roam around physically, but the freedom that comes from not being under the parental microscope all the time — the freedom that comes from just being a kid when no one thought what you did all day mattered that much.

The freedom to conceive a big idea (digging the world’s biggest hole in the empty lot on the corner), rally support among your peers (bring your sandbox shovels and meet me after breakfast), problem-solve (get your baby brother’s wagon to move these rocks), practice leadership and collaboration (it was my idea; if you don’t like it, go dig over there!), and experience true satisfaction with a job well done (that is a really big hole).

No one cared what we did. No one said, “Is digging in the dirt really the best use of your time?” No one said, “How can you sit in front of the fan playing Monopoly for nine hours a day, six days a week?!”

If we had Minecraft back then, we would have played it nine hours a day, the way we played Monopoly and Clue. We would have plowed the vast capacity for single-minded focus that allowed us to dig a hole visible from outer space into building the world’s most complicated Minecraft castle.

How can you give your child a good old-fashioned summer like we used to have?

It’s not about fireflies or picnics or homemade kites. It’s about freedom.

Leave them alone.

Let them be in charge of their own time.

Let them have their own ideas.

Give them big, sprawling blocks of unscheduled time. Give them whole days, whole weeks.

Let them dig into whatever interests them and do whatever they want with it.

You can pull a million cute crafts and activities off Pinterest and arrange them for your child — and end up with a kid trained to expect a steady stream of fun things to do.

You can fill your child’s schedule with a perfect balance of activities combining creativity and outdoor time and language arts — and end up with a kid who doesn’t know what it’s like to be in charge, who doesn’t know what it’s like to make something happen.

You can end up with a kid who’s happy to let someone else have all the ideas and plan all the fun.

When we keep saying “you’ve had enough of that, now go do this instead,” we’re telling kids that their interests aren’t important and their focus isn’t needed. When we fill all their time, they don’t have the chance to fill it themselves.

The best part of the old-fashioned summer isn’t how innocent and simple it is, but how much room there is for growth, for ideas, for hard work, for freedom from micromanagement.  There are things you can learn in an atmosphere of freedom that you simply cannot learn in an organized environment. They aren’t always things about science or history or literature; sometimes they’re things about yourself.

The real difference between the summers of my youth and the summer of today isn’t what kids want to do, it’s how infrequently it’s even taken into consideration. Kids used to be in charge of summer; they used to be in charge of themselves. Now they’re passive recipients of someone else’s ideas, passengers in the backseat being taken somewhere to do something another person has decided they should do. Summer used to be the time when kids shook off the adult control of the school year and rose up, filthy with skinned knees, to create their own worlds. Now they seamlessly move from one adult-controlled agenda to another, from one set of classes to another, from one packed schedule to another.

If you really want to embrace the values of the old-fashioned summer, forget about the surface stuff — the yo-yos and pinwheels and bike parades — and give your kids a really radical gift: freedom.

Give it to yourself as well. Let go of the big expectations; take a deep breath and remind yourself that this summer has little to no bearing on your child’s future career prospects. Be lazy. Drink lemonade. Sit in the shade. Read a book. Cross off 90% of the things on your summer bucket list and really enjoy the remaining 10%. Eschew guilt. Summer is supposed to be about taking a break from the rest of the year, not simply switching from being pummeled by one set of expectations to being pummeled by another.

Pinwheels are nice, but empty days and low expectations are even better.