Self-directed learning doesn’t always get a positive spin in mainstream education or media. On more than one occasion, when I’ve suggested that educators consider new instructional models that hinge on what students can learn independently, I’ve heard skeptical responses such as “that only works for motivated kids,” or “that doesn’t work for elementary-aged students.” During the pandemic, the ineffectiveness of self-directed learning for some seems to be at least one of the reasons behind the push for schools to reopen for in-person learning for all as soon as possible. But over the last year, my experiences and observations have convinced me that having students manage their own learning can be a powerful practice with worthwhile benefits—if done right.
Self-directed learning at home
When schools around the world closed their campuses last spring, my wife, Mary, and I decided to switch our elementary students (ages seven, nine, and ten at that time) from our neighborhood school to a virtual school in our area that is a free public charter school. Since making that decision, our day-to-day life has settled into a surprisingly simple routine: Our kids do their school work, Mary and I work at our jobs at home.
That simple routine is possible because of a range of strategic supports and structures. Our kids access their learning experiences through an online platform that lists the assignments and learning activities they are expected to complete in their online curriculum each day. They also each have about three hours per week of optional whole-class video calls with their teachers. If they get stuck on an assignment, they pop into the room where we work to ask for help. (Mary deserves the lion’s share of credit for staying on top of our kids’ learning needs. Fortunately the nature of our jobs gives us the ability to take short breaks to help them and my teaching experience gives me some intuitions on how to offer support.) They also email their teachers to arrange one-on-one video calls if they need clarification on an assignment or ongoing help in a particular area (our oldest meets twice a week with his teacher for help with math, and our second child meets twice a week with a reading specialist). We’ve also developed some simple supportive structures, such as charts with lists of their school work, house chores, and other enrichment activities that they mark off as they go through each day. Lastly, their need for social interaction is helped by the fact that they are close in age and play well together. And to be completely transparent, our kids have had moments of frustration and tears as we’ve figured out self-directed learning together.
But with these structures in place, there’s no one giving our kids minute-by-minute or hour-by-hour directions. By and large, they log into their school’s online platform each morning and then they work independently to complete their learning activities and assignments. They also decide when to take breaks and what to do with their time when they’re done with their school work for the day.
In many ways, their current schooling experience is similar to how I experience my job, and I think learning to work in this way will benefit them later as adults when life is more self-directed. This approach to learning has also proved more efficient, which means they have more time and energy outside of schoolwork for other things they enjoy (such as baking, crafts, and Minecraft).
Does self-directed learning really work?
Now let me address some questions that my example above may have sparked.
First, how do we know our children are actually learning? By the projects and activities we see them complete, the conversations we have about the topics they’re studying, and the report cards we get from their teachers. They also take monthly benchmark assessments that show their progress in mastering grade-level learning standards.
Second, does our experience at home prove that self-directed learning should work easily for any family? Certainly not. But, other examples across the country demonstrate that with the right supports and structures, students with varied needs and circumstances can experience success in a more self-directed environment. Schools I’ve researched—such as Innovations Early College High School and Map Academy—have instructional models that run on self-directed learning, and these aren’t schools that cherry-pick only the most motivated or privileged students. Rather, many of their students face personal challenges and structural barriers that often derail their path to success in conventional school settings. The Modern Classrooms Project trains teachers on a self-directed, mastery-based, blended instructional model, and they work with teachers who come from a wide array of school systems and who work in grades ranging across elementary school, middle school, and high school.
What makes self-directed learning work?
Given these examples, I think the question researchers and school innovators should ask about self-directed learning is not which students are best suited for self-directed learning, but which circumstances make self-directed learning work best for students. I don’t have all the answers on this front, but here are at least three elements that seem critical: motivation, quality resources, and skill development.
Motivation — Outside of school, children do all sorts of self-directed learning: from dance moves, to skateboard tricks, to drawing, to building automated contraptions in Minecraft. For self-directed learning to work, educators need to find ways to make learning intrinsically motivating for students. The natural way to tap into motivation is to cover academic content in ways students find interesting. But when students’ interests don’t line up nicely with the academic content itself, social dynamics can be powerful motivators as well. For example, Map Academy students find motivation in the pride of being able to earn a high school diploma when that goal previously felt out of reach. Students at schools like High Tech High find motivation in learning through real-world problems and publicly exhibiting their work.
Quality resources — Good resources go a long way toward making self-directed learning feasible and enjoyable. On this front, online learning has a big role to play. Watching short videos, checking off tasks in an online platform, and leveling up in adaptive learning games are more satisfying for students than reading chapters from textbooks. At the same time, because powerful learning goes deeper than what online videos and activities can offer on their own, good online content needs to be complemented with resources that guide students through engaging and collaborative hands-on projects and activities. Lastly, self-directed learning hinges on students having access to peers, teachers, and other adults who can spark their passions and creativity.
Skill development — Managing your own learning requires skills like goal setting, time management, self-reflection, and problem solving; and developing those skills takes practice. Unfortunately, those aren’t skills that most conventional schooling is good at fostering. Schools that rely on teachers to do the heavy lifting when it comes to setting learning goals, planning, and time management miss out on opportunities for students to build these skills too. In contrast, schools and classrooms that run on self-directed learning empower students to exercise their agency and then teach them how to manage it responsibly: they arrange one-on-one coaching for students, they provide resources such as trackers and planners to help students manage their learning, and they gradually give students more responsibility as they learn to manage themselves.
The value of self-directed learning
The examples and insights above show how self-directed learning can be implemented successfully. But why is it worth pursuing?
As I’ve written in the past, one of the most powerful uses of blended learning is to expand teacher capacity. Blended instructional models can allow teachers to offload the work of direct instruction on foundational knowledge and skills so they can spend more of their time developing relationships with their students, providing individualized support, and orchestrating activities that foster deeper learning. Students’ ability to self-direct their learning is integral to using blended learning in this way.
To draw an analogy, conventional instruction positions teachers as the front line workers in an assembly-line process. Students come to them in batches and they have a limited amount of time to distill learning in those students before passing them on to the next stage in the process. But when blended learning is used to enable self-directed learning, students actively work to generate learning for themselves, and a teacher’s role shifts from manually running the process to orchestrating the circumstances that help students develop their learning more effectively. My hope is that more educators and schools can see the powerful learning opportunities they can unlock through self-directed learning.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.