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Parents See Problems with Self-Directed Learning

I recently read a post by a frustrated mom of a middle school aged child. She was upset that her son was being given “independent studies” that were not taught by the classroom teacher.

The teacher was, for a few select units, only providing or directing students to videos, and the students were expected to learn new concepts, in this particular case, math, independently–without any clear formal classroom instruction. Other moms chimed in to say how much they also hated this approach.

How could this be an effective teaching method?

They were upset and couldn’t understand why teachers, who were being paid to teach, were essentially abdicating their responsibilities and just facilitating instead of actually teaching. They noted how this was becoming a trend; teachers being more in the background, instead of leading the learning.

One mom talked about how her child experienced something similar and felt they didn’t learn anything–that the year was almost a waste for that particular subject.

Someone noted that, while it might work for some students who could learn more independently, there were others who weren’t as capable of doing so–and that it was the teachers job to know how each student learned and to tailor instruction to the individual student.

Many were also, understandably so, uncomfortable with kids using technology as they were already spending way too much time on electronics in general.

A parent noted that curriculums were being revamped, and that they understood the need for teachers to get more done over the course of the year. They were also understanding that this seemed to be a way for teachers to cover more material–given the scope of what was expected to be taught.

At the end, one person even said that while the theories behind collaboration and independent learning were great, they feared we had swung too far in that direction, and that kids were floundering without the more structured guidance of the teacher.

This post sparked so many emotions for me as a public school teacher. Even more so as someone who is actively trying to disrupt the public education system. And by “disrupt” I mean passionately writing about and advocating for what many see as radical changes in how we approach educating our children. But let me be clear. These so called “radical” ideas, aren’t so radical. They are driven by well researched philosophies, and backed by strong data.

Issues with Our Current Education System

So let me start by saying this. We need to first recognize that the public school system overall, is fundamentally, in crisis. 

Measures of success in the form of tests scores, reading and math ability levels, and graduation rates have, overall, been minimal at best. You can argue that graduation rates have gone up. But I will tell you it isn’t because skill level and mastery gone up, it’s because we have lowered our standards and are graduating kids who are absolutely not ready for the world–both academically or socially and emotionally. I’ve spent almost 10 years watching kids move up grade levels or graduate nowhere near meeting what should be the standard of “education.”

Record numbers of school children are experiencing negative emotions and mental health issues surrounding school. Feel free to Google “School makes me feel” and see what pops up. Here is a screen shot I took in case you want the quick version.

There is a mass exodus of teachers leaving the profession for a variety of reasons and significantly less students applying to teacher training programs. Check out Google News and type in “teacher shortage.”

With this, policy makers, districts, schools and teachers are desperately seeking a better way to provide a quality education to our kids.

The Need for Individualized Learning

In comes the idea of student-led learning–a new approach that puts the student in the center of their own learning. It encourages the teacher to move away from direct instruction (lecturing and pushing content at kids) to facilitating learning or acting as a guide to allow children to uncover content in a more individualized way.

A step in the right direction, but…

How can this amazing individualized learning happen effectively when you have 25+ kids in a classroom, a strict bell schedule that often cuts off learning right when it’s about to really take hold, classrooms that have students with such a variety of academic, social and emotional needs that one single teacher cannot physically, emotionally or mentally take on and make truly individualized learning happen.

But here’s the problem…

Public schools systems were NOT designed for individualized learning. They were designed to deliver or push content to a mass of students at once.

The rows of desks. The set curriculum. The required readings. The bell system that herds kids like cattle. The penalization for getting something wrong and the celebration for getting it “right.”

Public schools were created to educate people to become workers. Not to become thinkers. But our society has changed. And while public schools have taken steps to change, an enormous, bureaucratic, notoriously slow to adapt system is not keeping up.

Rise of Free Online Learning Tools

Now comes the rise of free online learning tools that make individualized learning easier for a public school setting. Programs such as Khan Academy (which is amazing by the way!) are adopted by people in the education system (who are often quick to jump on the bandwagon of the next best thing without much thought about unintended consequences).

They genuinely want to provide these tools, in the best way they know how, to their students. It only makes sense. Right?

Khan Academy has shown that kids who use the program increase test scores, show more skill mastery and decrease anxiety surrounding the particular subject. That’s great. That’s more than great.


Khan Academy (and other used tools for independent learning) is based on the idea that children have a natural drive to learn, and that they can be empowered to learn at their own pace, both in and out of the classroom.

In theory, this is 100 percent true.

The idea that children are born with a natural inclination and drive to learn is not a new idea.

Think back to your baby who learned to crawl, walk, and speak a language without any formal instruction. 

To your toddler who repeatedly asked “why” every time you opened your mouth. 

To your preschooler who explored the outdoors with an inquisitive eye, closely examining their surroundings and asking thoughtful questions like “why is the sky blue?” or “where does rain come from?”

Kids are naturally curious. Kids want to learn. They are desperate to uncover new information. They are beyond active learners.

So why are kids and parents having so many issues with this type of “new” learning?

So why are many parents seeing their child balk at independent studies that put them in charge of their learning? Why are they feeling as though the school year that gave their child more flexibility in learning was actually a waste? Why are they frustrated with the fact that the teacher isn’t teaching but rather facilitating?

The problem lies with how we have conditioned kids, and parents alike, through our public school model. Traditional compulsory schooling makes kids passive learners and makes parents quickly forget how much their child loved learning when they were little.

The sad truth is that once children start formal schooling, the passion they once had for learning for the sake of learning deteriorates. They begin to want to BE EDUCATED.

They look for teachers to give them the information, to answer all their questions, to find ways to get a “good” grade. They don’t want to think for themselves because the have become accustomed to others doing the heavy lifting.

Speaking from personal experience, and this is just one SMALL glimpse at their learned helplessness, I have kids consistently come to me asking me what to do when the directions for a task is spelled out very clearly (Mind you 99% of the time they haven’t even read the directions.)

They literally look to the teacher for every step. To make sure they are doing it “right” and that they have the “right answer.” They are terrified of failure. They have, in essence, lost their ability to really learn. It has been replaced with learning something to get a grade.

As Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, writes, “Far too many bright, motivated kids are being badly served by their educational experiences—ones at elite, wealthy schools as well as underfunded ones. Too many kids have their confidence trampled; even many “successful” students acknowledge that they’ve gotten good grades without learning much of anything.”

So when parents are concerned about this new way of teaching popping up in the public education world; creating space for, and encouraging, maybe even requiring that children initiate their own learning, I encourage them to recognize the real issue behind using online teaching programs.

It isn’t the programs or the fact that our kids are being asked to drive their own education. That’s what should be happening.

It’s the fact that, for so long, we have removed their wants, needs, and passions and thrust them into a setting where their natural drive to uncover new information has become so diminished that they no longer want to learn–they want to “be taught.”

I will leave you with this quote from Maria Montessori, a famous physician and educator, who said; “The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’”