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.

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.

Reflections on 5 Common Concerns About Self-Directed Learning

Amid my conversations with people about self-directed learning, I hear five common concerns or questions. I am grateful that people are willing to express these concerns because it provides an opportunity for discussion and to clarify common misconceptions about the SDL movement. With that in mind, following are those five concerns/questions along with reflections and response to each of them.

1) Isn’t self-directed learning selfish?

Given that the word “self” is in the phrase, I can so why people have this concern or question. Let me start by sharing a few definitions. One definition of self-directed learning:

“In selfdirected learning (SDL), the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. Individuals select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, which can be pursued at any time, in any place, through any means, at any age. In schools, teachers can work toward SDL a stage at a time.” –

Here is another definition from Malcolm Knowles 1975 text called Self-Directed Learning:

“…a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or with out the help of other, to diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select and implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes” (p. 18).

Here is yet one more from Gibbons’s 2002 Self-Directed Learning Handbook:

“SDL is any increase in knowledge, skill, accomplishment, or personal development that an individual selects and brings about by his or her own efforts using any method in any circumstances at any time” (p. 2).

As you can see from these three definitions, what most of us mean by self-directed learning is that people own their learning, take responsibility for it, and be deeply invested in it. It is about learning how to learn; how to set goals; devise a plan of action to achieve the goal; establish feedback loops and check progress; and how to find the people, resources, and experiences needed to meet a learning goal. It is not about being selfish, but it is about helping people progress toward independence and personal responsibility.

Here is a comparison that might help. Think of learning like eating a meal. When people are first born, they depend upon someone else to feed them. As they grow and develop, they can take increasing responsibility for feeding themselves. First they learn to use the utensils themselves. They might progress toward selecting some food. Eventually the hope is that they can plan meals, prepare them, and eat them. In doing so, they are also better equipped to help others along the way. As I look at it, that is the value of self-directed learning.

2) Doesn’t self-directed learning ignore the important role of peer interaction? 

When you talk to proponents of even the most radical approaches to self-directed learning, you see lots of peer interaction. As people take more ownership for their learning, it doesn’t mean that they are learning alone. Instead, this ownership often drives them to even greater interaction with a myriad of people. They seek help from peers and offer help to others. They search out mentors, role models and resources. They try to identify teachers who can help them at different parts of their journey. In essence, they learn to develop, rely upon, and take fully advantage of a robust student personal learning network that often extends beyond a single class of students.

3) If we let students direct all their own learning, what about all the gaps that they will miss? They don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t always know what is good for them.

This is an important question, and it is not nearly as easily answered as the first questions because there is indeed a philosophical difference that surfaces at this point. It is true that many proponents of self-directed learning (including myself) tend to be okay with an educational experience that has “gaps.” In other words, it is not an approach to or perspective on education that is focused upon universal standards or a set body of knowledge that must be mastered by all. As such, some in the SDL camp argue that it is okay to have gaps. People will learn something when they discover a need for it, and that will be on a different timeline for each person. The focus is more on helping people learn how to learn and perhaps nurturing a love of learning more broadly.

However, there are many perspectives on self-directed learning. There are plenty who seek to work within the existing system of education that tends to care about standards for math, language arts, science, and other key areas. Or, if it is not focused on standards, it might be a system focused on core knowledge considered important to be culturally literate, or perhaps a cannon of literature that is deemed necessary for a truly liberal education. Alongside meeting these typical expectations, there is also an intentional effort to provide the time, space and flexibility for students to engage in more self-directed learning. As such, you can see self-directed learning contexts along a spectrum ranging from entirely student-driven all the way to the other side of the spectrum that has a largely prescribed curriculum but leaves space for students to develop skill and confidence as self-directed learners.

4) This sounds nice for the well-equipped and motivated students, but how could this work for all young (or older) people. What about all the unmotivated and disadvantaged people?

I’ll start by pointing back to my response to the last question, noting that there is a spectrum of the extent to which learning environments are self-directed. Alongside that, I acknowledge that some people will more easily transition to a self-directed context than others. I’ve talked to leaders of some schools that say it may take a year or more in a deeply self-directed context before certain students start to own their learning. In more traditional school contexts with a self-directed learning element, the same is true. Some will transition more easily and readily. However, I do caution people to not assume that certain students or certain types of students are incapable of becoming self-directed learners in life. In fact, if we are truly committed to bridging achievement gaps and inequities in work and education, I contend nurturing competence and confidence as a self-directed learner is the very thing that we need.

The best advice I have for people with this concern is to do some solid, investigative work to test their underlying assumptions. Visit some schools and learning communities with a self-directed learning focus. Observe, talk to students, teachers/coaches/mentors, parents and other stakeholders. As one who has done this, I’ve seen a variety of students thriving in these contexts. In fact, one message that I’ve heard from students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds is how much it mattered for people to believe that they were indeed capable of such work and responsibility.

This doesn’t mean it is always an easy transition, and I’ve encountered plenty who didn’t have the patience and persistence to see the student shift to self-direction. It can be a painful and a fear-inducing journey for some, especially parents. Yet, proponents of self-directed learning will often tell you that it does or can indeed happen in time. Others acknowledge that, without the necessary support systems in place at home and/or the readiness of the learner to take ownership, it may be better to pursue a more traditional schooling option.

In the end, however, self-directed learning is not about a certain format of school. It is about a mindset, a disposition, and a type of agency that grows within a learner. For that reason, you can find highly competent and confident self-directed learners who attended traditional K-12 schools or colleges. They may have developed this above and beyond what they do in the regular school. In fact, I contend that this is why many people end up pursuing jobs (even callings) that were sparked by hobbies, modeling and experiences from family and others, and many other outside-of-school experiences. Interview a dozen computer programmers who love their jobs and see how many developed that love through formal classes alone, versus those who hacked and geeked out at home and elsewhere. Do the same for engineers, authors, mechanics, entrepreneurs, biologists, entertainers, and people in different helping professions. Quite often, the spark for their interest came beyond the classes and a standard school curriculum. It very often came in places where they had choice and/or took interest and ownership in something.

5) What is the role of the teacher in a self-directed context? Or, isn’t self-directed learning anti-teacher?

SLD isn’t anti-teacher. It is just heavily pro-learner in the sense that it is all about helping people become the leaders of their own learning journey now and throughout life. This doesn’t mean that they don’t know the value of learning from others, even sometimes submitting to the will of another in order to learn. However, SDL does tend to focus on helping people take responsibility for their own learning.

Self-directed learners use and benefit from teachers, mentors, models, and coaches. Teachers can be valuable resources for reaching one’s learning goals. The difference is that traditional perspectives on education start with the idea that the teacher is in charge, and SDL is about empowering the learner to be in charge. It is about setting people free more than keeping them under control. In most formal learning contexts focused on SDL, there is still a leader, teacher, coach, or mentor who helps people on their way. They might set up certain boundaries. They might set rules or requirements within which one is able to self-direct. They might coach and encourage. They might provide guidance through socratic questioning. These leaders might also help people develop the confidence and skills to be more self-directed. However, the goal is to help people progress toward greater levels of personal ownership, responsibility and independence.


Many of the questions above and responses are focused on the idea of a self-directed school or formal learning environment, and that is indeed a valuable part of the conversation. As more research points out the importance of developing non-cognitive skills to thrive in work and life, many practices among self-directed learning advocates will get new interest and attention. At the same time, I contend that growing as a self-directed learning is bigger than the type of school one does or does not attend. It is a fundamental literacy of life and learning in a connected world. It ultimately doesn’t matter where or how a person develops as a self-directed learner, but it is necessary to thrive in many modern contexts.

Self-Directed Learning: One of My Educational Moonshots

In the United States we celebrate Independence Day, the 4th of July. We commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which includes these famous words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As I read it, this is a declaration, but it is also an aspiration and invitation to let these words shape our thoughts, actions and institutions. They point us toward some paths and away from others. I remember being inspired by this quote in my childhood, and it continues to conjure excitement and possibility when I read it today. It is a statement that influences my thoughts and philosophy of education, and it certainly informs much of my work and writing related to futures in education, educational innovation, and self-directed learning. Among other things, it points me toward the idea that each person matters, that there are indeed inalienable rights among people, and that freedom and independence are (both individually and collectively) important values. As such, I thought I’d use this time of year to share a bit more about how I see my work connecting with such a statement, how it is tied to the value of individual rights and empowering people to enjoy the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  In doing so, I will be sharing one of my educational moonshots with you.

Education is unbundling and we might be surprised to see where this takes us over the next 10-15 years (perhaps much sooner). As there continue to be discussions about the importance of education reform, reimagining how we “do” education in primary, secondary and tertiary schools; maybe the key to education reform is not about creating better schools as much as it is about empowering and inspiring self-directed learners, people with a deep sense of agency. Before I get to that, I ask for your patience as we back up and quickly trace how unbundling developed over millennia.

Textual and Oral Communication

It could be said the unbundling of learning started with the emergence of the written word. Once people started recording messages in writing, it opened new doors to communicating with others across both time and space. It unbundled substantive human interaction from a shared physical space. Religions used this affordance to engage in one of the earliest forms of distance (or blended education), namely communicating the core narratives of the faith to people across generations and locations. As such, text is a core part of teaching in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and many other religions. The New Testament Christian Scriptures, for example, largely consist of letters that were written from someone like the apostle Paul to a community of Christians in a city like Galatia, with the intent that they would pass the letter to other cities as well. Making copies was a valued and tedious task, so people were still drawn together to hear and learn from a text that was passed from one place to another.

With the printing press and mass-produced books, we saw yet another unbundling. Now text didn’t just allow communication across time and space. It also made it possible to unbundle text-based learning from the gathering of people in a shared space. One could read in isolation. There are even some records noting that earliest readers would usually read out loud and/or move their mouths with the words, because text was still tied to community and oral communication with others. It appears that the innovation of silent reading was born out of the mass-produced book…a further unbundling.

The telegraph, telephone, and radio allowed one to have yet another unbundling. Prior to these technologies, you could communicate across time and space, but the time/space attributes were still tied together. If you communicated with someone a thousand miles away, they could read it at a later time, but not at the same time (or nearly same time) as when you constructed the message. The telegraph and telephone both changed that. Now you could communicate back and forth across space while largely making it a real-time (synchronous) message, getting it to another person or group of people at the same or nearly same time. Or, with radio, it was mostly one-way communication, but it would be mass communication, one speaker reaching tens of thousands (even millions) of people with a real-time message. These technologies unbundled real-time communication from a shared physical space.

Imagery and Multimedia

We have parallels in the communication of imagery, starting with early drawings, paintings and sculptures. Books allowed sharing visual messages across space and time. By the 17th century, we see innovations like Comenius’s Orbis Pictus (World of Pictures), a text to teach Latin largely through images. Then we go on to moving pictures, television (with that real-time or nearly now communication across space), interactive imagery and video conferencing. Each provides a new affordance, unbundling the way we understood the use of communication through visuals (everything from art to body language / nonverbals). Within modern education, we’ve seen the connections of classes across space in real-time, one-to-one real-time interactions between student and instructor, group real-time interaction through various web conferencing technologies, and multiple point interactions, like a dozen people each in their homes engaging in real-time communication with each other. All this unbundling from time and space naturally led to the development of distance education, starting in the 17th century leading up to the many forms today.

The Internet

Then, of course, we have this little development called the Internet, a collection of technologies that allows the mixing and connecting of the many developments before it. We have real-time (synchronous) text-based, audio and/or video. We have asynchronous (at different times) text-based audio and/or video. We have interactive text, video, and images. We have human-computer communications in the form of adaptive learning software, tutorials, and educational apps. There are hundreds of different designs that mix and match the various technologies to create learning experiences, environments, and communities.

A Critical Literacy

All these developments allowed for an unbundling of the learning experience from shared times and space (one, the other, or a combination), but each of these previous developments also allowed for sociocultural unbundling and restructuring. Early books still called for people to gather in shared spaces like a University or religious community to participate in shared learning around that text. This power of community remains a valued part of learning today, with entire learning theories built around it. Libraries became available, allowing some access to this wealth of knowledge independently. Yet, with the mass-produced book, we created new access to independent learning about some of the most cutting-edge and complex topics. However, access was not enough. The person who benefitted the most was the one who was literate and capable of directing his/her own learning. In the United States, we continue to celebrate this trait in historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Edison. We extend that today by celebrating some of the great entrepreneurs of the digital age who dropped out of school to start their businesses. We would be wise to continue to celebrate these figures, as they point us to the most powerful literacy of the modern age.

A Legacy of Makers

Of course, throughout history, we also have a legacy of tinkerers, makers, inventors, and innovators. These are people who discover the power of learning by doing; much of it outside the confines of a formal learning organization. What these other technological advancements did for the doers and makers is that it connected them in new ways, turning the sometimes solitary work of one into a worldwide community around the same or a similar goal. Even with all this connecting, we also see moments where people in these innovator networks partly unplug, hide out, and put their skunkworks into action for some shared goal.

Connectedness and Democratizing Learning Resources

I’ve shared here and elsewhere when I had my first aha moment about the nature of life and learning in a connected world. I was reading a book in the early 1990s, had a question about it, found the author online, emailed him, and had a wonderful albeit brief written exchange. The book turned into a two-day conversation with a leading expert, all apart from any formal learning environment and in a matter of minutes or hours. For the first time, I was experiencing the democratization of access to leading scholars, innovators and experts…outside of the walls of a college. This is further amplified by social media. Today we find ourselves in a connected landscape that allows for seemingly limitless blends of the various technologies already mentioned and the many types of interactions, contexts, communities and connections made possible by them. Knowledge networks are available outside of formal schooling along with robust communities learners, leading minds and influencers in a given area. Higher education learning communities remain nicely packaged and organized opportunities for those who can afford it. However, the unbundling that occurred with all the pre-mentioned technologies also creates new opportunity to unbundle educational organizations themselves.

Who Benefits from This?

Who most benefits from this? Traditional higher educational institutions seem to be at a disadvantage because of regional accreditors and federal regulations (tied to participating in the federal financial aid program or taking federal grant money). These institutions are typically not agile. They have the sole ability to offer diplomas with the stamp of accreditation, but a verified piece of paper may not be enough in this new unbundled educational world. As such, I see two groups that have the most to gain: education companies and self-directed learners. I do work and research on both fronts, so I’ll mention both below. However, my primary interest at the moment is that self-directed learner.

Education Companies and Startups

Consider the rapid growth of education startups. Some are B2B companies, still focusing upon services to the highly regulated schools and Universities. Others are providing unbundled services directly to learners. Either way, these companies have more freedom to innovate and provide various educational services. I expect to see many more educational companies and corporations bypassing the college degree in the future, offering equally valued training, perhaps at a fraction of the cost. What may hold the University together is the social experience more than “license” to issue diplomas. In the end, we need competency more than credentials. The exclusive right to issue a certain piece of paper will probably be tolerated much longer in the most regulated industries like healthcare, but we already see hints that people in society are beginning to realize that the emperor has no clothes. The diploma is still a respected academic currency today. It is just that more people area also realizing and respecting alternatives to the diploma. This is most evident in some parts of the tech sector and business. This is a huge opportunity for education startups.

Self-directed Learners

The other party who can greatly benefit from this unbundling is the self-directed learner, the person with the competence and confidence to self-blend his/her own learning. This is the person who is positioned to best take advantage of the affordances available in the connected world. It is the person who can pull from the many options, connections and services available; using them to accomplish personal goals. In fact, even as people talk about education (and they seem to mean formal school) as a human rights issue of the 21st and 22nd century, I argue that becoming a self-directed learner is the critical literacy needed to take full advantage of life and learning in a 21st and 22nd century.

The Moonshot

This is an educational moonshot for me; figuring out how we can support, empower, and encourage a world of curious, generous self-directed learners. Schools, especially primary and secondary ones, may be helpful when/if they are willing to focus their efforts on it, but it calls for schools to engage in truly self-sacrificial work. Their goal can’t be self-preservation as much as to wean learners from always needing the pre-packaged and served educational meal, empowering them to be truly competent, confident, creative, curious learners. By self-directed, I don’t mean isolated. We all need and benefit from teachers, mentors, models and coaches for various goals in our lives. What I’m talking about is being focused upon nurturing a deep sense of agency in people. People can have rights without exercising them, they can have gifts that they never open and use. I believe that nurturing self-directed learning and agency helps people more fully express their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Anywhere I’ve seen glimpses of this, I’ve been amazed and delighted by the outcomes. A critical issue is that there is a growing divide today between truly gifted self-directed learners and the deeply dependent people who are not. This is an “achievement gap” that could have grave social consequences if we are not committed to doing something significant about it.

A Confession

I do not consider myself an expert learner nor am I truly an expert in nurturing self-directed learners. I am, however, a lifelong student of it. This is a persistent pursuit, but I realize that there are complex social, psychological, political, economic, even spiritual dynamics at work that make this a difficult path; and I don’t yet deeply understand all of these complexities. That is partly why I call it a moonshot, but one that I am taking. This is not just about finding and celebrating the occasional self-directed learning rock star. For me it is about making self-directed learning a literacy as broadly valued and nurtured as learning how to read a book. Each week I find myself developing a stronger sense of urgency around this goal, and I intend to use that as fuel for the mission. I’m also realizing that I probably need to make some changes in the near future if I really want to achieve this goal. I’m still gaining clarity about those changes, but the goal remains clear and worth the cost.