The Art of Self-Directed Learning

Book review: The Art of Self-Directed Learning: 23 Tips for Giving Yourself an Unconventional Education by Blake Boles

Blake Boles is well-known among unschoolers for his work at Not Back to School camp, Unschool Adventures, and his books about how to learn and grow without attending conventional schools or universities. His latest book is a distillation of advice about self-directed learning that Blake has learned through his experiences and it is a refreshing perspective on an issue that can get bogged down in ideological baggage. He tells how reading the work of John Taylor Gatto inspired him to custom design his own college major and get involved with educational alternatives after graduation. Then, after his years of work with unschoolers, he decides there are two visions of unschooling: the first vision is focused on treating a child

“as a person worthy of adult-level respect, and providing a wide variety of educational options. If her choice included school or college so be it. In this worldview, everything (including structured learning) was an experiment from which to be learned.

"In its worst moments, unschooling vilified the entire world of school, structure, teachers, teaching, and classes, labeling any sort of formal education as fundamentally coercive.

“The first vision of unschooling spoke truth to me but the second didn’t. My own summer camp and college experiences involved plenty of teaching, classes, and structure from which I, and others like me, sincerely benefited.

“Unfortunately, the second vision of unschooling had semantics on its side. Because what was un-schooling if not something against school? This proved a difficult trap to escape, and in promoting unschooling, I, too, found myself bashing school.

“That’s when I decided that I need to find a positive vision of what I believed. So I began searching across the United States and the wider world to discover the roots of what I loved about unschooling, summer camps, world travel, entrepreneurship, and certain schools and colleges.”

I take issue with Boles’ statement about unschooling being inherently against school. The prefix “un” does not indicate against as “anti” does. "Un" has meanings of being different, the opposite, setting free, or removing something. But there is no doubt to me that the semantics of unschooling cause more friction among people than the actual practice of unschooling, so I agree with Blake’s larger point. (I wish he explained how the writing of John Gatto, which is often considered incendiary by educators, guided him while writing this book.)

Boles decides to use the term self-directed learning instead of unschooling. He sees it as a “positive term that symbolizes freedom, choice, and embracing learning wherever you may find it.” This book presents his personal story, research and case studies of other self-directed learners, and positive tips to increase our abilities to teach ourselves. I think the book is quite valuable to adults, in particular. The big question about self-directed learning that many unschooling parents and teachers struggle with is, “What is my role if children learn on their own?” This book provides you with many great stories, tips, and examples of what self-directed learning is and isn’t, and why consensual learning is vital and works for all sorts of situations and ages.

Boles outlines how autonomy, mastery, and purpose can be found alone and in groups. The chapters “Alone, Together” and “Nerd Clans” show how you can “join a community of people facing the same challenges” and collect some new concepts that move well beyond learning online—though Boles covers that area well, too. Boles always moves from the theoretical to the practical in this book, and I enjoy how he doesn’t present learning as a series of boxes to check on a report card, but as a journey that shapes your life right now, not after graduation when you enter the “real world.”

Boles’ advice about the importance of communication, how to initiate and have great conversations with anyone, how to learn how to learn (meta-learning), and the multitude of stories in which these things happen, can ease adults into being patient enough with themselves and their children for self-directed learning to flourish. Boles fully grasps the value of learning without standard school procedures and school assumptions about how, what, when, where, and from whom anyone can learn, and his book goes beyond school to provide stories, advice, and resources for creating a self-directed career, too. Boles’ advice for how to become a self-directed learner is summarized here:

"Stop focusing on the uncontrollable parts of your life—the nature, nurture, and luck factors—and start working hard on developing your growth mindset. That’s the true art of self-directed learning."

When you finish this brief yet deep book, you better appreciate young people’s innate growth mindsets, as well as your own. If you or your child could use support and ideas for a growth mindset, read The Art of Self-Directed Learning.