Self-directed Learning as a Mindset and Skill Set

The more I think about it, the more I come to approach self-directed learning as a mindset and collection of life skills.  Without it (and partly by definition), one remains unable to act or function unless provided with instructions and/or accountability from someone else. Of course, all of us can benefit from direct instructions and accountability at times. The difference is that a self-directed learner has less of a dependence upon those things in many contexts, and is even capable of thriving in environments that give no direction and no clear goals.  What happens when a person is lacking in the self-direction mindset and/or the associated life skills?

  • Some have trouble  accomplishing goals unless someone else helps them set up a course of action and holds them accountable throughout the process.  These people can be effective in a number of tasks as long as they have a boss, coach, or guide to help them along the way.
  • Others have trouble establishing the goals in the first place.  They might look to others to set the goals for them.  Without the skills of self-directed learning, setting goals can be an exercise in despair.  Why bother aspiring to something if you don’t think that you can achieve it or you persistently have trouble figuring out how to reach your goals?  This, by the way, is an important consideration for a school or learning organization that seeks to cultivate a self-directed learning environment.  If people in that organization have yet to cultivate the self-directed learning mindset and the necessary life skills, then the results can be quite unpleasant, leading some to label such environments as ineffective.  There are remedies to this problem.
  • Still others set up goals, but they are persistently frustrated and disappointed with their ability to achieve the goals(s).
  • Another sign that one has not cultivated the skills and mindset of self-directed learning is that they often consider other people’s accomplishments to be a matter of luck, good genes, or coming from a well-resourced family or community.  This is not to deny that these factors make a difference.  They do, but the self-directed learner realizes that goals are much more likely to be achieved with the necessary time, effort, persistence, experiences and/or technique(s).
  • In some circumstances, this lack of self-direction leads to a “just enough” mindset.  Do just enough to meet the expectations, get the grade, keep the job, please the boss, etc.  Unfortunately, this also decreases the chances of that person getting new opportunities, or discovering new possibilities.

When it comes to a person who is cultivating the mindset and skill set of self-directed learning, I notice a number of changes.

  • They don’t just think about what they need to learn, but they have a growing capacity to analyze different methods of learning new knowledge and skills.  These metacognitive skills help them learn how to learn.
  • As a result, they come to notice strategies and heuristics that allow them to progress toward a goal.
  • Given that they have a growing understanding, they often have a tendency of replacing the “magic” and “mystery” of learning with something that can be broken down, described, taught, and learned.  They discover the power and value of method, technique, and the critical role of certain character traits in the learning process (traits like persistence, patience, industriousness, vigilance, resourcefulness,  and courage).
  • Setting a goal, whether formally or informally, becomes exciting or engaging, because they’ve experienced the joy of setting past goals and achieving them.  As a result, learning something new is energizing.  It is more than work or an assignment.  It is an accomplishment, a challenge, a journey, an adventure.
  • They may become a bit frustrated with learning environments that are overly prescriptive, especially when those prescriptions don’t align with what they know to work well for them as learners, the prescriptions do not help them achieve a goal that is valuable to them, or the prescriptions seem to undermine or discourage character traits that they know to be important in the learning process.
  • At the same time, the person who is growing in a self-directed mindset may well be content learning in some highly restrictive environments, granted they believe that it is a helpful step in achieving a goal that is important to them, or because they believe that the environment will help them learn new ways to learn.
  • They are not immune to an enticing extrinsic motivation in the form of grades, money or some sort of accolade. There are exceptions to this, like the self-directed learner who has a financial goal.  In that case, making the money may be part of the goal. And yet, something else drives and motivates them.  In fact, no small number of self-directed learners consider “learning” to be one of the purposes of life itself.

All of this leads me to the following question. How does one grow in the mindset and skill set of self-directed learning?  What do you think?

The Power of Connections in the Digital World: Toward a Literacy of Connectivity?

“Collaboration across Networks.”  That is the second of Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills as described in his 2010 book, Bridging the Global Achievement Gap. As I understand Wagner’s description of that skill, it focuses upon working with people across time zones and distances in order to accomplish a common goal.  The need for such a skill is often justified by pointing out the nature of work in many global businesses, needing to work with people who are dispersed around the world.  Note that this skill is largely described in terms of collaborating with people who you already know or with whom you have some sort of pre-existing connection.

There is another important part to this conversation that focuses upon creating new connections with people that we do not already know, with resources that were formerly unfamiliar to us, and with new and diverse communities and contexts.  This is where connectivism, which I often mention on my blog, has something to teach us about life and learning in the digital age.  While I am not certain that it is a survival skill, learning to connect with new, diverse and dispersed people and ideas is a valuable literacy for this age.  Like any literacy, it gives one access to new conversations, allows one to consider and imagine new possibilities, and it provides one with opportunities that would not otherwise exist.

If I can’t read, there is only so much that I can get out of a book.  I can use it as a paper weight or to swat a fly, but I unless I am literate, I am unable to use the words in it to learn, imagine, or connect with new ideas and possibilities.  The same is true when it comes to cultivating the literacy of connectivity.  This is more than the state of being connected to others and the Internet using a variety of current and emerging technologies.  It also entails coming to understand and leverage various social, psychological, cultural and sociological aspects of connecting with other people, communities and resources.  It involves developing personal and or professional relationships with people on social networks, microblogs, and online communities; and maintaining these connections as one simultaneously navigates online and offline life.  It also involves designing and continually redesigning connections with a wide array of people and things as a way of pursuing our personal goals and aspirations. It is a literacy of connectivity that allows one to discover and use increasingly sophisticated answers to the following questions.

  • How do I leverage the digital world to raise funds for a new project or business?
  • How do I connect with people and resources that help me explore and resolve problems and challenges in your work and life?
  • How do I build a professional network that provides me with new ideas for my current work or even to explore new employment possibilities down the road?
  • How do I connect with people and groups that have a common passion or interest and enjoy sharing and exploring with one another?
  • How do I leverage collective knowledge from around the world to tackle a social problem that is important to me?
  • What are the most effective ways to share my ideas and expertise with people who are dispersed around the world, to get their feedback, and to refine my ideas based upon this feedback?
  • How do I meet new people online for personal or professional goals in mind?
  • How do I select and manage connections when there are billions of potential connections available to me?
  • How do I decide when and if to disconnect with some people, communities or resources?
  • How do I leverage the digital world to learn, grow, develop, and help others learn?

These are questions that challenge us to think about what it means to cultivate a literacy of connectivity.  What I am writing here is not new.  This is largely informed by the study digital literacy, the connected learning movement, new literacy studies, the work on connectivism, as well as no small influence from Howard Rheingold’s contributions to the literacy of cooperation.   I’ve been hesitant to use the word literacy in this context, as some argue that we have begun to overuse the term.  Yet, I find myself returning to the contemporary understanding of literacy as a social practice that involves meaning making.  it is more than just a static set of discrete skills.  What I am referring to here is looking at connectivity as a social practice in which one constructs knowledge through the connections that one makes and severs. In that sense, this is a literacy of connectivity.



My Changing Educational Philosophy: Students as the Audience, Actors, or Directors?

Speaking with a group of students today, I thought about my journey as an educator. Working with a group of pre-service teachers, we explored how to evaluate resources for teaching and learning environments.  I shared a simple four-part approach that examines the learners, the biases, the types of support and argumentation used in a text, as well as what is left out or missing from the text.  As we examined various resources with this framework, I started to recognize how I changed as a teacher over the years.  This realization came in the form of a theater metaphor.

The Actor – In my earliest days as a teacher, I saw myself as the actor on the stage.  My students were the audience.  My job was to inform, inspire, and engage. At times, I was also the playwright.

The Director – At some point, I realized that my students could join me on the stage, or I could step off the stage and invite them to do the acting.  At times, some sat in the audience while others acted on the stage.  Sometimes I was in the audience.  At other times, I was on the stage alone or with the students.

Unknown Title – Over the last several years, I started to discover yet another possibility.  Now I realize that my students can often write the plays, direct them, act in them, design and build the sets, control the lighting and much more.  Every role that exists in making a stellar play is one that my students can fill. Sometimes I take one or more of these roles as well, but other times I help get things going and then step out of the way.

Alternatives to Principal-Led Schools

What would a school look like without a principal?  For some of us, this is difficult to imagine because we’ve never seen such a structure before.  And yet, it is happening throughout the United States and the world.  These models take many shapes, but here are a few of them.

Teacher-led Schools – Imagine a school where teachers don’t simply have influence, but they are in charge of most to all the decisions about how the school functions. There is usually still a board (at least in the US), but pretty much all the site-based decisions reside with the teachers themselves.  Administrators or district leaders don’t select, design and/or carry out the curriculum.  The teachers do it. The same goes for many of the school policies about conduct, grading/assessment models, teaching strategies, etc. While teacher-led schools take on many forms, in some of these schools, the teachers even make decisions about hiring, evaluating one another, managing the budget, and terminating one another.

Parent-led – How about a school where the parents collectively make key decisions in the school? This is happening is the UK.  In fact, it may well be the teachers who create the school in the first place.  In other instances, as in the case of homeschooling, parents create cooperatives where children gather and parents take the lead for the learning experiences.  In still other instances, parents are creating cooperatives to extend, shape, or supplement the learning experiences at virtual schools through local cooperatives…sometimes coming close to being a school within a school.

Student-led or Student & Teacher-led – Probably one of the more widely known expressions of this comes from the Sudbury schools, where students select the curriculum, learning, establish polices, lead groups that address conduct, etc.  In some, teachers also have a vote, but it is an equal one to the students.  More broadly, this student-led focus is present in a variety of democratic schools around the world, with varying forms and levels at which students are responsible for the decision-making.