Do Self-Directed Learners Use Mentors, Guides & Coaches?

For those not familiar with self-directed learning, they sometimes have a stereotype about what it means to be a self-directed learner. One of them includes this vision of the solitary and independent learner who does things her way. She only depends upon herself, not relying upon teachers or others. Yet, in my study of self-directed learning, that tends to be far from true. In fact, many self-directed learners actively seek out different guides and mentors in their pursuit of new learning goals. They own the learning, but they seek out mentors and guides to accomplish their learning goals.

Self-directed learning is not solitary learning. It is not anti-teacher, anarchist, nor is it selfish. At least that is not the vision for most advocates and champions of self-directed learning. What makes it distinct is that the learner, not a teacher or other authority, takes increasing ownership for the what, why and how of learning. It stems from a conviction that teaching self-sufficiency and self-regulation is effectively done by providing contexts where one is able to practice self-regulating and being increasingly self-sufficient.

As such, growing as a self-directed learner often involves developing a deeper understanding of the value behind finding and learning from coaches, mentors, and other guides. Within the context of some of these relationships, you might find a self-directed embracing a largely teacher-directed learning experience. Consider the many examples in team sports, ballet and dance, martial arts training, vocal coaches and music teachers, and much more.

Interestingly enough, almost all of those learning contexts have rich traditions and practices associated with personalized and frequent feedback. I love watching this in action when my son is in Taekwondo class. They start sitting on the floor in a very structured manner. Where you sit matters. How you sit matters. How you dress matters. The teacher is up front and starts the class in a similar way each day. Then he takes them through a series of elements. The students largely imitate what the teacher does, yet the teacher is watching closely and giving almost all of his feedback to individuals, not the group. It is less about the class getting their act together and almost always comments specific to a person, and it is a precise correction.

Students must concentrate. They concentrate on the teacher’s instructions but also very carefully upon what they are doing. They are engaging in a deep, focused, deliberate form of practice; something well supported in the literature for optimal growth and performance. Sometimes the teacher calls one person up front to perform. Others observe and learn. The teacher is almost entirely focused on that one student, giving any necessary correction and feedback. If one needs further assistance, that person is sent to the back of the room to work with another teacher, practicing even further as the class continues. There is little to no judgment or losing face. It is just part of the process. It is an understood method of getting better, achieving the goals.

Considering such a context, it does not seem very self-directed. In fact, it is among the more teacher-directed learning context that you will see. Yet, when we look closer, it is incredibly personalized and each person is challenged to develop a growing capacity for self-correction. In fact, when I see my son practicing at home, he is making constant corrections to himself, not at the end but with each precise movement. It was only a matter of months after starting Taekwondo that he was able to think and speak with more precision about his movements than in any other domain in his life. His sense of agency is growing. His understanding of deliberate practice has drastically improved. His attention span has extended. In other words, in this very teacher-directed context, he is building critical skills for self-direction.

Yet, this is all something that he chose. He is not forced to return to practice. He chooses to do so. He owns this. In doing so, he is achieving a set of personal goals. This is what happens with all of us as we grow as self-directed learners. We set personal goals, explore our options for learning (including more structured and teacher-centered contexts), weigh the benefits and limitations of these options, and choose that which we think will help us best reach our goals given other limitations and parameters (time, money, other resources, etc.).

We can all learn from others, sometimes peers, other times people who have traveled much further down a specific pathway. This is just as true for the self-directed learner. In fact, the empowered self-directed learner is likely to see that the options are far more extensive than we might think. They are certainly far beyond the menu of options within a given school or context, and they continue throughout our lives. As such, self-directed learners are open to a myriad of teachers, coaches, mentors and guides in their pursuit of new learning and experiences.

Let’s Start Building Airplanes with Our Students

I’m convinced. It is time to start building airplanes with our students. I recently returned from a wonderful trip to Hong Kong where I gave a keynote at the 21st Century Learning Conference, followed by a short stop in Hanoi, Vietnam. There I led an evening workshop for educators at three international schools. The topic for my keynote and workshop was self-directed learning, especially exploring the why and how of creating opportunities for students to develop the competence and confidence to be self-directed learners. While I hope that I shared something of value, I certainly came away with a story that challenged me to take my thinking and work about self-directed learning to the next level.

Technically, it wasn’t even a story about self-directed learning. As best as I could tell, it was more of a teacher-guided project-based learning experience, but the scope of the project was incredible. I was about halfway through my workshop on designing self-directed learning projects when a teacher in the back of the room mentioned something about building an airplane with his students. To tell the truth, I don’t think it stuck at the time. It was only during a short break when I spoke with this teacher, he pulled out his phone, and showed me a picture of him, his students, and the actual airplane that they built together over a 12-18 month period.

This was a first. I’ve seen some incredible projects in schools throughout the United States, but this is the first time that I’ve ever heard of a teacher building an airline with his students and then flying it. Can you imagine the impact of such an experience upon the students who worked with the teacher on this project? How many young people can say that they accomplished as monumental of a task as to building an airplane at school? This certainly puts all of those baking soda volcano science projects into perspective.

What excites me about this story is that it is the sort learning experience that changes the lives of learners. This is the kind of accomplishment that has the potential to nurture incredible confidence and a sense of agency. As we accomplish increasingly uncommon and larger tasks, we tend to develop the capacity and confidence to take on even larger projects.

Here are five reasons why I would love to see more “build an airplane” projects in schools.

Small Pieces & a Big Result

In the case of this teacher and his students, they used a kit to build the airplane. As such, you could just think of this as a massive puzzle, but building something from individual pieces is a great way to discover how individual pieces come together to make something massive. With a little guidance, there are some rich lessons for learners in such an experience. Great accomplishments, projects, and products start with a single step…a single piece.

Expanded Sense of Possibility

These stretch experiences broaden our sense of what is possible. How many times do we miss out on opportunities because we do not think they are in the realm of possibility for us? Yet, when young people are involved in accomplishing these seemingly impossible projects, they are set up to do the same thing throughout their lives.

Extended Projects

Many great accomplishments in life take more than a few days or weeks, yet most of what students work on in schools is broken into small chunks. Great accomplishments involve persisting with a project over months or years, so why not give students some experience with that in school?


This was a team project. No single student built the airplane, but together, with the help of their guide, they accomplished this task. Now that is the type of cooperative learning that aligns well with the nature of great cooperation and collaboration in the world beyond school.

Build It and Try It

There was no certainty that they would be successful with this project, and that is the nature of projects in the real world. Nonetheless, they set out to build it, tested it, likely had to make adjustments and gain new knowledge to troubleshoot problems, and they persisted until they got their desired outcome. This strategic experimentation is a valuable life lesson.

This story leads me to wonder what would happen if students had the chance to do the equivalent of building airplanes every year or two in school. What would that do for their confidence, capcity for taking on large tasks later in life, working through complex problems and projects, working with a team to carry out something grand and inspiring, and persisting with a project over an extended period? Can you imagine a student experiencing the completion of 8-10 such projects over the course of her K-12 schooling?

If you can’t tell, I’m sold in the idea. Maybe it is time for us to start building airplanes with our students.

A Self-Directed Learning Reality Check

I’m an advocate for self-directed learning. There is no question about that. I write about it often, and affirm its benefits so much that it has led to valid critiques that I seem to bite the formal education hand that feeds me. This does not mean, however, that I disregard the limitations of self-directed learning, and there are genuine potential limitations. Here are four of the more common ones.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 1 – Opportunity

Formal credentials and degrees still open doors for people. This is true in some fields more than others. There are plenty of fields and positions where alternative pathways to demonstrating excellence are adequate for getting an interview and the job. Yet, I’ve witnessed dozens of situations where otherwise qualified people did not get an interview, an invitation to apply, or the job because they lacked the minimum degree qualifications on the job posting. Some people are willing to make exceptions but there are plenty of companies where people are just working at a pace and with such a volume that they rarely take the time to look for alternative evidence. Some companies only accept applicants with degrees from specific institutions. Fair or not, this is a reality. The degree is shorthand to some for being at least potentially qualified. It is an easy way for an initial screening. As such, there are ample situations today where not having the degree decreases your chances or sometimes restricts you from having any chance at a given job or a promotion.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 2 – Gaps

Sometimes the self-directed learning pathway leaves gaping holes in one’s education or training in a given area. A well-designed, systematic program is intended to fill most of those gaps. We can debate how well some programs do this, but certain jobs or professions call for more precision, and gaps are highly problematic. A surgeon needs to have a core set of skills and we probably don’t want surgeons who have too many gaps in those core skills. This is true in other less life-or-death jobs and fields of study as well.

Of course, self-directed learners can embrace formal study and carefully constructed learning pathways that reduce gaps in learning, but not always. This is sometimes a limitation of the self-directed learning approach. Some people can learn to play an instrument independent of a teacher, but most benefit from an expert guide.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 3 – The Network

What I call “degree drive” is a learning pathway that is often about more than just taking a series of courses, getting adequate grades, meeting graduation requirements and getting a fancy piece of paper at the end of the journey. Some, but not all, college experiences are also rich opportunities for building a network that can serve you well throughout your life. Intentional self-directed learners can certainly build powerful networks as well, but I can’t disregard the impact of being an alum from well-respected schools that offer not only a solid education but a network that can help throughout one’s life and career. Some argue that this is the true bonus of graduating from many top ranked colleges and Universities. Yes, they provide a solid educational experience, but they also give you an incredible, world-class professional network.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 4 – Followership

I’m quick to talk and write about developing leadership skills, but I can’t disregard the importance of learning to be a world-class follower too. Not all of us will be our own boss throughout life. Most people will hold jobs and positions where they report to others. Even when you are a CEO, you might report to a board. As such, it is important to learn to follow with excellence.

I’m not sure that being a student in school is the absolute best training ground for followership. In fact, I’m certain that it isn’t. Yet, it can be a place to learn some of the associated skills of great followers, and this can be an important journey toward great leadership. There is no question that you can learn important skills of followership through a more self-directed learning experience, but I want to at least recognize that some of the scripted or directed aspects of a schooling experience (even in more self-directed schools) can be opportunities to learn these skills.

There are many benefits to self-directed learning and I write about them often. I even go so far as to argue that nurturing self-directed learners is important for society. At the same time, for a balanced consideration, I want recognize that there can be limitations to this path, and that the degree or schooling pathway has some affordances as well.

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.