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Transitioning to Student-Led Learning

by David Engle | Apr 28, 2020 | 7 min read

As families across the country settle into the world of home-based education, it’s fair to ask this question: are you happy with the education that your child is receiving? Are you content with the typical “skill and drill” learning style, one-size-fits-all curriculum and instruction, and standardized testing favored by many traditional schools? Or are you longing for a more creative, exploratory way for your children to learn? If you chose the latter, you’re not alone. This type of learning is commonly known as “student-led” learning, a more independent type of education where learning is driven by students and their interests, passion for knowledge, and strengths.

While student-led learning is a perfect approach for a homeschooling family, traditional schools worldwide are also recognizing the many benefits of this style. In Spain, 67% of the general public think it’s more important for schools to teach students to be creative and think independently than to encourage discipline.¹ In Japan, Nishinomiya Sudbury School features no tests and involves students in the school administration. The school also encourages students to explore their interests and values, with no timetables to dictate what they will be learning each day.² Even in America, 65% of educators feel that student-led learning is extremely valuable in developing 21st-century skills.³

Whether your child was already being homeschooled or is currently learning remotely through their public or private school, now is the perfect time to try something new. It’s the ideal opportunity for students to start guiding their own education and exploring what interests them. Yes, it’s a rather large paradigm shift from traditional schooling in many ways. But the move to student-led learning is one that’s quite doable and very beneficial for all parties involved in home-based education and public schools alike.

What are the principles behind student-led learning?

  • Transitioning to the “outside world”: One of the key drivers of student-led learning is the desire–and need–to put children in the best possible position to handle life outside of school. For many students, this could mean college; for others, it could be the workforce or the military. Regardless of which path students take upon high school graduation, it’s become more and more imperative for them to learn “real-world” skills that will apply to post-graduation endeavors. And this isn’t necessarily referring to cooking and cleaning skills (though those are quite helpful)–it’s more about the ability to work on your own or with a group of people, to further explore an area of interest on your own, to consistently want to learn, to motivate yourself to work toward goals, and to develop meaningful relationships. And while teachers can lay the foundation for these types of skills, it’s ultimately up to each student to determine his or her own path and how far it leads.
  • Students have their own voices: This is critical because, without a student’s voice and choice, student-led learning goes nowhere. For parents accustomed to traditional schooling that uses rigid scheduling, standardized testing, and a predetermined curriculum, this is a radical departure. In a student-led learning environment, it’s the children who create their schedules, who choose their lessons, and who decide how they want to learn them. This type of personalized learning plays to each child’s strengths, so learning becomes a positive experience, not something that’s forced upon them within the confines of a classroom.
  • A shift to project-based learning: Student-led learning is at its most successful when assignments are open-ended. Think about a traditional public school environment. If a classroom full of students is given a direct assignment with strict parameters, a teacher will more than likely receive 20 sets of answers that are all very similar. Is that how children should see the world? On the other hand, if you give a child a project and ask him or her to decide the topic and the format in which it’s presented, you really have no idea what you might receive–and that’s the beauty of student-led learning. One child may dive into online research on his own and create a stunning presentation filled with video and animation. Another child may ask four of her friends to participate, and you might wind up with an ensemble play about the topic! The objective is, as long as the student is truly learning, to let him or her decide how they want to learn based on their interests and strengths.

How do I make the transition to student-led learning?
If your child’s only education has come in the form of traditional schooling, the best idea is to make the transition a gradual one. Providing too many new resources and removing all structure at once is a recipe for disaster, so it’s best to take things slowly. Here are a few suggestions on how to make a seamless transition:

  • Stay organized and go gradual. As you move into a student-led learning model, the last thing you want to do is create chaos for yourself or your child. Start by creating a calendar with a reasonable timeline and end date that will mark the beginning of the student-led model. During that transitional period, plan out any lessons that you want to fit in before that date, and gradually work self-learning periods into those days. For example, the first week of transition may be all traditional schooling; week two may be 75% traditional schooling and 25% student-led; week three may be 50/50; and so on. By the time you reach your end date, your student should be equipped and ready to embark on his or her new learning journey.
  • Offer variety…but not too much. When figuring out which resources to use as a guide to student-led learning, offer your child a nice variety–but not an entire catalog. Too many options will overwhelm both you and your student, so offer a thoughtfully curated selection of materials that you feel your child will respond to and benefit from the most.
  • Be tech-ready. In order for students to work on their own, they’ll need to be equipped with the right technology. A reliable computer (preferably a laptop so kids don’t aren’t tethered to a desk) and high-speed internet connection are the starting points since there will most likely be quite a bit of online research and work done. Beyond that, decide with your student which programs or apps you want to download. Remember though…not too many.
  • Move from teacher to coach. This isn’t just a transition for your student; it’s a transition for you as well. If you’re accustomed to doing all of the instruction, the gradual transition period is a time for you to slowly let go of the reins and become more of a coach and guide. Of course, as a parent and instructor, it’s very important to lay the groundwork for the learning; once that’s established, however, your child can start learning or exploring on their own.

The perfect resource for student-led learning.
If you’re unfamiliar with Elephango, you should get to know it because it is a wonderful resource to help guide student-led learning. Elephango is the industry leader in research-based homeschooling (but is perfect as a learning supplement for traditional school students as well), with each resource designed for kids to take the wheel and drive their own learning. In Elephango’s words, “We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn, and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.” The many benefits of using Elephango as a student-led education resource include:

  • Variety of topics. From history lessons to learning how to read sheet music to exploring the mystery behind curses, Elephango offers engaging, interactive, research-based courses on subjects that cover every topic of interest.
  • Connections to real life. Each Elephango resource is created with the question “Why do I need to learn this?” in mind. Throughout the lessons, students are posed with questions about how the subject may be applied to real-life situations and scenarios. In addition, there are resources that literally teach the life skills that kids will need to learn and know before entering the “real world.”
  • Individualized learning. All Elephango resources are broken down into specific learning styles and categories. That way, each lesson your child takes is tailored to their strengths so they get the most out of the material. Plus, Elephango lessons encourage individual exploration related to the subject matter. For example, rather than just read about the solar system and answer questions on a test, students will use a telescope to observe stars and planets and create a journal of findings or a presentation for parents.
  • Flexibility. Not only can Elephango lessons be taken at any time, but students have the freedom to choose which topics they want to learn about on any given day. This is a perfect example of students driving their own learning–choosing what they want to learn when they want to learn it.
  • Rewards. Everyone likes a reward or a sense of accomplishment, a reason to keep coming back for more. The proverbial carrot on the stick. Elephango has a reward system that not only celebrates a student’s achievements but also provides incentives to encourage further learning and participation. Trophies, badges, awards, and a leaderboard offer positive reinforcement as well as motivation for some healthy and friendly competition among other students.

If student-led learning piques your interest, now is the ideal time to start planning a transition. Remember, this will not happen overnight–it’s a gradual process that should result in your student partaking in more and more learning driven by his or her interests and learning style. Determine which resources (like Elephango) are beneficial for your child, create a transition timeline, and start the shift from instructor-led education to student-led.

Don’t feel as if your role as parent and instructor is diminished, however. Your direction and guidance are more important than ever. You’ll still be the one laying the educational foundation for any lessons or subjects, you’ll still be the voice of guidance and reason, and you’ll still be the one answering any questions that your child may have along the way. A student-led education opens many doors to explore new topics and subjects in greater depth and with the freedom to decide how to learn the material and put it into practice, but it still needs boundaries and oversight to ensure the student doesn’t stray off course.

The benefits of student-led learning are vast–from restoring love of learning to enjoying the freedom to learn in a way that best suits each child’s personality, to getting a head start on valuable skills every child will need to successfully transition into adulthood. And now couldn’t be a better time to begin the transition.


¹Silver, L. (2017). 4 charts on how people around the world see education. Retrieved from

²Japanese High School Students Passive in Studies: Survey (News). (2017). Retrieved from

³Making the Shift to Student-Led Learning. (2016). Retrieved from


David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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