Self-directed Learning, Connected Learning, and the Unimportance of Teachers

As I begin to take part in week two of #etmooc, thinking about connected learning, I find myself reflecting on my own educational convictions and my own “learning history.”

In some ways, my education started when I realized the relative unimportance of teachers. If you follow my blog, then this might seem like a contradiction. After all, one of my most recent posts was a simple Venn diagram illustrating three key ingredients of high impact teaching and learning. Similarly, I’ve posted close to a dozen articles over the last year on the importance of teacher as mentor and facilitator. I continue to believe in the importance and value of the teacher in certain learning contexts. However, I see even more importance in mentors, learning communities, communities of practice, informal learning networks, personal learning networks, experts, peers, and self-directed learning.

For me, this conscious discovery of self-directed learning occurred somewhere around eighth or ninth grade. I’m not entirely sure why or how this took place, but there were a number of experiences that likely led up to it.

I got my first computer when I was twelve (in the early 1980s). This meant hours of personal exploration and experimentation. Initially, all that my first computer (a Timex Sinclair 1000) did was let me create simple programs in Basic and save them to a cassette tape. I started by typing in “recipes” from a book that came with the computer. Later I started to code on my own, and the simplest programs were among the most personally rewarding accomplishments as a kid. Some of these early efforts were also among the most frustrating. I didn’t know anyone else who liked programming. So, either I figured it out on my own, or I never finished.

It was not until a year or two later, when I got my second computer (a Commodore 64) and a modem, that I experienced the BBS world, able to interact with others in a new and exciting way. I was able to remotely interact with complete strangers about our common interest in computing and programming. There were no teachers and learners, although there was a ton of teaching and learning that took place. More than that, there were challenges, encouragements, tips, and boasts of recent technological escapades. It was a virtual pub, rich with fish stories of the technological sort. It felt more like play than school, but it was still about learning new things, even more about accomplishing new things or solving the next problem. It wasn’t about performing for a grade, but about mastering the next challenge, sometimes competing with others, and other times collaborating with them. We didn’t tell each other what to do. We each had to decide that for ourselves. Sometimes it was inspired by our own questions and imagination. Other times it was about replicating an accomplishment (or claimed accomplishment) of another person on the BBS.

Around this time, I moved to a farm. My new dad was (is) a pretty amazing man. He had an eighth grade formal education, but mastery of so many things. He could build just about anything (he built his own house on top of an existing foundation). He could fix almost anything (whether it be a car, tractor, combine, carpentry problem, plumbing, or an electrical issue). He learned from others over the years, but much of what he learned came from having a problem (tractor will not run) and needing to fix it. This wasn’t solitary work, though. I often heard him talking through these sorts of problems with a neighbor over morning coffee, or maybe with someone at the grain elevator. By the time that I got to know him, he was often the person that people came to for suggestions, but it was a two-way street. They didn’t go to a teacher for help. It was collective and collaborative, inspired by real-world challenges, problems, or questions.

These early lessons did not always serve me well in formal schooling. I loved to ask questions, and I was intrigued by the mysterious, the big ideas, and the unresolved problems. I did not, however, always see wisdom in following recipes or studying for tests. This meant missing out on some of the basics that would have helped me explore those big ideas and resolve some of the problems. It meant making things harder for myself in school.

By the time that I reached college, I had almost fully embraced this self-directed learning perspective. Going into my second year at University, I wrote research papers for myself. Each week, I went to the library, gathered books of interest, decided upon research questions, and wrote something up. I visited random professors in their offices, picking their brains and craving informal conversations about ideas. Eventually, I had a good repository of papers that I could usually rework to submit for classes. What was important to me, however, was that my learning was self-directed. Classes became a community to aid in my self-directed learning, but on occasion, this meant having to sacrifice a better grade for the sake of my own projects. These projects also made their way into to countless late night debates and discussions with classmates in the dorms. It was there that I tested and refined my work.

Each of these early experiences gave me a glimpse into a world without teachers, or rather a world full of teacher-learners. It was a world with challenges, problems, questions, interactions with experts, collaboration, networked learning, peer feedback, and real world feedback (Did it work or not?). As I see it, this is connected learning.

4 Replies to “Self-directed Learning, Connected Learning, and the Unimportance of Teachers”

  1. Charlotte Pierce

    Amen. Teachers should be facilitators. Nobody can retain and regurgitate all the information in the world. Exploration and inquiry like yours fuses the synapses much faster.

  2. Debbie Morrison

    Encouraging to see changes being made the approach to learning and teaching in high school. There still are many challenges ahead to create an environment where high school students take responsibility for learning, and can engage in connected learning.

    Thanks for sharing the link.

  3. Debbie Morrison

    Interesting how young you were when you become a self-directed learner (quite impressive actually). Also how this carried through college, it is evident that you possessed a high level of intrinsic motivation.

    I wonder though, how can we as educators support high school and freshman college students to be self-directed learners? Or is this even possible?

    My youngest two teenagers in public school, though they are taking somewhat rigorous courses (AP and honors) often say are afraid of being wrong in school, are taught to the test and are not able to explore ideas that are off the curriculum. This is not the teachers fault either, over half of their teachers hold master’s degrees in their subject and are experienced teachers.

    My point of telling this story is to pose a rhetorical question, how does this foster connected learning? There is a disconnect between high school instruction and the type of learning that is self-directed and connected.

    I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      I fully agree about the disconnect, Debbie. That is partly why I enjoy studying innovative and alternative schools. I conducted an 18-month study of a variety of project-based and other innovative high schools, for example; and I make a goal of visiting at least four such schools each year. They are so refreshing, and experiencing these schools gives me a glimpse of what is possible. One of my favorite recent examples is KM Global in Wisconsin: . This is an example of how a school, albeit very small, can embrace a vision for self-directed and connected learning that works for students.

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