Testing Assumptions About Self-Directedness

shifting-conversations-logoAs the insignificance of much of the ‘21st Century-mania’ becomes more and more evident, many educational leaders are now looking beyond the superficial appeal of the cliché’s and asking what their real focus should be. While there has been obvious value in the broader conversations that have been generated around collaboration, critical thinking and however many C’s we now think are important, the one ‘competency’ that continues to remain illusive is self-directedness.

While there could be several explanations for this, possibly much could be ascribed to the misapprehensions or misconceptions that many educators have about the concept. So what are they?

  1. Self-directedness is about letting students doing whatever they want to do. This is undoubtedly one of most commonly heard concerns, and yet it quickly trivialises any deeper discussion of the topic. This is the SummerHill argument, built on the extremes of alternative ‘free’ schooling, which serves as a distracting extreme. Any discussion around self-directedness must see it on a continuum, and should start by defining what really we mean when we talk about giving students ‘agency’ or ‘voice’ over their learning. It’s the sort of conversation that every school should be having today.
  2. Self-directedness is something that can only be taught to older students. This is simply wrong on many levels. Firstly it assumes that all students behave in the same way, and secondly that they are not in any way naturally self-directed. I have had the good fortune to be in a number of classes of 5 and 6 year old students who were largely self-directed. Their teachers were most adamant that it was in fact school that taught kids their learning needed to be directed by adults. You only have to think of the amazing things very young kids make and do to see their point. While we obviously shouldn’t ever assume every child is intuitively responsible and disciplined enough to self-direct a significant part of their learning, it might be a worth starting from the assumption that many, if not most are.
  3. The choice for a self-directed class is black and white; you either have it or you do not. This is an extension of the previous misapprehension which burdens teachers with the unfortunate idea that self-directedness is turned on or off…a bit like a lightbulb. Of course as was previously outlined it’s a concept that can and should be developed with students over time, and therarrowefore has many levels or dimensions which signify progress and development of the associated discipline or focus.
  4. A self-directed class is a classroom management nightmare. Another interesting assumption and one that is correct if teachers don’t rethink the pedagogical strategies they are using, and seek to teach them in exactly the same way they might structure a teacher-directed class. The irony of this assumption is that most of the teachers I talk with from these self-directed classes tell me that the exact opposite is the case; as their students do not have to be told what to do, and when to do it, and are focused on exploring ideas to a level that was not previously available to them in classes where clocks and bells controlled their learning.
  5. Our students should be self-directed so that they are better able to cope with higher education. While there is certainly an element of truth in this assumption, it is only one very small part of the imperative. Despite all the clichés and repetitive discussions around change, the impact it will have on the lives of our students when they leave school seems to have escaped us. We are failing our students if today we really believe that we know what they will need to know, and what they need to be able to do in the 2020’s to be successful. It might have worked for us, and certainly worked for our forefathers; it will not work for our sons and daughters.

To be successful, indeed to survive our young people will need to be insatiably curious, highly connected and totally self-directed in the ways in which they adapt to the world that is changing around them. It is no longer change itself that is the imperative, but rather the extraordinary rate at which change is now occurring that means developing, nurturing, empowering students as self-directed learners is no longer an option, but a vital necessity.

Image credit: Phil Whitehouse


1 thought on “Testing Assumptions About Self-Directedness”

  1. Jon P

    Thank you for writing on this hot topic. Are there any journal articles or studies around self-directed learning that you recommend reading?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *