Overcoming Challenges in the Move Toward Self-directed Learning

Over the past several years, I’ve started to incorporate more self-directed learning opportunities within otherwise traditional courses. These typically took different forms of project-based learning, with learners having different levels of self-direction. Such experiences so far have usually taken place in otherwise traditional learning organizations with populations of learners who are deeply rooted in traditional notions of schools, namely pre-service and existing K-20 educators. As I continue to reflect on these experiences, I’m starting to notice strong patterns in learner profiles and reactions, ranging from those who are delighted with the opportunity and thrive, to those who consider such practices to be an abdication of the proper role as teacher. I’ll use this post as a chance to reflect on these reactions, the reasons behind them, and how we might respond to them.

The Schooling Discourse

Given that my work has been mostly with pre-service and graduate education students, these are typically people who accept (or at least tolerate) the traditional notion of schooling and related constructs.  While some dislike them, most are comfortable thinking about learning in terms of letter grades, quizzes, tests, homework, lesson plans, credit hours, grade point averages, learning objectives, discrete courses and subjects, standards, the role of student, and the role of teacher. While those of us involved on other forms of learning are well aware that none of these are necessary for high-impact learning, such terms constitute the dominant discourse in formal education. There are certainly different opinions about each of these terms or phrases and how we use them, but there is a common acceptance that such terms make up the vocabulary of an educator. I mention this because each of these terms conjure certain memories and expectations about a formal learning experience. More broadly, this means that efforts in self-directed learning sometimes clash with certain traditional notions of formal schooling.  As a result, those who value or find comfort in such constructs may become resistant or critical of alternatives.

There are two main ways to approach this challenge: build on new ground, or re-describe and expand on existing terms.  One is to focus upon new ground, learning experiences outside of the confines of traditional schooling.  People do not expect to use “schooling” terminology when they are exploring a topic for fun and on their “free time.”  Most of us don’t use schooling vocabulary when we think of relationships, hobbies, or even our work. The digital world gives us ample opportunities to do this, with the rapid growth in resources for informal and self-directed learning on the web.  A second option is to expand on the definitions of schooling terms, to engage in re-description of these terms.  This involves accepting the value of a term like assessment, but then expanding our understanding of assessment by discussing concepts like assessment as learning, self-assessment, and peer-to-peer learning.  In my work, this second option seems to provide much value, since the learners that I serve are usually living out their work in more traditional schooling settings.  At the same time, a few high-impact experiences with the first approach (out-of-school learning) is a powerful tool for helping us consider the possibilities.  Debriefing those experiences with discussion about what we can apply to our schools has great potential.

While the Brain Thrives on Novelty, it also Find Comfort in Familiarity

Even while some are open to exploring new approaches to teaching and learning, too rapid of a shift toward self-directed learning can provoke fear, self-doubt, criticism, and uncertainty. As a result, introducing self-directed learning is often not effective with an overnight transformation of the classroom.  Many will not be prepared emotionally or intellectually for such a task.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, a simple way of thinking about teacher-directed versus self-directed is by looking at the questions that drive the design of a lesson or unit: What do students need to learn? How will I know when they’ve learned it? How will I monitor their progress?  How will I help them learn it?  The goal of self-directed learning is to eventually turn each of those into student-centered questions: What do I need to learn? How will I know when I’ve learned it? How will I monitor my progress? How will I learn it? If learners lack the competence, confidence or both of these to ask and answer such questions, that will conjure negative emotions and reactions.

Self-directed Learning Skills

One of the more effective ways to address this lack of competence or confidence is to devise a plan to help students grow in their capacity to ask and answer the questions of the self-directed learner.  This can be done gradually, starting by inviting learner input on the goals for a given unit and how to best assess the learning. There may be “non-negotiable” standards or outcomes, but learners can enhance or supplement them.  They can also cooperate with the teacher to create a solid assessment plan.  In addition, self-directed learning can be preceded by formal opportunities to grow in skills with goal-setting, self-assessment methods and strategies, skills in self-monitoring, and building a toolbox of learning and self-teaching strategies.

When I’ve incorporated opportunity for self-directed learning in classes, the struggles usually relate to this area of competency and/or confidence.  Some students are able to flourish right away, while others seek more direction and guidance.  From my perspective, this is natural, and it speaks to the ongoing value of a teach/mentor/coach for groups of learners, helping each learner progress toward. Necessary support, mentoring and resources often make the differences between a successful and unsuccessful move toward self-directed learning.

Missing the “Why” of Self-Directed Learning

Skills and confidence are not the online factor.  Beliefs and values play a critical role as well. For this reason, the why of self-directed learning is a critical conversation. In fact, for it to be successful, this requires a cultural changing within learning organizations, a move toward a compelling why. Why self-directed learning?  What is limiting about the traditional teacher-directed environment?  This challenges us to look at the broader aims of education.  This is where we might look at self-directed learning as a means of championing human agency, increased access and opportunity, and the critical import of self-efficacy to address any number of broader issues in society. This comes through discussion, storytelling, and a guided activities that give ample opportunity for self-discovery of the whys behind self-directed learning.

While this is not an exhaustive list of challenges to moving toward self-directed learning, it addresses some of the more critical considerations. If you see others, please consider sharing them in the comment section.

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

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, 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, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.