I can’t believe how many examples you send to me of parents and teachers talking about self-directed learning.

Here’s the issue: It is pretty much uncontested that the best type of learning for kids is self-directed learning. The problem with self-directed learning is that the more restricted the environment, the less self-directed a child is. Self-directed learning is possible, then, on a spectrum, defined not by the child but by the child’s environment.

So, for example, Angelina and Brad have seven kids with seven nannies who live in seven countries with the seven-figure budgets to accommodate their kids’ self-directed learning.

It’s pretty hard to top that.

Education outcomes are directly tied to parent income. And the self-directed learning kids do is always outside of the classroom. We each learn only when we are engaged and focused, but that doesn’t happen in school because the opportunities to learn are limited to what one teacher can teach 30 kids at the same time; if self-directed learning is evaluated on a spectrum, a classroom with one teacher and 30 kids is on the opposite end of the Jolie-Pitt kids.

Somewhere close to a claustrophobic classroom is Montessori that claims to be self-directed learning, but only for kids who would choose to do the specific “work” the teacher has provided at “stations”. And Montessori kids can’t do one thing all day long. You have to go outside. You have to have nature. You have to go to the water station or the sand station or whatever the Montessori czar decided is good learning for that day.

Somewhere close to the Jolie-Pitt model is this school that took eight kids aside and let them do anything they could think of while in the confines of the school grounds. Guess how many teachers were involved? Enough to make the ratio 1-to-1. Which shows you why there will not be self-directed learning of any significance in the schools: it’s way too expensive.

The only people who would be so extravagant in the education they provide would be parents providing it for their own kids. On top of that, the program was controversial because teachers thought the eight students were pretty much doing nothing the whole year and the teachers did not want to be a part of it.

Shya’s blog is The Flying Shetlands. It’s hard to figure out what it is when you first get there. It’s horses and Shya’s art. And other peoples’ art. About horses. And maybe it’s Shya’s next project that maybe is related to flying horses or shetlands or art. What this site is, very clearly, is something Shya is passionate about and works hard at. And, frankly, it’s fun to see the wide range of horse art she has collected. It’s weird. And weird is interesting if it’s extreme, which this site is.

It’s impossible to not like Shya when you look at this site because it’s a loud and clear expression of who she is.

That’s really what ends up happening with self-directed learning. It looks weird and unfocused, like Shya’s blog. It looks boring when you don’t get it. Like a kid playing video games all day. It looks petulant, like a kid who doesn’t like any of the choices in the Montessori classroom. It looks, often, like you’re pretty much doing nothing, which is why the high school that let eight kids loose in the school had to deal with lots of pushback from the teachers.

It’s very hard to watch kids do self-directed learning, because only rarely does it look phenomenal, like, setting up science projects to cure cancer. The photo up top looks like my son is reading. That’s because I saw him laying on my bed and I loved seeing him there. So peaceful. Just thinking. But I handed him a book and I said, “Look like you’re reading that for a picture.”

And he said, “Is this for your blog? This is so stupid.”

I took the picture. But he’s right. It’s so stupid that I can’t recognize laying on a bed in the middle of the day as self-directed learning. Or maybe I can recognize it but I’m not brave enough to flaunt it on my web site about education.

The thing about self-directed learning is that it is not supposed to look good to an outsider. The child is doing it for themselves. They don’t need to impress anyone or get anyone’s approval. Ironically, our idea of what productive learning looks like is (of course) traditional school! But we know school is actually the opposite of self-directed learning.

So even though it’s hard to watch your kids choose to do weird things all day, it’s a safe bet that if you let your child do whatever they want, and it doesn’t look like school, then they are a solid, productive, self-directed learner.