Self-directed learning, part 1: Steering one's own education | The Homepage

By Maggie Bogdanich


Three light-skinned kids in face masks sit and one brown-skinned child in a face mask stands around a table covered with a checkerboard, iPads, Legos and other games and toys. Two of the seated children and the one who is standing are absorbed in looking through bins of Legos. A bookcase full of board games stands against a white wall behind them. The corner of a window is visible in the upper left corner of the frame.
Play takes up a lot of time at TRVS, whether that means playing dodgeball or a board game, hanging out talking, video gaming, or inventing an imaginary game with friends. Through these spontaneous activities, kids learn social skills, selfregulation, goal-setting and teamwork. Photo by Lauren McNulty

It’s summer break and most students are out of school, hopefully enjoying their time at home, on vacation, at camps, or playing with their friends. Maybe some kids are finding themselves bored and unsure how to fill their time. Three Rivers Village School’s calendar resembles, very closely, Pittsburgh Public School’s calendar so our students are also out. Though that may be one of the only resemblances our school has to PPS.

You could argue that our school more closely resembles summer break. The kind of summer break where the days were wide open and what kids chose to do that day (within the bounds of what a family deems safe) was completely up to them.

That’s how our school operates. Kids choose their activities, whether they be active play, conversation, drawing, reading, playing video games, music, gardening… the list is as endless as students' imaginations. The only limitations are a rules put in place to support a school community based on rights, responsibilities, and respect. This is the essence of an educational approach known as self-directed education. Learning this way tends to look radically different from a classroom education.

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education defines self-directed education as education that derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the learner, whether or not those activities were chosen deliberately for the purpose of education. This kind of learning is becoming more widely recognized around the U.S. and abroad as a liberating and empowering form of education. It dismantles the rigidity of curriculum-based learning and allows for a multitude

of learning modalities.

Learning is not limited to a set of subjects; there is also space for students to develop life skills that are difficult to teach in a classroom and are best learned experientially. Not everyone will need to know how to parse a sentence or find the square root of 425 as an adult. Throughout their lives, all adults will need to think critically about big life choices, manage their time and relationships and know how to learn.

It can be hard to imagine what this kind of education might look like day to day and how a school could be structured to foster this kind of learning. It is even harder for people who learned in compulsory school settings to imagine what the world might look like to a student who has known the respect, responsibility and freedom of self-directed education. Next month’s update will try to answer those questions and others that folks usually ask about schools like TRVS.


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

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