Self-Directed Learning

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Self-Directed Learning in Adolescents - Top Resources

Six top resources and authorities on the development of self-directed learning in adolescents are Self-Directed Learning (Maurice Gibbons), Alliance for Self-Directed Education, John Holt and Growing Without Schooling (Pat Farenga), Alternatives to School (Peter Gray), Whole Family Learning (Kerry McDonald), and Life Learning Magazine (Wendy Priesnitz). These six authorities were chosen because of their education in the field and based on the fact that they and their websites are often cited in self-directed learning academic research papers. Although none of the resources specifically focus on adolescents in grades 9-12, they all include that age group as a major part of their research. In addition, both Maurice Gibbons and Wendy Priesnitz live in Canada, but their work is applicable to adolescents in the United States and their websites include resources for the U.S. as well. A deep dive of my findings is below.

Self-Directed Learning — Maurice Gibbons

Maurice Gibbons is far and away the most recognized authority on self-directed learning. Prior to becoming a professor at the University of British Columbia and Simon Frazer University, Gibbons taught at both the elementary and secondary education levels. He is a "specialist in the creation of innovative approaches to instruction" and his programs "emphasize self-direction, challenge and excellence." Gibbons is the author of more than 60 academic articles on the subject of self-directed learning, including the oft-cited "The Self-Directed Learning Handbook: Challenging Adolescent Students to Excel," which was mentioned in nearly every academic paper regarding adolescent self-directed learning I came across during my research.

Gibbons was awarded the "Malcolm Knowles Memorial Self Directed Learning Award" in 2007. In addition, he is "a founding member of Challenge Education Associates that produced The Self-Directed Professional program for teachers;" the founder and director of "Personal Power Press which produced a dozen books on SDL;" and a founding member of World Citizens for a Universal Curriculum, a global education project designed to empower students to create a sustainable world."

The Self-Directed Learning website provides activities, tools, and free teaching resources to help teachers and parents provide a self-directed learning environment for children of all ages. There are 21 activities to help students transition from traditional education to self-directed learning and instructions and tips on how to start a self-directed learning school. Visitors will also find personal development resources and suggestions on how to incorporate technology and video into self-directed learning activities. Many articles and websites dedicated to self-directed learning and unschooling direct readers to Gibbons' website, where they can access resources on all aspects of the alternative schooling philosophy.

Alliance for SElf-Directed Education

This website is a collaborative effort put forth by a number of self-directed learning experts including Peter Gray, Pat Farenga, and Kerry McDonald, each of whom have their own websites dedicated to self-directed learning and unschooling. The mission of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education is to inform "people about the benefits of, and methods for, allowing children and adolescents to direct their own education." Ultimately, its goal is to create "a world in which Self-Directed Education is embraced as a cultural norm and is available to all children, everywhere, regardless of their family’s status, race, or income."

Although it is still under development and expected to go live in early 2018, the main feature of this website is its resources directory, which "will be a comprehensive, searchable database that contains listings of SDE-aligned schools, learning centers, co-ops, collectives, books, films, websites, workshops & training, professional services, and more." Visitors can also sign up for "Tipping Points," the online magazine that is "designed to amplify and celebrate the voices of [the self-directed education] movement."

As with Maurice Gibbons' site, the Alliance for Self-Directed Education website was referenced in numerous academic articles about self-directed learning and unschooling as a starting place for learning about this alternative form of education. The Alliance's president, Peter Gray, writes a blog in prominent psychology magazine, which is based on the information found on this website. Until the resources directory is up and running, there are many informative articles discussing what self-directed learning is and the psychology of human learning.

John Holt Growing Without Schooling

The John Holt GWS website is based on the work of John Holt, an American "controversial and progressive school reformer" who was the first person to coin the term "unschooling." Holt was a strong proponent of allowing students to direct their own learning and in fact, said that "most of what I know I did not learn in school, and indeed was not even 'taught.'" He was an advocate for homeschooling and believed that most learning occurs outside of the classroom. Holt was the author of numerous books including "How Children Fail," "Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better," "How Children Learn," "Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education," and "Freedom and Beyond," in addition to becoming "a mainstream figure in the mid-1960s, contributing articles to magazines such as Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Redbook." He also began publishing the networking newsletter, "Growing Without Schooling" in 1971.

Holt passed away in 1985, but Pat Ferenga, Holt's colleague, continued to publish "Growing Without Schooling" until 2001, and through the John Holt GWS website, "continues to popularize Holt's work through this site, public speaking, articles, and books to help create and understand the huge number of ways that people live and learn throughout their lives without going to school." He maintains a self-directed learning blog and serves on the board of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. His media appearances include "The Today Show, Good Morning America, Voice of America, Geraldo, NPR’s Learning Matters, CNN’s Parenting Today, The Dr. Drew Pinsky Show, and Fox and Friends."

The website itself serves as a resource for parents and educators interested in homeschooling, self-directed learning, and unschooling. It provides videos, books and downloads, podcasts, and other products designed for children of all ages. Although this site is not as popular as the first two websites, it is notable because it is based on John Holt's work, which pioneered the self-directed learning movement.

Alternatives to School

Alternatives to School is a self-directed learning website operated by John Gray, president of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. Gray is a "research professor of psychology at Boston College, has conducted and published research in neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education." Recently, his research focus has been on "the role of play in human evolution and how children educate themselves, through play and exploration, when they are free to do so." He is the author of "Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life." Gray also authors "a blog for Psychology Today magazine entitled Freedom to Learn."

This website is "a collective effort of private citizens from around the country" that is working toward transforming "the education system using a completely different paradigm—self-directed learning—that is in tune with how children naturally learn." The resources available on the website include information that argues against traditional schooling, resources for self-directed alternatives to the current educational system, tips for how to apply to college as an "unschooler," and an FAQ section that provides scientific support for self-directed education.

Whole Family Learning

Whole Family Learning is a website run by Kerry McDonald, a board member of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. McDonald "has a B.A. in Economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. from Harvard University, where she studied education administration, planning, and social policy." She also contributes to "Forbes, FEE, Intellectual Takeout, and Natural Mother Magazine" on unschooling and self-directed learning topics. She is currently writing a book entitled, "Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Kids Without Conventional Schooling," and seeks to "provide the philosophical and historical context for unschooling and self-directed education, as well as the latest educational research on how and why it works."

This website has fewer resources than the others profiled in this brief. However, McDonald's expertise in unschooling provides significant insight into the self-directed learning movement. She does provide numerous resources including books, magazines, and podcasts that offer expert opinions and tips on self-directed education. Moreover, McDonald can be contacted through her Harvard email address or via social media for further information about homeschooling, unschooling, and self-directed learning. I included McDonald on this list, as she is frequently cited in academic papers for her work with the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.

Life Learning Magazine

The Life Learning Magazine is "free, web-based source of support and information about interest-based, learner-directed education for all ages (also known as life learning, unschooling, natural learning, and free-range learning)." Its editor, Wendy Priesnitz, has devoted her life's work to "unschooling, and life learning; conscious, non-coercive parenting; social change; environmental stewardship; and entrepreneurship/home-based/micro business," and the magazine provides "access to the work that [she has] been doing for the past forty years." Priesnitz has written more than 70 articles on alternative schooling options and much of her research is based on John Holt's principles of unschooling. Her books include "Beyond School: Living As If School Doesn’t Exist," "Life Learning: Lessons From The Educational Frontier," "Challenging Assumptions in Education: From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society," and "School Free: The Homeschooling Handbook."

The Life Learning Magazine includes more than 400 articles about self-directed learning, unschooling, and other educational topics. It is an ideal starting point for people just learning about the self-directed learning philosophy, but it also has resources for those who are already well-versed in the theory behind unschooling as well. New articles are added on a weekly basis, making this resource an up-to-date tool that can be accessed by teachers, parents, and students interested in self-directed learning. In addition, visitors have the option of purchasing numerous books on the subject of self-directed learning as well. Although there are other topics addressed on this website, the majority of it is focused on education and alternatives to traditional schooling.


The foremost authorities on the development of self-directed learning in adolescents and their corresponding websites are Maurice Gibbons, Self-Directed Learning; John Holt and Pat Farenga, John Holt and Growing Without Schooling; Peter Gray, Alternatives to School; Kerry McDonald, Whole Family Learning; and Wendy Priesnitz, Life Learning Magazine. In addition, the Alliance for Self-Directed Education is a top resource on self-directed learning that is a collaborative effort by several of the most recognized authorities in the field.
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Self-Directed Learning in Adolescents - Phases

According to Malcolm Shepherd Knowles in his Principles of Andragogy, Self Directed Learning is "a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identify human and material resources for learning, choosing and implement appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes."
Self-Directed Learning has received high success when it comes to higher education, and for those who want to become self-learned there stages you need to experience. We have included all the information in rows 3-4 of the provided spreadsheet.

Four Stages

There are four stages that adolescents need to go through in order for them to have the skill of self-directed learning.
The first stage is the Low Self-Direction. This first stage means that the students or the adolescents are still dependent on teachers or someone with an authority. Adolescents still need someone to teach them and direct them to what they need to know, someone that they can reach out to instantly to answer any of their questions. It is basically the opposite of the concept of Self-Directed learning. They still need someone to spoon-feed them in order for them to learn. A sample for the first stage is the typical setting of a school, where they have lessons, quizzes, different activities, and homework.
The second stage is the Moderate Self-Direction. This stage is all about the students or adolescents who are motivated and curious, very interested to learn more about what their teachers are teaching them. The adolescents that are now in the second stage of their journey to becoming self-learned are basically known as the "good students." They are "good students" because they are the ones who respond more in class, the ones who are active and they are willing to go further than the assigned activities. The adolescents on this stage will go further because some like the subject that they have or the methods used by their teacher in order to encourage and motivate them to do better. The sample for stage two is a lecture that will inspire a student, an activity that helps in goal setting and learning strategy, or simply a teacher giving feedback.
The third stage is Intermediate Self-Direction. This stage is all about the students having more knowledge, not only about their skills but about themselves too. They become more aware of different environments and cultures. The third stage is when they are ready to have more control over the type of subjects they want to dive into, as long as they have someone to guide them. The teachers in this third stage act as the guide for the adolescents, helping them communicate, giving the student support, and boosting their confidence. This is the transition stage for the adolescents, which means that in order for them to become independent from their teachers, they need to have a better understanding of themselves and their peers. They need to value the experiences they have gained and respect their peers. The most important part of stage three is that the students need to make or experience a life-changing situation. Examples for the third stage are seminars for the students and group projects.
The last stage is Learners of High Self- Direction. This is the stage where the students have become independent. Students manage their own time, their own goals and projects, and their learning. Their learning is more student-centered, which means that the teacher acts as an adviser, but the student is the one deciding on what to choose for his or her study. The students are now self-governing. The teacher's role is no longer to teach the student, but merely to guide, to empower, to bolster their confidence, and to wean the students, so that they'll be able to stand on their own two feet. Examples of activities performed during the last stage are internships, writing thesis, dissertation, and diving into creative writing.


In conclusion, an adolescent that is planning on becoming self-learned has four stages he or she needs to go through: (1) Learners of low self-direction (2) Learners of moderate self-direction (3) Learners of intermediate self-direction (4) Learners of high self-direction.

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Self-Directed Learning in Adolescents - Strategies

"Learning how to learn" is also a critical skill in enhancing lifelong learning. Self-directed learning (SDL) is one such process or skill in which the learner himself learns or acquires knowledge either by himself or by someone's support in order to "diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select and implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes." Just like every other learning SDL also needs the proper environment or conditions for its proper implementation; it also has a proper stage-wise learning system that involves 4 stages; it also has various research studies in its support and live examples and principles of its practical implementation.


After an extensive research though various reports, thesis, medical journals, websites of various self-directing learning communities, among many others, the strategies and implementation of self-directive learning among the adolescents have been found. However, the research doesn't specifically provide the strategies related to the US based adolescents studying in 9th to 12th grades but it provides those practical strategies applicable to adolescents in general. A deep dive on the research is presented below and the attached spreadsheet.

Conditions enhancing self-directed learning

It's a well-known fact that parents are the first school of social virtues for children's life. Other than this, parents must also provide right conditions and environment to boost the self-directed learning among their kids. Following are the measures that parents must adapt to support their child's self-directed learning.
1. Parents and teachers must provide an environment to enhance the children's natural assumptions to ask questions, develop their own natural curiosity, and inculcate an attitude among them that they are the in-charge of their own lives.
2. Parents must back off from assumptions that they must keep children always busy. The only thing they must do is provide them free time to develop and boost their natural instincts to let them engage in the activities of their passion.
3. The parents and teachers must allow children to play freely with the modern tools of culture like computers, books, cooking utensils, sporting equipment, and much more like them. However, parents must fully ensure the safety concerns regarding the use of certain tools before giving them to children.
4. Parents must let children be around them and let them see what they (their parents) are doing so that they incorporate the same things into their play and learn something from them.
5. Parents and teachers mustn't judge and evaluate the activities of children. Otherwise, the children would always try to present themselves well to impress their parents or teachers which not only develops a habit of impression management among them but also increases their anxiety.
6. Children must be encouraged to be engaged in the age-mixed plays so that they may learn new skills and advanced ways of thinking from their older and more capable friends.
7. It's the duty of the parents and teachers to respect and value their children's ideas and allow them to be a part of the decision-making of their families or school communities.


In this first stage of self-directed learning the students are expected to be completely dependent on the teacher's instructions, so they are made aware of who they are and what they need or want to do. Learning at this stage is "teacher-centered," which means that teachers provide all the instructional decisions to the students. The faculty or teachers who are behavioral experts provide directives to the students about what to be done; how to be done; and where to be done.

1. Providing formal lectures that are focused on the subject-matter.
2. Providing structured drills in the fields like vocabulary and spelling.
4. Providing intensive individual attention while teaching.

Other details are mentioned under column B in the attached spreadsheet.


In this stage, the teacher provides the clear purpose to the students about the importance of the skills and the assignments and their benefits to them. The teacher also helps the students in recognizing their personalities; their life goals; their styles of learning; and also provides them the idea of developing high standards and motivation to achieve them. The teacher focuses on two aspects — providing an effective personal interaction and focusing on the subject matter.

1. Teachers should act like performers while delivering lectures.
3. Providing a highly structured projects with predictable outcomes along with "close supervision and ample feedback."

Other details are mentioned under column C in the attached spreadsheet.


In this stage, the students develop more awareness about themselves, their culture, and their social environment. They develop critical thinking and start understanding their participation in the creation of their own culture by collaborating with others beyond the students of earlier stages and enjoying the interaction with friends and family. And the teachers help the students in communicating and facilitating situations and ideas about how to create lifelong situations in developing the above-mentioned skills and transitioning them towards self-directed learning.

1. Conducting seminars in which the instructor is a participant.
2. Providing group projects opportunities in which the instructor act like a facilitator but not a director.
3. Shifting from the highly structured approach that involves checklists to an open-ended approach, while providing group projects that are to be performed without any close supervision.

Other details are mentioned under column D in the attached spreadsheet.


In this stage, the teaching methodology shifts from the teacher-centered approach to a student-centered approach. The students in this stage become self-directed to learn and enhance their productivity. They become "skillful in time management, project management, goal-setting, self-evaluation, peer critique, information gathering, and use of educational resources." The most important aspect of this stage of learning is that the student can now learn from any teacher as the teachers in this stage act more often like mentors.

1. Providing "internships, term projects, independent study, senior project, dissertation" to the learners.
2. Discussion with the teachers should be student-based.
3. Encouraging creative writing among students.

Other details are mentioned under column E in the attached spreadsheet.


According to a report by Oxford Reseach Encyclopedia, the children in hunter-gatherer culture were educated through their self-directed plays and activities. Children as young adolescents were not expected to perform any serious task in the hunter-gatherer bands, maybe because adults in those cultures believed in the importance of self-directed learning and that's why they gave great importance to the free will and personal autonomy. Except for any dangerous situation, the hunter-gatherer adults allowed their children to explore their world on their own by learning to hunt through their plays and observing activities of their parents. The children through their playful and self-directing activities gathered education about "hunting, tracking, digging up roots, identifying plants and animals, defending against pretend predators, and building huts and other artifacts, and also at the music, dances, and art of their culture, and in the process they become skilled at all these activities." On self-directed learning in the hunter-gatherer children, one of the researchers named Hewlett writes, "sharing and giving are also forager core values, so what an individual knows is open and available to everyone; if a child wants to learn something, others are obliged to share the knowledge or skill... Since learning is self-motivated and directed, and takes place in intimate and trusting contexts, hunter-gatherer children are generally very confident and self-assured learners."

Principals adopted by self-directing learning communities like north star

1. Voluntary classes, in which the kid or a teenager has an independence in what he/she wants to learn without any tests, grades, and curriculum, helps in building a structure that encourages self-directing learning.

2. The adults, instead of forcing a methodology on the children, must develop strategies that are based on their exact requirements in facing the problems or challenges that arise through their endeavor of self-directed learning.

3. The best way to develop an attitude of self-knowledge among teenagers is to help them figure out their current requirements and interests, instead of providing them knowledge that would be useful for them in the future but not in the present.


To wrap it up, the research broadly highlights 4 stages viz. Coaching, Motivating, Facilitating, and Delegating in the implementation and development of an attitude of self-directed learning among adolescents in general and not specifically the US based adolescents. The research also provides necessary conditions and environment, along with the anthropological research, and an example of the US-based North Star self-directed learning community to support the findings. The other details could be found in the attached spreadsheet.

From Part 01