Self-Directed Learning and Privilege

In my new book I dedicate the last chapter to musing about the origins of self-directed learning, which includes a discussion of nature, nurture, and privilege. Click here to read the whole chapter.

A reader wrote me this week in response:

I am reading this book because I believe that it has ingredients that public education needs to figure out how to add to their recipe. It reminds me of Clark Aldrich’s Unschooling Rules in that it makes a case for what public education can learn from homeschooling and unschooling.

One paragraph in your book that I am struggling with is on p. 188 and starts “Most self-directed learners also enjoy a certain level of privilege…”

Most young people don’t enjoy this level of WV [West Virginia], 1 out of 3 children live in poverty.

What are you really saying in the nurture and for that matter, nature, paragraphs?

I thought we were trying to get people to learn to teach yourself and teach yourself to learn.

Here’s what I wrote back:

In the final chapter I attempt to make an honest representation of the demographics of the self-directed learners whom I’ve encountered at conferences, summer camps, randomly in-person, and online. That’s what informed my analysis of nature, nurture, luck and mindset. Yes, more self-directed learners come from a place of privilege (material, cultural, and otherwise). To learn successfully on your own, without the support of an institution, clearly benefits from such privilege—as do many other challenges in life.

What I’m really saying in the final chapter is this: If you don’t come from a place of privilege—or you haven’t won the genetic lottery that provides one person with the raw analytical skills that scaffolds all learning—or you’re simply unlucky—that doesn’t mean you cannot be a self-directed learner. But it does mean that you’ll have to work a lot harder on the “mindset” side of things. I think of it as a four-sided scale, and mindset is the only one an individual can truly influence.

I believe that becoming a better self-directed learner is within everyone’s power, including children living in poverty, if the mindset behind it is successfully taught and modeled. The public school system may have a role to play in that regard; it doesn’t have a good track record, of course. That’s why, for now, the ones who serve as models of self-directed learning are the ones with the means, drive, and luck to educate themselves outside the system—a group largely constituted by the privileged (which includes myself). They are the “early adopters” of full-time self-directed learning, and, through trial and error, they are showing everyone else how to walk that path.



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