Self-Directed Learning: Do you have what it takes?

Yesterday I read a blog post called “24 Core Questions for Self Directed Learners.”
It was written by Lisa Nalbone.  Here’s a sampling:

What?

What do I want to learn?
What are my goals?
What are my next steps?
What problem can I solve?
What can I contribute?

You can read all of the 24 questions here:
24 Core Questions for Self-Directed Learners

For some reason the list didn’t sit right with me.  I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why, but initially the questions seemed kind of unnecessary to the way I personally approach learning and I couldn’t figure out how I would use it in facilitating my kids’ self-directed learning.

I wondered: Am I missing something?  Could this list offer us an opportunity to delve deeper somehow?   I asked in the comments of the post for suggestions on the application of this list since the way we approach learning at our house presumes that the “right” questions just come up naturally in the course of exploring one’s interests.
I asked, “If your learning is truly self-directed, why would you need to use somebody else’s list of questions?”

Lisa replied (I’m paraphrasing) that she intended the list as a starting point for those who are moving from school and a more “directed” learning style to a self-directed approach.  She also mentioned that sometimes those who’ve homeschooled or unschooled their young children worry about their kids approaching high school age, so the list is intended to help them remember that self-directed learning can work at any age.

She then asked about my family, our history with Unschooling and for my thoughts on her list of questions.
(You can read her entire response to my question in the comments section of her post.)

I wanted to share my answer with you here for two reasons:

  1. I’ve been meaning to write an “about me” page for this site and maybe this will do for now.
  2. Lisa’s answer helped me pinpoint what felt “off” for me about suggesting a list of questions and helped me formulate what I might offer instead.

Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely think we should help people gain confidence in their ability to direct their own learning.  I know parents DO need reminders that the organic learning little kids experience CAN continue into the teenage years and beyond.  Some people will totally benefit from Lisa’s list BUT my advice for these two groups of people would be very different from Lisa’s list of questions so here it is.

My kids are 13, 6 & 3.

I learned about Unschooling 6 years ago in 2007 as I was researching Homeschooling because it was very clear that my oldest child’s learning style was NOT a match to what they were doing in school.

I can’t remember the exact website where I first saw the concept.  At that time I was desperately searching for answers – staying up until 3am every night reading all over the internet about other people’s experiences with home education.    I knew I had to take my kid out of school, but I also knew that doing school-at-home was NOT a good choice for us because we were basically already doing that each night with homework and THAT was a nightmare.

My thoughts on the 24 core questions: I guess they could be a good starting point for someone who WANTS some guidance or who is SO used to being directed that they feel lost when trying to jump to entirely self-directed learning.  However, I believe that remembering how to be a self-directed learner is best accomplished when the person is encouraged to find their own way.  If we continue to “direct” them even with “suggested questions” aren’t we perpetuating their need to be directed?  When we tell someone how to do something we can miss a chance to help them gain confidence in their abilities to do it themselves.

Now, I’m not saying to never offer help, but in my mind the first way to help someone who doesn’t trust themselves and their abilities is to say, “I TRUST YOU to come up with the questions that will take you in the right direction.”  If they are stuck or otherwise asking for guidance I might ask them a couple of questions from this list, but those questions would arise naturally because of the situation, not because I looked at a list.

I’m realizing that one thing that feels “off” to me about the list is that it presumes that “learning” looks like what you might find in school.  And it seems to presume a lot of “shoulds” about learning.  Maybe this is because the list is intended for people who are used school type instruction and for people who are worried about their teenagers and what kids SHOULD learn at that age in preparation for “real life.” 

Fair enough, but learning at my house doesn’t look like this at all.  And I believe that real learning actually looks nothing like what we usually see in school.  At our house we don’t sit down and say, “Today I want to begin learning about XYZ.”  We just see things that interest us and then a question arises naturally and we set off to answer it.

These 2 questions from the list seemed especially unnecessary to me, and I’m going to go so far as to say they perpetuate a myth in our culture about the nature of learning:

“How do I know I have learned enough?”
“When will I finish?”

I know I have learned enough because I have no more questions about the thing – for now.  But tomorrow or in 6 months a question might arise on the topic.  When that happens I will try find the answer.  That could lead to more questions or it could lead to an interest in another topic entirely.  For me and my kids it is just an organic process of living life and answering the questions that arise as we explore the world.

From my perspective we are NEVER finished learning, and in our house we do not divide our learning up into subjects or “chunks of learning” that begin and end.  My hope is that one day we can change the cultural myth that learning begins when we reach a certain age and start going to a certain building each day at 8 am.  That learning ends at 3 o’clock or that it ends when you graduate from high school or college or graduate school or even when you finish a “self-directed learning project.”  I hope more of us can move beyond the idea we are ever “done” with learning or growing or becoming more.  So many in our society are so busy chasing an end goal that we lose the joy that comes from the process of achieving our goals.  We forget the value of each step along the way because we only value the end result.

At first I thought maybe I was missing something about how this list of questions could apply to my family.  They are a lovely offering for someone who is looking for something like this, but aside from possibly perpetuating myths about learning, I also wonder if suggesting these questions could perpetuate the very dependence we are hoping to eradicate as we work to empower people in learning under their own direction.

My advice for those people would be – trust yourself – the right questions are inside you and those questions will guide you to the right materials and resources and people that can help you learn the things you want to know.

And for parents I would say: trust your kids and the questions they naturally come up with.  And trust yourself to guide your kids when they are stuck and asking for guidance.

As a society we have a habit of looking to “experts” for answers – even answers about what questions to ask and about how to learn.  What I want people to know is this: We all are born knowing how to learn, and letting our natural curiosity guide us and help us formulate questions is going to lead us in the right direction every time. 

We ALL have what it takes to be self-directed learners!

Many thanks to Lisa for writing her list of questions for anyone who wants to start there.  And for giving me some food for thought. 🙂

What do you think?  What advice would you give to someone switching to self-directed learning?  Or to parents who are nervous about older children continuing with a self-directed approach through the high school years?  Please share in the comments below!

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