Updated: May 18, 2020
[This article is the first of a three-part series. This Part 1 looks at Self-Directed Learning, its benefits, and one major consideration for adopting and adapting this philosophy.]
On April 24, 2020, Michael Austin published this article on Edutopia.org titled Why Are Some Kids Thriving During Remote Learning? His article poses the question: "Though remote learning has brought many challenges, some students seem to be thriving in the new circumstances. What can we learn from them?"
Austin's article is only one example of how educators and students across the country are realizing that the traditional school structure could benefit from, what is essentially, a self-directed learning environment. His article highlights how a self-paced flexible schedule with reduced micro-managing as well as increased and improved sleep can improve academic learning. In order to implement such benefits into a traditional school system, school leaders might benefit from adopting and adapting creative solutions rooted in a self-directed learning philosophy. Such a shift in philosophy could improve student learning particularly for those schools and districts considering a hybrid of school-at-home and school-at-school education.
What is a Self-Directed Learning Philosophy
Self-directed learning is a philosophy, not a program, so it isn't as simple as one specific checklist of tasks for any school or person - but is also not too terribly complicated. The idea is this: if a person truly wants to learn about a topic, they will be intrinsically motivated to learn everything they want to learn about that topic. Today, the role of the teacher has become more focused on self, social, and societal awareness and management as Universities and corporations across the country and around the world seek these non-academic skills in our graduates. It is in this self-directed learning philosophy that schools will find the motivation to make the necessary compromises to their current traditional practices.
"Self-Directed Learning has been around for a long time."
Self-Directed Learning, in its truest form, is autodidactic - learning without the aid of a teacher. The word's Greek origin comes from autos (self) + didaskein (to teach). There are many examples of autodidactic, or self-directed, learners. Unfortunately, it's more common for people to reference high-profile CEOs like Bill Gates or genius "drop outs" like Albert Einstein. There are many extremely well-known and renowned writers, artists, architects, engineers, scientists, and even Nobel-prize winners throughout history and around the world. Self-Directed Learning has been around for a long time and many have found success without completing a formal education. Many famous autodidacts have been written about regarding their impact on our world throughout history. What's amazing is that our world today has been referred to as The Second Machine Age with a focus on global communication technologies. Part of this modern age is this growing development some are calling the Era of the Autodidact which is highlighting this sudden need to promote Self-Directed Learning as a viable option when it comes to school choice.
On particular article in favor of such a self-directed philosophy for learning was published in Psychology Today back in 2016 which claimed that it has "never been easier, or more important, to grow your own knowledge base" and proceeded to describe the science of self-directed learning available at the time.
There are facilities based on this philosophy and focus on learning through promoting and supporting rather than defining and assigning. Student populations in these facilities are typically much smaller than public school population sizes. They tend to attract communities of #homeschool families and are often led by those with an #unschooling philosophy. This means a set curriculum is not prescribed and assigned; instead, students are encouraged to explore their interests. While there are challenges to adopting this philosophy into larger public school populations, it's important to recognize the benefits of adapting this philosophy, to consider what compromises might be necessary, for the sake of families who recognize the benefits but are without access to such a a self-directed learning facility. It is also important for schools to recognize that strategic compromise of their own traditional beliefs toward what school is (versus what school ought to be) can result in the kinds of benefits describe here.
"Facilities all over the world are based on this philosophy..."
There have been attempts to introduce "school" to this self-directed philosophy. The following model was developed by Gerald Grow in 1991. Grow proposed that "learners advance through stages of increasing self-direction and that teachers can help or hinder that development." Although his work was focused on adult education, I argue that the impetus of need for adult education to require such a transitional model is that our K-12 public education system is not providing students with meaningful options for developing a self-directed learning philosophy.
Benefits of a Self-Directed Learning Philosophy
Self-Pacing. Flexible scheduling. Reduced micro-managing. Improved sleep. These are examples from the article mentioned above which teachers and students are realizing can, and are, greatly benefiting many students. There are a variety of unique benefits to a self-directed learning philosophy - the following are only a few, but it is important to consider these benefits in the context of an inevitable return to a school-at-home / school-at-school hybrid learning environment.
Self-pacing is difficult in a large school setting, but not impossible. Schools are beginning to recognize that it is not as important when a student learns a skill or concept as much as it is how meaningful and to what degree of proficiency that skill or concept is learned. When it comes to competency-based learning, I've found that students can learn two to three years of a skill's progression in a very short amount of time. The catch, however, is two-fold: (1) the student must find interest in that particular skill or concept, and (2) the response of the teacher must be one of affirmation more than it is confirmation. Proclaiming learning has reached a point at which a student no longer "needs" to learn beyond that point is an undesired effect of poorly implemented standards-based approaches to instruction and assessment.
Flexible scheduling is also possible in a large school setting. Assigned classroom schedules serve as a reasonable measure for oversight and accountability of student safety (discussed further in Part 2). However, once in those assigned classrooms, a traditional model tends to micro-manage segments of each hour to instruct, assign, and oversee specific learning regardless of student interest. Instead, coaching students in time-management and progress monitoring might not require all students in one room exercise such life skills using the exact same academic skill or concept. Students who learn how to learn will benefit more from having time to socially reflect on what and how they are learning, utilizing teachers, peers, and other reference tools for learning in a self-paced environment. In this case, the benefit of teachers in each classroom becomes one of expertise in human development. Additionally, students seeking specific content mastery will recognize the value of a particular teacher's content mastery in which shorter and more focused learning can happen as students seek out such expertise.
Sleep, above all else, has long been proven a necessity for students in the K-12 grade levels. Parents often complain about how much or how little their teen-age child sleeps. It's often overlooked that academic and social challenges in a child's life are often brand new to them and that excitement (or anxiety) of their own social identities, personal interests and passions, and awareness of self can be overwhelming. When students wake at 5:30am in order to get to school and sit in micro-managed classrooms, where they are told when to eat and when to rest and have to ask permission to use the restroom, only to come home with hours of homework, all on top of family, friends, and extracurricular demands - it is no wonder that sleep is often sacrificed. Schools that allow more sleep in a student's life have seen a need for less demands to be placed on students but that the result is higher quality student learning. In this case, it might be argued that the quality of is more important than the quantity of student learning experiences.
Motivation in a Self-Directed Learning Environment
Schools seeking to improve not only academic achievement but also social, emotional, and character development will find themselves needing to consider motivation for student learning as they explore creative solutions for a post-pandemic school environment.
It's more than just a carrot and a stick.
A large focus for motivation in a traditional school environment is the use of what is often called the carrot-and-stick model. It's a very simple model and one that companies use often. However, articles have highlighted its ineffectiveness in business in the 21st century. Social psychologists over the past fifty years have since railed against this model, including such renowned professionals as William Glasser and Alfie Kohn. Schools that use this model typically focus on assigning tasks with deadlines which earn students a reward such as a point or a grade (i.e. the "carrot"). Students that fail to comply receive a consequence (i.e. the "stick"). For us as adults, we often struggle to talk about other forms of motivation in schools because our own experience was likely influenced largely by this carrot-and-stick model.
Other methods for motivation exist.
Relationships. Interests. Passions. Achievements. Curiosity. These are all sources of personal motivation. The use of such carrot-and-stick models can undermine the intrinsic motivation of a person seeking to learn. That's not to say a person might not reward themselves for overcoming an obstacle or consider the loss of relationship as punishment for a particular behavior. The desire for relationships, interests, and passions can guide and develop behaviors that align with a person's environment. It isn't that a person only does the right thing because they are taught the right thing, it is because they experience and interpret what is right in the context of the situation.
How to develop intrinsic motivation in students is a source of much discussion. The trouble people seem to have, particularly in a public education system, is that oversight and accountability of student learning must be evident and effective. This has resulted in an unhealthy and unproductive degree of control over student learning. This has also resulted in a shift in ownership of student learning such that adults, not students, are being held solely responsible for student learning. A self-directed learning philosophy balances that ownership between teachers, parents, and students, by placing the emphasis of instruction on helping students learn how to learn, instead of only what to learn.
Motivation has become a hot topic in neuroscience.
In addition to social psychology, neuroscience has also provided insights into how humans are motivated to act. As of 2013, dopamine (a chemical in the brain) was once thought to regulate pleasure and reward but, in fact, was found to be responsible for motivation in order to achieve something good or avoid something evil. Actually, in 2016, a study was done to specifically test this idea. The study found that dopamine, in relation to self-motivation, could be trained without the use of external physical reward cues.
"It was believed that dopamine regulated pleasure and reward and that we release it when we obtain something that satisfies us, but in fact the latest scientific evidence shows that this neurotransmitter acts before that, it actually encourages us to act. In other words, dopamine is released in order to achieve something good or to avoid something evil." (source: Science Daily)
Schools seeking to adopt and adapt a self-directed learning environment will find reasons to open this discussion up to their communities. As adults learn more about how humans learn, adjustments can be made about how learning is managed. With a self-directed learning philosophy, such insights can create opportunities to reflect on how schools might promote and support student interests and how learning can lead to both personal and community growth and achievement.
Compulsory education does not have to be a factory assembly-line job in preparation for an assembly-line future. These first eighteen years of a person's life could be about developing mastery of interests through exploration, reaching out to experts, researching new ideas, developing solutions and learning based on a desire to become proficient according to life-long goals. Academic standards and social-emotional competencies can play a role in this process. This is where a self-directed learning philosophy in this school-at-home situation can offer a few distinct benefits as they plan for a return to perhaps a hybrid school-at-home and school-at-school environment. This is discussed in more detail in Part 2.
The image shown here is detailed in my blog post "Beliefs and Behaviors" (April 2019). Click on the image to read more on this topic.
Part 2 will be available soon. Subscribe for updates
Part 2 dives deeper into the impact of a self-directed philosophy on compliance and academic instruction in the traditional school model.
Part 3 will be available soon. Subscribe for updates
Part 3 looks at the impact of a self-directed learning philosophy on elements of a school's culture.
May 5, 2020
Exploring the Core LLC
Other Published Media by this Author:
The Exploring the Core Podcast (Season 1, 8 Episodes): https://exploring-the-core-podcast.simplecast.com/ (also streaming on Spotify and iTunes)
Creating a Self-Directed Learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social Emotional Learning by Greg Mullen (Corwin Press, 2019)