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.