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Culture of Self-Directed Schooling

How would I describe the culture of a self-directed schooling environment?

When I think about “culture”, I often imagine the sound of traditional celebrations, aromatic cuisines, a variety of clothing in color and design, and other kinds of sensory elements that I’d be able to describe to someone. But when I really think about what culture is, at its core, I realize it's not always the things I see, things I hear, things I taste; it's more about the kinds of relationships and different expectations, and the different habits of behaviors, the different ways groups and populations make decisions, and how those groups of populations might collect and distribute shared resources. These kinds of ideas about “culture” lay underneath our sensory observations and can often be unseen and unheard.

I’ve adapted seven elements which describe the culture of a large population as effectively as they describe the culture of an organization, a school or a classroom. It’s with these seven elements that I'm able to address the question of culture in a self-directed schooling environment.

Seven Elements of Culture: Philosophy, Government, Structural Relationships, Resources, Norms & Traditions, Language, and Arts & Literature.

Note: these elements of culture represent the outer layer of a model I'm developing which explores who we are and how we learn including four inner layers: Values, Competencies, Attributes, and Traits.


Philosophy is the rationale behind our beliefs and behaviors - our reasoning for what ought to be.

The philosophy of a self-directed schooling environment, with respect to classroom management, takes a metacognitive approach to constructivist practices. This philosophy believes students ought to learn how to learn as opposed to learning how to be taught. The distinction is subtle yet profound, as it directly contradicts the more common behaviorist practices in schools by promoting in students a capacity to reflect and problem-solve, socially and individually, and coached over time in a way that address each student’s cognitive and psychosocial development (i.e. student-focused and student-led), and its in the other six elements that we'll explore what this looks like in a school and classroom.

Compare that philosophy to a school largely rooted in a mostly behaviorist-based philosophy, This philosophy believes learning is the result of effective teaching. With this philosophy, students ought to learn behaviors which support the teacher’s ability to efficiently instruct, assess, diagnose and assign interventions that results in student learning (i.e. teacher-focused and teacher-led), and from this philosophy the other six elements can be further explored.

The examples here highlight only one aspect of philosophy as it applies to classroom management. There are many other examples to explore, but what's important to note is the influence this element has on the other elements of culture. There are many beliefs, rationales, reasoning, about each element that may be worth tracing back to a fundamental philosophical perspective.


Government is the structure for how a population or group decides on, and enforces, rules and consequences for the benefit of that group or population.

The government of a self-directed schooling environment takes a more bottom-up democratic approach. The school's community largely retain the authority and responsibility for their own education. This then shapes how that education is supported in the classroom which the school's leadership mirrors through rules and consequences that reflect the school's community. This structure is democratic in that there is a hierarchy of authority for decisions impacting the population, but the direction of that authority moves upward with more of an egalitarian approach toward making and enforcing rules and consequences from the bottom up.

Compare that to the government of a school that is more top-down, which a school's community may elect to have the authority to make and enforce rules and consequences. That authority is then rationed from district to school and from school to classroom, with the student’s authority and responsibility effectively dictated by the decisions made at the top. This structure is also democratic in that there is a clear hierarchy of authority for decisions impacting the population but with a direction of authority moving down from the top.

There are many aspects of a government structure and the examples above reflect merely one general aspect of government - direction of authority for decision-making. Another aspect to consider is the size of a school or district's population since the number of moving parts in a government structure often increases with the size of its population. It can be argued that the kind of top-down government structure that exists in many school districts is necessary to manage communication across schools within that larger population. However, it can also be argued that a population large enough to require such a top-down government structure is an indicator that the population is too large and less capable of providing the kind of self-directed schooling environment that meets the needs of each school's smaller population. What's important to take away is how one preference for a type of government structure can be influenced by other elements (such as Philosophy) as much as it can influence others (such as Structural Relationships).


Structural Relationships are the defined roles and power dynamics between individuals and groups within a larger group or population, such as that of the parent and child within a family, teacher and student within a classroom, school administrator and parent within a community, and so on.

The structural relationships element in a self-directed schooling environment reasonably asserts the teacher's authority and responsibility for the health and safety of their students, while the authority and responsibility for learning shifts away from the teacher and more toward the students who are coached to make more of the decisions as to what, when, how, and why learning happens in and out of the classroom. This has a significant impact on the relationship between the student, teacher, parent, and administration, since any concerns about learning must involve the student. The focus for conversation also shifts toward how the student can best be coached on the concepts and skills related to how students learn how to learn in ways that are cognitively and psychosocially relevant and appropriate.

Compare that to the structural relationships of a school which places the teacher in a position of authority in both teaching/learning as well as health/safety. This means the teacher's role involves more power over decisions regarding what, when, how, and why learning happens in the classroom as much as it does out of the classroom with things like homework, reading logs, studying requirements, etc. This also might influence the role and power dynamic of a student's family as to how much say they have in what, when, how, or why their child learns. This lends itself to the teacher-parent relationship which might involve a power dynamic placing the teacher in a position of higher authority over the parent when it comes to decisions about how their child learns.

There are many roles and examples of power dynamics within a school, its district, and its community. The examples above reflect just a few instances where a relationship might result in a particular power dynamic. What's important to note about this element of Structural Relationships is how, by reflecting on this element of culture and how it connects to the other elements, we can explore why a relationship might seem more concrete in its defined roles and that it might be the influence from other elements that can offer some insight into how a relationship might become more open to change over time.


Resources, as an element, is the collection and redistribution of shared resources, reflecting the prioritization of a group or population’s vision and goals.

This 'resources' element in a self-directed schooling environment would place more emphasis on transparency of collecting and distributing shared resources both financial and material, jointly determined by the goals and philosophies of the school and its community.

Compare that to the 'resources' element of a school largely determined by a governing district or school board which collects and redistributes funds and materials based on the goals and philosophies of an elected and/or appointed governing body.

With this element, a school and its community collectively explores and examines its priorities, though occasionally deferring to other overlapping elements such as Government and Philosophy, to make decisions based on priorities as they relate to the changing needs of its community. What's important to note is how this 'resources' element involve finances and materials as much as it involves human and community capital; and how a group or population decides to distribute these different kinds of resources will reflect the priorities of that group or population.


Norms and Traditions are all about the daily habits and annual celebrations (patterns of behavior, not single instances) expected and valued by a group or population. It’s important to note how, for the purpose of this exploration, the focus is on teaching and learning more than health and safety.

Lesson planning is an aspect of this 'norms and traditions' element. In a self-directed schooling environment, lesson planning inherently conflicts with its related Philosophy and Government elements. Attempt to plan a week of lessons for all students would require the teacher deciding what, when, how, and why learning happens. Besides that, long-term plans would likely have to be rewritten each day as students ebb and flow between different learning activities and are coached on how best to monitor and reflect on their learning as they explore in different groups, at different times, for different reasons. Instead, any norms related to "lesson planning" might involve how teachers and parents find it effective to communicate with each other about students are deciding what, when, how, and why to learn. This might look like a classroom success blog, student journals, or any kind of format for student "passion project" updates which can be shared between these various relationships.

Compare that to the norms and traditions of a school which might see lesson planning as a way for a district or school to apply oversight and accountability on what, when, how, and why learning is happening in classrooms. Such a norm would transfer to teachers the authority and responsibility to oversee and hold accountable behaviors of their students and their families to meet those submitted lesson plans. It is common for such lesson plans to include the standard(s) to be taught, any in-class activities and materials to be gathered for (or from) a particular curriculum, and any differentiating activities targeting subgroups of students (e.g., ELL, SPED, GATE, or other expected necessary scaffolding).

Lesson planning is one example of Norms and Traditions. There are many examples of expectations for behavior requiring habits to be formed for the sake of easing the cognitive load of a school's staff as well as the students and the community. What's important to note about this element is its focus on exploring and examining which habits align with other elements of culture. This can help a school differentiate a meaningful and productive habit with one that may need adjustment to allow for other elements of culture to change and adapt to the needs of a community.


Language is the cornerstone of any culture; this element explores the boundaries of concepts and ideas available in a culture's words, phrases, symbols and gestures.

An example of the 'language' element in a self-directed schooling environment might see the school helping students and their families differentiate between being a student, a scholar, and a learner. For example, students who come from a school that only referred to them in all cases as a "student" might find it confusing to be called a "scholar" while in the library and a "learner" while in the classroom. However, intentional use of these words come with specific and intentional changes in elements such as Norms and Traditions, and Structural Relationships, so the school might seek to differentiate the value of the word student (a person studying in a school) from that of a scholar (a specialist in a particular branch of study) or a learner (a person who is learning a subject or skill).

This example of the 'language' element in another school might find that intentionally referring to students as scholars in all contexts and situations, to communicate how the school would like students to perceive themselves as more than just a student (a person studying in a school), without shifting the Norms and Relationships elements will likely result in little to no change in the desired mindset and behaviors of the students.

This is where the element of Language becomes a cornerstone of a school's culture, a vehicle for reflecting how the other elements of culture align, or are integrated, to communicate a desired culture for teaching and learning. Because this element can be broadly applied across all other elements, it's important to note when a conversation has shifted, or might need to shift, toward this idea of Language and its purpose as an element of a school's culture.


Arts and Literature is the reflection of all other elements of culture, with a focus on reflection, expression, and interpretation of how other elements of culture are perceived by a group of population.

The 'arts and literature' element in a self-directed schooling environment would find its students provided with opportunities to explore a variety of art and literature with the only guidance being that students find examples of art and literature that interest them. From that interest, discussions can be cultivated to promote student expression of thoughts and ideas. In this way, art and literature are vehicles for students to reflect on all other elements of culture. Additionally, whether students create art and literature would then be an option for students to explore as an interest with support from teachers and parents who would collaborate with the student based on their particular interests and needs.

Compare that to the 'arts and literature' element in a school which might find its students explicitly taught how to reflect, express, and interpret designated art or literature as part of a scheduled curriculum with an instructor would introduce works of art, or assign a literary work, and prompt discussion about the artist’s intended interpretations or the author’s intended themes and character development. Assignments and assessments would measure a student’s capacity to view or read a work of art and provide a structured response according to a grading rubric.

How a school talks about and applies this element of Art and Literature may or may not align with the other elements of culture reflected by a particular school. What's important to note about this element is how, by exploring this element with intention and purpose, a school gains a greater understanding of how individual students are developing their perspective toward philosophy, preference for governance styles, and structural relationships - i.e., exploring culture as it's developing. This can serve as a proactive means for assessing the development of all other elements of culture in a school, reflecting various perspectives toward a school's norms, language, relationships, resources, government, and philosophy.

A Note about Culture and Values

When discussing elements of culture, it is common to want to talk about "Values", but be mindful that this word means different things to different people for a variety of different reasons. For this reason, I will explore this idea of "Values" as the next layer of my model for exploring who we are and how we learn. The layer has six Values: Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Trust, Community, and Integrity. What's important to recognize about these two layers of culture and values is that, although there are ways in which they overlap, they are still distinct layers with distinct purposes for understanding who we are and how we learn - individually, socially, and societally.

Greg Mullen

March 21, 2022


To speak with me more about this particular model, or the ideas in my book Creating a Self-Directed learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social-Emotional Learning (Corwin, 2019), you can book a brief consultation to go over ideas and ask questions directly.

You might also find interest in setting up an SDS Coaching Program designed to help teachers reflect on their practices in ways that shift from traditional behaviorist practices to a more "self-directed" learning environment for staff and students.

Be sure to check out the #SelfDirectedLearner Hoodie on my Shop page! Quantities and sizes do run low at times so feel free to reach out with specific inquiries. Thank you for your support!

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