Students teaching themselves? Who ever heard of this? Is this even possible? What exactly do we mean by self-directed learning, anyway? I love the following definition from Blake Boles.

What it isn’t:

  • “isolated, unstructured, or unchallenging learning.”
  • “classrooms and teachers as the root of all evil.”

What it is:

  • “purposefully choosing what and how you’ll learn.”
  • “an understanding and embrace of your personal learning style.”
  • “all types of learning—including highly structured learning—are valid when you consciously choose them.”

This definition of self-directed learning is on one side of the spectrum–that being SDL as a component crucial to his idea of “Zero Tuition College,” or “Unschooling.” Another definition which falls more in line with mainstream education comes from University of Waterloo. It stresses four key stages to independent learning:

  • being ready to learn
  • setting learning goals
  • engaging in the learning process
  • evaluating learning

Both definitions clearly deal with ownership of your learning goals, path, strategy. At first thought, this happens all the time, right?

In sports, when a player plays a bad game, he or she knows what they need to work on in their own time. They go home and practice that skill, so the outcome is better for their next game. Artists and musicians are always honing their craft, deciding (sometimes unconsciously) what to leave in and what to take out. If you’re finished with school, did you stop learning things after you graduated? Of course not, and why should you?

 In a basic sense, self-directed learning is a conscious and willing growth of intelligence. It’s about taking ownership of learning. That’s exactly what we want our students to do, isn’t it?

Identifying Self-Directed Learning Road Blocks

How can the idea of self-directed learning benefit all students? If we identify the roadblocks to lifelong learning, we see it boils down to mindset. Boyle points to 3 deconstructive mindsets that prevent self-directed learning:

  • I’m not self-motivated enough
  • I’m not smart/talented enough
  • I’m not that type of person

Sound familiar? Do you see this mindset playing out in your classroom? 

Tearing Down Walls

Let’s tackle “self-motivation” first. There’s a myth that people cannot be motivated by themselves. It suggests they must be given some kind of incentive.

Ever hear of Edward Deci’s 1969 experiment? He gathered two groups of college students to engage in solving various puzzles over a period of time. To one group, he made no promise of money or mentioning any compensation or reward. The other group was paid for their puzzle solving. After a while, the paid group was told they were not going to be paid anymore.

Who churned out more puzzles solved and continued to do so after the 3rd day? That’s right—the group that was not paid. They were doing it for the sheer pleasure and satisfaction. Deci concluded that intrinsic learning is more powerful than incentive learning, yet is more fragile. Once you attach a reward, the value decreases.


In the study above, after being told they would not get paid, the amount of work produced plummeted. Why is this so? Daniel Pink, author of Drive, suggests that there are 3 very real internal motivations for self-directed learning. Remember this as intrinsic motivation; we’ll come back to it later:

  • Autonomy: freedom to determine your path
  • Mastery: the chance to grow competency
  • Purpose: connection to some greater good

Here’s Dan on TED Talks verifying Deci’s results above, and talking about how motivation is not increased with outside incentives.

“If you want people to perform better, you reward them. Right? Bonuses, commissions, their own reality show. Incentivize them … You’ve got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, and it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity

…. This has been replicated over and over again for nearly 40 years. These contingent motivators — if you do this, then you get that — work in some circumstances. But for a lot of tasks, they actually either don’t work or, often, they do harm. This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored.”

Boyle suggests that to gain autonomy it may be necessary to change learning environments, especially if students feel confined. For these, they might consider leaving the environment of traditional teaching altogether to forge their own path.

“Escape the places that rely on bribes, threats, tests, and grades to motivate you. Stop thinking of self-motivation as a lucky gene and start figuring out how to change your environment.”

In other words, if you’re not motivated to self-direct, perhaps it’s because you connect doing hard work with some contrived reward or punishment, rather than recognizing the motivation coming from intrinsic motivation.

Type and Talent

Now let’s address block 2 (I’m not smart/talented enough) and block 3 (I’m not that type of person). This kind of thinking is a bummer. It’s a common self-fulfilling prophecy of self defeat.

If we can change this language that our students internalize about not being smart or talented enough, it would be a step in the right direction. But let’s be clear—self-directed learning is hard work.

Remember we talked about intrinsic motivation earlier as a component of self-directed learning? The other side of that coin is “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is the hard work of self-directed learning.

Before this turns you off, consider that deliberate practice has been shown to build intrinsic motivation, not take away. Intrinsic motivation is autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The two go hand in hand. Through deliberate practice, we can make “excellence a habit,” as Aristotle instructed.

When we call ourselves “not smart, not talented, not that type of person,” our own thoughts and mindsets stop us dead in our tracks. Self-directed learners eschew these labels in favor of a growth mindset, explained in detail by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology for Success.

In essence, growth mindset allows us to believe that our intelligence is not fixed, that failures are merely transition points, and that we can change our personalities. Can you imagine if all your students adopted this way of thinking?

For these kinds of thinkers, the grade matters less than the sheer love of learning and acquiring knowledge. We’ve already seen that a growth mindset gives us permission to change our intelligence. But what about our personalities?

Taking the Steps

Again, self-directed learning is hard work, but that hard work fuels intrinsic motivation. Often the barrier to allowing students to self-direct is our need as teachers to be in control of our students’ paths. Sometimes it takes a letting go of expectation and allowing students to blossom in ways that only they can determine.


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