Self-directed education (SDE) refers to the concept and practice of children and teens being in charge of their own education.
In SDE, education is not equated with schooling. Rather, it is seen and understood more broadly as the process of acquiring knowledge, values, and skills that are conducive to a satisfying and meaningful life. As such, education is a natural, everywhere, all-the-time, developmental process that begins at birth and continues throughout life.
When children are allowed to direct their own activities, based on their authentic interests and natural inclinations, they learn what they need to learn, when they are the most receptive and motivated. Such learning may involve great effort — trial and error, searching for answers, seeking helpers, and asking questions endlessly — yet it feels effortless to the learner, who is energized by the natural educative drives of curiosity, playfulness, and sociability.
This is how children learn their language and culture before they are “school age” and also how most informal learning occurs for adults. In SDE, there are no arbitrary ages during which this natural process must be forcibly replaced with a teacher-directed curriculum imposed in a school context that is separated from real life.
Self-directed children frequently learn to read, write, and calculate informally — without being taught or consciously intending to learn anything — when these skills are needed for their self-chosen activities. And being self-directed, they can opt for formal learning when it suits them.
Often the activity of self-directed learners is more aptly described as play, which nature and evolution have selected as one of the most efficient ways for animals (especially mammals) to learn and develop their capacities.
When children are not being directed by others, their natural curiosity leads them to explore their environment and, in their play, to emulate the behavior of their elders. They are especially drawn to explore the tools and skills that seem to empower their role models.
When children are immersed in a culture of partnership — where connection and cooperation replace control and domination — their innate sociality leads them to engage and play with others in ways that develop their social/emotional intelligence and collaborative skills.
Since the dawn of humanity, children in hunter-gatherer bands have educated themselves in this way, acquiring vast bodies of knowledge without the need for anything like today’s standard schooling and teaching methods.
Genetically, children born today are nearly identical to their hunter-gatherer ancestors, so they come equipped with the same drives and ability to direct their own education.
Evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray has identified six conditions that optimize SDE, based on observations of children in hunter-gatherer cultures as well as children in modern alternative schools (and “home schools”) designed to support SDE:
These six conditions — almost entirely absent from conventional schools — can be deliberately created by parents and educators who understand nature’s design for self-directed education.
Today we are seeing a resurgence of school alternatives that support SDE. These include...
In practice, self-directed learners may occasionally prefer to acquire certain skills and knowledge through formal “educational” activities, such as taking classes that are directed by teachers, or using textbooks or a curriculum. But self-directed means that these learners engage in such activities by choice, with their consent, and thus they are free to withdraw from any activity that isn’t working for them. SDE facilitators and parents don’t pressure young people to learn, formally or otherwise. They trust and support the natural SDE process.
Adults and children who have been conventionally schooled often find it difficult to trust that self-directed education really works. This is largely due to unspoken “lessons,” implicit in the structures of schooling, that teach us, for example, that we are not learning unless we are being deliberately instructed by a teacher or textbook, or that learning is painful or boring. Successful SDE requires such lessons to be unlearned, a process known as deschooling.
For adults, deschooling is needed to see and appreciate educational processes that were previously invisible to their schooled eyes. For children leaving conventional schools, the deschooling process may involve weeks or months in which they seem to be “doing nothing,” but this downtime may be necessary for their natural educative drives to re-emerge as their defenses against coercion subside.
Surveys of adults who directed their own education through childhood and adolescence have indicated that they usually go on to lead fulfilling lives and are able to succeed in college and/or their chosen careers. And their careers are often based on interests and passions they discovered and developed through the process of self-directed education.
This summary is based largely on the work of Prof. Peter Gray who has contributed numerous books, articles, studies, and presentations about the developmental benefits of free play and self-directed education.
Scott Noelle is a writer, a life coach, and the father of two self-educated children, now young adults. Through his work, Scott supports parents who have embraced “partnership parenting” and SDE. He is also the co-founder, with his partner Beth Noelle, of Harmony.Cafe, an online learning portal for developing partnership skills and wisdom to advance partnership culture.