Why Standards are not Enough & Self-Directed Learning is Important

Ken Richard (@kenrichard) asked a great question in response to an article that I wrote about self-directed learning.  He asked, “Any advice on the balance between standards / certifications and self directed learning?”  My response is a bit more philosophical rather than practical, but I appreciate the chance to think through this question a bit more.

For those who follow my blog, you’ve no doubt noticed my interest in and support for the value of self-directed learning.  I’m not averse to teacher-directed learning, as there are many situations where it plays a good and important role.  At the same time, if the goal of education is to liberate, then that means creating space for people to become learners who are capable of personal growth and development regardless of whether they are in a classroom with a teacher. At the same time, there are clearly many instances where one needs to grow and develop with regard to a set of specific standards.  I prefer going to a healthcare professional who at least met a minimum set of standards in medical school.  I seek out an electrician who has some demonstrated ability to comply with existing codes. Of course, meeting the standards is not adequate.  One of the reasons that I chose my current doctor is because she noted that she values staying current in the emerging research in medical journals.  In other words, her education did not stop at medical school.  She takes the initiative to continue learning and growing despite the fact that medical school is decades behind her.  Similarly, I don’t want an electrician who does little more than comply with the code.  I want one who can face new and unique situations in my hundred year old house and come up with creative and safe solutions that also keep things at a reasonable cost.  The standards work fine as a baseline, but it is not enough to be a person who earned the certification or met the standards.  The one who stops at the standards or certifications is the one who remains largely other-directed.

Imagine a group of teachers who stopped reading, studying, and learning when they graduated from college.  They only learn what they are “forced” to do so through administratively mandated professional development days.  Imagine if these teachers saw no reason to stay up on the amazing emerging research about the brain and learning.  Imagine if they didn’t have an interest in taking the time to learn about the unique needs and interests of a new student in the class.  What if they didn’t engage in the sort of reflective practice that allowed them to learn from their own teaching successes and failures.  This group represents people who have not discovered the power and possibility of self-directed learning in helping one to pursue and sometimes achieving increasingly greater levels of excellence on one’s vocation.  So, from this perspective, I accept the role of standards and certifications in helping people to meet baseline skills and competencies, but I don’t accept them as adequate for a liberal education that prepares one to be a full and active participant in a democratic society.

At the same time, I’m not suggesting the standards are necessarily the best starting point.  When possible, there is great power in providing people with ample space to experiment, explore, question and drive the learning apart from pre-determined standards. Amid this learning through discovery, the people will sometimes come to a point when they need to master a certain body of knowledge to meet a goal.  It is at that point that they embrace learning by standards in a new way, with a measure of purpose and intrinsic motivation.  Consider the example of learning to play baseball.  To play on a team, I need to learn the rules of the game, the nonnegotiables.  I can’t just run to bases in random order because I feel like it, all in the name of self-direction. And yet, what should I learn first?  Do we sit children down and quiz them on all the rules before they get a chance to experience parts of the game.  Or, do we go to games with the kids, let them experience it, play catch with them, give them a chance to swing at a few balls? Yes, a time will come when they will need to meet the minimum “standards” for playing the game, but that doesn’t always need to drive the learning.  There are many instances where first letting them explore and discover on their own has great benefits.

There are exceptions to this, like teaching certain fundamental safety rules before letting someone play with a dangerous object.  And yet, when time and safety considerations allow for it, leaving room for self-directed learning not only helps one meet immediate goals, but it helps them to develop the skills and character necessary to learn future things on their own.  Emerging brain research seems to support this.  If we want people to engage in deep learning, then it is important to move from teacher-directed to student-directed experiences. When asked what the recent brain research is telling us about how to teach, Dr. Matthew Peterson of the MIND Research Institute replied this way. “Stop telling them things. Have them do things, problem solve, build things, discover how things work (and don’t tell them how things work).” These sorts of challenges provide qualitatively different learning experiences and, over time, result in qualitatively different types of learners and people.

Simply teaching to the point of meeting set standards also has the added downside of failing to equip students who are at the greatest disadvantage. If schools focus upon only teaching to the standards, then the really deep and self-directed learning will happen outside of the classroom, potentially more often for the students who live on environments rich with tools, safety, encouragement, and resources that help promot independence and self-direction. So, without necessarily intending to do so, we have one population of students who stop at literate, while another continues on toward greater levels of fluency in a myriad of domains and skills that will help them take advantage of opportunities that remain largely unavailable to the simply literate.  Self-directed learning is partly about helping people progress throughout life toward fluency, deep learning, over-learning, and the type of immersive learning that leads to deep joy, satisfactions, and excellence.

In summary, I’m not pitting standards against self-directed learning.  I’m simply arguing that standards are almost always inadequate in helping to meet the central aims of education in a democratic society.

Posted in blog, education, heutagogy, self-directed learning

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.