Self-directed learning is about handing over choice and responsibility to the learners. Learners can set learning goals, decide how to achieve those goals, and be active agents throughout the entire process. Some educators, parents, and school leaders hear about this and assume that self-directed learning must mean that there is no accountability or structure…that it is chaotic learning. As a result, they dismiss it as an unreasonable option for a traditional schooling setting or a more traditional home-based education curriculum.
One way to address this challenge is to introduce the idea of a learning contract (or more broadly “contract learning”). This is a simple contract developed between the learner and a teacher and/or parent. It might include any number of items. Following are eight that that work well for many environments. Of course, one is free to add or remove from this list depending upon the need and context.
1. What am I going to learn? – This might be in a narrative format, as one or more goals, in the form of driving questions, or some argue that it can also be packaged with a product or project (“I want to learn how to write a letter to a friend in Spanish.” or “I want to learn how to ride my bike.”).
2. How am I going to learn it? – The level of detail may vary, but this is no simple one-sentence answer. This is a plan that will reasonably lead to achieving the goal(s) in #1. It should include details, and it can be revised and enhanced as one progresses. It might include reference to books, lists of articles and other resources, plans for learning experiences, people to interview, places to visit, specific activities to practice, and much more. This requires one to think about how to learn.
3. How will I demonstrate what I have learned? – This is a key to getting at the accountability question. This part of the learning contract specifies the evidence that the learner will provide in order to document (or what some people claim to be verification of) the learning goal(s) in #1.
4. How will the evidence be evaluated? – This is where the criterion for reviewing the evidence is determined. In some cases, the learner develops this alone, but in most cases it is done as a partnership between learner and teacher.
5. What is the timeline for completion? – This will include an established deadline for final completion, but it might also include goals for when certain aspects of the plan will be completed. In some settings, this can be adjusted by mutual consent between learner and teacher.
6. How will I document what and how I am learning throughout the experience? This may be a learning log or journal of some sort. In the digital age, it is often online, allowing others to check a learner’s progress at any moment. This also gets at learning about learning, a key aspect of heutagogy.
7. What are the roles of the various parties? – This is a section that will specify the roles and responsibilities of the learner, teacher and any other people involved. For example, there is sometimes an expert/mentor when apprenticeship learning is part of the plan. Or, there might be an accountability partner role between learners, helping to encourage and keep one another on track. The role of parent in the projects might also be included in the contract.
8. Who agrees to this contract? – This is where the key parties review and sign the contract.
This is not something that one develops in a few minutes or even in a few hours. It takes time, review, feedback, collaboration, revision and refinement. For those who are new to contract learning, it also requires time to teach and learn about the process. When done, this makes for a wonderfully rich learning experience that is capable of meeting or exceeding the accountability demands of even the most rigorous classroom environments.
The first place that I learned about the idea of learning contracts with self-directed learning was in Malcolm Knowles’s 1986 book, Using Learning Contracts: Practical Approaches to Individualized and Structured Learning, and there are many newer texts that also talk about it. With that said, there are also any number of useful resources online for developing learning contracts, many that informed my own ideas over the years. You can also find some good templates to download in order to get some concrete examples. Here are eight such resources to get you started.
- The Self-Directed Learning Handbook (There is a helpful chapter on “Negotiating Student Learning Agreements”)
- Using Learning Contracts in the College Classroom
- The Learning Contract Process at Evergreen College
- Self-directed Learning Contracts
- A 12-Step Tutorial on Creating Learning Contracts
- Learning Contracts
- Roger Hiemstra’s Self-Directed Learning Tools (He is a master of SDL and learning contracts. I have learned much from his work.)
- The Benefits of Learning Contracts and a Sample