For a year now we’ve held a Self Directed Learning group at our home every Tuesday. It’s a day where parents can drop their kids off, where the kids are unschooling, but unschooling together. By “unschooling” I mean living a life without school, curriculum, teachers or enforced learning.

Each morning the kids have a Circle to decide what they are going to do. This is the fundamental building block for Self Directed Learning theory in action – the learners themselves choose their activities.  The piece of paper from this term’s first Circle is still on our wall, it says: “Make bows and arrows” “Build log house” “Hibernate” “Be Santa” “Make sunglasses out of clay.”

What is the meaning of self-directed learning?

The most well known Self Directed Learning definition comes from educator Malcolm Knowles who says  “self-directed learning is a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, for their learning from start to finish. This includes: recognising their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” (Knowles, 1975, p. 18)

What an integrated and empowered approach! This is not just learning, but bringing awareness to the process of learning, understanding the full picture of taking on new info or a new skill. Considering each thing in that list – it’s clear that unschooling kids do this informally, each part to a greater or lesser degree. As they get older if they are interested in our support we can be there to help them strengthen parts they want to strengthen.

What are the essential aspects of self-directed learning?

There is a lot of trust involved! For Self Directed Learning to work the adults have to leave behind any conceived ideas they have about what makes good learning and what is nonsense. Sure, you might think making sunglasses out of clay is nonsense, but let me tell you there’s going to be a lot of learning in there!

No agenda
Similar to the principle of trust Self Directed Learning models must be free from any agenda concerning a child’s learning.

Space, Time and Resources
Self Directed Learning strategies are best implemented in a setting that is stress free and pressure free. Having enough space for the learners to move freely, enough time so that they don’t feel hurried and enough resources so they can set about their goals is useful. However, don’t be thwarted by a sense of “not enoughness!” – many parents or facilitators who want to experience self directed learning benefits might feel they can only do it if they have access to expensive resources or a perfect environment. When actually, a home environment with crafts supplies and a lawn is plenty- kids are by nature incredibly resourceful.

These might be caring parents or trained facilitators but having adults who around who embody the principles of trust and no agenda can contribute a huge amount to a healthy Self Directed Learning environment.  These facilitators can help younger children access resources they need, they can help with conflict resolution processes and other communication areas.

Goal Setting
As Knowles describes creating an understanding of the process of learning can be useful, particularly to older learners. One of the essesntial aspects of Self Directed Learning in more formal settings such as Agile Learning Centres is the time devoted to helping learners identify their goals and a method of achieving them. This is one of the life skills of self directed learning – being able to plot out a plan to achieve goals is something that serves us for the rest of our lives.


What is an example of self-directed learning?

When it comes to self-directed learning activities examples you could literally pluck any activity from the entire archive of human activity ever! Now, I usually work in my studio while the kids are at their Self Directed Learning group, and I love every now and then to listen out for the gurgle of activity. Today I pop down to make myself a cup of tea and observe a couple of teenagers on the sofa reading novels, a card game in process, a small group is weaving, and Amy, the facilitator we pay to support the wild learning, is showing my daughter Ramona and her friend a new song to play on the piano.

These children at liberty to make their own decisions, choosing their actions, movements, thoughts. And parents around doing their thing, available but focused. 

There is no sense that some activities are more worthy than others. The main thing is that the kids there have enthusiastically consented to their activities. There is no coercion or manipulation. Each activity is joyfully embraced or not.

As I waited for my tea to steep I observed that some of the kids are learning cold hard skills. But others are simply being.

Sometimes the girls spend hours and hours looking very learney. They’ll obsess over sums, bringing sheets of maths problems with them to the dinner table, in front of the movie, to their friend’s houses. They have no sense that calculations don’t belong at the party or graffitied on the toilet wall.  I love to share that stuff, how there is no distinct between fun and learning and how eagerly they throw themselves into curriculum-style activity completely self directed.

But many, many days flow by with very little activity that would impress the Ministry of Education (let’s keep that between you and me though, huh?) They’ll sift around chatting with us, they’ll listen to some music, cuddle their guinea pigs, play on the tramp with a gang of other unschoolers.

This is the invisible work of self directed learning taking place. And honestly? This is the stuff that counts most. This is where I see most clearly the self directed learning benefits. In these long days of no interference and little influence, they are existing in their animal state, their untamed selves, present and self-trusting, like all the other mammals out there.

In these lingering hours of play and conversation our children are making their own sense of the world, weaving patterns out of their experiences. This importance of self-directed learning comes down to this- raising a generation of children who are at home within themselves, are connected to their deepest wisdom and can bring their natural creative problem solving to the world.


Types of self directed learning

It can happen at home  – this type of self directed learning model is commonly referred to as unschooling.

Then there is a Self Directed Learning model that happens in groups such as the one I describe above. Some of the more formal groups that gather in this way are coming under the banner of Agile Learning Centres.

But for over a hundred years Self Directed learning theories have been at the heart of a few very successful “schools” – often called democratic schools. The most widely known of these are Summerhill in the UK and Sudbury in the States who’ve had thousands of Self Directed students come through over the years.

Increasingly traditional schools are attempting to try out Self Directed Learning models but I would argue that without the overall context of trusting in a child’s autonomous learning, these projects are not going to even come close to fulfilling the potential of truly autonomous, consent based Self Directed Learning.

Here is an interview with two unschooling mums and founders of a formal Self Directed Learning Model in Central America:

How do you develop self-directed learning?

For folks looking to bring self-directed learning strategies into their home, it doesn’t have to be hard! Here are your first two steps:

1- Begin the deschooling process! In order to move into trust you have to be willing to deprogramme from all the myths about learning (and life!) you have inherited from our School Fixated Culture. I work with a community of parents who are doing this deschooling process together- come and join us! 

2- Begin creating more chances for your children to experience autonomy. Begin the day with a “Family Meeting” so they can begin contributing their own ideas to the plan. Go whole mornings without an agenda. As you build your confidence you’ll be able to increase the time spent in a Self Directed Learning model until it becomes natural and intrinsic to your family life. Here’s how to begin holding Family Circles: