Why Self-Directed Learning? Making The World Your Classroom

Self-directed is far from a fad. Almost 40 years ago, Malcolm Knowles published, Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. It reads like a text published last week, talking about the changing landscape of life and learning in an information age, the value of place-based learning, the need for teachers to be mentors and facilitators, the power of project-based learning, learning contracts, the importance of learner-centered education, and the call to re-imagine school in view of the fact that not all people learn at the same pace or using the same path. It is the kind of book you could read in an afternoon, but want to return to for years. Unlike some of the often-cited educational theorists of the past century (sorry Dewey and Vygotsky), Knowles’ writing is hospitable and accessible.

Reading it yesterday, I was drawn to one excerpt that I would like to share with you. It is part of his short but compelling chapter on the importance of self-directed learning, and it speaks to a vision of learning that extends far beyond the teacher-led classroom.

We must exploit every experience as a “learning experience.” Every institution in our community – government agency, store, recreational organization, church – becomes a resource for learning, as does every person we have access to – parent, child, friend, service provider, doctor, teacher, fellow worker, supervisor, minister, store clerk, and so on and on. Learning means making use of every resource – in or out of educational institutions – for our growth and development.” – p. 16

Knowles makes the case that the most critical part of a curriculum is helping students learn how to learn…for themselves. He contrasts this with learning how to learn from teachers, which consists largely of skills like listening well, taking good notes, and being able to cram for tests. Instead, learning how to learn for oneself prepares a person for a lifetime of learning, unlearning, and relearning even as much functional knowledge changes from one year or decade to the next. It entails learning how to ask great questions, how to establish learning goals, how devise a personal learning plan, how to leverage one’s existing knowledge and skill to learn something new, how to test the validity of one’s findings, and how to communicate what one has learned. These are skills that persist and give all of us a foundation for a lifetime of accumulating new knowledge and skills.

This was all written before the Internet revolution: before YouTube, Wikipedia, Google, online learning, open courses, Skype and Google Hangouts, blogging, and social media. So, while Knowles likely saw self-directed learning in terms of connecting with local resources, his concept is amplified when a learner has an Internet connection – access to more people, institutions, communities, books and other content sources than ever. Perhaps the Internet revolution empowered people with the immediate access to the resources necessary to flourish as a self-directed learner, overcoming previous challenges of time and place. Perhaps our access and resources have caught up with Knowles’ early vision for self-directed learning, making it accessible to the masses.

Reflection Questions 

  • How would you rate your skills in learning how to learn from teachers?
  • How would you rate your skills in learning how to direct your own learning?
  • If you are a teacher or parent, how would you rate your children or students’ skills in learning how to learn form teachers?
  • How would you rate their skill in learning how to direct their own learning?
  • How to develop your own skills in learning how to learn?
  • If you are a teacher or parent, how do you help your children or students develop skills in learning how to learn?
Posted in blog, education, heutagogy, self-directed learning

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. 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), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

One Reply to “Why Self-Directed Learning? Making The World Your Classroom”

  1. David Elliott

    Bernard — Your blog is constantly challenging the status quo in education — self-directed learning, competency-based learning, project based learning. You are not at all circumspect but pushing the issue. I always feel “what is the next step?” “What more can we do?” #luthed has fine people who are respected in education often raising these questions. With the huge diversity of students in our school, we must follow in this direction to serve them. Fiber internet connection will be offered to every school in Vietnam in the next 3 years. This just out today. Steps along the way – vision (Acton), 1:1 – survey?, comprehensive badging environment (grades?). Thanks. The next 5 years will be huge. Time for the book.

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