Student practices self-directed learning in preschool

Why Self-Directed Learning in Preschool Matters

Things have been eerily quiet these past few days since the announcement of our school’s temporary closure due to COVID-19. We hope your family is finding solace in each other’s company and that everyone is staying safe and healthy. We’re here to share our Montessori resources and wisdom until we get to see you again in person—hopefully very soon!

There’s a reason why self-directed learning is at the forefront of the Montessori method. Think about the last time you wanted to learn a new skill. Say you decided to bake an angel food cake, a type of cake you’d never attempted before. First, you had to locate a recipe in a cookbook or on the Internet. You read or watched carefully, and followed the instructions. Finally, you tasted the cake to see if it met your expectations.

Independent learning in Montessori preschool
Teaching yourself to bake a cake is self-directed learning in a nutshell.

In short, you knew how to learn what you wanted to learn. This skillset, known as self-directed learning or independent learning, has always been valuable to humans. Today, though, as we navigate the constantly changing landscape of the 21st century, this competency is more crucial than ever. In fact, lifelong self-directed learning is being touted as an economic imperative.

Self-directed learning requires skills such as these:

  • Determining one’s own learning needs
  • Setting a goal
  • Identifying resources (people, books, websites, etc.)
  • Practicing the new skill
  • Evaluating one’s own learning

This may seem like a sophisticated approach to learning—and it is. Remarkably, though, as Maria Montessori pointed out, humans are self-directed learners from the earliest days of life. In fact, Montessori referred to her teaching method as auto-education because her greatest discovery was that children teach themselves.

Self-Directed Learning and Montessori

Infants don’t need a curriculum to tell them when and how to roll over, sit up, and eventually walk. They have an innate desire to acquire and perfect the skills necessary to be fully human. Montessori Center School responds to this learning drive by offering hundreds of enticing learning activities, with teachers specially trained to guide children’s independent learning.

Self-Correcting Materials

The Montessori learning materials are scientifically designed to appeal to young children visually through attractive colors and shapes. Their real genius, however, is in their built-in “control of error,” which allows the child to see and correct his own mistakes.

Self-correcting materials incorporated in Montesorri activities foster self-directed learning
Building the Pink Tower helps Montessori children learn to evaluate their own work.

The Pink Tower, for instance, is a set of 10 cubes graduated in size from a hefty 10 cubic centimeters to a diminutive 1 cubic centimeter. If a child builds the tower with the cubes in the wrong order, the error will be immediately apparent from the lack of symmetry—and the tower may even fall down!

This instant feedback built into the Montessori materials fosters self-directed learning in preschool by developing in the child a habit of evaluating his own work. Because criticism doesn’t have to come from outside (that is, no teacher has to point out the child’s mistakes), errors do not damage the child’s self-esteem. On the contrary, the habit of self-evaluation lets the child take increasing responsibility for, and pride in, his own learning.

Specially Trained Guides

Montessori teachers are often referred to as “guides” because they do very little direct teaching. Instead, they function as the link between each child and the self-teaching materials. As Maria Montessori advised, they “cultivate a friendly feeling towards error,” recognizing the vital role of mistakes in independent learning.

Self-directed learning with trained guides at Montessori Center School
Mrs. Cynthia gently guides our children to recognize and correct mistakes.

Outcomes of Self-Directed Learning

Independent learning cultivates skills and attitudes that will serve a child well for a lifetime. Taking responsibility for their own learning and correcting their own mistakes gives children problem-solving skills that lead to self-confidence. Choosing and pursuing their own work builds decision-making skills and creates opportunities to recognize connections between different branches of knowledge.

Metacognition—thinking about one’s own thinking—can lead to the realization that different people think in different ways. That concept is the foundation for understanding others’ views and respecting others’ opinions.

The Adaptable Adult

As an adult in the 21st century, you may have already experienced multiple career changes. Each time, you had to learn new skills as well as recall, refresh, and reapply skills you already possessed. As the national and world economy evolves, that kind of adaptability are becoming increasingly important.

Independent learning in preschool fosters a lifetime of curiosity and willingness to try new things. Self-directed learners are motivated and persistent, independent, self-disciplined, self-confident, and goal-oriented; they view problems as challenges. Everything we do at Montessori Center School is designed to foster self-directed learning in your child.


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