Advice From a Self-Directed Learner

Over a year ago I partnered with a TVS learner, who is now an alumni, to write an article with the hopes of getting published in a well-known educational magazine that had a call for proposals focused on Self-Directed learning. Our purpose was to raise the voice of a young person, a self-directed learner, in a magazine full of what we assumed would most likely be adult voices. Despite the fact that we failed at achieving our goal, we’d like to think that the experience was still valuable: we learned about each other, we considered different perspectives, and, once again, we confirmed our belief that a self-directed learning environment is rich for all those involved.

Advice From a Self-Directed Learner

by Emy Fase & Elizabeth Dean

A self-directed classroom where students follow their own intrinsic passions and emerge as life-long learners is every teacher’s dream. Most teachers themselves would call themselves life-long learners. For many of us, seeking out our own learning opportunities is the best part of our job. We are constantly reading articles, buying new books, and crowd-sourcing inspiration on social media. What we often overlook is the most valuable source for professional learning is right in front of us: our students. When I wanted to know more about how to create a self-directed learning experience for my students, the first thing I did was find a self-directed learner and have a conversation. Conversations with my students have been some of the most meaningful learning experiences that I have had as an educator. When I have made the effort to really listen to how a learner experienced the learning process, I’ve learned so much more than I could from any book. The following is Emy’s response to the question: What should teachers know about what it’s like to be a self-directed learner? Emy’s response taught me – and can teach others – quite a bit about what it’s like to be a part of a self-directed learning community. 

I have been a self-directed learner for the past four years. My name is Emy Fase, and I attended a traditional school up until fifth grade when I became one of the founding learners at my current school. I’m currently 14 and am passionate about psychology, debating, and anything to do with history from books to fashion. I chose to switch to a self-directed school because at my old school I was doing fine educationally, but I was very reserved and needed to be in an environment where I couldn’t just hide in the crowd and would have to develop my voice. When I switched schools I was the oldest at my new school and had to leave my comfort zone and take on more leadership roles. My fourth-grade stomach churned at the idea of even speaking up when something was wrong, so If I told myself then that in 4 years I would be giving a speech at the senate building, I truly would not have believed that it would be possible. Over my four years in a learner-driven environment, I’ve watched myself, and others fail, succeed and grow. I’ve also seen what has and hasn’t worked in a learner-driven environment. So as someone who has been in both a traditional and a learner-driven school, here are three things all educators should know about what it’s like to be a student in a self-directed learning community. 

1. Everyone learns in different ways. During my time at a traditional school, I saw myself and many of my peers struggling with some of the work we were given. At the time I always just assumed the reason I was having a hard time was that the work was just too hard. Looking back, I realized that it wasn’t that the work was too hard, or that my peers and I weren’t smart. We were having a hard time because the tools being provided weren’t fit for our individual learning needs, because while the tools were right for some, they weren’t for others. In traditional schools, the curriculum is very one size fits all, which leads to kids who don’t learn in that particular way feeling frustrated and often with gaps in their learning. For example, everybody has to learn algebra, but not everybody learns algebra the same way, and everybody has to learn to read, but not all kids learn to read at the same pace or in the same ways, or want to read the same books. If you aren’t learning the right way for you, it will often leave you feeling frustrated and the information will only be remembered short-term, if at all. From my experience at a learner-driven school, being able to learn in a way that made sense to me, my overall understanding and interest in topics went up, and I found myself excited to go to school every day instead of trying to fake sick to get out of it. For all students to reach their full potential and enjoyment in learning, they need to be able to learn in a way that makes sense to them. 

2. Learning curves are real – and emotional. For many students switching to a learner-driven school, there’s usually a learning curve that takes a bit of getting used to. However, those learning curves aren’t always strictly academic. I remember when I first started out at a learner-driven school after being in a traditional school for six years. I had always been a very quiet kid, and switching schools was quite intimidating to me. For my entire first week at my new school, I didn’t talk to anyone. And in turn, I had no idea what I was doing, however by the next week, I had begun to open up, and with the help of my peers, we all slowly began to get in our groove and figure the new system out. My mom’s approach at the time was to let me be for the first few months while I adjusted. She didn’t ask to see my work or try to check in on my progress. To her surprise, when she finally decided to ask about halfway through the year I had been ahead of the track. Now, if she had decided to check in on me in that first month of being there, this would have been a completely different story, because from an outside perspective on that whole first month it would have appeared that I was making no progress. In reality, I was making progress, not on my designated work but on figuring out this new system, how I learned and how I could motivate myself. Learning curves can be very different depending on the person. Some could be a week, some could be months or even most of the first year. Some emotional, some academic, or some both. I haven’t only noticed this curve in my own experience, but my peers as well. After a few years, I became more aware of these starting learning curves in others. New students would often take a few weeks to a few months to adjust and figure everything out, and like me, would often get nothing done in those periods of time. But once they became comfortable with the new learning model and environment, they would quickly meet and exceed their initial learning goals. 

3. Community is key. One of my favorite parts of being in a learner-driven school is the community. Community is important to each class, because even when you’re teaching yourself, sometimes you still need others to fall back on! And when you have a strong community of learners, they are always there to lift you back up, and help you start going again. In a community of peers when there’s no teachers to intervene, everyone has to hold each other accountable, and when it’s coming from a learner similar to you, that feedback is often taken more seriously and helps everyone be their best self. Everyone always is able to connect with everyone through shared experiences, we’re all trying to figure out this learning thing ourselves, and together. Whenever someone was struggling with something, there was always someone willing to help them try to figure it out, because if you have a good community, everyone will want each other to succeed.

Trusting students is the throughline to all of Emy’s reflections – and believe it or not, for us adults, it might be the hardest part. Our country has a history of not trusting young people. It is no mistake that the United States is the only nation that has yet to ratify the most rapidly ratified treaty in the history of the United Nations, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The CRC advocates for children’s rights, and specifically advocates to place trust in children as active decision makers and leaders alongside adults (United Nations, 1989). 

Over thirty years since the CRC was ratified, young people in our country face the most severe mental health crisis of a lifetime. Between reports of depressive episodes and anxiety screening for eight year olds, we face a national emergency (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2021; U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, 2022). Not to mention, students are leaving our schools more disengaged and disconnected to their learning than when they started (Quaglia, 2016). 

Despite the grim outlook, there is hope. Emy reminds us of all of the benefits of trusting students, and her experience is confirmed by research. When students are trusted in school they are more engaged in their own learning (Camino, 2000; Flutter & Rudduck, 2004; Rubin & Silva, 2003), report confidence in their mental well-being (Murphey, Lamonda, Carney, & Duncan, 2004), and believe in themselves to be a positive force in the world (Quaglia, 2016). 

Emy reminds us to trust young people to discover how they learn best, trust them to navigate the emotional aspects of learning, and to trust that often, young people can teach each other more effectively than we can. Learner driven spaces are built on trust – and so are healthy communities in and outside of schools. Emy and I challenge you to take the first step to creating a learner-driven experience: start a conversation. We recommend the question: What do you wish adults understood about what it’s like to be a student here? 


  • American Academy of Pediatrics. (2021). AAP-AACAP-CHA Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. 
  • Camino, L. A. (2000). Youth-adult partnerships: Entering new territory in community work and research. Applied Developmental Science, 4, 11-20. 
  • Flutter, J., & Rudduck, J. (2004). Consulting pupils (1. publ. ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer. Murphey, D. A., Lamonda, K. H., Carney, J. K., & Duncan, P. (2004). Relationships of a brief measure of youth assets to health-promoting and risk behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 34(3), 184-191. 
  • Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations. (2016). School voice report. New York, New York: Corwin Press. 
  • United Nations. (1989). UN general assembly, convention on the rights of the child.
  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. (2022). Screening for Anxiety in Children and Adolescents.
  • Rubin, B., & Silva, E. (Eds.). (2003). Critical voices in school reform: Students living through the change (1. publ. ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

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