Self-directed learning: Time for childhood (Part 1)

Many parents, who decided home-school their children, might do a research about teaching and try answer questions like: What to do? How to teach kids? I even believe that a few teachers, who are not satisfied with their teaching strategies or results, would like to find inspiration somewhere else and change their approach. A years ago, I heard about something called ‘self-directed education’ and read books like Summerhill School or Assessment 3.0 or lately Disobedient Teaching. Since then, I have been trying to implement described principles into my own teaching practise. I am certain that it is relevant philosophy and in most cases the best approach to schooling. It has the potential to unlock or support the human genuine interest in learning and prepare kids for their future what ever it might be. Most students will turn to confident people who can communicate and treat others with care and respect. To young people who will have better chance to find happiness in their lives.

Summerhill School’s iconic building by David Yilma

Unfortunatelly, when you would search for key words like ‘self-directed learning’ on the Internet, you will get mostly links to a few academic articles, university courses or learning strategies for adults. However, as mentioned above, this is not a whole picture what you should expect. There is many primary and secondary schools around the world which run within the framework of democratic education and as a natural consequence they implement self-directed learning approach to the education of their young students. Perhaps, it is not just the apparent way how they promote themselves, therefore the lack of search results.

This small initiative – Homeschool Online – is a project where I offer lessons based on self-directed learning principles and I try lead my students towards the main goal of successful teaching – conscious maintenance of student’s time and learning strategies. There are challenges on that journey, but if you, in teacher role, persist and support your kids or students the right way, they will become independent people and learners.

Below is described the first aspect which I consider important to implement into your teaching strategies. There will be two more elements to discuss and I hope I will publish a short text about them later.


Kids need time to be kids and learn. It is even more important for those who have the freedom to choose what and when they will learn. Firstly, there is good to have time for free play. Young children play all the time and it is also their time of learning. You might not see it, but they practise lots of important skills, such as communication, locomotive skills, imagination, thinking, empathy etc.

So, if you have little kids, do not rush to academic subjects and learning which everyone knows from schools and national curriculums. Let kids naturally play and go alongside. If they ask how to read? Help them. If they don’t ask? Wait, they will ask later. The insecurity of missing something is primarily in heads of adults not in the future of kids. They will be most of the time fine.

Secondly, people often say, especially about the older once, that kids “failed” or “fell behind”. When I hear statements like that I ask: “behind what”? The answer is usually curriculums, grade scales and assessments which suggest the failure of people. The purpose of these constructs lays in the attempt to control the amount of information which students need study and possibly retain in the mass schooling systems. Obviously, the scale of thousands students per school makes everything difficult. However, I believe the strategies used in mainstream school are not the best response to those demands. The pre-planned flow of information and testing will never suits to everyone and some kids will naturally struggle because each person has different needs and timing for learning.

Similarly, the volume of information contained in curriculums is an issue. Most of it is irrelevant for kids in the scheduled age and most likely it will be irrelevant for the rest of their lives. Even for essential skills, such as literacy and numeracy, might be applied flexible timing with no harm to the brightness of children’s future. Think, why everyone have to read in age of seven?

Generally, it can be caused by the lack of reflection and ability to adapt the system to the current situation in society of information and technology connected to the Internet. As a simple illustration for the necessary adjustment may serve the quantity of data produce by humans every day. The solution incorporating a loos timetable and re-arranged organisation in use of school spaces and teacher’s time.

Image: Raconteur / World Economic Forum

These modifications are complicated in schools, where the compliance with the rigid curriculum is the must. However, there are schools which are able to find legal ways and offer education which they believe in. I try capture some of them in my podcast Let’s talk about… (Mainly in Czech but guests from other countries will come soon.) Sadly, most of them is private.

Luckily, you can easily introduce these stress free arrangements in the home education setup. Keep the peace based on interest, ability, and level of your kids. Give them time to acquire all skills, experience and knowladge naturally as they find them useful. Even, when they are ready to engage in the serious work and get ready for exams, the preparation will be much faster and happier.

In this short series of articles I have summarised three points which I consider as the key elements for self-directed education. I have learnt them over my time at one of the best known examples of free schools in the world – Summerhill School (Suffolk, England), which celebrates 100th anniversary in 2021. This text is addressed to home-schooling parents but also to teachers who seek different ways of teaching. Hopefully, you will be able to contribute to the movement of parents and educators who see children as the central part of teaching.