Kids are kids, right? You’re probably thinking: "there’s no way they can be left to their own devices when it comes to learning."

Well, you might want to think again.

Self-directed learning is a kind of democratic education that allows children to become independent thinkers and empowers them to define their own learning process. Through this self-initiated learning, students are able to learn at their own pace, in a way that is best suited to their own interests, needs, skills, and learning goals.

Most importantly, a self-directed education helps children learn how to learn, helping them to develop a lifelong love for continuous learning as well as self-motivation.

Naomi Fisher is a psychologist and parent who has been actively supporting and facilitating self-directed education and alternative learning strategies.

Through her work as a psychologist as well as a parent herself, Naomi realized that the education system was not doing enough for students. She wanted to explore alternative options for families who feel the same.

At our latest Clubhouse event, Naomi shared her valuable personal and professional experience on the subject of self-directed learning.

Self-Directed Education: Empowering Children Through their own Learning Journey

Naomi recently published a book titled 'Changing Our Minds' that is a culmination of research, theory, and practice around the idea of learning. She draws on her vast professional experience as well as interviews with thought leaders in the self-directed education space.

Naomi also shares practical advice from the experiences of families that have committed to a journey of making self-directed learning a reality for their children.

Naomi wanted to create a guide that could assist families in learning more about self-directed education, how it could work for them, what self-chosen activities look like, and how to encourage and raise a self-directed learner.

Mother and girl look at a computer together

As a psychologist, Naomi has always felt like it's her duty to show families that there are other options when it comes to education. She also feels like it's necessary to give these alternative options credibility. She says:

"So often that parents are told by psychologists or other professionals that there's no other way to go except to do school, and they push their children through it. This is often at a huge personal cost to themselves and the children. I want to share that there is another way you can do this, and it's not worth sacrificing your child's mental health, your own mental health, or your family's well-being, because there's another great way to learn. You just have to take that leap of faith."

While Naomi has received a lot of support for her work and has been able to empower countless families, her work hasn't been without criticism. She shares how, often, people are quick to make judgments about the self-directed learning process and what are appropriate learning strategies for children.

This criticism generally comes from a lack of understanding of what self-directed learning and education actually consist of, and what this means for a self-directed learner.

Does Self-Directed Learning Offer Appropriate Learning Strategies for All?

Naomi shares that many people believe self-directed education can only work for more privileged students, and that less privileged students in fact need to be controlled by a curriculum or institution in order to thrive. Naomi says:

"For a learner in an underprivileged or lower-income community, we really do them a disservice if their parents think that the only way for them to succeed is by being controlled by an institution. What a terrible way to grow up, thinking that the only way you're going to be successful is if you do exactly what you're told, for 12 years. I believe that it's the students who are less privileged in our society who need to have more of a voice as well as autonomy in how they think, because we need some kind of change."

Another common misconception about self-directed learning is around ADHD and neurodiversity. Naomi sees that, in her professional experience, you can't diagnose a learner in isolation of the environment they're in. You always have to think about the interaction between the learner and the environment. Naomi shared:

"I think before leaping to say, 'oh look, these children are disordered, they've got something wrong with them', we should be saying, 'let's look at this child and the environment together, and let's think about whether we can change the environment so that the child can really flourish'. With this considered, teachers don't necessarily need to label that child with the disorder at all. A child might need to diagnosis, but what they might just need is a change of environment."

According to Naomi, people often think that this means she is against diagnosing children with neurodiversity. However, this couldn't be further from the truth.

Naomi is committed to educating parents with the knowledge they need about what could be impacting their learners' behavior and how moving away from a traditional school environment could be the first step in the process.

Source: Pexels


When understanding why a learner may not be 'performing well' at school, adults are quick to jump to conclusions. There's an idea developed by psychologist Mary Boyle called 'brain or blame'.

What this means is that when school faculty members, staff members, or other adults see that students are not fitting the mold or is not coping well, they assume that there's something wrong with the learner's brain or they blame the parents.

This blame often focuses on the fact that parents should be doing more, or should have prepared their learners for a school environment.

In Naomi's opinion, this rush to jump to 'brain or blame' is completely unnecessary.

"How about we just step back from this brain or blame thing because neither of these options are good. I don't think there's anything wrong with a student's brain in a lot of these situations. I just think they don't fit into a very rigid system, which requires them to develop certain skills at certain times. And I don't think development works like that - I don't think neurodevelopment works like that. I think learning needs are much more varied than we think. School gives us this illusion of standardized progression.  When we bring a standardized system of learning and school to bear on a non-standardized learner, we create problems."

Self-Directed Education Actually Works

For adults who were part of a conventional school system, it can be difficult to grasp what the self-directed education process actually is and what self-initiated learning would look like for students.

So how exactly do self-directed learning and education actually work?

In his 2017 research paper titled ‘Self-Directed Education—Unschooling and Democratic Schooling,’ the prolific psychology researcher and professor, Peter Gray, shared the following:

“Through all but the most recent speck of human history, education was always the responsibility of those being educated. Children come into the world biologically prepared to educate themselves through observing the culture around them and incorporating what they see into their play. Research in hunter-gatherer cultures shows that children in those cultures became educated through their own self-directed exploration and play.”

Play is an integral part of developed self-directed children. Based on this idea of play, self-directed learning allows young people have the individual freedom to explore knowledge, their interests, ideas, and information. Students are able to work at formulating their own learning goals and take responsibility for their own goals through self-chosen learning activities.

This can be through material resources, virtual school, online learning, and many more learning activities.

Source: Summit Learning

Young people who are self-directed learners have as much freedom as they like to dive into their interests and design their own curriculum. By giving a learner this responsibility and individual freedom to understand their own learning needs,  they can develop a clear understanding of their interests and develop real-life skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and independent learning.

Self-directed learning experiences are proven to have benefits not only for the student but for the whole family, too. In a 2013 research paper, Peter Gray and educational psychologist Gina Riley surveyed hundreds of families who had chosen to pursue self-directed learning for their children's learning needs.

The study showed that not only did the learners successfully complete their studies, but the parents felt closer and more bonded to their children, as well as more bonded as a family. The participants shared that their families became closer than ever before, with less stress or conflict.

Source: Pexels

The Proof Is in the Learning Process

Throughout the event, we had a number of parents sharing their own stories of unschooling and embarking on a journey of self-directed learning with their children. One mother, Tyra, shared her life experiences of why she moved her child out of the traditional school system.

For Tyra, the breaking point was seeing the stress and anxiety that her 3rd grader felt as a result of constant assessments, standardized testing, and other exams. She knew her child wasn't experiencing a satisfying and meaningful life with school.

However, even after transitioning into a homeschooling environment, Tyra still realized she had a lot to learn. Tyra shared:

"The mistake I made was not deschooling myself from the public school approach. I brought that mentality right on home. For two and a half years, my daughter was just as miserable as she was at school. We did other things like joining co-ops, but I was still on that regimented schedule. She would have to wake up at a certain time, learn certain subjects at a certain time, and so on. I had pretty much just brought school home with us."

According to Naomi, this is a very common hurdle that most parents have to overcome. For many parents, their own education has only ever been in a traditional system. So, if they’re the ones facilitating the self-directed education with their kids, it’s up to the parents to deschool their own minds and make that mental shift.

It’s Back to School for the Parents

Stepping away from formal education and conventional schools can be a hard pill to swallow. All in all, it can seem really scary.

Unschooling requires us to completely disregard everything we know about our own education, and then put the trust in the students completely. Parents struggle with the idea that they have to let go and not evaluate learning outcomes, or start to adopt solutions like online learning. However, once parents are able to get through this, it’s really rewarding. Tyra told us:

“I learned so much just by observing my child these years. When you give a child the freedom to pursue what they feel so passionately about - it’s amazing to watch. I realized that it wasn't about me teaching her, it was about what she wanted to learn. So it was her journey and in that process of unschooling, I had to change my mind. When I started freeing myself, that allowed my child to be free and she trusted me, and when she trusted me to be herself. She had the confidence to try and learn anything.”

Vicky, another parent, and former teacher shared a similar experience that she had with her own children. Vicky has three children, two of which she has watched go through the traditional learning environment.

For both of them, it was an incredibly traumatic experience, largely because of the emphasis placed on testing, working towards exams, and essentially being completely outcome-focused. In her opinion, school was stopping her kids from living satisfying and meaningful lives. At the same time, as a former teacher, Vicky had seen this happen with countless learners.

According to Naomi, this focus on exams and testing is incredibly detrimental to the mental wellbeing and development of a student. Naomi says:

“When we start testing young children, we're shifting the emphasis from the learning to the outcome. Young children are not very focused on the outcome, usually, they are doing things for the process because they enjoy it. They paint because they love the paint, they don't paint because they want to have a beautiful painting. At school, children are told that they need to achieve their own learning goals because we want them to perform in this test or exam. Everything becomes focused on evaluating learning outcomes.”

The problem with this is that the focus of their motivation is shifted, or rather the motivation becomes external.

So instead of learning because they like learning or were genuinely interested, students are taught that they need to learn just because they’re being tested on it. Without any self-direction or critical thinking, such activities can completely destroy any intrinsic motivation to learn, as well as the love and interest for learning.

Despite this, Naomi is encouraged and inspired by the families that are committed to rethinking how their children should be educated. Through a more self-directed approach to education, more self-directed learners from around the world can rediscover their passion and curiosity for knowledge and learning.

Start Your Own Learning Process

In a self-directed learning environment like Galileo, children are nurtured to be the decision-makers. Our facilitators empower your self-directed learner with the necessary tools and resources to take charge of their own educational journey. Self-directed learners from around the world can discover their passions. By identifying human and material resources that can nurture our learners, caring adults guide them to take responsibility when formulating learning goals.

Enjoy real social interaction in our conversations on Clubhouse where we discuss everything from virtual school and learning to virtual reality and technology. Are you interested in learning with us?


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