The Benefits of Self-Directed Learning

Nov 29, 2016

The pursuit of an education can feel like a contradictory action. On one hand we’re expected to work hard for reward and praise. We’re taught to please our teachers and value grades so we can land jobs that pay us enough to live well. On the other we are met with cliches like “hard work is its own reward” or we are expected to “find satisfaction in a job well done.”

Life can feel empty when we work only for validation and money, yet life is crushingly stressful when we blindly follow our passions without consideration for the more practical sides of life. How to balance both isn’t taught in schools, even if it should be.

What if I told you that there is a way to support kids that gave them the option to value both approaches at the same time? To develop the skills necessary to work with other people, earn a living and feel fulfilled by their work. Sounds impossible, right? How many people do you know that have found their life’s work that is also meaningful to others and pays the bills? My guess is not that many.

We have a chance to change that through self-directed education.

Self-directed learning happens when we challenge students to learn new skills or concepts for reasons that are personally meaningful. When this is the objective of a learning environment, teachers become more like facilitators and students develop crucial attributes like self-management, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. When done correctly, self-directed learning moves us away from a top-down educational structure to a structure that is based on connection and partnership.

If education organically unfolds in this way, children end up making better choices about their everyday actions and the choices that will affect their future. A self-directed education aims to:

Support learning through trial and error. Make space for a child to take risks and feel the impact of what happens when those risks don’t work out. Ask them to reflect on both their wins and challenges so that their risks become more calculated over time.

Value a student’s space to connect with their intrinsic motivation. We are connected to our intrinsic motivation when we are inspired to achieve a goal because it is meaningful to us. Sometimes a student knows right away when something is personally meaningful. For others, it takes awhile.

Inspires a love in of learning over a lifetime. A life lived with a love of learning is rarely boring. Our world is beautiful and complex. There is a sense of freedom that comes along with that realization. When we control a child’s learning, we can end up robbing them of that realization.

We must trust that children want to learn, that they can manage their own motivation, and that learning can be personally meaningful.

These ideals are easy to agree with superficially, but much trickier to put into action on a consistent basis. To put them into action means we have to embrace ambiguity. When children learn in a self-directed manner, there are no external metrics to validate that learning is happening. The outcomes of their learning will be interdisciplinary and hard to predict. Learning will look a lot more life real life.

Can you think of a better way to prepare a child for life than to set them on a path of living through learning?

Share your own ideas and experiences in the comments section below.

For nearly ten years, Jade Rivera has made educating marginalized, neurodivergent children her mission. She draws on her compassion as well as her personal and professional experience to help children understand who they are and how they learn. Then she translates that to the parents and professionals that care for them. She wears many hats as an educator, coach, and author. She is a proud GHF Ambassador, and author of Micro-Schools: Creating Personalized Learning on a Budget. You can learn more about her and her work at

Jade Rivera

For nearly ten years, Jade Rivera has made educating, writing, and coaching for marginalized, neurodivergent children her mission.