Does self-directed learning lead to bad choices?

Did I ever tell you about my failed reality TV show? I need to talk about it one more time because I still have photos from it. The show had a buyer, so we made a pilot. And then TLC said we are too normal.

But still, people contact me regularly for reality TV. And seeing how much time the film crew was at our house to get a simple, eight-minute demo reel, I think reality TV probably wouldn’t be good for the family. So now I say no.

But then a really big agent in LA contacted me. And I said yes. Then I wrote (what everyone was thinking and no one was saying) about Sheryl Sandberg and another TV thing fell through. But I kept the agent.

And now I’m working on a book with her, and we have gone through ten billion titles. Which is standard for a book deal. If you are ever thinking of writing a book, remember, you don’t sell the book, you sell a book proposal, which means you only write fifteen pages for a book, which means the title takes on incredibly huge importance, so it’s almost like you are selling just the title.

Anyway, we are realizing more and more how self-directed learning is a sea-change for American society. Millenials brought us self-directed learning throughout adult life (through a workplace revolution), and Generation Z will bring self-directed learning throughout childhood (through a school revolution).

But then people always bring up the topic of self-directed learning being dangerous, or maybe just indulgent. What if kids pick something that’s bad for them? What if they don’t learn math? What if they completely destroy their life by playing video games all day?

Then I thought about all the choices adults get to make. There are so many people who turn nutrition into a passion. Some of it makes sense to me, like Leaner Creamer turns coffee into an appetite suppressant with no chemicals. And some of it seems insane, like people who eat gluten-free only when someone is looking. But we don’t ever say adults shouldn’t self-direct their learning.

And as adults we get everything customized for us. There is Curvy for bras customized for super big breasts. There are customized job listings to reach top-flight candidates who don’t need a new job. We don’t ever question the benefits of customization; we assume the more we address peoples’ specific needs, the better a world we live in.

I just discovered the show Born this Way and it’s a completely adorable reality show about kids with Down’s Syndrome. And the joy of the show is watching them discover the world through self-directed learning: the dinner date, stand-up comedy night, bowling. The show is a celebration of self-directed learning, and no one would question that the kids are learning so much, so fast, and in a lovely way.

Yet if we give neurotypical kids the opportunity to self-direct, everyone starts questioning if they will choose the best options. So I’m realizing that my book proposal, which I thought was about homeschooling, or education reform, or Generation Z, is actually about self-directed learning. If the beginning of self-directed learning was the Renaissance, where the elite could follow their curiosity, the finale of the self-directed learning revolution is when we respect that curiosity in everyone. At every age.

Work is about self-directed learning throughout adult life, and education is about self-directed learning throughout childhood. And I have a feeling that the adults who are most adamant about kids needing to have forced learning are the same adults who feel they have no ability to control their own lives. And if you give up the joys of self-directed exploration as an adult, it seems logical, rather than tragic, to have your kids give it up as well.

And, in case you are worried about kids choosing stupid paths, I would not have come to this realization if I had not gone down many dead ends with TV agents that seemed, at one point, like a total waste of good energy. We never know what we’ll learn through self-directed learning, which is why it makes a more satisfying life than curricula-based learning: knowing the end of the story, in life and in learning and even in blog posts, is way too boring for us.


19 replies
  1. Kelsey
    Kelsey says:

    “But then people always bring up the topic of self-directed learning being dangerous, or maybe just indulgent. What if kids pick something that’s bad for them? What if they don’t learn math? What if they completely destroy their life by playing video games all day?”

    In response to the questions quoted above, I’d add that people don’t learn everything they will ever need to know during their formative education. When new skills become relevant and needed, successful self-directed learners can teach themselves, or arrange to have someone else teach them, that necessary skill.

    In addition, the things that are taught for general education purposes are pretty arbitrary and impractical. For example, almost every human will need to communicate effectively with other humans, prepare and eat some type of food (even if that preparation step involves purchasing instead of cooking), and do something in exchange for the goods and services that can be applied toward sustenance and shelter. But most of those nearly universal aspects of daily life are neglected in formal education. There are, of course, many exceptions. I am generalizing here. But in the US, education is increasingly career-focused. People learn in order to be qualified for work. But I think of work as that which enables the meaningful parts of life (and in some cases acts as a conduit for meaningful experiences), but I don’t see employment itself as the target goal. Self-directed learning encourages specialization and efficiency. It leaves time for developing a more well-rounded life and pursuing interests.

    Personally, my only real issue with self-directed learning is that it’s harder to legitimize professionally past a certain point. It works well for high school and the earlier grades, and test scores (ACT/SAT) are used to validate the legitimacy of pre-college education for college acceptance purposes, but college degrees are de riguer in the workplace, at least in my experience.

  2. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Wow, the book thing sounds amazing!

    I see a big parallel with a seminal book I read as a new parent. It was ‘Baby-Led Weaning’ (BLW or in the US Baby-Led Solids) and was all about how you don’t need to spoon-feed babies for solid food, you just cut it up and offer them choices and they will pick and eat a healthy meal independently. The book laid it out beautifully, the research, how to do it and dealt with the big objections (“What if my child only wants to eat sweet things? How will they chew without teeth? Won’t they start choking?”).

    While it was relatively new while my kids were young, people started doing BLW,sharing the book and it soon spread in my part of the world so it is now defacto that midwives & health visitors talk about BLW first & as matter-of-fact when talking about feeding kids. That was a sea-change in the way people introduced their kids to solid foods.

    So I’m excited you could come up with something that does the same for learning, that transcends school/homeschooling and even age. Yes, the name will be so important because it is the brand that folks will get behind and adopt as a lifestyle. Let’s say it was something like Self-Led Education, then an acronym is a must have, say, SLED, so we could have SLED for kids, SLED for adults, SLED for girls with Aspergers, etc. And we could talk about being a SLED family everytime someone asks me how I make my kids do their homework… Anyway, as I say, really exciting, look forward to the outcome!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I’m always surprised how much self-directed baby stuff there is in the world — ideas I never heard of when I had babies.

      And SLED is great.


      • Isabelle Spike
        Isabelle Spike says:

        There is a child-rearing approach called RIE (terrible name, its an acronym for Resources for Infant Edu”carers”), focused on infants and toddlers, that you should read up on, if you’re not already familiar with it.

        It’s all about recognizing infants and toddlers as whole, competent people, able to communicate from birth. It is basically self-directed learning for babies. The approach is one that is, in some major ways, in conflict with the previously dominant “attachment parenting” philosophy prevalent in so many educated/upper-middle-class circles. RIE has the biggest community in SoCal, but is becoming increasingly popular in the Bay Area (where I live) and elsewhere. Magda Gerber is the original founder (along with pediatrician Emmi Pikler), and Janet Lansbury is probably the most popular blogger/author/podcaster talking about the technique right now.

        I think parents who have knowingly followed RIE techniques with their infants/toddlers/preschoolers will be easily convinced that self-directed learning is the best thing for their kids, no matter their age. They’ve already seen it work with their kids. I’m kind of surprised that Janet Lansbury hasn’t gotten more on board with unschooling and self-directed learning–it seems like the natural extension of the parenting methods that she’d advocating–but probably she just wants to think what she did with her kids, sent them to traditional school, was the best thing.

  3. Susan
    Susan says:

    Looking forward to your book.

    Self-directed learning is a way of being. I can’t stop learning what I’m interested in even if I tried. It’s a natural state for any curious person or anyone still engaged in life.

    Progress is what slows without proper guidance, but that doesn’t stop you from continually learning.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is lovely. I copied the comment into my notes for the book. Thank you. Maybe I should just crowdsource the book. Like, each week I put a chapter title up on this site and everyone writes. I wonder if anyone has done that….


      • Heather A
        Heather A says:

        Love the crowdsourcing idea! Brilliant! It fits the subject matter perfectly: kids don’t need teachers/experts telling them what to learn, nor do we need books written by ‘experts’ to learn from.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        Do it! You can easily take all your blog posts and make those a chapter and expound on them more. Include all the commentary that will help you!

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “We never know what we’ll learn through self-directed learning, which is why it makes a more satisfying life than curricula-based learning: knowing the end of the story, in life and in learning and even in blog posts, is way too boring for us.”

    I don’t make the distinction between self-directed learning and curricula-based learning for which will be the more satisfying. What’s important to me is that I’m learning at a pace and direction that’s fulfilling to me. Curricula-based learning is normally associated with a regimented routine/instruction set and limited amount of materials to draw upon. It can get boring fast if that’s the only way learning is taking place. Self-directed learning can lead oneself to be learning all kinds of stuff with the possibility of getting very much offtrack and time consuming if goals and objectives are not established and followed on a regular basis. I find it instructive to look at curricula and try to decipher what goals it is trying to achieve and by what means. Learn what sources are being used and what material is being covered. I like the idea of using both forms of learning for different reasons as long as I have the flexibility to use what will work for me. I am reminded of a week long, 50 mile backpacking trip I took with a friend in the Sierras just south of Yosemite. We had worked together and backpacked previously when I lived in CA. What made this particular trip memorable was we charted our own route by following established trails as well as going cross country using topo maps and compass. So you could equate the established trails as curricula and the cross country portions as self-directed.

  5. Luther
    Luther says:

    Self directed learnings awesome. Your kids are lucky. Reality tv breaks up families. I’m glad your odd envy vendetta against Sheryl Sandberg ended that. Your family is clearly atypical but reality tv is a freak show which you’re not. Don’t worry so much about your Kids. They are HAPPY. you can’t be competitive on their behalf. At a certain point they’ll fly the coop. Will you be ok then? Will you be ok if they don’t measure up to your dreams? Remember they have their dreams aka self directed!

  6. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Good post. To answer the title question, Yes. Self-directed learning leads to bad choices.

    But so does curricular learning.

    Kids are perfectly capable of finishing an entire K-12 + BA education without really learning math, and then ‘pick something bad for themselves and destroy their lives.’

    I would distinguish the cases by saying that self-directed learning increases the probability the individual will learn from his bad choices, by developing self-knowledge and initiative from an early age.

    It’s not that kids who go to school can’t do that, but there is also a tendency for curricular learning to create fatigue and cynicism, which impair both learning and choice.

    I’ve seen too many kids who were given every possible educational opportunity – the best private schools, massive parental financial support – still turn out aimless, addicted, and incompetent, to believe that the most perfect curriculum is good enough.

    If kids make terrible choices, then there’s something going on that should be addressed (maybe in the child, or maybe in the parent). If kids are healthy and understand the world around them, they develop ambitions and make choices that lead them in the direction of those ambitions. If they’re not doing that, it’s probably best to try to figure out why, and support them where they need it.

    • Mariana
      Mariana says:

      Spot on Bostonian! Yes, self-directed learning leads to bad choices, but you actually learn from them!

  7. Maya S
    Maya S says:

    >If the beginning of self-directed learning was the Renaissance, where the elite could follow their curiosity, the finale of the self-directed learning revolution is when we respect that curiosity in everyone.

    Great point. The widespread ability to instantly access information on any topic does seem revolutionary to me, yet normal to my kids.

    For instance, I have no cooking skills to speak of, yet I can make delicious, healthy meals simply by Googling whatever ingredients I have and following the instructions, plus any tips in the comments. I’m not a “good” cook, yet I can get pretty close by taking advantage of all the information available to me (in ny own kitchen, at any time of day or night).

    My young kids take for granted that they have instant access to expertise on any topic: how to advance to the next level of a video game, build something in Minecraft, or take care of the dog. My hairstylist is teaching himself to play blues guitar from Youtube videos. When I said I wanted my hair in french-braid pigtails for a camping trip (a look I am admittedly too old for — but hey, it’s camping), he suggested I Youtube it and do it at home. As soon as he said it, I realized this was the obvious, default course of action now: Just Google it and learn how to do it YouTube. My 9- and 7-year-old could’ve told me that.

    Your book sounds interesting!

  8. Joni Jeffries
    Joni Jeffries says:

    “…knowing the end of the story, in life and in learning and even in blog posts, is way too boring for us.”

    Thank you for this! I often find this time of year especially challenging to this mindset (for me) – when everyone is gathering curriculum, hosting curriculum swaps, and debating the difference between online and book curriculum. Your last sentence really struck home for me. It’s discovery through learning that inspires self-directed education and I sometimes have to remind myself to step back, guide when needed, and let the discoveries happen.

  9. Em
    Em says:

    What is the reason you use the term Generation Z instead of Millennial? I think this blog is the only place I see Gen Z.

  10. Caligrl
    Caligrl says:

    This sounds like “Unschooling “. I am all for people pursuing interests but some of this, imho, is pie in the sky or — won’t work for certain kids. I can only speak from personal experience we spent 3 years at a project based charter that preached self-directed learning and I was gung-ho and then my sweet, super smart child who really wants to be best friends was bullied and lost in the chaos and to my horror was not even learning grade level basics and I was amazed my child learned anything because they espoused things like “open classroom” which is great until you experience the Noise of that in reality. No school is perfect but you have to realize that self-directed and project based learners are competing against kids in academic rigorous environments who are 2 grades AHEAD and well mannered. Trust me, kids running into you, screaming, shoving and teachers who let them sit on their iPads (or read a book — which I witnessed) all day everyday gets old fast. See I did something 90% parents can’t or won’t do — I went in and observed for 2 days and just had a gut instinct about my child and something was just off. I pulled my child out to partial homeschool. The thing that irked me is when her “facilitator ” ( you can’t say teacher) kept telling me that they were just like Google and Apple I thought — who are you kidding? You have to be a math whiz to work there and part of learning math in elementary school is — shock — the dreaded words — rote memorization. I believe you need an underlining understanding of fundamentals and *some* discipline before you can truly harness your creativity. There’s this notion that willy-nilly is superior and direction is bad. Noooo! To write haiku you need to understand the form — then you can graduate to knowing haiku is not just 5-7-5. But this idea that direction, guidance, form is bad — I just don’t buy it. I grew up in alternative education and it has its limits. I love academic rigor. I craved it and never got it when I was young. I had an insatiable desire to learn. Somehow if there’s a balance between rigor and love of learning — that’s the sweet spot.

  11. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    Very good stuff here! Thanks for sharing and being so specific with all the details as to how you manage your class and build relationships with your students through equality instead of subordination. I have also seen the power in letting kids own their behaviors and agree totally with your style of discipline. It works both in classrooms and at my home with my own children (although my patience often runs thin with my own kids).

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