Why Self-Directed Learning is the Kind That Shines

by Sanya Pelini April 06, 2017

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Maria Montessori wisely said, "The fundamental basis of education must always remain that one must act for oneself. That is clear. One must act for him or herself."

Ernest Hemingway, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Frida Kahlo, and George Bernard Shaw all have one thing in common: they were all self-taught artists.

  • It is said that Ernest Hemingway would “read for hours at a time in bed” and that he “read everything.”
  • Jimi Hendrix taught himself guitar.
  • David Bowie was a self-taught singer, musician, painter, dancer, and actor.
  • Frida Kahlo taught herself to paint as she was convalescing after a bus accident.
  • George Bernard Shaw quit school and would later claim, “I did not learn anything at school.”

Being an autodidact (a self-educated learner) has always been recognized as a major characteristic of independent personalities. In children, self-directed learning is guided by the belief that children can be supported to develop internal motivation and change themselves. Self-directed learning is closely linked to the idea that children do not learn when they are passive recipients. This constructivist view of education asserts that children learn best when they are engaged in the learning process.

Much evidence suggests that children can be guided to become self-directed learners. Reeve found that children’s self-directed learning increased when they were asked the right questions, when their needs were listened to, and when their environments allowed them to make choices. Other studies have found that children raised in environments that are much too rigid are less likely to develop self-directed learning.

For instance, one study that observed children's time spent in less-structured activities outside of formal schooling found that children who had less-structured time in their day-to-day activities were more inclined to develop self-directed functioning. According to the study, children exposed to less-structured activities displayed better self-directed control irrespective of age, verbal abilities, or their parents’ income.

The school environment, however, rarely fosters self-directed learning. Teachers are often stuck within the confines of a system that make it difficult to encourage self-directed learning. Moreover, many educational systems around the world still primarily judge performance by how well a child is able to reproduce what his/her teacher has taught, rather than by the child’s critical thinking or creative skills.

Some studies have shown that situations in which adults provide some guidance are better at helping children develop self-directed learning.

How you can encourage self-directed learning in your child

1 | Favor less-structured environments

Less-structured environments have been found to be one of the greatest predictors of self-directed functioning in children.

Providing a less-structured environment is not the same as providing an unstructured environment. Less-structured environments are those in which children, rather than adults, choose what they would like to do, as well as how and when they would like to do it.

Your role in this type of environment is to support your children. Expose your children to different ideas, provide the necessary resources, and then back off and let them express themselves.

What Can You Do?

Help your child establish goals.

A good example can be drawn from what the researchers cited earlier propose:

“For example, children may practice by establishing goals and carrying them out across an afternoon ('first I'll read this book, then I'll make a drawing about the book, then I'll show everyone my drawing') or during a visit to a museum ('first I want to see the dinosaur exhibit, and then I want to learn about rocks')."

However, it is important to remember that there is no one specific path to self-directed learning. Although children may learn different things from different activities (for instance family outings or planning a visit to the museum), all these activities play a role in the development of cognitive skills important in self-directed learning.

2 | Provide varied opportunities

The more a child has access to a broad range of less-structured activities, the more s/he is likely to benefit from them.

The above-cited study divided less-structured activities into these broad categories:

  • Unguided practice
  • Play alone
  • Play with others
  • Social events with family (including parties, camping, picnics, and other group outings, such as hiking, biking, and swimming), enrichment events (visits to the museum, library, aquarium, zoo, or sightseeing)
  • Miscellaneous educational events, other entertainment (movies, performances, and live sporting events)
  • Reading
  • Media and screen time

3 | Incorporate some form of structure into media and screen time

The downside of proposing less-structured time is that it does not necessarily lead to greater self-directed control.

These findings were observed among a few older children, suggesting that all time spent in a less-structured activity does not encourage the development of self-directed control. Indeed, as one study found, children over seven spent more time engaged in media and screen activities.

What Can You Do?

Encourage your child to develop a more active approach to media and screen time. For instance, you can:

  • Ask your child to use internet searches to learn how to do something (play an instrument)
  • Ask your child to create something after watching a Youtube video
  • Help your child select more structured video games that encourage active participation rather than passive movie watching

4 | The earlier the better

Many of children’s “shortcomings” become visible in adolescence, an age at which parents generally have less control over their children.

The earlier you start encouraging your children to adopt self-directed learning, the more likely they are to retain these skills in childhood and beyond.

5 | Be willing to let go

You may have a hard time understanding why your child is not like his age mates or siblings. You may have a hard time understanding why he’s into earthworms. It's all right, let him be “weird.” A child will learn better if he’s passionate about what he’s learning. Be willing to allow your child to explore his passion, even as you pray for it to be short-lived.

Sanya Pelini


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