User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Freedom to Learn

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I was painfully bored during my K-12 education. I looked forward to college anticipating that it would be different – more engaging, more interesting, more innovative. I was wrong. My undergraduate education, except for a few bright spots, was just an extension of my K-12 education including more grill and drill with sages on the stages (literally since I went to such a large university); taking notes and taking lots of multiple choice tests. During my freshman year, I thought that if I had one wish, it would be to change the educational system (which has stayed with me ever since). One of those bright spots was being asked to read Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn, which was published 1969 in an upper level Educational Psychology course. The big aha for me was that school systems should be focused on helping learners develop the skills for how to learn not what to learn, one that was sorely lacking in most of my K-graduate-level education and a concept and goal that as an educator I’ve held onto ever since.

So now when I read about new “pedagogies” and instructional strategies based on self-directed learning, learning how to learn, self-determined learning, I kind of laugh to myself. Solid, valid, and student-focused pedagogy has been proposed ever since the beginnings of institutionalized education – think John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Kurt Hahn, and in this case, Carl Rogers.

The following text provides a summary of Rogers’ major themes  about learning and education from Freedom to Learn and comes from Weibell, C. J. (2011). Principles of learning: 7 principles to guide personalized, student-centered learning in the technology-enhanced, blended learning environment. Retrieved from

freedom to learn

Rogers (1969) listed five defining elements of significant or experiential learning:

  1. It has a quality of personal involvement – Significant learning has a quality of personal involvement in which “the whole person in both his feeling and cognitive aspects [is] in the learning event” (p. 5).
  2. It is self-initiated – “Even when the impetus or stimulus comes from the outside, the sense of discovery, of reaching out, of grasping and comprehending, comes from within” (p. 5).
  3. It is pervasive – Significant learning “makes a difference in the behavior, the attitudes, perhaps even the personality of the learner” (p. 5).
  4. It is evaluated by the learner – The learner knows “whether it is meeting his need, whether it leads toward what he wants to know, whether it illuminates the dark area of ignorance he is experiencing” (p. 5).
  5. Its essence is meaning – “When such learning takes place, the element of meaning to the learner is built into the whole experience” (p. 5).

As an example of significant learning—the kind that illustrates his theory of freedom to learn—Rogers cited the informal notes kept by Barbara J. Shiel, a teacher, who out of despair and frustration decided to try a drastic experiment in promoting experiential learning in her sixth grade class. In the experiment Mrs. Shiel introduced the concept of work contracts. These were ditto sheets that contained a list of all of the subjects the class was to study, along with a list of suggestions for study under each, and a space for students to write their plans in each area.

“Because I was not free to discard the state-devised curriculum time schedule, I explained the weekly time-subject blocks to the children—this was to be a consideration in their planning. We also discussed sequential learning, especially in math, mastering a skill before proceeding to the next level of learning. They discovered the text provided an introduction to a skill, demonstrated the skill, and provided exercises to master it and tests to check achievement. When they felt they were ready to go on, they were free to do so. They set their own pace, began at their own level, and went as far as they were able or self-motivated to go.” (Rogers, 1969, pp. 17-18)

Since evaluation was self-initiated and respected by the teacher, there was no need for cheating to achieve success. “We discovered that “failure” is only a word, that there is a difference between “failure” and making a mistake, and that mistakes are a part of the learning process.” (Rogers, 1969, p. 18)

One cannot measure the difference in attitude, the increased interest, the growing pride in self-improvement, but one is aware that they exist. (Rogers, 1969, p. 19)

The experience of Mrs. Shiel’s experiment is illustrative of the principles of learning that Rogers (1969, pp. 157-164) abstracted from his own experience:

Human beings have a natural potentiality for learning. “They are curious about their world, until and unless this curiosity is blunted by their experience in our educational system” (p. 157).

Significant learning takes place when the subject matter is perceived by the student as having relevance for his or her own purposes. “A somewhat more formal way of stating this is that a person learns significantly only those things which he perceives as being involved in the maintenance of or the enhancement of his own self” (p. 158).

When threat to the self is low, experience can be perceived in differentiated fashion and learning can proceed. When [the learner] is in an environment in which he is assured of personal security and when he becomes convinced that there is no threat to his ego, he is once more free to…move forward in the process of learning. (p. 161)

Much significant learning is acquired through doing. “Placing the student in direct experiential confrontation with practical problems, social problems, ethical and philosophical problems, personal issues, and research problems, is one of the most effective modes of promoting learning” (p. 162).

Learning is facilitated when the student participates responsibly in the learning process. “When he chooses his own directions, helps to discover his own learning resources, formulates his own problems, decides his own course of action, lives with the consequences of these choices, then significant learning is maximized” (p. 162).

Self-initiated learning which involves the whole person of the learner—feelings as wells as intellect—is the most lasting and pervasive. This is not the learning which takes place “only from the neck up.” It is a “gut level” type of learning which is profound and pervasive. It can also occur in the tentative discovery of a new self-generated idea or in the learning of a difficult skill, or in the act of artistic creation—a painting, a poem, a sculpture. It is the whole person who “let’s himself go” in these creative learnings. An important element in these situations is that the learner knows it is his own learning and thus can hold to it or relinquish it in the face of a more profound learning without having to turn to some authority for corroboration of his judgment. (pp. 162-163)

Independence, creativity, and self-reliance are all facilitated when self-criticism and self-evaluation are basic and evaluation by others is of secondary importance. If a child is to grow up to be independent and self reliant he must be given opportunities at an early age not only to make his own judgments and his own mistakes but to evaluate the consequences of these judgments and choices. (p. 163).

The most socially useful learning in the modern world is the learning of the process of learning, a continuing openness to experience and incorporation into oneself of the process of change. If our present culture survives, it will be because we have been able to develop individuals for whom change is the central fact of life and who have been able to live comfortably with this central fact. They will instead have the comfortable expectation that it will be continuously necessary to incorporate new and challenging learnings about ever-changing situations. (pp. 163-164)

Rogers’ theory of learning also included principles that define the role of the teacher as a facilitator of learning. Rogers (1983) summarized this role by stating that “the primary task of the teacher is to permit the student to learn, to feed his or her own curiosity” (p. 18). Rogers’ principles of facilitation are complementary to his ten principles of learning. Together they form a human learning theory that emphasizes learner agency, growth, and affect. These ten principles are as follows (summarized from Rogers, 1969, pp. 164-166)):

  1. The educator has much to do with setting the initial mood or climate of the class experience. “If his own basic philosophy is one of trust in the group and in the individuals who compose the group, then this point of view will be communicated in many subtle ways” (p. 164).
  2. The educator helps to elicit and clarify the purposes of the individuals in the class.
  3. The educator relies upon the desire of each student to implement those purposes which have meaning for him or her, as the motivational force behind significant learning.
  4. The educator endeavors to organize and make easily available the widest possible range of resources for learning.
  5. The educator regards him/herself as a flexible resource to be utilized by the group.
  6. In responding to expressions in the classroom group, the educator accepts both the intellectual content and the emotionalized attitudes, endeavoring to give each aspect the approximate degree of emphasis which it has for the individual or group.
  7. As the acceptant classroom climate becomes established, the educator is able increasingly to become a participant learner, a member of the group, expressing his views as those of one individual only.
  8. The educator takes the initiative in sharing him/herself with the group—his/her feelings as well as thoughts—in ways which do not demand nor impose but represent simply a personal sharing which students may take or leave.
  9. As a facilitator of learning, the educator endeavors to recognize and accept his/her own limitations. “S/he realizes that s/he can only grant freedom to his/her students to the extent that s/he is comfortable in giving such freedom” (p. 166).

(For this final section, I took the liberty to change “facilitator” to “educator.”)

The following graphic developed by the Freedom to Learn Project, is based on Rogers’ ideas and exemplifies their manifesto.


So the push towards self-directed learning – helping learners develop skills for directing their own learning really isn’t new BUT the Internet, social media, and open-source content just make it easier for the educator actually implement these practices especially when working with groups of students.

Online learning opportunities, pedagogical shifts and easy accessibility of Internet through multiple devices offer attractive opportunities for learners to assume greater responsibility and initiative in their own learning. In fact, it may not be hyperbole to state that self-directed learning is now a mandatory skill rather than optional in order to impart both work readiness and the development of global citizenry (diversified, culturally sensitive and fully contributing social citizens) among the growing generation of digital [savvy learners]. (Is Learning Increasingly Self-Directed in the Digital Era?)


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 12, 2017 at 5:15 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Bravo Ms. Gerstein! I just startd following your blog and I just want to thank you for taking the time to summarize the books and philosophies I have always wanted to read but don’t manage to get to. You have made the work of the giants accessible! Thank you!


    August 12, 2017 at 6:21 pm

    • . . . and thanks for your feedback!

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      August 12, 2017 at 8:28 pm

  2. A wonderful article filled with a plethora of extremely useful information.
    Thank you
    PS Wish I had these notes some years ago when I undertook a B. Ed is Vocational Education and Training.


    August 15, 2017 at 2:17 am

  3. Great ideas which, as I was reading, made me think Yes! Yes! Yes! Now to get the rest of the teaching profession on board…


    August 16, 2017 at 7:59 pm

  4. Great post, thank you!

  5. Wonderful text. It is promising,for us, creative teachers!

    Sarah Hardy

    August 19, 2017 at 6:38 pm

  6. I felt like a hostage during my K-12 education with no idea what higher ed. might be about. Thank you for sharing your detailed review of Carl Rogers et. al. I like Postman & Weingartner too (from my educational philosophy class in the early seventies).

    Robert Jakus

    August 20, 2017 at 6:21 pm

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