The Value of Self-Directed Learning

self-directed learning
Rebecca Dewey

The term “self-directed learning” in the Montessori classroom often generates misconceptions. “So, children just do whatever they want?” The concept might sound chaotic at first, but the science—and structure—behind this child-centered approach establishes more order and greater success than you may initially think.

Self-directed learning means having the freedom to choose which curriculum area to focus on and the length of time spent towards mastering the task at hand. This freedom supports total concentration or what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”.

The design and structure of the Montessori classroom allows for a controlled environment of several self-directed learners at once. The physical classroom is meticulously designed for children to freely explore with goals in mind. The neutral colors of the walls and shelves guide the children’s eyes to the aesthetically-pleasing materials which are designed to be self-correcting, eliminating the need for adult guidance after the initial lesson of the work. One example is the pink tower: students are tasked with arranging cubes from largest to smallest. If the tower topples over, the student gains awareness on how to reorder, calling on coordination and precision for mastery, skills the student can work towards independently.  

With a large repertoire of lessons to work through, students are able to set their own goals within the lesson framework the teacher has provided. They are free to repeat the lesson through active engagement until mastery of the concept and readiness for the next step. Interest in lessons ebbs and flows through the curriculum areas each day, week, and month depending upon which sensitive periods the child is in and which content areas inspires him or her.

With such freedom, there is a misconception that students are allowed to ignore curriculum areas and work only on preferred tasks. A major part of the Montessori philosophy is the role of the teacher as an observer and guide, helping a child to redirect focus when necessary. It is through observation that a teacher learns what inspires each child’s engagement in order to find ways to make seemingly avoided curriculum areas appeal to the student’s individual interest. Teachers learn how to “hook” each student and adjust lessons to approach from new angles—a major benefit of individualized instruction. For example, for a student who demonstrates disinterest in language but displays interest in construction vehicles, the guide may use sounds of construction vehicles and utilize books about vehicles, thereby sparking the child’s interest in language.

The teacher also serves as a facilitator, posing content and ideas, and then allowing students to proceed with questions and interest. For example, in reading Baby Feminist to the class, students are introduced to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama. This prompts them to ask questions such as “What is the Supreme Court?” “Who are the Obamas?” What makes these women feminists?” These questions then evolve into the beginning of a research unit.

So, the question at the end of the day: what is the value of self-directed learning in the Montessori classroom? The Montessori self-directed learning environment fosters the traits needed to become adaptable, life-long learners as outlined by Jeff Cobb’s article “Brain Science: Learning Habits”, ultimately setting up children for success in any future endeavors:

1. Takes initiative: the core of the entire “self-directed” concept. The successful self-directed learner does not wait for someone else to say “you must learn this.”

2. Is comfortable with independence: self-directed learners do not always act autonomously or independently. Indeed, increasingly they must cultivate their networks to learn effectively. Nonetheless, successful self-directed learners know how to be self-reliant.

3. Is persistent: learning takes time; it takes repetition; it takes practice. Successful self-directed learners stick to it.

4. Accepts responsibility: the successful self-directed learner embraces responsibility for doing the work of learning and doing it well.

5. Views problems as challenges, not obstacles: the successful self-directed learner embraces a growth mindset and is not easily thwarted when the going gets tough.

6. Is capable of self-discipline: even when learning is enjoyable (which, for the successful self-directed learner, it usually is), it often requires discipline. The self-directed learner knows (or learns!) how to develop and maintain discipline.

7. Has a high degree of curiosity: successful self-directed learners have a high propensity for asking why – and lots of other questions.

8. Has a strong desire to learn or change: the successful self-directed learner is intrinsically motivated. She has a will to learn and sees learning as a positive path forward.

9. Is self-confident: successful self-directed learners have a solid sense of “self-efficacy” – the belief that one is capable of performing in a certain manner to attain certain goals.

According to Cobbs, “The proverbial bottom line: the successful self-directed learner simply likes to learn.” What more could we want for our children's foundational experiences with education?

  • elementary
  • freedom
  • independence
  • individualized
  • montessori
  • primary
  • self-directed learning
  • toddler