Three Cheers for Self-Directed Learning

I’m going out on a limb that will no doubt anger some, perplex a few and perhaps cause some gossip in my previous schooling circles. That’s okay. I don’t mind. I know what I’ve observed. I can’t not see it, say it and advocate for a different and dare I say, a better way to reach the goal of learning for all children.

My blogs over the last several years were designed to spark curiosity, challenge our thinking about conventional schooling and the status quo and push the envelope of hope. For those who read regularly, you are appreciated. For those who happen to read here and there, I hope you read this one.

I’ve had the distinct privilege and joy to spend three days a week with my grandson, Troy. I’ve been watching him in some capacity since he was three months old and I’ve observed his growth and innate ability to learn. His parents entrust him to me and I take that trust very seriously.

I do my best to follow their lead and insert, when appropriate, my years of experience with children in order to provide a warm and happy environment in which he can play and discover his world. For this, I am grateful.

I have learned so much from him, a two and half year old now. It’s the kind of learning that supersedes my teacher and administrator preparations courses as well as all the years of receiving and providing educational professional development in the various school districts where I’ve worked.

I will stipulate as one of his grandparents, I see him as a wonderful child, full of brilliance and possibility. I’m totally head over heels in love with him. That fact stated, I believe every child starts with the same brilliance and possibility regardless of circumstances, if we choose to see them in that manner.

Yes, physical, mental, emotional health and a nurturing environment all play a part in the healthy development of babies, toddlers, children and adolescents. Not all young people have this stability and for them my heart breaks. It’s even more important to recognize those little ones and give more of ourselves to them in whatever ways we can. Being a good friend, a neighbor, a teacher, a counselor, an advocate, or just a kind person in their lives can make such a difference.

As I observe Troy, I am amazed. We are always talking with each other and he is now at the asking why stage. He is very curious about the inner workings of my apartment. For example, he is potty training right now and is quite intrigued with where everything goes once it leaves the potty. He bends down to look at the underside of the toilet and the nobs connected to it. He asked, “Where does it go Grammy?” He wasn’t satisfied with my simple answer of, “down the water pipe.” I can’t blame him for asking more.

This conversation led to us watching a short video on plumbing in a house and the sewer outside as well as a waste water treatment plant. He watched it intently and then we drew a big picture of my apartment and where we thought the plumbing might be located. We also found my hot water tank and drew that. I have a dry erase white board that he loves. We saved that picture and he explained it all to his daddy when he picked him up later that day.

That same day he asked about the heating system, the vents and the controls. He walked around pointing to the ceiling vents in every room. Thankfully we found another short YouTube video that explained HVAC systems. He put his ear to my walls to listen for the noise that the system made whenever the heat came on in my apartment. I thought this was genius and adorable. We talked about how my vents are in the ceiling and at his house they are on the floor.

If this wasn’t enough for one day, he also asked about the lights and electricity. Another short video provided him with great satisfaction as he studied the live clip of a battery, conduits and a light bulb. We drew a picture of that as well and then he pointed out all the light sources in my apartment. We watched another video on magnetic poles that really fascinated him. He was a sponge and I had to keep up with him.

These learning experiences were not rehearsed. I did not have to rely on a lesson plan. I didn’t determine what he should know and be able to do and I certainly didn’t think about the standards that we set for students in schools. I realize he is not “school” aged yet, but that doesn’t really matter.

Learning happens all the time, any time, any place. He generated the learning. He chose his interest and I was there to facilitate the best I could. It was enough to satisfy his curiosity and perhaps provide him with future questions about these or other topics. All I know is that he was pleased.

Rest assured, there is ample play during the day. In fact, that is most of the day apart from a nap. I am mesmerized watching him navigate his little world, his toys, my things, his interactions, his “pretend” activities like grocery shopping. I offer choices that include some prep on my part like painting, coloring and baking but most of his time is self-directed.

I couldn’t help but wonder what real self-directed learning could look like for all children at all ages. What if every child could continue to learn in this manner, unhindered from the kind of structure they encounter in schools. No bells, schedules, grades, testing, or constant evaluation.

The very nature and structure of schooling is not designed to foster anything self-directed. Yet in schools, we ask children to self-reflect, self-pace and self-evaluate. And then we try to teach them persistence, grit and agency. All “school” terms that describe how to undo what we’ve knowingly done to them since Kindergarten. How can they oblige when they are not given the freedom to direct their own curiosity and learning.

They are told what they have to know based on grade level standards and they are graded, evaluated and labeled according to those criteria. They are not vested in their learning. They are programmable projects with adult expectations looming over them. Who of us would thrive in that kind of environment?

I know there is a better, more humane way to foster learning in young people. I know that brilliance is in every child if we chose to believe it. I commend those parents who are taking charge of their child’s wonder years outside of the school setting. Those who are homeschooling in a way that is not a replica of what they would experience at school are prime examples. Those who trust the self-directed path are another example. It’s a matter of choice.

I love reading about the discoveries and interests of children and their parents, unhindered from the schooling paradigm. There are so many reasons why parents are reclaiming the learning on behalf of their children. They deserve our respect and admiration.

Those who claim to speak for all public educators find great disdain for these “different” methods of learning, citing all sorts of assumed and sinister reasons why parents choose something other than public education. It’s sad and unfortunate but not surprising. The system must sustain itself, it’s perceived relevance and purpose. There will always be many who believe that.

After thirty plus years working in schools, I’ve come to realize that they can’t possibly provide this kind of learning environment. It’s an economies of scale model and can’t be rehabilitated. It’s designed to do exactly what it does; provide jobs and day care, segregate children in labeled batches, and provide a daily structure and environment that produces frightfully compliant, dependent and programmed young people.

It also perpetuates racial and ability inequities and injustices in spite of it’s claim to the contrary. Sadly, many parents think this is okay or they are not fully aware.

I published my book, Learning UNLEASHED, in 2016 hoping that some of my ideas could take root in forward thinking school systems brave enough to tackle the topics and seek a change. I read how some schools are attempting to shift but never quite make it all the way. I held out hope for small changes but every time I read or hear that “students are falling behind” during this pandemic, I cringe.

I emphatically want to restate as I have many times, I do not fault the teachers or other sincere individuals who work in our schools. They were trained and are expected to do it the way it’s been done. The change many of us seek can only happen outside of the typical school setting. Alternatives are available if we are willing to look for them and brave enough to trust the process.

More insights on learning during a pandemic will follow in my next few blog posts so stay tuned.