Self-Directed Learning (Sort of)

kelvin high school
a photo of my high school, c. 1969

I‘ve written before about my brief, astonishing experience with self-directed learning — aka Unschooling (or “independent study”, as they called it back then) — at the end of my high school years. This experiment utterly transformed my worldview, my competencies for dealing with the world, and the trajectory of my life.

PS Pirro brilliantly summarized the purpose and benefits of Unschooling in her book 101 Reasons Why I’m an Unschooler, Excerpt:

The world of the classroom is so unlike anything the real world has to offer – with the exception of other classrooms – that kids can excel at school only to find themselves utterly lost in the real world. Some people think this is the result of failed schooling, but a few of us suspect otherwise. We suspect that this sense of displacement and confusion is actually the result of schooling that succeeds in its most basic unwritten objective: to keep you dependent, timid, worried, nervous, compliant, and afraid of the World.  To keep you waiting. To keep you manageable. To keep you helpless. To keep you small.

Educated, confident, creative people are dangerous to the status quo, dangerous to a centralized economy, dangerous to a centralized system of command and control. Those in power don’t want you educated. They want you schooled.

It is not up to teachers or school administrators to figure out what you should be or do. It’s not up to the State, it’s not up to your guidance counselors. It’s not up to your parents. What you do with your life ought to be up to you. What you learn ought to be up to you.  How you navigate the world and create your place in it ought to be your decision. Your life belongs to you.  School does its best to disabuse you of this notion. Unschooling celebrates it. Unschooling puts the responsibility for creating a satisfying life squarely where it belongs: in the hands of the one living it.

Basically, this year of entirely self-directed learning endowed me with the capacity to learn things for myself — I no longer needed to be “taught” in order to learn. This was long before the internet came along and gave us a ton of new resources for self-directed learning — but gave us none of the competencies needed to use them.

As a result, I am constantly amazed to read, hear and see people who have all the information they need at their disposal to become deeply informed and conversant on many subjects, but who write, speak and act as if they had studied and understand none of it. This is not so much about literacy as it is about the ability to find and critically parse information — to consider its possible biases (and our own!), to seek corroborating and alternative perspectives, to review evidence that supports and challenges what is being said, and to engage in conversations with others that clarify, question and deepen our understanding.

The ‘conversations’ aspect of Unschooling is IMO critical. Self-directed learning isn’t just looking at stuff on the internet (or in books) — so-called “secondary research”. It also entails doing primary research — talking with people who know more than you know (or different things from what you know) on a subject.

My single greatest learning from being tasked with the job of being the Chief Knowledge Officer (yes, that was my actual title) of a large consultancy was this:

Almost all useful “knowledge transfer” (ie new understanding) occurs through skillful, one-on-one and small-group conversations, on topics that the participants have considerable but diverse knowledge of, and which the participants really care about.

That’s a tall order. Spouting of context-free, content-free and evidence-free opinions does not convey useful understanding. Discussions among people devoid of good conversation skills, facilitation skills and listening skills do not convey useful understanding. “Doing your own research” without supplementing it with conversations with people who know what is not available online or in books, and who “know more than they can write down” (that’s all of us, Dave Snowden reminds us), does not convey useful understanding.

And, of course, if, due to the catastrophe of formal schooling, we have never exercised our learning ‘muscle’ — our inherent capacity to know what to look for, where to look, how to look, who to talk with, how to critically parse and make sense of the information we obtain, and how to articulate it in our own minds and to others — those conversations will likely be fruitless in any case.

Our schooling system, as PS says, keeps us dependent on “schooling” — on being told the right answer, so we don’t have to think for ourselves. That’s not because those operating our schooling systems are ‘evil’. They honestly believe the world would be a better place if we all shared a common understanding (or common misunderstanding) of how things are, and why they are that way. And how they should be. They see nothing wrong with us all marching to the same drumbeat. After all, that’s how they were taught.

And so, once again, it really comes down to our conditioning. If you’re brought up with parents, friends and mentors who have been conditioned to love learning and to be competent at it, you’re likely to develop that love and retain that competency yourself, and pass it on to others. And, sadly, vice versa.

More than a little “home-schooling” (not at all the same thing as Unschooling) is done by parents who fear their children learning “the wrong things” in the formal schooling system. They essentially want to condition (indoctrinate) their children to believe unquestioningly what they believe. They’ve been conditioned all their lives to fear ‘evil’ (immoral thoughts, dangerous ideas, and the unknown, exemplified by ‘foreign’ people who they do not understand, and do not care to). And they intend to condition their children likewise. They have never learned to think and learn for themselves, so they do not trust the process, and don’t want their children to, either. It’s understandable.

The current Speaker of the US House, for example, exchanged, on a weekly basis, logs of porn sites and other ‘dangerous’ online sites, captured by security software on his, and his son’s, computer. When you have never learned to think for yourself, everything online is potentially dangerous. You must be continually coerced to consume only ‘approved’ information and ideas, even if that means buying espionage software to monitor your kid’s masturbation habits.

And this proclivity to actively discourage children from learning for themselves, out of distrust (they might learn the “wrong” things) is not limited to right-wing “home-schoolers”. I’ve seen examples of “progressive” parents who have signed up for self-directed learning programs for their children, but who insist that the program offerers provide “coaching” in subjects like anti-oppression, anti-racism, reparations and intersectionality.

This is no different from conservative parents insisting that their home-schooled or public/private-schooled children receive indoctrination in religious and moral issues in accordance with their particular religious (and sometimes political) views. You either trust your children to be able to think critically when you provide them with the capacities and resources to do so, or you don’t.

And if you don’t, you’re liable to support the banning of books and online censorship, and other means of indoctrinating your children (and others) to think like you do.

This is why I added the parenthetical words to this article’s title. The latest evidence on our (lack of) ‘free will’ suggests that everything we think, do and believe is conditioned, by our biology and by our culture — the people whose ideas, thinking and beliefs we are exposed to.

What real self-directed learning — Unschooling — offers is the means and opportunity to embrace a much broader and more diverse range of different, often conflicting, ideas, information and beliefs, and the capacity to consider and reflect on that entire range critically and thoughtfully. The result is almost inevitably a more tolerant, nuanced and deliberative worldview, one that is open to change and less likely to fall victim to propaganda, misinformation, hate-mongering, cognitive biases and groupthink.

If your conditioning has allowed and enabled you to embrace and employ self-directed learning, and to condition those around you to do likewise, you’re likely, I think, to be able to face every day, and the future, with the capacities, enthusiasm, and self-confidence to skillfully navigate just about anything you may face. Because you won’t just believe. You’ll know, as much as possible, what’s really going on, and why, and what might be done to deal with it effectively.

If your conditioning hasn’t given you these capacities… well, just look at what’s going on in the world, and you’ll readily see what happens when everyone is told what to believe and what to do, and discouraged and disabled from thinking and learning for themselves.

Since my year of Unschooling, 55 years ago now, I have found myself continuing to Deschool myself — ‘unlearning’ everything I have been told or otherwise came to believe in the absence of context, evidence, and critical thinking. It’s a lifelong task. It’s a bit like a superpower. Maybe anyone can do it, or maybe you have to be lucky or privileged or conditioned in certain ways to be ready for it.

I don’t know. One of the delights of learning how to learn for yourself, is the realization that you really don’t know anything. It’s all just a work in process.

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8 Responses to Self-Directed Learning (Sort of)

  1. Vera says:

    Yes indeed, being self-directed learner is a gift for a lifetime. I was unable to handle university education, dropped out, and when the trauma subsided, became a true learner. Blessing in disguise.

    I have been reflecting on another aspect of this, which I call immersive learning (as contrasted with study-based learning). We all know people who “learned to play the piano at 4, by themselves.” Such people do not need notes, they can support another person with voice or instrument just by the feel of it. They leave me in awe. (I think John Holt, the founder of the homeschooling movement, was studying this very thing, as he learned to play the cello in his 30s. His life was cut short, and I am not sure if he published what he found.)

    Or take language learning. As someone who struggled with school English being taught via grammar and work books, I came to see the profound disadvantage of this approach. Best second language learning happens when you immerse in it — either by “moving there” or by finding another immersive venue locally. One Hungarian lady who knew 17 languages learned by reading children’s books. Immersive learning is learning from the inside out, so to speak. It is learning by experiencing it, rather than studying about it.

    Does that make sense? I am not sure if I have the right words. :-)

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Yes, I think immersive learning does work. But it’s too expensive to scale to an entire education system because it doesn’t lend itself to standardization. The apprenticeship programs (now largely abandoned) kind of worked the same way — you learned ‘on the job’ by watching people demonstrate skills and then trying them yourself.

    After many years of fruitless well-intentioned study of French in the classroom, I finally learned the language in three weeks of immersion with a Francophone family that promised the program organizers they would only communicate with me in French. I learned because I had no choice.

    There are some generalizations about learning (eg most of us learn better by doing and watching than by being told, and learn by making lots of mistakes) but learning is very much a personal endeavour, and we all learn differently, which is why self-directed learning makes so much sense. But just like the capacity to learn languages, I think you have to start relatively young, before the learning-how-to-learn muscle atrophies, and the neural circuits of the brain set in.

  3. Siyavash Abdulrahimi says:


    I’d be very curious about a couple things (which maybe you have posted about before?)

    1. How you would define learning?
    2. What are some things you have unlearned (or have made some progress in unlearning)?

    And how would you characterize the following:
    Over the past few years, I have been reading Russian/Soviet literature in the original with the aid of a tutor/s. Typically, I will attempt to read the text myself; I look up words I don’t know. The passages I don’t understand I highlight and those I go over with the tutor.

    Most recently with the novel I am reading now the challenge is that I understand the words, I understand the text on a *very* superficial level. I find I really need the hand-holding (I know this is a loaded word)- or like the crutch of- of a tutor. She really helps break down the meaning for me and bring to my attention the references in the piece (it is a highly layered, intertextual piece of literature).

    Part of me feels like she ends up spoon-feeding me, in a way. The result of our sessions is that I feel a mix of things: a greater appreciation for the piece I am reading, actually awe; sadness that I don’t have the feeling for language and the novel that she does; and sadness that I experience some judgment at what I view as bewilderment and perhaps snobbishness that I don’t have the same level of knowledge of cultural references that she does.

    Is what I am engaging in schooling? self-directed learning? a mix? or…?

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    You ask a lot of questions for a comment thread, ‘Si’…

    I’d define learning as the acquisition of useful ‘knowledge’, which consists of ‘know-what’ (information with enough context to make sense of it), ‘know-how’ (skills and capacities), and ‘know-who’ (networks, as in “I keep my knowledge in my networks”).

    I have unlearned things like how/why some things are inherently ‘good’ or ‘evil’, that we are responsible for our actions, and that complex predicaments have ‘solutions’ that can be mapped out, designed and implemented. I was taught all of these things, and believed all of them, and they occupied a large part of my worldview. Now I believe none of them.

    While I don’t believe in schooling (an elaborate exercise in jamming square pegs into round holes), I believe very much in the value of facilitation and mentorship, both of which complement and enable self-directed learning, rather than competing with it. So I would describe your reading coach as a mentor and/or facilitator. You’re in charge, you ask the questions, and you pick your mentor, rather than having a teacher ‘assigned’ to you who designs, structures and directs your learning. It’s possible you could get lazy and passive and let her ‘teach’ you what she guesses you need to learn to understand each chapter of the book, in which case your learning is no longer really self-directed. Another indication would be your level of critical thinking when you’re asking questions, eg are you really sure that her interpretation of the meaning of a passage is correct, or is it coloured by her own experiences or what she has been ‘taught’?

    It’s easier to discern if we talk about poetry. If a teacher tells you that a piece of poetry ‘means’ x, then if you’re a self-directed learner you’re likely to scowl and question other things the teacher alleges to be true as well.

    I recall as a child being given an assignment about a short story by a local writer. One of the questions was “What was the writer’s purpose in writing this story?” As it happens, my father, a journalist, knew the writer in question, so he called him and asked him. The author was outraged at the question. So I turned in my assignment with the “correct” answer to the question, citing the author himself: “The author wrote this story because, he says, he needed money to feed his exhausted wife and his twelve starving children.” The teacher was not amused, but couldn’t fault my answer. The twist is that the story had as its subject coping with poverty.

    When your reading coach tells you what a passage means, and you suggest an alternate possible meaning or interpretation, and she nods, then you know you’re doing self-directed learning. It’s all about who’s in charge of what’s studied, and how, and who is asking the questions, and challenging the answers.

  5. Siyavash Abdolrahimi says:

    Thanks much for indulging me, Daoudjan!

    I loved that local writer story you shared. It deserves to be retold as a fictionalized story!

  6. Brutus says:

    I struggle conceptually with the conflicts between structured learning (formal education) and self-directed learning. Both approaches are essentially thrust upon each of us at different points in life and we respond individually. Languages may be the best example. Part of my struggle is the degree of specialization that many jobs/careers now require and how we are adopting tools to do large swaths of the work for us, which is deskilling. The dumb example is the calculator, which performs functions we used to have to do ourselves and now no longer can. (Restaurant bills now come with precalculated time amounts for this reason, plus the quiet suggestion that one should now tip 20% instead of the customary 15%.) Spellcheckers, grammar-checkers, and predictive writing prompot (such as in this comments box) are similar and annoying to me because I distrust those tools. Relying on cognitive tools is like outsourcing or offshoring in that they provide some immediate advantage but then create vulnerabilities that are no so easy to spot.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Yes, exactly. Each ‘helpful, labour-saving’ device that is introduced actually makes us a little more dependent on the system from which it came. Which is a problem when that system is slowly falling apart.

  8. Vera says:

    Brutus, didja see the joke going around?

    What do we want?
    End of autocorrect!
    When do we want it?


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