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A Framework for 'Self-Directed Schooling' (SDS)

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

What I am proposing in this article is a framework that takes a philosophy for Self-Directed Learning and places it within the structure of "school" to create what I call Self-Directed Schooling (SDS). The introduction here will cover general background, followed by a brief overview of the elements in my SDS Framework.


A person who is purely "self-directed" in their education, without the aid of a teacher, is called an autodidact (in Greek, autos means 'self' and didaskein means 'teach'). There have been many autodidacts in human history, some who have become famous, but even more who have experienced a range of success - from an ordinary happy life to having made significant (albeit non-famous) discoveries and contributions to human civilization. More on autodidacts and self-directed learning can be found in this post.

Traditionally, for the last hundred years or so, a large percentage of people in the United States have been educated in a "school" - a building where educated adults instruct groups of students in various skills and concepts. Of course, with the 2020 pandemic, school has moved from the building to the digital space of online learning. Nevertheless, the authority by which skills and concepts are selected is often placed in the hands of the school's principal, or the teachers, using curricula based on academic expectations set forth by the state. This means that what students learn is often not at the sole discretion of the student - essentially, this is the opposite of autodidactic, or "self-directed", learning. More on authority and responsibility of learning can be found here.

Both Self-Directed Learning as well as traditional schooling have benefits and challenges.

Self-Directed Learning is heralded for its benefits in helping individuals learn how to learn. This philosophy places nearly one-hundred percent authority and responsibility for learning in the hands of the learner, with a focus on independence, ownership, and resourcefulness through a student-centered interest-focused learning environment. Unfortunately, this approach often finds its place in the homeschooling communities or privately-owned "co-op" facilities where a non-working parent or a paid mentor can oversee the health and safety of the self-directed learner.

Traditional schooling is often celebrated for its resources and its structural health and safety oversight for a large population of students as well as its consistent all-day schedule which aligns with typical working hours for families. Unfortunately, this approach tends to place more authority and responsibility for learning in the hands of the teachers, the principal, and the state, with an ideology for developing independence, ownership, and resourcefulness through a teacher-controlled instructional environment.

"I argue that not only can Self-Directed Learning philosophy exist within a schooling environment but that education is already evolving toward a co-existence of the two..."

As I introduce the elements of my SDS Framework in the next section, it is important to recognize that each element is based in research-based theories and approaches which have long been proven beneficial to student learning. I argue that not only can a Self-Directed Learning philosophy exist within a schooling environment but that education is already evolving toward a co-existence of the two, and that only through our resistance to merge these two existing approaches will this evolution be hindered, slowed, but not stopped.


There are fifteen (15) elements to this framework. Each one is distinct yet interconnects across all of the elements to create one comprehensive approach. The foundation for all fifteen elements is rooted in the need for the collective resources and structuring of a schooling environment. Each element, however, is guided with a self-directed philosophy for student-centered learning. Because there is no single model or blueprint to follow, this framework is adaptable and personalized to the needs of individual teachers in their own environment. Just as teachers use this framework to empower their students to take ownership, teachers are equally empowered to take ownership as they explore and adapt each element in this framework to create an environment that intentionally shifts, or balances, the authority and responsibility of learning in their classroom. Individual students will respond differently to any one teacher's approach to this framework, but a focus on these elements will not only highlight the beliefs driving students' behaviors but also the beliefs driving teachers' behaviors as each teacher internalizes and presents each of these elements guided by that same self-directed learning philosophy.


This framework is organized into three domains:

(A) Competency-Based Learning,

(B) Cognitive Development, and

(C) Environments and Management.

The first looks at the academic side of learning, encouraging ownership of learning by helping students to see learning as an interconnected progression of skills and concepts. The second looks at fostering student understanding of their own capacities for socially and emotionally identifying and managing their own learning. The third looks at how teachers in the classroom shape the learning environment through the routines and behaviors they put into place through the authority of the teacher-student relationship set forth by the school's organizational culture (this domain branches out to a related framework for identifying and managing seven elements of culture).


The three domains contain five topics each:

Competency-Based Learning

(A-1) Learning Strategies

(A-2) Standards & Instruction

(A-3) Competency-Based Assessment

(A-4) Standards-Based Grading

(A-5) Curricula, Materials, Resources

Cognitive Development

(B-1) Metacognitive Knowledge

(B-2) Cognitive Strategy

(B-3) Formative Assessment

(B-4) Communication Skills

(B-5) Re-Assessment & Feedback

Environment & Managment

(C-1) Active Learning

(C-2) Class Design & Time Management

(C-3) Student-Led Learning

(C-4) Feedback Loops & Routines

(C-5) Inquiry-Based Learning


This framework is not in itself a solution as much as a means for defining boundaries to reflect and discuss the benefits of a self-directed philosophy in a schooling environment. There are many experts, academics, and advocates actively promoting each of the elements in this framework separately. The goal in applying this framework is not in simply enforcing new behaviors that address all students at once but in addressing behaviors of individual teachers and the beliefs behind their behaviors such that their approach can be intentionally celebrated and adapted as each element is explored. As individual teachers explore the elements in this framework, with or without a coach or cohort for support, their own practices will bring out in them their own guiding beliefs about each element. This, in practice rather than in theory, will influence how individual teachers shift, or adapt, their current practices to be more student-centered rather than teacher-centered as they reflect on their own position between a completely self-directed learning environment and a traditional teacher-led school environment. It is this intention that this framework allows teachers to exercise and develop.

SDS Coaching

For those interested in having someone outside of their learning environment to help soundboard ideas and reflect on each element of this framework, my role as an SDS Coach is to do just that - provide a sounding-board for individual teachers and cohorts to explore the underlying principles of each element and personalize those principles so they are effective given the styles and personalities of the teachers and students in a given environment. If you are interested, contact Greg Mullen at to learn more about SDS.


November 2020

Greg Mullen

Exploring the Core LLC

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