Why is Self-Directed Learning a Difficult Concept to Grasp?

by ChristinaPilkington on August 3, 2011 · 6 comments

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I’ve been thinking more and more lately why the concept of self-directed learning is so hard for many people to grasp and why five (or sadly, three) is the magical age when humans need to sit down and listen in order to learn things. Up until then little children observe, communicate, participate and contribute to thousands of interactions with others without anyone giving them a “curriculum” to get there.

And then suddenly it all…..stops? Really? Why?

First I thought that maybe parents are being convinced their children need “experts” to suddenly “teach” them things they learned perfectly well on their own before, so that they will feel better about both working full-time and contributing to our consumerism culture.

 I know there are exceptions and some parents both have to work full-time, but many people choose to live a life of voluntary simplicity. There are several excellent books out there about this lifestyle including Your Money or Your LifeVoluntary Simplicity, and Choosing Simplicity.   

There are also so many options available today for working at home, too. From writing, web site design, and administrative work, to selling art, used books and pretty much anything else you can think of, it’s not that difficult for a parent to make money while staying at home. I know parents who rotate work schedules and single parents who do a combination of working outside the home and some home-based work. Even if money is not an issue, having some type of home-based business can be an incredible learning experience for the entire family and a great way to grow closer together. If it’s important for a family to live and learn together, there are many options available.

Then I thought that maybe it’s so hard to grasp the idea that children can be trusted to be curious about their world because many parents have lost their own sense of curiosity, wonder and desire to explore their world and so can’t imagine their children not wanting to learn things without being told they have to.  

When school kids get home, especially those over the age of 8, if they have any time left to themselves at all after homework, many kids will choose watching TV, playing video games, or chatting with friends on the phone or computer. Many don’t voluntarily choose to do other creative or more academic type things on their own. So, we assume that if they didn’t go to school and had a choice in their activities, they would choose to do more of what they do during their “free” time.

But most kids are burnt out by school and those “ever-so important” extra- curricular activities. Their days have been directed from the moment they woke up until well into the evening. They’ve been passive recipients to what others think it best for them, that they’ve lost their OWN sense of what’s best for them, of what their unique purpose is.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with video games, TV or talking with friends. All those things can be part of a rich and fulfilling life. But when a child is suddenly open to the world and has so many new learning options open to him, those other things will just become a part of a rich life, not an all-consuming desire.

Many parents also fall into the habit of passively watching TV or surfing the web instead of expressing their creativity, going to new places or helping others. How many times have you said that you’d like to learn a new language or volunteer your time?  If most of your day is directed by others, and if you feel that your unique skills and talents are not being utilized, a learned hopelessness sometimes develops.

 I think creativity and inquisitiveness are like muscles; if you stop using them, after a while you will forget how to use them – it will suddenly feel too much like work.

But I think the real reason it’s hard to grasp that people are natural learners – that we all learn best by observing others and trying things out in our own time and way – is because you don’t see it that often.  It’s a rare thing.

People have a hard time believing things they can’t see. So, if little by little, more children are raised to become independent thinkers who can design their own projects and goals and put them into action, if more children are allowed to learn according to their own timetables, and if more children are given the opportunity to explore as much of the world as they can, then artificial, school-type “learning” will become the strange and unusual.

When people start to see young adults emerging from homes where children are respected as unique individuals and given real responsibility at an early age, maybe, just maybe things will start to change.  When children who are given great freedom to pursue meaningful, real work grow up equipped to become leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators, maybe then natural learning will not be a foreign concept.

What do you think? 


Photo Credit: Yogendra174


I’d love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment below or e-mail me at chris@christinapilkington.com. If you’d like to receive e-mail updates whenever I post something new, just sign up for my mailing list at the right-hand corner of this page. Thanks!

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  • Kimslage

    Great article!

    • Anonymous


  • Anonymous

    Christina! Another well-written and thought-provoking post. Thank you!

    As I think about how to get more people to consider homeschooling and to adopt interest-led learning as their “curriculum”, I can’t shake the thought that so many adults think that life means them going to work and the kids going to school each day. That’s it. Some people might even think that homeschooling children is a luxury only afforded to those who are well off. Whereas, in reality, many homeschooling parents do just what you suggest – they find ways to work from home or adjust work schedules so that they can homeschool.

    It really boils down to priorities. We hear a lot of complaining from parents that schools are failing their children and they want choices and changes. Maybe they should look at themselves and re-prioritize their lives to put family, children, curiosity, and love of life and learning first! Just my musings…..Thanks again, Kelleigh

    Oh and come on over to kidzinky.com and check out where I am blogging now! I just posted on how to support kid-powered learning (yippee!) and I would love your feedback!

    • Anonymous


      I heard a great saying a few weeks ago – you can do almost anything you want to do, but you can’t do everything you want to do. I’ve chosen a handful of areas to focus on in my life and making sure my kids grow up whole, loving to learn, and living a rich, full life where they can develop their unique talents and gifts to their fullest is one of them.

      Every family has to come up with their own priorities and many will say that their kids do perfectly fine in school. Maybe that is so. But I would strongly caution families that if they see a change in their children’s personality or notice them not as connected to their family to make a change quickly. It’s not a coincidence that most 3-5 year olds are very creative, inquisitive and innovative and then those qualities greatly diminish they older they get. The interesting this is that most children who don’t go to school and are free to direct their own learning do not experience that same problem.

      BTW, I really like your new site. Can’t wait to read your next post.

  • Niki

    Every time I read one of your articles I feel compelled to share. Excellent article, Christina. :)

    • Anonymous


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