Research Proves Kids Can Learn Complex Things On Their Own

I learned about this research from a press release, since the research paper itself is in German. However, I find it striking in several respects, not just because it supports self-directed learning for children.

1) The release opens with this sentence: "Self-directed learning has long been heralded as the key to successful education. Yet until now, there has been little research into this theory." Something that is "long-heralded" must have some basis in reality for people to recognize its efficacy, and there is more than a little research into this theory. A brief perusal of my Research page, the work of Holt, Neill, and alternative schools everywhere, research such as that done by Alfie Kohn, Frank Smith, and Thomas Armstrong, as well as studying history prior to the invention of compulsory schooling about 150 years ago, shows that self-directed learning is not just how every baby learns a most complex thing—how to speak—but also how most children and adults learned until we corralled everyone into classrooms.

2) Professor Kristina Reiss, one of the researchers is quoted:

"We now know that students – also those who are weaker in math – have the skills to master even very complex subject matters at their own pace,” continues Reiss. “Although extended phases of self-directed learning are often advocated, they are still not part of the everyday school curriculum. But they are an important option for teachers as varied lesson formats ensure a lively and interesting learning experience.”

It really bothers me that this research admits that providing time and space for self-directed learning should be advocated for use in schools, but when unschoolers claim they are doing this (GWS has printed their stories since 1977) they are often taken to task by educators for not providing a rigorous, or even adequate, education to their children.

3) Germany, Sweden, and other countries outlaw homeschooling because they claim their public and private schools provide a professional education that no parent can provide. This makes little sense if self-directed learning is in play since the teacher, if there is one, is "the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage" in that situation. It is interesting resources, access to people and places, doing things alone and with people, supportive parents, friends, and mentors that encourage self-directed learning, not necessarily a professional teacher's "varied lesson formats."

I can sense the thrust of where this research will be used in classroom practice from the quote above: it will be used as another technique to get kids to do what teachers want them to do in order to complete the teacher's lessons, rather than as a genuine attempt to build on a child's self-directed learning, as unschoolers have successfully been doing for decades.


The Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, another academic resource that supports self-directed learning, has a call for papers for their next issue. As an advisor to the Journal, I've been asked to solicit articles for the next issue. If you're interested in doing so, here's the information you need:

I am pleased to invite submissions for the eleventh issue of the online peer-reviewed publication, the Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning (JUAL), to be published as papers become accepted. Authors of original research interested in submitting manuscripts to be considered for publication in JUAL should review the JUAL home page, and the Submissions for detailed information on submission requirements.
JUAL seeks to bring together an international community of scholars exploring the topic of unschooling and alternative learning, which espouses learner centered democratic approaches to learning. JUAL is also a space to reveal the limitations of mainstream schooling.

JUAL understands learner centered democratic education as individuals deciding their own curriculum, and participating in the governance of their school—if they are in one. Some examples of learner centered democratic possibilities are unschooling, Sudbury Valley, Fairhaven, and the Albany Free School. In terms of unschooling, we view it as a self-directed learning approach to learning outside of the mainstream education rather than homeschooling, which reproduces the learning structures of school in the home.
It will offer readers relevant theoretical discussions and act as a catalyst for expanding existing knowledge in specific areas of practice and/or research on learning relevant to the journals mandate. The journal will be available at as a free publication containing material written in French or English. JUAL will initially be published as articles become accepted for publication. When enough articles to make an issue are available, we will publish them as an issue.
I invite you to circulate this announcement to colleagues, graduate students, researchers and/or organizations who may be interested in submitting a manuscript to JUAL for consideration.
Questions can be addressed to the editors of JUAL by contacting Carlo Ricci at