Reimagined Ways of Knowing, Being and Doing: Understanding the Value of a Self-Directed Educational Context



We live in uncertain times. Every day we are confronted with news about, among other things, uncertain geopolitical situations, violence, and longer-term existential threats such as climate change. Closer to home, we see that long-held traditions and commonly accepted certainties are slowly disappearing. Politically and economically, we may have reached the limits of what our current systems can handle. One psychological reaction in times of crisis is that people resist change (Jost, 2015). We see this reflected in the Western world where we continue to reproduce discourses of individualism, competition, scarcity and hierarchy. But it has become apparent that it is time to embrace change.

We argue further that the conventional Western school model that has spread throughout the world, typically characterized by age segregation, state-determined curriculum and standardized testing, is in need of change. Although much research focuses on improving rather than reimagining the dominant model of education, we now know that the current ways of knowing, being, and doing have negative side effects that profoundly impact young people's psychological well-being (Zhao, 2017, Gray 2013). Thus, many countries are concerned with the declining mental health and well-being of teens and college students. Societies benefit more from people who know how to learn, feel and act in harmony with themselves and their environment. According to Gray et al. (2023), young people today are generally less likely to build traits like creativity and initiative, a desire to learn, a willingness to take risks, and emotional resilience than they were in decades past. Because children and adolescents are generally less free to play and discover for themselves, to create their own activities, and to pursue their own interests, they have less opportunity to create their own activities, solve their own problems, and adaptively regulate their emotions than previous generations (Chudacoff, 2007; Epstein, 2007; Gray, 2011; Gray et al., 2023).

More ideally, schools should provide a context that supports the three basic needs for self-determination: autonomy, competence and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Looking at optimal conditions, self-determination appears to be linked to the ability to make one's own choices, with people experiencing a sense of freedom with regard to their actions (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Reeve et al., 2003). True choice, which is defined by Deci and Ryan (1985) as a choice by which a person also can consider other alternatives including not doing it, is difficult to support in environments where the teacher ultimately determines what students learn and how they learn (Reeve et al., 2003). Unfortunately, in conventional schooling, the emphasis lies on short-term cognitive results and extrinsic control through punishments and rewards (e.g., stickers, gold stars, grades) which undermines self-determination (Deci et al., 2001). This makes the overall and long-term development to live a full life (in German: Bildung) a deferred goal for the individual. We need to think in radically different ways to imagine education that allows for self-determination within a supportive community during primary and secondary schooling.

Despite the many attempts of educational renewal, schools will only change if the entire education system changes. This requires more research into how humans become educated in alternative environments. Very little research has been done on educational spaces that support different ways of knowing, being, and doing. Yet, contexts that draw on a different, more relational and holistic, paradigm could drive new futures for learning and possibilities for human development. One such context is Self-Directed Education (SDE). SDE is based on evolutionary developmental psychology and views education from the perspective of how humans have learned throughout evolutionary history (Gray 2017). As described by Gray, SDE environments offer free communication and interaction with people of all ages, the ability to experience the skills and knowledge that is considered important within the culture and the ability to play and experiment without limits with the instruments that are important to the culture.

The question is, how do SDE spaces support the full human development of the person within an interrelated whole without the constraints of a pre-defined curriculum? Specifically, how do SDE spaces allow for more relational and holistic ways of knowing, being, and doing? Further, what is the role of context, relatedness, and self-direction in human development within an SDE space?

We call for papers aimed at understanding the value of context, relatedness and ‘true’ choice on self-determination and self-development and the long-term effects on functioning in society. We especially welcome articles that center student voice within informal, non-formal, and self-directed educational approaches that operate outside the mainstream educational system, like unschooling/homeschooling or democratic schools.


Chudacoff, H. P. (2007). Children at play: An American history. New York University Press.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 1–27.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. Plenum Press.

Epstein, R. (2007). The case against adolescence: Rediscovering the adult in every teen. Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press, Inc.

Gray, P. (2011). The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443–463.

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.

Gray, P. (2017). Self-Directed Education—Unschooling and Democratic Schooling. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education, October, 1–26.

Gray, P., Lancy, D. F., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2023). Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Well-being: Summary of the Evidence. The Journal of Pediatrics, 260(September).

Jost, J. T. (2015). Resistance to Change: A Social Psychological Perspective. Social Research, 82(3), 607–636.

Reeve, J., Nix, G., & Hamm, D. (2003). Testing models of the experience of self-determination in intrinsic motivation and the conundrum of choice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(2), 375–392.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Zhao, Y. (2017). What works may hurt: Side effects in education. Journal of Educational Change, 18(1), 1–19.

List of topic areas

  • Self-determination
  • Self-development
  • Relatedness
  • Context-driven education
  • Full-human development
  • Self-directed education

Submissions Information

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Key deadlines

Opening date for manuscripts submissions: 15th October, 2023

Closing date for manuscripts submission: 15th March, 2024