20+ Education Books About Self-Directed Learning

I remain delighted to see growing interest in self-directed learning. A decade ago, if I would mention self-directed learning in a presentation, it evoked little to no reaction. Today I talk about it and people lean forward, curious and seeking how to nurture the traits of the self-directed learning in their students. They gather afterward to learn more or to share their own passion and experience with it.

I am convinced that there are three major factors contributing to this increased interest. First, the advancements in open learning and the connected world is opening people’s eyes to the many opportunities for informal learning and learning apart from formal teachers and classrooms. It is a critical element of everything from education reform to workforce development. Second, those in formal learning organizations are spending more time exploring the importance of topics like 21st century skills, non-congitive skills and mindsets in the longterm success of learners. It is hard to deny the importance of such skills, competencies and proficiencies in today’s world. Third, the growth of alternative education (everything from homeschooling to Montessori models and project-based learning schools) is giving people visible examples of what happens when you invest in the capacity for people to own their learning. We have exemplars that are producing solid results.

As such, more people are coming to me, asking how they can learn more about self-directed learning (Yes, I understand the surface-level irony in that, but self-directed learning was never about lone ranger learning). With that question in mind, here are 20+ resources to get you started. They include everything from classics to newer releases. They also represent diverse perspectives. The list below represents many perspectives. You don’t need to agree with everything they write to learn from them. If you are willing to bracket your biases and lean into your curiosity about what you can learn about self-directed learning (regardless of the source), this list will give you a solid foundation.

Self-Directed Learning by Malcolm Knowles – This is a classic and seminal work in the area of self-directed learning. While it is often read with the adult learner in mind, Knowles’ ideas are just as relevant today as they were when he first wrote this book, and his practical approach in this book is a great fit for teachers and others seeking how to get started with self-directed learning plans.

The Self-Directed Learning Handbook by Maurice Gibbons – As the title indicates, this is a handbook. It addresses the why and what of self-directed learning, but it is one of the best resources that I’ve seen when it come to the how of self-directed learning.

The Montessori Method Paperback by Maria Montessori – If you want a solid grounding in self-directed learning, you can’t miss out on learning from the master, Maria Montessori. This is a good starting point.

Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Adulthood by Paula Polk Lillard –  While I always suggest going directly to the source (Montessori), Lillard gives a wonderful overfiew of her ideas, drawing from multiple writings. If you want to understand how the Montessori method works not just with the younger children, but up to adulthood, this is a great resource.

Fire Up the Learner Within by Atul Pant – This is written to help the reader grow as a self-directed learner, and that is a great part to start if you want a grounding in SDL. It has to start with your growth and experience as such a learner.

Assessment Strategies for Self-Directed Learning  by Arthur Cost and Bena Kallick – For many, this is neither an exciting or inspiring read. Yet, it does provide those in formal learning organizations with answers for how to go about the task of assessment as you consider nurturing self-directed learners.

Self-Determined Learning: Heutagogy in Action edited by Stwewart Hase and Chris Kenyon

Experiences in Self-Determined Learning edited by Blachke, Kenyon and Hase – Of course I have to include this in the list. I wrote one of the chapters. Apart from that though, this is about more than self-directed learning. It is a text grounded in the ideas of huetagogy and self-determined learning. It is also a collection of chapters that show it in practice across different populations.

Self-Directed Learning: A Practical Guide to Design, Development and Implementation by George Piskurich – Some might consider this an outdated resource. It is over twenty years old and it focuses on how to design self-directed learning modules and training. Yet, I find that some of the ways of thinking and models are still helpful as facilitators think about design considerations for a self-directed learning classroom, school, or community.

Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success by James Bach – This book will give you a compelling vision for the why of self-directed learning. Written by a unquestionable self-directed learning, it is both autobiographical and instructional, giving inspiration and tips for how to get started in your journal as a “buccaneer scholar.”

The Independent Scholar’s Handbook by Ronald Gross – The premise of this book is simple. You don’t need to have a bunch of letters behind your name and a  tenured post in a University to be a scholar and grow as an expert in your field. This book shows how to go about that. It was written in 1993, so don’t expect insights about all the great resources for scholars online, but apart from that gap, it is still a solid resource.

Self University by Charles Hayes – Institutions may have a monopoly on traditional credentials, but they don’t have a monopoly on deep, rich and rewarding learning. Hayes proves that and shows how you can go about learning and even credentialing yourself. It is also a bit dated, but the ideas remain relevant.

Don’t Go Back to School by Kio Stark – In some ways, this is a more current version of Hayes’s text. It gives a compelling why and practical hows for being a learning beyond the confines of formal schooling. Yet, even if you are in a formal school and are a champion for such organizations, the ideas in this book with help you learn how to nurture SDL capacities in your learners.

Don’t Go Back to College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a College Degree By Blake Boles – Blake’s personal journey as a self-directed learner is inspiring, and this book is a solid addition to the collection of resources on the subject.

Hacking Your Education by Dale Stephens – Dale Stephens has gained international attention for this book and his work around uncollege. It takes the spirit and approach of unschooling and applies it to college. It is written for those who might want to abandon the college route as well as those who just want to get the most out of their college learning.

The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn – This is a classic among unschoolers. It will give you a great introduction to the philosophy.

Guerrilla Learning by Grace Llewellyn and Amy Silver – Written for parents, this is guide for how to set your student up for success as an unschooler. Yet, like the others, if you can have an open mind, this is a great resource for those in traditional or alternative education contexts as well.

Unschooling Rules by Clark Aldrich – Clark put together a list of specific tips and insights about the unschooling mindset. While the title mentions unschooling, this guide is just as helpful for those in schools who want to design a learning community rich with engaged and self-directed learners.

The Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith – When we start talking about self-directed learning, the world is our classroom. Griffith explains that in practical and inspiring ways.

Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners by Lori Pickert – This is specifically for homeschooling parents, showing how you can move from the workbooks and kitchen table to rich, student-centered projects. PBL is a great way to introduce young people to the world of self-directed learning.

Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story by Jon Holt – In this book, Holt, a central figure in the last century around education reform, tells the personal story of learning to play an instrument in his 40s. It is a wonderful reminder that it is never to late to learn something new.

Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better by Jon Holt – This book, on the other hand, is a classic work by Holt that sets down his philosophy of education (represented in many of his other books as well). It aligns very well with self-directed learning concepts.

The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman – This is largely from Kaufman’s personal experience, but it shows how he created a simple system to learn new things in around 20 hours. It is a great model for developing personal heuristics as a self-directed learner and can be used as template for those who want a little help getting started.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – If you’ve ever heard people say they are “in the zone” or “lost in the moment”, you understand the basic idea of flow. Yet, in this book, Csikszentmihalyi will open your eyes to all that this encompasses and how you can leverage flow in your own life and the lives of others, including a simple guide for designing learning experiences where people are likely to experience flow.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck – Do you have a fixed or a growth mindset? What about the learners around you? To thrive as a self-directed learner, that calls for a growth mindset, and Dweck will point you in the right direction.

Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills by Linda Nilson and Barry Zimmerman – Written with the more traditional academic context in mind, this is a good text that explores how to help learners take more ownership and learn to regulate their own learner, two critical skills for the developing self-directed learner.

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb – I first read this book when it came out in 2000. Then I read it again…and again. Da Vinci is one of those inspiring figures from history and Gelb, a man who has studied Da Vanci’s life and work more than almost anyone else, explains how we can each nurture seven attributes of Da Vinci in our own life:  Curiosita, Dimonstratzione, SensazioneSfumato, Arte/Scienza, Corporalita, Connessione. 

Pick any five or ten of these texts, read and study them, and you will walk away with a solid foundation in self-directed learning. Whether you want it to grow personally as a learner, to help your children, to nurture more SDL in your business context, or you want to create a self-directed learning makeover in your school, these will point you in the right direction.

By the way, if you would like to suggest other “must read” texts, please consider adding a comment.