What Is a Self-Directed Learner?

How to Teach Your Kids to Teach Themselves

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A self-directed learner is one who is not only involved in but also leads his learning process. The learner chooses her study interest; for example, animal science. She also chooses the mode, which may be book-learning, but also may be an internship at a zoo. Is her goal general intellectual enrichment, or an eventual course in veterinary medicine? That's also her choice. This, in a nutshell, is self-directed learning (SDL).

History of Self-Directed Learning

For thousands of years, self-directed learning was the preferred mode of transferring knowledge. The Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, were products of SDL and encouraged it among their students. Princes and kings were expected to take an active role in their intellectual development; Henry VIII was, in addition to being a sportsman and king, a religious authority and a poet. In the Victorian era, self-help and self-improvement blossomed into industries for itinerant scholars and authors, while on the frontiers of the European colonial empires, self-directed learning was the norm. It was only with industrialization and the subsequent need for masses of workers that a national program of teacher-directed instruction became institutionalized among Western societies. The reaction to this program has been a 20th-century boom in homeschooling and progressive schools.

Self-Directed Learning in Education

Self-directed learning is a phrase used very specifically in education, where it identifies a movement away from teacher-directed learning (TDL). The ultimate expression of self-directed learning in education is when students choose their courses of study and outcomes, but moments of SDL can be integrated into any classroom; for example, an independent project is a fine exercise in self-directed learning that might be encountered in elementary school.

SDL in a progressive learning or homeschooling setting may be more open-ended and look quite different, but it's important to remember that self-directed learning is a continuum, and it can happen anywhere, at any time.

What Is Self-Directed Learning?

The constructivist theory of learning posits that learning is an active attempt to construct meaning from the world around us. It is in opposition to behavioralist or cognitive schools of learning, which suggest that learning happens on a subconscious level. An SDL setting in a school or homeschool:

  • Sees learners as owning and managing their learning. That means learners decide upon the context, the resources, the way of learning and how to keep track of whether they have achieved what they set out to learn.
  • Recognizes that self-motivation and initiative are important in the learning process. The SDL belief is that a learner’s motivation to learn about something is what drives him to become a participant in the learning process.
  • Aims to shift the responsibility and control from the teacher to the learner. Learners set their goals, decide how to achieve those goals and how to approach learning the information.

How Does Self-Directed Learning Apply at Home?

While the tenets of SDL might be hard to achieve in a classroom full of students, they are much easier to achieve at home with your child.

If your goal is to create a self-directed learner, take advantage of built-in learning opportunities in everyday tasks. Many parents shy away from taking an active role in their child's learning for fear that they are not "experts." But when you are guiding your child's inquiry, and not instructing, you may find that you learn together. Finding teachable moments models a life of continued intellectual inquiry and development for your child. And isn't that the entire purpose of education?