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Self-Directed Education: As Social As It Gets
How and why Self-Directed Education is more social than teacher-directed schooling.

The term “Self-Directed Education” can be a little misleading. The emphasis on the word self it might conjure up images of individual children learning things individually. But Self-Directed Education — learning that is initiated by learners rather than teachers — is often the most social kind of learning there is.

Imagine that you have to learn something new, maybe which car is best for your money, or how to solve an unanticipated problem. What do you do? If you’re like most of us, you consult the web for resources, ask others who may have experience solving such problems, or if you are in a position to, you might even observe others to see what they do. Some problems may be solved simply by individual thinking or tinkering. But a surprising amount of human learning involves looking to others and the artifacts they create (books, videos, websites, etc.) for much of our learning.

A baby learning to walk
photo by Alexis O’Toole

Young people are no different. In fact, children are natural born social learners. From birth, children observe the world around them and, particularly, how the people in it behave. My two-year-old child, for instance, has learned everything from how to dance to music (for him, it means bouncing up and down) to how he can help Mommy put his shoes on from observation and experiment. As developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik puts it:

“Children learn by watching and imitating the people around them. Psychologists call this observational learning. And they learn by listening to what other people say about how the world works — what psychologists call learning from testimony.”1

Indeed, as they get older and learn to use language (which is also a highly social learning process), children take their place in a social world rich with information. Want to know something? Just ask... an adult, a friend, or find information online. Of course, children also learn things through individual play and experimentation, but like the rest of us, when children are learning, they often do it socially. Some children can get lost on YouTube in a subject that intrigues them. Others learn by asking people they think they can learn from. And then there are the ones who learn purely by unstructured conversation or just watching others. (Psychologist Paul Harris documents the truly impressive amount of information children learn from other people.)

networking people web

Other research demonstrates exactly how much children and adults learn from peer-to-peer networks, hanging out in (virtual or in-person) groups of people who share the same interests. The rise of the internet and social media has made access to these networks increasingly easier, and a ton of learning happens in them.

Quite a few academics have studied how learning works within these networks. John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, for instance, have studied how information is shared in online networks of video gamers. It is common for those interested in particular games to find discussion forums and chat rooms (“guilds”) of like-minded gamers, where they discuss the game as well as share tips and strategies. “The amount of learning that goes on in even the smallest guilds,” the authors report, “is amazing, as is the amount of data that gets processed, filtered, and integrated into play and game practices. The game’s forums alone produce more than 15,000 new pieces of information each night.”2

Compare this type of learning with the learning that goes on in “conventional” school. Learning in school is often individualistic, with students sitting in their individual desks, being quiet, doing individual work. Of course, school has a social element, too. Kids sometimes work in groups, engage in class discussions, and ask teachers questions. But social learning in schools is “bottlenecked” through the teacher. Teachers will tell you when (and often how and with whom) you will work in groups, or when you can and can’t engage in discussion. Students often can’t even talk without asking the teacher’s permission. In school, social learning can occur, but is generally in small doses scripted by the adult authorities.

children playing together
photo by Jose L. Hernandez-Domitilo

That looks very different — and much less efficient — than the guilds Seely Brown and Thomas studied. In the guilds, anyone who wants to share a tip or thought can share it, and anyone who finds it interesting can take it — a truly free flow of information. And that’s how the real world of learning works too. If I have a question, I can seek out whatever means I think can provide an answer, from whoever cares to share what they know. That’s much more effective than having everything bottleneck through a teacher, who determines when I can ask questions, who I can ask questions of, and who may respond.

When we think about Self-Directed Education, we should be careful not to imagine individual people learning purely on their own. It is more likely that it contains a large amount of social learning — observing others, consulting sources (videos, books, etc.) others have created, or talking to others. It’s just how learning naturally works.



[1] Gopnik, Alison. The gardener and the carpenter : what the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
[2] Thomas, Douglas, et al.A new culture of learning : cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change, CreateSpace, 2011.