A Look at Self-Directed Learning
“Wisdom begins in wonder.”—Socrates
Something magical happens when a child becomes curious about something and begins to explore. Some topics she may lose interest in quickly, some will capture her imagination for a while, and a few will intrigue her soul to such an extent it will seem as if she’s being called deep into the recesses of her being, journeying to no end, willing to learn whatever skills may be needed to continue the exploration forever.
Any parent who has witnessed such a spark in their own child has been shown just how powerful natural curiosity can be and how capable people are if given the conditions to explore and learn.
I’ve seen this in my own children. My daughter can turn any recycled material into beautiful dollhouse furniture. Her love for crafting has led to other pursuits, including the creation of videos to teach others to make what she makes. My son can crochet and knows an astonishing amount about birds. His passion for birds has led to his learning about biology, geography, website design, drawing, writing, photography, videography, and more. They are seven and nine, respectively, and all of this learning has been self-directed.
When I posed the question to my Facebook friends, I found that their children have taught themselves about an amazing array of subjects including: bike riding, skateboarding, snowboarding, rainbow looming, swimming, carpentry, wood chopping, piano, guitar, drawing, makeup application, singing, shoe tying, dinosaurs, duct tape crafting, hair braiding, app development, writing in cursive, doll hair care, foreign flags, ripstick riding, tissue paper flower creation, and balloon twisting! Their parents didn’t teach them. Their teachers didn’t teach them. They taught themselves.
“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” —Albert Einstein
Over the years, and with study after study showing its benefits, both traditional educational systems and the ever growing community of schooling alternatives have come to sing the praises of self-directed learning.
According to ERIC Digest, this approach tends to breed learners who are self-confident, self-disciplined, persistent, curious, willing to try new things, and enjoy learning.
Despite the obvious benefits, this type of free learning environment can be hard to come by within the confines of traditional school systems.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, unschoolers, those homeschoolers who encourage their children to completely direct the course of their own education, embrace to the fullest extent possible the idea that self-directed learning is best.
“In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” —Eric Hoffer
For parents who wish to encourage their children to engage in more self-directed learning, the great news is that it is very easy to do. You just need a few key elements in place:
Give Them Time
If your child’s day is fully booked from the time he awakes until the time he goes to sleep, there is no room to explore, no time to let one’s mind wander. Likewise, if your child spends all of her free time watching videos or playing video games, her time is also being eaten away by those activities, slipping by, in fact, much faster than she realizes.
The solution is to schedule nothing. Block time in your children’s days where they will not be shuffling off to dance class, soccer practice, fill in the blank. Give them, simply, time.
Providing access to different ideas, environments, and materials with which to learn and create is another way to facilitate self-directed learning activities.
Pay attention to what your child is drawn to and run with it. Surround them with books, online resources, documentaries, field trips, supplies, whatever you can think of, to allow them to explore their interests fully.
Talk to your children about what they’re into. Ask questions. Dig deep. Your conversations will fuel your ideas about how to help them and their ideas about different ways to look at their interests.
Don’t just explore in front of a screen or even through books, get out and touch and feel whatever part of life your children are digging into. Art lover? Hello, Museum! Tree hugger? Hit the trails. Video game fan? Tour a programmer’s business.
You can encourage your children to summarize their findings or make things from what they learn. Teach them to be producers, not just consumers. You can help your little photographer enter a contest or two. You can commission a storage box for your home from your little carpenter. While, perhaps, not completely self-directed, such nudging can show your children the fruits of their labor.
Notice their successes, no matter how small, and celebrate them. If they stumble and get back up, that’s worth celebrating too. Self-directed learning is truly how they’ll be expected to learn for the rest of their lives outside of school. Applaud these skills and show that you deem them valuable.
“It’s better to know how to learn than to know.” –Dr. Seuss