The power of self-directed learning for kids (and adults ;-))

Early in my career, as a clinical psychologist, I (Dr. Naomi Fisher) worked with young people who had dropped out of school. I saw this as fearful school refusal and abandoned step-by-step programs. I said a successful outcome would be a return to school. However, Nina, one of the girls, did not want to go back to school and her family broke off contact when I announced my winnings.

Education: a valuable experience for components

As I continued to work with children, I started to doubt my approach. For some children, school was a positive place, but for others it was a source of pain where they could not be themselves. One boy felt like a caged animal at school and I started to doubt who was to blame for the kind of delay. Should we consider alternative environments and their psychological impact unusual?

Is the education system outdated?

School is a relatively modern invention, only made compulsory in the UK in 1893. It was a response to industrialization in the 19th century and focused on learning skills for future working life. The teacher was active and determined what was learned. Today we know more about learning and recent theories, such as Alison Gopnik’s, visible interaction between species and environment. Children are active agents, not passive recipients.

Motivations of a kind: curiosity and play

Children learn naturally through their curiosity and play. Gopnik states that children behave like little mechanical ones, making and testing hypotheses. Behavioral genetics studies support this – children are not passive recipients, but active explorers.

Plea for self-directed education

With the increasing formality and rigidity of our education system, I explored self-directed education where children are not forced to follow a curriculum. This prompts conversations with psychologists who teach powerful children at home and self-managed schools. They stipulate that children have freedom of choice over what they learn, an essential aspect of self-directed education.

The alternative to homeschooling

Alan Thomas researched homeschooling and found that many homeschooled children are not formally educated. Parents often moved from a functional to an informal approach, with children following their own interests. This brings up the question of whether there is more education in informal education than in formal education.

A new role for adults in education

Rather than knowledge transfer, these insights suggest that adults should focus on creating an interesting environment for children to explore. This means a shift in our role in the educational process.


  • School refusal revisited: The concept of school refusal as a fear-driven phenomenon requires reconsideration, including the pain that school can cause for some children
  • The power of self-directed learning: Self-directed education, where children have complete freedom of choice and are not forced to follow a set curriculum, offers a radical alternative that supports children’s intrinsic motivation and active involvement in their own learning process.
  • Transforming the role of adults: Instead of transferring knowledge and skills, adults should create an environment that invites children to explore, tapping into their natural drives such as curiosity, play and sociability.


  • Gopnik, A. (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. Vintage Publishing.
  • Thomas, A. & Pattison, H. (2008). How Children Learn at Home. Continuum.
  • Gray, P. (2015). Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play will Make our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students for Life. Basic Books.
  • The Hole in the Wall Project and the Power of Self-Organized Learning, Sugata Mitra
  • Ryan, R. & Deci, E. (2017). Self-determination Theory. Guilford Press.
  • Schoeneberger, J.A. (2012): Longitudinal Attendance Patterns: Developing High School Dropouts. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 85(1), 7-14.

Democratic education in the UK