• Christoph Schmitt

Please let me learn: How to liberate learning from „pedagogic island“

Photos (except the last one) taken by the author during a school trip

What if “self-directed and self-organised learning” was not a skill, but a fundamental quality of learning? What if learning itself was self-determined and self-organised? What if these two attributes were to characterise learning? If learning was self-organization and self-determination, no matter what education and pedagogy do and do not? So if these were qualities that would not somehow be added to learning, but would always be characteristics of learning? Then what sense would it make to speak of self-organized and self-directed learning as a skill that a person develops under certain circumstances and not or only badly under others?

It would make no sense.

What if a pattern of behaviour which at a first glance appears to be a refusal to learn or a “delay” in learning was nothing more than a function of self-organising and self-determining learning in this situation? What if learning itself, where it would be strongly restricted to formalised learning processes, would not and never lose this quality – but would, for example, autonomously and self-organised look for emergency exits that the educational system interprets as deficient?

Watch your step.

The assumption that self-directed and self-organised learning is a skill would then declare what is a precondition for developing skills to be a consequence of that development. And based on this switching of precondition and consequence, (only) THEN the conclusion would make sense that we can or have to develop self-directed and self-organized learning, because THEN learning is not (any longer) the precondition for the development and unfolding of any abilities, but the result of a development, which we NOW must of course promote. And so we would need pedagogy and didactics.

Noticed anything?

Learning is like breathing not an skill but a quality of living beings. A property: They breathe.

And whatever is in the air, how clean or contaminated it may be, how “right” or “wrong” one breathes, or how strongly this function may be restricted: as long as the human being lives, he and she breathe. Breathing is not an ability that I develop. It is always a given precondition. To speak of self-determined and self-organized breathing would be senseless speech, because there is no opposite.


The lazy bastards.

I can “use” breathing one way or the other. But never stop it. It always “organizes itself” – despite all creative interventions. This also applies to learning. Both are a precondition for everything else. Learning does not only become more or less self-organized and self-directed learning through its pedagogically supported or handicapped use, because it is self-directed all the time

But does the metaphor of breathing really fit in here? After all, there is also “mechanical respiration” in cases where someone can no longer breathe by himself. Ok, but then we’re dangerously sick. It is cynical to compare this with the pedagogically constructed “retarded learner”, because what school actually does is this: They systematically prevent learning people – here again speaking metaphorically – from using their lungs freely. Instruction respirates healthy people year after year using mechanical respiration (which is called “didactics”). And then, after years of treatment, teachers find that very few learners have the ability to breathe in a self-directed and self-organised way. Except for one or two particularly “gifted breathers” 😦

Remember something?

The assumption that there are two fundamentally different ways of learning: here the self-directed, there the externally directed, is wrong because learning is not externally determinable. We’re all autodidacts. Always.

Whatever we do to a learning person, refuse to do or “make possible”: his and her learning is and remains self-organized and self-directed. It makes no sense to speak of externally determined learning, as little as it makes sense to speak of externally determined breathing. The fact that the frightening majority of people (including teachers) have great problems with self-determined learning is not due to a lack of ability. Rather, the moment when you are supposed to breathe without a tube for the first time in your life is filled with fear – and often painful.

When we speak of learning, we speak of a self-organized and self-directed thing. Living systems always learn self-determined and self-organized – completely independent of how strongly external manipulations affect humans, i.e. also “with a tube in the throat”: Learning is and remains self-organized and self-determined.


All the Bastards ever want is to shoot and play.

This is where pedagogy meets its limits. It was invented for the purpose of developing certain skills (and preventing others from developing). A popular narrative in pedagogy is that there are “predispositions” and “potentials” that are only developed and unfolded through pedagogical intervention. It thus assumes that young people do not yet have something, that they do not (yet) have certain abilities, and that these are then developed by the support of sophisticated pedagogical interventions – and that they develop in any case better and more purposefully than without these interventions – or even self-determined.

The belief that pedagogy naturally applies to learning itself ignores the fact, that learning is a precondition that cannot be controlled from outside.

Bad thing.

The common misunderstandings, rumors, myths and conflicts occurring in the context of self-organised and self-determined learning arise because we assume that it is a skill to be developed. This false assumption underlies our pedagogical thinking. Only when I have understood, as a human being as well as a system, that learning is a fundamentally self-directed and self-organized phenomenon, when I have understood that this is a quality of human existence, a property of human life like breathing, only then will I stop tampering with learning people and didactizing them “to make them learn self-organized and self-determined learning”.


They always leave their trash out there. Bastards.

So how do we liberate learning from „pedagogic island“? Long time ago we’ve surrendered our most important property to the pedagogic mindset & system. Whenever something occurs that looks/sounds/feels like learning, we immediately hand it to educators and teachers, because we are used to think that it’s their business and that they are responsible for everything regarding the „learning thing“. And this is wrong. We have to change that now. By bringing the purpose of learning back to the surface.

Bildschirmfoto 2018-12-26 um 16.17.42


Jane Hart regularly points out innovative concepts, clarifying approaches and new ways in this understanding of learning – I have benefited from her surveys, analyses and interpretations for a long time. Therefore, I would like to close with an excerpt from her current book:

It “is important not to misuse the word ‘learning’. Words like ‘training’, ‘courses’, ‘content’ are not synonyms of ‘learning’. ‘Learning’ is not a product nor a commodity; it is an internal process, so, in other words: * You can’t design learning – you can design training, a course, or content – but that’s not designing learning * You can’t deliver learning – you can deliver training or a course – but that’s not delivering learning * You can’t transfer learning – you can (try to) transfer knowledge – but that’s not transferring learning * You can’t manage learning – you can manage participation on a training course or access to some online content – but that’s not managing learning.

The only person who manages learning is the individual him/herself.”

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