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Self-directed education, part 3: Structure and self-direction | The Homepage

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

By Maggie Bogdanich and Jason White-Wiedow

Thanks for continuing to read our series on self-directed learning. This time we want to look at two questions that are often the first to come to mind when someone discovers self-directed education.

Three young people are visible in a wooded area. In the foreground, two light-skinned young people face away from the camera. One places their right hand on the trunk of a large tree, leaning right and extending their left leg out above the ground. They wear a brown dress and black backpack. They have light blond, shoulder length hair. To their left, another young person with light skin in a yellow skirt and black sweater holds onto a slender tree trunk, leaning to the left and extending their right leg out. They have shaggy pink hair. Behind them a light-skinned person in a blue-gray t-shirt puts their hand against the slender tree trunk and turns their face to the right. Their shaggy, shoulder-length hair is blue.
Three Rivers Village School students having fun on a recent visit to see the goats in the greenway. Photo by Jason White-Wiedow

How do kids learn if there is no curriculum or teacher to guide the process?

The idea of learning, especially when it comes to kids, has become associated with classroom learning with a teacher, curriculum, and textbooks. That is certainly a valid way to obtain knowledge and one that works for many. However, it is far from the only way. Humans are hardwired to learn. We are born curious and naturally want to learn about ourselves, the culture we are born into and the world around us.

At Three Rivers Village School, we trust that curiosity. If a person is in a supportive environment with plenty of time and space, this curiosity will continue to flourish. The generous availability of time and space is a central pillar of a self-directed environment. Play, exploration, navigating relationships and social dynamics, independent study, apprenticeships, community service in and out of school, and participating in school operations are just a few of the most common ways students learn here. The learning is mostly experiential and tends to be personally meaningful because it is driven by innate curiosity along a self-chosen path of exploration. This kind of intrinsically motivated activity is both the easiest and most effective way for people of all ages to learn.

What do they learn?

The short answer? Almost anything! Perhaps the most fundamental subject students learn about is who they are. Building off that, they learn what is and isn’t interesting to them. From there, they learn how to pursue those interests as well as how to recognize and motivate themselves to meet responsibilities to their communities, their friends and themselves.

The things most kids are practicing and learning every single day are essential life skills such as: problem solving, critical thinking, communication, decision making, creative thinking, interpersonal relationship care, empathy and stress coping mechanisms. These kinds of essential life skills create a solid foundation for acquiring any kind of knowledge and the ability to integrate it into their daily lives.

There are many times in everyone’s life where they need to figure out what it is they want to do. Sometimes it’s big decisions, like choosing a place to go to college, a place to live, or a career path to take. Other times the decisions seem simpler, like which friends to spend time with or which book to read or YouTube video to watch.

Of course, those bigger decisions are the ones that make up our lives. Self-directed students, instead of following directions for most of their day, have copious amounts of time and lots of opportunities to practice for the big decisions by making lots of simple choices, like whether to play tag or ride a scooter.

Maggie Bogdanich is a staff member at Three Rivers Village School.

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Correction: The print version of The Homepage October issue mistakenly named this part 2 in the series on self-directed learning. It is part 3. Read parts 1 and 2 here.


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