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?

Posted in blog, heutagogy, self-directed learning

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).

4 thoughts on “Self-directed Learning as a Mindset and Skill Set

  1. rebirthink

    Since meeting you and following your blog, I have been asking this question as a teacher. I have pushed the envelop with my students to include more open ended questions as well as guiding them towards more self-directed tasks. However, what I have found so far is my students seem “brainwashed” if you will into searching only for “the answer” that they believe I think is “the answer”. No way am I giving up but instead on the lookout for innovative approaches to help them become critical thinkers and more self-directed.

    • Peter

      @ rebirthink, Why not ask the question, “Which means that?” whenever you are given an answer aimed at pleasing you. I have found that getting learners to take the next step (and the one after that) becomes a habit they follow to become reflective thinkers; but it does take time.

  2. Bernard Bull Post author

    Thanks for the great comment, Peter. Agreed. Self-directed learning does not mean solitary learning, and learning from others remains a valuable part of the self-directed learning mindset. Similarly, the self-directed learner knows the value of a teacher (and not just the “professional” ones) in achieving one’s goals.

  3. Peter

    “How does one grow in the mindset and skill set of self-directed learning?” An enthusiasm for the subject can kick-start self-directed learning, for me it was an enthusiastic teacher who triggered my enthusiasm. So I do not see teachers as totally redundant when it comes to self-directed learning – not just at the start either, since much of the learning that is easier to learn from is constructed by teachers (formal or natural).
    Perhaps determination will develop the mindset as will tackling subjects in small steps and being a part of a community of practice We all need a little support and help from time to time.

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