Self-Directed Learning: Challenges and Concerns


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Presented at the New Mexico Association for the Education of Young Children on March 1, 2014, by Patrick Farenga. Covers current research and case histories about how preschool-age children learn to count, read, write, and investigate the world without being taught and how adults can best support and help them.

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  • Who I am. Homeschooled 3, etc. In and out of school, etc.
    John Holt and HCF and HCL: “As a teacher you’ll work ON children, not with them.” This comment led me to question my own perception of education very profoundly.
    HCF: I teach but the kids don’t learn. Why? Fear of humiliation, etc. at the best and brightest private schools.
    HCL: Kids under 5 show us the courageous, broad learning that children do.
    Babies learn to speak out of all the noise around them—including more than one language!
    Self-directed learning is exactly what every young child does before they enter compulsory school. What is it and why don’t we exploit it more?
    Children’s role in society is to be a student, nothing else:
    Childism by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (Yale, 2013)
    Escape From Childhood by Jon Holt (Holt, 2013)
    Adults view children as extensions of themselves and impose adult thinking and concepts upon children’s learning and development. Some term this “adultism.”
    Children used to be part of adult life . . . Huck’s Raft by Stephen Mintz . . . the relatively new creation of a stage of development, adolescence (and the coincidental development of the automobile!).
  • Working with, not on children. Work with them where they are, not where you want them to be.
    Build on parents’ assets at home and in their communities.
    Give parents confidence in their abilities to help their children. Education is simply helping people do things better . . .
    Encourage and facilitate group activities for families: park dates, library dates, play dates. Help break them out of isolation.
    Language barriers: Encourage children to help their parents learn.
    NY TIMES: Preschool push and ADHD:
  • “The process by which children turn experience into knowledge is exactly the same, point for point, as the process by which those whom we call scientists make scientific knowledge.”—John Holt, 1984
    “We All Start Out As Scientists, But Some of Us Forget: Why babies are so much better than adults at learning new things.”—Alison Gopnik, 2013
    Tizard and Hughes and working class parent’s conversations. Much richer and deeper than conversation in preschool.
  • Describe her experiment where kids were shown how to play with a toy versus those who were not shown.
    Alison Gopnick, a professor of psychology at Berkeley and the author of The Philosophical Baby, writes, “New studies, however, demonstrate that babies and very young children know, observe, explore, imagine and learn more than we would ever have thought possible. In some ways, they are smarter than adults.”
    “Sadly, some parents are likely to take the wrong lessons from these experiments and conclude that they need programs and products that will make their babies even smarter. Many think that babies, like adults, should learn in a focused, planned way. So parents put their young children in academic-enrichment classes or use flashcards to get them to recognize the alphabet.”
    “Babies and young children learn best from the people, places, and things that surround them, not from formal lessons.”
    “But what children observe most closely, explore most obsessively and imagine most vividly are the people around them. There are no perfect toys; there is no magic formula. Parents and other caregivers teach young children by paying attention and interacting with them naturally and, most of all, by just allowing them to play.”
    “A very important aspect of this research is that preschool-age children have developing, flexible brains that can’t focus on just one thing to the exclusion of all else around them—the opposite of what school expects from kids—and that this openness and curiosity are what feed their brains.”
    Gopnick writes, “The learning that babies and young children do on their own, when they carefully watch an unexpected outcome and draw new conclusions from it, ceaselessly manipulate a new toy or imagine different ways that the world might be, is very different from schoolwork. Babies and young children can learn about the world around them through all sorts of real-world objects and safe replicas, from dolls to cardboard boxes to mixing bowls, and even toy cell phones and computers. Babies can learn a great deal just by exploring the ways bowls fit together or by imitating a parent talking on the phone.”
  • Stress-free, perfect family life, obedient, dutiful children. Attentive spouses, support from friends and neighbors . . .
    The reality is much different. According to D.W. Winnicott, the great British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, stress is a vital part of living and growing as a human being. You don’t need to be a super parent to raise competent, healthy children. You just need to be a good-enough parent.
    Good-enough parents are very attuned to their babies, when they are most dependent on mother in particular. Claudia Gold writes about this expression, coined by D.W. Winnicott, The Good-Enough Mother:
    “. . .a mother is most attuned to her child in infancy, when he is most dependent on her, but becomes less so as he grows into a more complex, separate human being. These failures of attunement are not only inevitable, they are in fact a very important part of facilitating a child’s healthy emotional development . . .”
    She then quotes Winnicott, “There are genes which determine patterns and an inherited tendency to grow to achieve maturity, and yet nothing takes place in emotional growth except in relation to the environmental provision, which must be good enough. It will be noticed that the word “perfect” does not enter into the statement—perfection belongs to machines, and the imperfections that are characteristic of human adaptation to need are an essential quality in the environment that facilitates.”
    In short, “The mother who fails at times to be attuned to her child, facilitates her child’s healthy development.”
    The key is for the parent to recognize the disruption and repair it (kiss on the head in the table example). “Disruptions can propel development forward, but they must be appropriate to the developmental stage.”
    Winnicott writes in his talk to parents:
    Not Idealism
    I must be careful. So easily in describing what very young children need I can seem to be wanting parents to be selfless angels, and expecting the world to be ideal, like a suburban garden in summer with father cutting the grass, and mother preparin ghte Sunday dinner, and the dog bardking at an alien dog over the garden fence. Of children, even of babies, it can be said that they do not do well on mechanical perfection. They need human beings around them who both succeed and fail.
    I like to use the words “good enough.” Good enough parents can be used by babies and young chidlren, and good enough means you and me. In order to be consistent, and so to be predictable for our children, we must be ourselves. If we are ourselves our children can get to know us. Certainly if we are acting a part we shall be found out when we get caught without our make-up.”
    Danger of Teaching
    My problem is to find a way of giving instruction without instructing. There is a limit to the value of being taught. Indeed it is important for parents who start looking into books for advice that they know that they do now have to know everything. Most of what goes on in the developing individual baby or child happens whether you understand it or not, simply because the child has an inherited tendency towards development. No-one has to make a child hungry, angry, happy, sad, affectionate, good or naughty. These things just happen. You have already finished that part of your responsibility and have laid down the details of your child’s inherited tendencies when you chose your partner, and when the one spermatozoon penetrated the one egg. At that fateful moment the book on heredity was closed, and things started to work themselves out in terms of the body and mind and personality and character of your child. This is a matter of physiology and anatomy. The way these things work themselves out is extremely complicated, and if you wish to do so you can spend your life on an interesting research project connected with human development; such work will not, however, help you with your own child, who needs you indeed.”
    Process of Growth belongs to the child. “If you stand back and watch you soon see the developmental process at work, and you get a sense of relief. You have started up something that has its own build-in dynamo. You will be looking for the brakes.”
    Environmental provision belongs to adult. “Your special place as the environment and the provider of the environment. . . The environment you provide is primariy yourself, your person, your nature, your distinguishing features that help you to know you are yourself. This includes of course all the you collect around yourself, your aroma, the atmosphere that goes with you, and it includes the man who will turn out to be the baby’s father, and it may include other children if you have them, as well as grandparents and autns and uncles. In other words, I am doing no more than describe the family as the baby gradually discovers it, including the features of the home that make your home not quite like any other home.”
    Predictability: parents, esp. mothers at the start, are taking a lot of trouble to shield the child from that which is unpredictable.
    Children have amazing variagtion in their capacities to defeat unpredictability. . . “But there remains the need for mother. An aeroplane flies low overhead. This can be hurtful even to an adult. No explanation is valuable for the child. What is valuable is that you hold the child close to yourself, and the child uses the fact that you are not scared beyond recovery, and is oon off and away, playing again. Had you not been there the child could have been hurt beyond repair.
    This is a crude example, but I am showing that by this way of looking at child care, stress can be described in terms of failure of environmental provision, just where reliability is needed.”
    Stress can be looked at therefore in two ways. One way takes us to a study of the internal stresses and strains inherent in emotional growth. The other way more has more practical significance . . . In that here stress results from relative or gross failure in the environmental provision. These failures can be described in terms of unreliability, destruction of trust, the letting in of unpredictability, and a once and for all or a repeat pattern of the breakup of continuing of the individual child’s line of life.”
    La Leche League: children move from dependence on their parents to independence from them.
    More preschool could lead to more ADHD diagnoses.
    NYT: “Unless we’re careful, today’s preschool bandwagon could lead straight to an epidemic of 4- and 5-year-olds wrongfully being told that they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”—
  • Growth and freedom need nurturing and patience, not control and prediction.
    Mention Brene Brown, The Gift of Imperfection re. “control and predict.”
    More preschool could lead to more adhd diagnoses: NYT: “Unless we’re careful, today’s preschool bandwagon could lead straight to an epidemic of 4- and 5-year-olds wrongfully being told that they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”—
    Langer, pp. 121-123.
    The problem is once the test is over, the pupil forgets the material. Summer fallout of “important lessons . . . “ How important are they if kids and adults aren’t using them in their daily lives?
    “The capacity to achieve an outcome is different from the ability to explore the world and understand experience”
    EXAMPLE: Foreign language instruction in school as an example of adult expectations/curriculum that is mere busy work to fulfill requirements.
  • Allan Collins’ and Richard Halverson’s Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Teachers College Press 2009), based on the authors’ history of education reform course they taught together at Northwestern, describes what the new world of education–as opposed to schooling–may look like in the future.  Miguel and Rosa, a Mexican American couple in LA who are concerned about the negative environment of their local elementary school, decide to homeschool their two girls using inexpensive laptops, neighborhood networks, and a curriculum devised by a Mexican American educational association; high school students get the credits and coursework they need from Colorado Online Learning or Florida Virtual School, without ever setting foot in a conventional high school building (as hundreds of thousands are now doing); Media Bridges, a community media center in Cincinnati provides access to online media for the neighborhood and acts a learning center for adults of all ages.—Kirsten Olson
  • Not the blank slate theory of mind.
    My quote in MOTHERING magazine for an article about homeschooling.
    I prefer Plutarch’s original, since it indicates the fire is already lit in a child from birth, but requires care and nourishment to grow (kindling).
    JH on . . . Aaron: I said casually that this reminded me of the motto of a certain progressive school in Texas, the Lamplighter School: “A student is not a vessel to be filled, but a lamp to be lighted.” Without missing a beat, John said, “I’ve heard of that place, but they’ve got it all wrong. Their lamps are already lit. They just need to stop doing the types of things that blow them out.”
  • From American Academy of Pediatrics, Feb. 19, 2014.
    1. Children raised and educated in a “high quality language environment” where both languages are “valued and used in an ongoing way” will experience “cognitive, social, and potentially economic benefits.” Children exposed to more than one language have greater tissue density in the areas of the brain related to “language, memory, and attention.”
    This effect is strongest is 2nd language is introduced before age 5. “When babies hear multiple languages from infancy, their development in both languages is similar to the development of monolingual children.” . . . “Fluency in more than one language is associated with higher academic achievement and enhanced mental health.”
    2. “An enriching experience provided in a language other than English will help a child much more with language development than exposure to limited, simple, and superficial English.”
  • Smartphone use in the third world is more advanced than for us: eBanking, eHealth, and commercial uses (tribesman taking grains to market with best prices and shortest distance to travel, etc). Use speech commands a lot more these days, too . . .
    Create a local cloud for just your social worker clients that lists opportunities, events, reminders, etc. that are only pertinent to them. Screen out the other noise. Daily newsfeeds, SMS, too.
    There will be plenty of time for teachers to encourage students later; parents should know that what they can do for their children is to enjoy themselves together. This doesn’t mean turning the parent into a teacher, which probably seems impossible for many of these parents. It means recognizing the existing strengths.
    Children can handle being bilingual. It is no longera curse, like lefthandedness was, to be corrected by school.
    Illich spoke 11 languages but had teachers on various occasions try to stop him from using more than the language of the country he was a student in!
  • The value of groups, peers, and multiage playmates. Gray and other researchers also note this . . .
  • Children in very impoverished places can teach themselves.
    The Granny Cloud: encourage the children!
  • Mitra’s grand experiment, a proven success.
  • They are not the waste of time we commonly think, and the lessons they help us learn are not directly related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Here’s an example of how we can broaden our thinking about computer games for children and the sorts of roles they can play in developing confidence, competence, and solid relationships for children.
    Erik Martin describes how he suffered from anorexia and emotional distress in school and how he overcame it through the World of Warcraft.
    It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by Dana Boyd (Yale Univ. Press, 2014)
  • Example: Supers and principals taking photos and videos or slides and kids not being allowed to do so.
    Haves and have nots issue: school property . . . Ideas for sharing public computers like hole in the wall?
  • Mention Seligman’s Positive Psychiatry work.
  • JH talking to parents (hear the kids in the audience) in WA state, 1982 or 1983.
    Don’t turn your home into a miniature school where your children are constantly being instructed. The distinction between a question and a quiz.
    “What we can best learn from good teachers is how to teach ourselves better” (p. 2). NTL
    Holt adopted this as his definition of good teaching. Inadequate teachers worked on children, keeping them dependent, whereas good teachers worked with children, encouraging them to teach themselves and become independent learners. Self-teaching involves a series of stages—trial and error, feedback, self-correction, satisfaction, and pleasure—when it is a success. Exploration and discovery, not control and predict.
  • What is the “work” of children? Play. Peter Gray and hunter-gathers,
    Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Children.
    School play limited: Playworks story?
    Obesity, diabetes, narcissism: In particular, Dr. Gray writes how our fixation with “learning time” versus “play time” has created a false dichotomy and a debilitating hidden curriculum that results “in a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism.” Dr. Gray writes:
    The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.
  • Lots of positive touch – as in no spanking – but nearly constant carrying, cuddling and holding.
    Prompt response to baby’s fusses and cries. You can’t “spoil” a baby. This means meeting a child’s needs before they get upset and the brain is flooded with toxic chemicals. “Warm, responsive caregiving like this keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years it is forming its personality and response to the world,” Narvaez says.
    Breastfeeding, ideally 2 to 5 years. A child’s immune system isn’t fully formed until age 6 and breast milk provides its building blocks.
    Multiple adult caregivers – people beyond mom and dad who also love the child.
    Free play with multi-age playmates. Studies show that kids who don’t play enough are more likely to have ADHD and other mental health issues.
    Natural childbirth, which provides mothers with the hormone boosts that give the energy to care for a newborn.Source:
  • No wheedling and needling of children. Straight talk and honesty work best.
    Encourage parents to have interests, hobbies, and friends, too. This is modeling good learning for their children, too. You don’t need lots of money to get involved in many things. Aidin Carey example . . .
    Pay attention to your children’s signals; LATT example of mess sergeant . . .
  • Self-Directed Learning: Challenges and Concerns

    1. 1. Self-Directed Learning: Presented by Patrick Farenga NM Association for the Education of Young Children March 1, 2014 Challenges and Concerns
    2. 2. What Is Self-Directed Learning?
    3. 3. Challenges and Concerns  Not learning from a structured curriculum. Kids won’t learn important things unless they are taught to them.  Not learning from a certified teacher.  Not learning at the same pace as other children.  Children who prefer to play, read, or converse rather than be instructed are loafing and need to be reprimanded.
    4. 4. Learning All the Time
    5. 5. Research by Alison Gopnick • Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think in the NY Times, 8/16/2009 • Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School in the NY Times, 3/16/2011  “While learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution.”
    6. 6. The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery Published in Cognition, 2010 Journal homepage:
    7. 7. The Good-Enough Parent and Competent Children John Bowlby D.W. Winnicott T. Berry Brazelton Claudia Gold
    8. 8. Informal Learning  Workers reported that informal learning was three times more important in becoming proficient on the job than company-provided training.  Workers learn as much during breaks and lunch as during on- and off-site meetings.  Most workers report that they often need to work around formal procedures and processes to get their jobs done.  Most workers developed many of their skills by modeling the behavior of co- workers. Source: CapitalWorks [] surveyed hundreds of knowledge workers about how they really learned to do their jobs.
    9. 9. Say Something  In the last few months, what did you learn that wasn’t formally taught to you?
    10. 10. School-Directed Learning • The role of educational research is “to control and predict.” • The goal of the educational process “is to equip students to achieve specific, desirable outcomes.” • BUT “The capacity to achieve an outcome is different from the ability to explore the world and understand experience.” Sources: • The Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer. • The Gift of Imperfection by Brené Brown
    11. 11. Schooling is not the same as education . . . And education is not the same as learning!
    12. 12. “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” — Plutarch Don’t put the fire out—feed it!
    13. 13. Multilingualism • Children can handle being bilingual! • Parents can use conversation and involvement with other adults and children in their native tongue.
    14. 14. Not Just Books . . . • Keep abreast of public resources and events using smartphones, tablets, computer for awareness of local bulletin boards, news, events. • Learning is not just quiet studying. • Sing, dance, play with children. Encourage activity at home. • Involve young children in your daily activities as much as possible.
    15. 15. Sugata Mitra Sugata Mitra's "Hole in the Wall" experiments have shown that, in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other, if they're motivated by curiosity and peer interest. w_kids_teach_themselves.html riven_education.html
    16. 16. The Hole in the Wall Experiment
    17. 17. Teaching Themselves
    18. 18. Learning is about Relationships •Social •Personal •Places •Things
    19. 19. Video Games Can Be Valuable Connections
    20. 20. Say Something Technology increased the connections between adults and children for Erik Martin. How can you increase and strengthen the connections between adults and children you know?
    21. 21. Work through strengths and interests
    22. 22. A Question versus a Quiz
    23. 23. Play
    24. 24. Six characteristics of child rearing that were common to our distant ancestors: •Lots of positive touch – as in no spanking. •Prompt response to baby’s fusses and cries. •Breastfeeding, ideally 2 to 5 years. •Multiple adult caregivers. •Free play with multi-age playmates. •Natural childbirth. Source: distant-ancestors-foster-morality-compassion-in-kids/
    25. 25. Help Parents Appreciate Themselves and Their Kids • Be a good-enough parent. • Read or tell stories about when you were a child to your kids. Share your life but don’t overwhelm them with it. • It’s okay to make mistakes with your children as long as you correct them ASAP (disrupt/repair). You are providing a learning model to your children. • Watch shows together and comment on their content and presentation. Discuss the stories and issues you watch.
    26. 26. Children are good at learning