Three Questions to Thrive as a Self-Directed Learner

Amid a fun and rewarding conversation with a couple of colleagues recently, I found myself articulating the challenges of being a self-directed learner in the contemporary world. What does it take to thrive as a self-directed learner? There are certainly many benefits to being one, but self-directed and free range learning is not without difficulties. In a world that is often drawn to academic abstractions in the form of degrees and certifications, it is not always easy to thrive as one who chooses alternative pathways to learning.

With that said, there are three key questions for such current or aspiring self-directed learners. Attending to these can greatly improve the joy and quality of the self-directed learning journey.

What do you know? What don’t you know?

Self-awareness is important for everyone, but especially for those who venture further into self-directed learning and alternate learning pathways. Champions of SDL in their own lives represent a full range of self-awareness levels. Some are very competent but not very confident in their abilities. Others are not very competent but they have immense confidence. They have an inaccurate few of their current level of expertise. There are also those with low confidence and competence. Then, of course, there are those who are highly confident and competent, a potent combination.

Regardless, it is important for the self-directed learner to have an accurate and continually updated picture of what they actually do and do not know. We need mirrors to help us see ourselves as we really are. Only then are we able to make adjustments and progress.

When a self-directed learner lacks this self-awareness, it can be disappointing and frustration. They find themselves troubled by a world that doesn’t seem to get them. If one is not careful, it can turn into a cycle of bitterness and even depression. Know thyself.

How do you achieve goals to learn something new?

Once you have a clear and accurate picture of your abilities, it is time to set goals and establish plans and pathways to achieve those learning goals. I can’t overstate how powerful of a skill set this is for people. It allows them to no longer be limited by a ready mix of formal educational offerings to achieve learning goals, but truly turns the world into one’s classroom. Of course, self-directed learners may opt to learn through formal courses and programs, but they are not limited to or restricted by those pathways.

How do you show what you know and can do? How do you tell your story with narratives and numbers?

This last one has occupied more of my attention lately. If you are going to venture into the world of self-directed learning, you must be ready to represent yourself and communicate your learning to the world around you. To learn something through self-direction can be incredibly freeing and rewarding, but what about when you need to seek a job or you are trying to communicate your accomplishments and abilities to others? For the self-directed learner, it is often not as easy as showing your diploma or formal credential. People like myself can complain about such abstractions as inaccurate and inadequate means of communicating expertise, but much of the world remains content with such signifiers of learners. As such, as a self-directed learner, you must find ways to tell the story of what you know and can do. You must be able to do it with narratives and numbers, succinctly and substantively, and in varied mediums depending upon the target audience.

Without this, you can find yourself frustrated and with limited opportunities. You might feel like people don’t get you, that they overlook you. You might even get bitter because far less qualified people seem to get the jobs instead of you, just because those people have the formal piece of paper. Yet, part of choosing the path of the self-directed learner is facing this reality and investing in the skill to effectively represent yourself in such a world. Sometimes it involves knowing when to take the common pathway and earn the credential. Other times you recognize that an alternate pathway will work as well or better to achieve your goals. Those who learn to do this well find few doors closed. We can even find instances of people finding their way in academic or University jobs with few or no degrees even when there is limited precedent for such a thing. Consider people like Joi Ito.

Being a self-directed learner has immense benefits. Yet, it takes time and effort to learn how to thrive as a self-directed learner in many contexts. Learning to invest in the skills associated with these three questions can give you a much greater chance to thrive.

5 Myths About Being an Autodidact

Have you ever heard people refer to themselves or others as autodidacts? Today I hear quite a few people describe themselves this way as if it were a largely genetic trait like having blue eyes or being a certain height. “Some people are autodidacts,” they explain. “Others are genetically predisposed to depend upon others for their learning throughout life,” they seem to suggest. Others use the term “autodidact” as interchangeable with genius. Still other people reserve the word for the few and rare people throughout history like Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci. Yet, perhaps there is value in keeping our minds open to a broader understanding of what it means to be an autodidact, recognizing the potential in every learner and helping people bring out their inner auto-didacticism. To do that, let’s take a moment to dispel five common myths.

All autodidacts are geniuses.

There are certainly some fascinating and inspiring examples of people with incredibly high IQs who also happen to be autodidacts, but the term is certainly not limited to those who score off the charts in traditional IQ tests. An autodidact is, in the basic sense of the word, a self-taught person. The term comes from two Greek roots that mean self and teaching. It has nothing to do with your raw or natural cognitive abilities. It does have to do with embracing an approach where you own and pursue your learning.

Either you are born an autodidact or you are not.

Some people seem to have higher natural propensities for curiosity and other traits closely associated with the personal pursuit of learning, but I’ve yet to see any evidence that autodidacticism in the broader sense is simply the result of a collection of genes. We can learn to grow along the spectrum toward autodidacticism. Becoming an autodidact is a about cultivating a commitment, habits, and mindsets more than living out some genetically pre-determined path for your life.

Autodidacts must always be anomalies.

Traditional education systems do not largely celebrate, nurture or create space for autodidacts in the making. In fact, this approach to learning may well be frowned upon in some formal contexts. This perspective has become so prominent that some treat the autodidact as an aberration…an oddity. It just isn’t normal. That is only because the system doesn’t know what to do with it. When we look at spaces created to nurture self-education, we see that it is far from an anomaly. It can even be celebrated as the standard way of learning. In other words, what we consider normal or an oddity is contextual. Go to more self-directed learning communities and dependent learning is the oddity.

Autodidacts don’t go to school.

Most do go to school. Some flourish in school. Some don’t. However, there are plenty who embrace a self-taught approach to life while also taking advantage of a formal schooling experience. In some ways, that is represented in what I write about self-blended learning. The connected and digital worlds are helping even more people begin to discover the benefits, what this looks like and how it is possible for them.

In addition, there are many instances where a person gets a more traditional education in many areas but cultivates a more autodidactic approach to learning in other areas of one’s life, perhaps skills and knowledge not focused upon in formal education. Consider the budding hacker who never takes coding classes, the history major who becomes a gifted sales executive or stock broker, the high school student who teaches herself to sing and play a half-dozen instruments, or the young woman whose fascination with nature leads her to become a self-taught outdoors woman and naturalist.

In addition, it is the autodidact who pushes knowledge forward in the world, venturing into fields that don’t have formal areas of study in academia or elsewhere. They are the groundbreakers. They might participate in formal education, but sometimes they are launched into the life of an autodidact because their curiosity does not align with the formal curriculum.

Autodidacticism is a rarity.

Much of the innovation in our world depends upon a spirit of autodidacticism. Our world is full of people who are self-taught in one or more domains of their lives. While we often reserve the world for someone who seems to be self-taught across many domains of learning, the truth is that all of us are autodidacts in one or more areas, even if it is in simple skills that we use around our homes. Any of us can expand that approach to new domains, using it to develop greater skill and ability in the arts, academic subjects, solving complex problems in the world, personal finance, starting a business, personal health and fitness, building stronger and healthier relationships with other people, or maybe pursuing a social innovation in the world.

The time is ripe for an autodidact revolution, and those who embrace it will find their lives enhanced and their opportunities expanded.

Excessive Teaching Stifles the Love of Learning

Come to the edge,” he said.
They said, “We are afraid.”
“Come to the edge,” he said.
They came.
He pushed them. – Guillaume Appollinaire

I came across a picture recently where a parent or teacher was holding up a sign that said, “Excessive Testing Stifles the Love of Learning.” I agree. You could take an otherwise engaging activity (whether it be in the classroom, on the basketball court, in the wilderness, or even on the playground), and turn it into monotony by filling it with testing. That is just poor instructional design. Feedback and tracking progress are good, even important in many contexts, but testing isn’t the only way to do that. Just throwing tests into otherwise engaging learning environments does little to improve the learning environment. In fact, it can sometimes do the opposite. Yet, testing is not the focus of this article. As much as I agree that excessive testing stifles the love of learning, excessive teaching also stifles the love of learning. Excessive learning, on the other hand, is what I want to see.

What do I mean by excessive teaching? I’m referring to teaching that doesn’t leave room for students to learn how to self-direct and self-regulate. I’m talking about obsessive talking and explaining, filling in all the blanks, not leaving room for messy learning, and running the classroom like one is trying to control a team of bridled horses. As a way of explaining what I mean, I’ve included a series of six quotes followed by a brief commentary.

“Schooling, instead of encouraging the asking of questions, too often discourages it.” Madeleine L’Engle

Excessive teaching is about asking questions and often answering them too. What we want is a learning spaces where teachers ask questions, but students ask even more. And students are the ones exploring and grappling to find answers that often lead to more questions.

“None of the world’s problems will have a solution until the world’s individuals become thoroughly self-educated.” – Buckminster Fuller

Self-education and human agency go hand in hand. If we want to nurture a growing sense of agency in people, then that means less explicit teaching and more nurturing people on how to own and manage their learning.

“When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” ~ Jean Piaget

Discovery is a precious gift. Excessive teaching robs learners of that gift. Or, it is at least a bit like running up to someone and unwrapping their birthday presents for them. Where is the fun and excitement in that…at least for the person with the birthday? We want to remove the equivalent in our classes. Teachers, please stop opening all the presents. Give the learners a chance at the fun and excitement.

“I think schools generally do an effective and terribly damaging job of teaching children to be infantile, dependent, intellectually dishonest, passive and disrespectful to their own developmental capacities.” ~ Seymour Papert

“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” ~ Alfie Kohn

We want authentic, real-world (or at least simulated) activities where the learner is making decisions, experiencing and reacting. This is where some of the best learning happens.

” I learned most, not from those who taught me but from those who talked with me.” –  St. Augustine

Augustine’s quote represents the distinction between learning from and learning with. One is about control. The other is about community. If we can nurture robust and vibrant learning communities, then I think we can address many serious concerns about modern education. The answer is not more or excessive teaching. It is creating spaces for excessive learning.

The Best Course That I Never Taught: Heutagogy in Action

It was the best course that I never taught, heutagogy in action. One of the most important things that I can nurture in a learner is a growing sense of human agency. As such, a recent Twitter exchange promoted this article, an introduction to one of the courses that I most enjoyed teaching on the college level. Interestingly, it is a course that I did not really teach. I played an active role, but I didn’t teach it in the traditional sense of the word.

This post started with a brief Twitter exchange, a question from Franzi Ng (@DrFranzi) about heutagogy in higher education.

This brings me back several years. I taught in a graduate program in Educational Design & Technology. It is and has always been a largely applied and project-based program, with no traditional exams. Instead, students develop an impressive collection of artifacts that demonstrate their growing competence and confidence. While teaching in the program over almost a decade, a small number of students wanted to pursue independent studies to explore a topic of personal interest in greater depth. So, I decided to create a pair of courses that made this easier for students. One was called “Workshop in EDT” and the other “Readings in EDT.” The difference between the two was that “workshop” involved a modest review of the existing research/literature and a larger product or project. The other, “readings” was a larger literature review and a smaller project. However, for both of these courses, they had one core commonality. Instead of the professor independently creating the syllabus as a contract with the students, the student was given a template and asked to propose a syllabus to the professor, one that addresses six key questions. The student meets with the professor, shares a draft of the proposed syllabus, and the two of them refine it and agree upon a final version. Once it is finished, the course begins.

What were those six key elements required in the syllabus? They were largely the elements of any good self-directed learning project.

What is the question that will drive my inquiry?

This should be a compelling, provocative, deep, substantive question of personal interest and have the potential to provide some sort of valuable insight or transformation. As I explained to the learners, this was one of the most important elements of the course, and I refused to develop it for them. It has to come from the learner, from her passions and interests. It had to be something that she cared enough about to devote countless hours of thought and effort, and to persist in exploring even when temporary interest subsides. Find something that you believe in and makes a difference in your work or the world. This will be the question that will drive everything else that you pursue in this course.

Learners were introduced to your reminded about the power of double-loop learning. As such, it was not uncommon for a learner to revise or reframe the inquiry once started with the course. That is, in fact, a good sign that the student is developing an increasingly sophisticated or nuanced understanding of the exploration.

How will I pursue answers to this question?

Once you have a compelling question, now it is time to figure out how you will explore it. This involves a tentative list if suggested readings, field trips, experiments, informal or formal research projects, a review of existing research (I suggest starting with al list of 10 sold scholarly sources for “workshop” or 20 for “readings”.). This should also include a plan on how to start building a personal learning network around this question. How will you find, collect and collaborate with other people in the world who are passionate about the question, similar questions, or related themes?Note that this is a tentative plan.

As the learner started with the inquiry, it was quite common for to return revise it as the learning progressed. At the beginning, they might have a short list of resources and ideas, but as they started to explore valuable resources and connect with people, their awareness would inevitably expand, drawing them to new resources, connections, and activities. In fact, this was a sign that the learner was truly owning the process and, as with #1, discovering the power of double-loop learning.

How will I document my journey?

This should be in a form that the professor/coach can review at any point in the journey, and that will be updated at least twice a week. The student is encouraged to share it with others as well, devising plans to gain feedback from a variety of people. It might be in a wiki, blog, shared Google Doc, a YouTube video log, a shared Evernote folder or anything else. The purpose her is for the learner to show her work, use it for personal reflection and to establish important feedback loops throughout the learning experience.

What culminating product, project or performance will be the result of my work?

This might be a strategic plan, a curricular project, an open education resource, or anything else as long as it clearly and unquestionably displays a deep and substantive exploration of the central inquiry. At the end of the course, the student will have the opportunity to provide a public lecture or performance that includes this culminating work along with a personal reflection/commentary on this final work.

How will this enhance student learning, increase student engagement, and/or increase access and opportunity?

These were three core values of the graduate program, so everything that students did and learned was supposed to be connected to one of these three. The same was true for this project. Of course, these are broad enough themes that a creative self-directed learning could easily build a meaningful connection to at least one of them.

What is the tentative timeline for this journey?

How much time do you intend to devote to this inquiry? Because this was a credit-based course with regional accreditation, we expected students to devote 120-140 hours on this learning. This part of the plan was to map out how much time and when they expected to work on the project. In fact, I encouraged them to schedule it as they would a class or work schedule. Choose specific days and times of day. Of course, this is also tentative, but students were expected to formally revise this plan if it changed. It served as a useful time management and accountability tool for many. I also encouraged students to divide their work up into sprints, similar to what we see with agile software development. As the learner progresses through the course, this timeline/plan is represented in the #2, the documentation of the journey.

Then what?

Once the learner and I agreed upon a syllabus with these questions answered, now was time to get to work. The student and I would check in weekly or sometimes several times a week depending upon what the learner deemed most helpful. My job was largely that of encourager and a bit of a mirror or source of feedback. I asked questions more than anything else, helped the student with accessing University resources, sometimes suggested a name of a person or resource to explore, and occasionally brokered an introduction to a person or group. However, I was keenly aware that my talking or doing too much was a sign that something was not right. This was about the learner, about her learning journey, about growing in competence and confidence as a self-directed learner and as a growing scholar in the desired area of inquiry. Like a mirror, my job was only to draw attention back to the learner and the learning.

To this day, it was still one of the best courses that I never taught.