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What is the best way to foster self-directed learning?

By Nicole Pokorney

The Great Minnesota Get-Together is in full swing! As I walk through the 4-H Building, exhibits display the intense work of youth from across the state. These youth have researched, created and implemented more than 3,000 projects covering a range of topics that amazes me. The reason for this impressive variety is the imagination and self-direction of the youth themselves - the glory of 4-H projects is the self-directed learning that takes place.

What is self-directed learning? Maurice Gibbons, one of the leading thinkers of SDL, defines it as when "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."

Malcolm Knowles, the pioneer of SDL, described it as a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.

The process sounds rather simple:

  1. Through exploration of subjects, youth discover a passion for a topic.
  2. Through healthy youth/adult partnerships, youth expand their knowledge on that topic.
  3. Through inner drive, youth want to learn more and apply the newly gained knowledge to their lives.

The benefits of self-directed learning are:

  • Curiosity
  • Willingness to try new things
  • Viewing problems as challenges
  • Desiring change
  • Enjoying learning
  • Motivated, independent, persistent and effective learners
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-confidence
  • Goal-orientation
  • Ability to represent ideas in different forms

I believe it's vital that we have educators who are trained to recognize and nurture this kind of learning and to create learning environments to foster it. But although the learning process may begin in the hands of the adult educator, at some point, the control of the learning environment moves from the educator to the youth. This transition happens when the learner's motivation shifts from extrinsic to intrinsic and she begins to apply it. The educator who allows the freedom of learning and is open to it can accelerate the transition.

My middle son is a self-directed learner. His wildlife biology project, a bee nesting box, is one of the 4-H projects at the state fair this year. I marvel at the way he takes his passion for wildlife and spends enormous amounts of time researching the topic, gathering supplies and resources, engaging adults to partner with him and then publicly displaying his knowledge in some venue. His passion for animals and research has him seriously considering becoming a veterinarian. His internal motivation has led him to job shadow our local veterinarians this summer and explore different colleges. He has always learned best this way. Luckily, teachers throughout his formal education have also identified this and allowed him to direct his own learning in a variety of ways.

As I continue to research SDL,I wonder if all youth have the potential to be self-directed learners or is it an innate learning style? If it is a natural way to learn, as Knowles says, then what techniques can out-of-school-time educators use to draw out self-directed learning? What institutional changes need to be made?

-- Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator

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  1. Nicole, I love your post on self-directed learning! More than ever, society demands that young people develop competencies for self-direction. I would argue that it is a youth-driven process, but you’re right to note that staff play a critical role in providing structure and support. Here at the Extension Center for Youth Development we’re partnering with colleagues at the University of Illinois on The Pathways Project/Proyecto Caminos which focuses on the process of how young people develop these real world skills (responsibility, strategic thinking, teamwork) in youth programs, how program leaders foster them, how these skills transfer to other parts of their lives, and how culture comes into play (Latino youth make up half of our sample). We hope to tap into some of the very questions you raise, so stay tuned!

  2. Nicole –
    Your topic on self-directed learning could not be better timed. I am working on a paper right now about “youth learning” – referring to youth in those middle or teen years. One of the things I have learned in my literature review is that there are numerous texts and research findings on how children and adults learn, but youth have received scarce attention - even though studies show that youth are a different group of learners compared to children and adults. Predominately adult learning principles remain the core guiding philosophy for most educators – even though they may not be entirely suitable for youth learners.
    In your research and practice have you thought about the uniqueness of what it means to be a youth learner? . I am also interested in knowing your ideas on the types of supports and scaffolding that may be necessary to help youth find their intrinsic motivation or the inner drive to learn – especially for youth who don’t seem to possess it or they rely on external motivation?
    Great topic and thanks for initiating this important conversation.

  3. Hi Nicole,
    Thanks for sharing this topic and starting a nice discussion. I enjoy your thought- "I wonder if all youth have the potential to be self-directed learners or is it an innate learning style?" I began my career in youth development working in early childhood education environments. A high quality preschool is driven by giving children choice in their learning environments and letting them drive the learning. (Try to get a 3 year old to concentrate on something that doesn't interest them, and you'll soon understand why this is key!) My question, then, is what do we "do" with kids over their school years that turns them away from this? How can we stop it?

  4. Kate,
    While I do believe that self-directed learning should be driven by the youth, I believe that in this society and day, youth have lost some of that instrinsic motivation. As educators, we need to be able to foster those learning environments where youth can be free in thinking and creativity to develop those skills to take back control of their learning. I'm excited to hear more about your researrch and would love to take part in it in any way I can!

  5. Jen, I found the same thing! Most of the self-directed research available was for adult education! It really proves that the youth development field has a long ways to go! The questions that I want to research are those exact questions that you pose. What needs to be in place for self-directed learning to be fostered and what skills to educators need to draw out the intrinsic motivation? To name a few so far, I feel that reflection, creativity, freedom of thought and service-learning are aspects of a learning environment that fosters self-directed learning.

  6. Sam, I have worked with youth for almost 18 years in a variety of settings, including public and private school settings. Although not being a teacher in control of a classroom, I have witnessed many formal and nonformal learning environments that 'teach to the test'. Even with my youth ministry volunteering, I feel at times we 'teach to the test' by mandating confirmation classes or meetings to fulfill a requirement. When filling out college applications with my son recently, we are forced to list and perform things in high school to be accepted into a college or receive a scholarship. Youth are judged by ACT scores, GPAs, standardized test scores, accomplishments, etc. when sometimes all they want to do is play basketball. That is a passion and what drives my son. It's hard to have to tell him that colleges look at more than that and basketball won't get you merit scholarships.
    When educators teach out of extrinsic motivation, our youth learn extrinsically. When we teach with a passion, a zest for indiviual strengths and thoughts, then we teach youth how to learn intrinsically.

  7. Hi Nicole -
    Thanks for your response. It would be great to carve out some time together to swap literature review findings and ideas for further research.


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