5 (More) myths about Self-Directed Learning: Debunked

Hello again! Thank you for joining us for our next conversation about SDL (Self-Directed Learning) and our experience with it here at WyldFlower Learning Community. 

Today we are going to talk about 5 MORE myths about SDL.

These include:

  • Myth:Self-directedness is all-or-nothing. It might be right for some kids, but not for all.”
  • Myth: “Self-direction implies learning in isolation.” (aka…makes socially awkward people. Eh hem, looking at you- home school stereotype)
  • Myth: “Self-directed students miss the basics of math, reading, and writing.”
  • Myth: “All of this talk about “learning through play” really just feeds into the myth that all of life should be fun and easy, as well as into the sense of entitlement that pervades the youth culture of today.”
  • Myth: “There is no doubt that motivation improves learning, but if motivation were all it took, everyone would have six-pack abs. Some things are just challenging, including math and science beyond a certain point, and some external motivation is required by most people.”

In our last conversation, we covered 5 Myths about SDL. The first 5 myths we debunked included:

  • Myth: “Isn’t it just a big free-for-all?”
  • Myth: “Kids from a place like this won’t be ready for the ‘real’ world.”
  • Myth: “Kids from a place like this ‘fall behind’ on content.”
  • Myth: “This is just a trend, it won’t last.”
  • Myth: “If Kids aren’t forced to go to class, they will just play all day.

You can find that convo here,

in case you missed it!

Today we are going to go over 5 more myths about SDL that go a little deeper into misunderstandings about how SDL works and what it looks like in practice. 

Let’s jump right in. I’ll pick up where we left off last time-

5 (more) Myths about Self-Directed learning/education: Part 2

  • Myth:Self-directedness is all-or-nothing. It might be right for some kids, but not for all.”
  • Myth: “Self-direction implies learning in isolation.” (aka…makes socially awkward people. Eh hem, looking at you- home school stereotype)
  • Myth: “Self-directed students miss the basics of math, reading, and writing.”
  • Myth: “All of this talk about “learning through play” really just feeds into the myth that all of life should be fun and easy, as well as into the sense of entitlement that pervades the youth culture of today.”
  • Myth: “There is no doubt that motivation improves learning, but if motivation were all it took, everyone would have six-pack abs. Some things are just challenging, including math and science beyond a certain point, and some external motivation is required by most people.”

Hey, sorry to interrupt the flow but I want to provide an opportunity for you to check out our latest vlog in which Paul and I chat about this topic! 

Here’s that video if you’d rather jump over and watch my weird facial expressions 😀 instead of reading all of this!  

You’re welcome (hahaha)! 

If reading is your jam (or Google is reading this text to you right now…that is a thing if you didn’t know- Mom hack. You’re welcome, again ;)) Let’s continue!

Myth 6: Self-directedness is an all-or-nothing concept

When self-direction is viewed as an all-or-nothing concept, it can become easy to place labels on children.  Parents or educators may think they lack motivation and therefore are not suitable for self-directed learning. 

A different approach is to think about self-direction as a continuum where it “is viewed as a characteristic that exists, to a greater or lesser degree, in all persons” (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991, p. 11). This view has the advantage of recognizing a vast range where learners in learning situations are responding to the environments in which they have been placed, rather than operating out of their own control.

In terms of overcoming resistance, this approach makes it possible for self-direction to be a muscle to be developed that a learner can grow into rather than a label that can be thrown around.

Going back to the Gardener and Carpenter metaphor, plants and flowers only need us to make sure they are getting the nutrients they need and the environment in which they can take hold and flourish on their own.  Children are designed to take in and master certain skills to succeed in their environment.  They are not so different from the wildflowers if you understand the metaphor.

The culprit eroding motivation, impacting over time, is the repeated use of external motivators.  Most traditional structures give stickers when good, threaten with punishments when bad, create behavioral charts, and so on.  I even witnessed this happening in the littles class at a gymnastics gym the other day. Stickers were dolled out not on execution or ability. 

Yikes, they are practically toddlers, and that would be awful to do to a kid…wait until they’re 5 at least in a kinder classroom. Sorry, I digress. 

Stickers were given based upon degrees of ‘goodness’. Goodness really just meant compliance and level of quiet focus on the “teacher” though. 

(Ugh. My heart hurts for you little guy! And you in the pink- fierce and driven but ‘wrong’ because it wasn’t the right time for that.)

All of these undermine people’s initiative to learn, develop character, and grow an internally driven locus of control and determination. 

It has been documented by alternative schools that when they receive a student from a traditional school, there is a time period in which children, especially older children, must regain that innate drive to learn about their world and their culture. It seems that the day-to-day mode of following constant orders (even for getting a drink or using the restroom) in combination with the constant external rewards/punishments, conditions an individual to be submissive and checked out.  

This quote from W. E. B. Du Bois seems to really wrap up this idea of “school detox” when he says that “Before a person can be self-directed, their sense of self must be restored.” It is the perfect phrase for what we have seen our students go through when they come to us older! 

As the psychologist Dr. Peter Gray points out, if you watch an infant or toddler, you can’t help but notice they are driven to figure everything out (hence the child locks and ‘baby proofing’ the house).  They learn to walk on their own, their vocabulary rapidly increases through interactions, and the number of questions they ask can be exhausting at times.  

Dr. Gray questions why, for some reason, at around age 5, we feel they are unable to continue this learning this way and must be put into a rigid and adult-structured system (which squelches curiosity and exploration!!!!!).  

The less a child has been shaped by a coercive environment, the more they will strive to master skills and knowledge of their own volition.  For those who are not used to being in control of their day and learning, boredom (with the absence of coercion or entertainment) becomes the gateway towards self-reflection, followed by self-motivation.

For parents who hold the belief that their child isn’t self-motivated, WyldFlower would challenge you to reflect on your childhood.  Not one of us, with the right support, wasn’t excited about being alive, engaging with the world, and feeling competent to contribute to it.  

This, in itself, left unhindered, drives a person forward.

multicolored bontainer
Photo by Ihsan Adityawarman

Myth 7: Self-direction implies learning in isolation.

Self-Directed Learning does NOT happen in isolation. A frequent stereotype of the self-directed learner is of a person who works in isolation and does not share the fruits of the learning with others. It is not surprising to realize that such a myth could easily lead educators and parents to resist promoting such an approach. 

At WyldFlower, we see the joy and synergy that results from collaborating with others in our learning efforts; learning in isolation conflicts with this evidence. 

There are many theories with decades of research to back them up we can reference in response to this myth as well- 3 off the top include:

  • Sociocultural Theory—Learning is a social process, influenced by cultural contexts, the environment, and social relationships. This is the theory supported by Lev Vygotsky. This is where we get the zone of Proximal Development and scaffolding from- he believed that learning is an essentially social process.
  • Social Cognitive Theory—Learning and knowledge are acquired through observing others within one’s environment. 
  • Social Career Cognitive Theory—The interests we have, the goals we set, and the actions we take are influenced by our backgrounds, personal inputs, learning experiences, self-efficacy (what am I capable of?), and outcome expectations (what will happen?). 

Learning, and the construction of understanding (bonus, Constructivist Theory), are often created in relation to others, with others, around others, for others, and because of others. 

We are relational beings- it’s just natural. 

Of course, SDL often includes times of intense, focused individual inquiry: Yet, at some point, interaction with the community is what makes new insights and growth magnificent! 

I have a beautiful example including the desire to make hot chocolate! I’ll try to work it in 🙂 

For now, here is a frequently seen occurrence where learning is on display! Take proposing a new law, for example. As a student writes their concept down, they may work alone, but this probably occurs after an intense conversation with peers and staff. 

They are then able to turn inward and gain insights on how to communicate their ideas so they can share them at “School Meeting”. The real potential for growth from this experience will come in their interactions with the community that hears and responds to the ideas presented. It is these interactions that will give life to the somewhat abstract ideas that appear in the analysis of the space, what is working, and what needs to be improved. 

While success in self-directed learning often requires that learners have ample time to be alone for personal reflection, reading, and writing, this is only one aspect of the learning process. Collaboration, communication, and self-governance are foundational at WyldFlower. They are equally important to the deep inner work. 

Myth 8: “Self-directed students miss the basics of math, reading, and writing.”

Sun Set School, in Florida, has a great response to this sort of question! I have answered it a hundred times by now, but this is so good I have to borrow it! Here’s their response, “When a child is ready and willing, the basics like reading, writing, and math are quite easily learned. Traditional schooling forces children to learn these at the same age and at the same rate, often before a child is ready or interested. Thus, the process seems to be difficult and time-consuming. The fact is that we have seen children teach themselves to read, some at the age of 4 and some as late as 12, with absolutely no instruction. By age 13, you can’t tell the difference between the child who learned to read at 4 from the child who learned to read at 12. 

As for math, it has been proven over and over again that all of the math content from K thru grade 8 can be learned in just 6 weeks when the child is ready for it. Imagine all of that time saved for valuable play!” 

For a different perspective, watch the TED video Why Math Instruction Is Unnecessary.”

Through play, many children are developing a strong foundation in mathematical thinking! Please refer to the blog post on the basics of “What Self-Directed Learning is”, here, for more examples. 

Here are a few resources if you want to deep dive into this question- 

Books About Children’s Natural Learning: 

[The books by Neill and Holt are classics. AKA really vintage!]

I would like to add that “lessons” or “help” are often requested at WyldFlower and always given. There are moments of modeling and demonstration happening in nearly every interaction between staff and students. That is the whole idea of making sure the ‘soil’ is rich and full of ‘nutrients’ readily available to each child. 

Ooooh, cue the hot chocolate example from today- with the addition of a cupcake experience. So sweet 😉 

Self-Directed Learner. World Changer.
Reading and writing for real life.

Enter from stage right, one small blond emergent reader who is part of a ‘reading group’ she organized herself, to learn and help other littles learn to read. 2 staff are helping with this “offering.” (Turns out Pizza Hut still gives those little certificates out for reading! Yay us!) Internally she still has reservations about the whole reading thing but with the promise of a pizza party at the culmination of class…stick with it she must! 

Ok, that’s the back story. We’re ready to jump into the scene now! Bring the lights up, please. 

Enter stage left the supportive staff (definitely busy doing something else but drops that to do her job- model, model, model!) 

Student: “I want to make hot chocolate.” (Never mind it is 70 degrees outside, that is beside the point).

Staff: “Ok, how do we do that?”

Student: I know, I looked up a recipe. (Student then tries to recite said recipe from memory.) -Side note- We had just discussed ratios the other day while getting ready to make cupcakes, with no recipe… just a general list of ingredients. I don’t want to eat cake like that, yuck. So we came up with a plan to follow a recipe that included correct ratios! They were delish! Kids devoured them.

Staff: “Why don’t we just look it up again and write it down this time so we can keep it on hand?” 

We continue on with the scene and the two become lost in the work of looking up the perfect recipe (student then has to type into the search bar “hot chocolate… it’s close enough and google understands “cholate”).

She then transcribes the recipe to a card we can later laminate and “keep forever!” 

She researches, reads, writes and then reads 7 more times as she follows her own recipe card to make hot chocolate for all her friends who ask her to! 

She also works on fractions, measurements, reading a thermometer, managing clean-up, and the social/emotional process of sharing her knowledge, expertise, and goods with others. 

It is a daily, small occurrence that happens all the time. 

But it is so ridiculously beautiful when you stop and notice all the layers there.

Reading, writing, math- happens all the time. Intuitively they ask for help when they need it and access the expert when they need it. 

It is natural after all!

Myth 9: “All of this talk about “learning through play” really just feeds into the myth that all of life should be fun and easy, as well as into the sense of entitlement that pervades the youth culture of today.”

The issue is more complex than it appears at first. People’s lives are filled with good times and bad times (Though it is always better to maximize the good and minimize the bad). Even when learning is self-directed, the best learning moments are sometimes anything but fun. 

Also, some learning is simply a natural byproduct of engaging in purposeful activities, such as learning to spell certain words because you have a letter to write a friend or family member. A student might be delighted with the end result declaring exuberantly–” I wrote this all by myself!”—even though the actual process of composing it didn’t feel “fun.” The reward—the pleasure—comes from the desired result being realized, not necessarily from the action itself. And it rarely comes from doing something one doesn’t really want to be doing (this is the downside of a coercive curriculum).

Young people are often judged most harshly when they balk at doing something the adults want them to do. The child’s issue is not laziness or a lack of gratitude in such circumstances. It’s the violation of the child’s sense of autonomy that provides resistance. They—like the rest of us—do not like being told what to do. We all like to feel in charge of our own lives, especially in the moment. 

Thus, it is not the content of the question– or “all this play”–whether it’s solving a math problem or doing the dishes. It’s the process of not having a say, of feeling obligated or required to do this or that. It is about imposing our will on younger humans without respect for their autonomy. 

If young people are faced with a wall (literally or figuratively) that stands between them and something they desire, they will exert all their energy and intelligence to overcome it. The problem arises, however, when they are told to climb the same wall “because I told you” or “because that’s your job,” or “because if you don’t, I will be sorely disappointed in you”—don’t be surprised if you see “laziness,” a search for escape, a host of excuses, or a number of other barriers to success. 

Interestingly, you will also see the same behaviors in adults. I’m just saying…

4 weeks and counting. Calligraphy practice daily for 2 weeks. Self-Directed. 1 formal lesson. Many hours of research were done independently.

Myth 10: “There is no doubt that motivation improves learning, but if motivation were all it took, everyone would have six-pack abs. Some things are just challenging, including math and science beyond a certain point, and some external motivation is required by most people.”

I love this question and borrowed it from alternativeschools.com/faqs/ as it is a frequent sentiment! Motivation is a deeply personal component of a person and therefore very hard to assess in another. This answer really ties in with many of the previous myths too! So good.

Self-motivation is one of those terms that has many facets and is thus subject to various interpretations. “The Path of Least Resistance” by Robert Fritz reveals several interesting layers of meaning, including the importance of understanding why one is motivated to achieve a particular goal. Are you pursuing good grades to please your parents, or are you working toward getting into Harvard? 

Do you want to attend Harvard because it offers the courses you are interested in, or because it has prestige? Or are you motivated by your heart, did your significant other get in and you want to be reunited? 

Similarly, do you want six-pack abs because you think they’ll make you look sexy and more attractive, or because they are an indicator of greater strength in the core, meaning you will be able to work harder without straining your back?

What’s my motivation?!

Self-motivation, or self-direction, takes on particular significance when we are discussing core values. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs highlights this nicely- the deep things, the meaningful things, the self-actualization level things are things we desire for their own sake, not because they will help us to gain other things, especially other people’s esteem. We cannot resource our worth to the opinion of others if we want to experience the best in life. (Oh, I need to tell myself that one again. I cannot outsource my worth to the opinions of others! Yes. Good one!) Understanding and using certain math and science principles will require you to put in the effort to master them – and it might also be fun while doing so, however “hard” it may be. If not, you are just not motivated enough to want those things badly enough, and that should be your rightful choice. If you choose to go into a field that requires those skills to be successful, you will choose the “hard” thing and be motivated by the larger goal (career or degree) to master them in the process. They become a collateral part of achieving the goals aligned with your internal motivation.

Soooo, that wraps us up for this post! I hope I was able to dispel any remaining myths you may have been mulling over about SDL. 

If you have any concerns lingering PLEASE reach out to me and let me see if I can find information to help answer your questions!

Want to stay up to date on posts? Subscribe to the blog here!

Leave a Reply