SELF DIRECTED LEARNING and Why it Matters

By Agustin Molfino - Innovation Specialist and Art Educator

What was the last skill or area of knowledge you tried to learn on your own?

How did it go? Did you stick with it and make progress? Did you have a hard time knowing how to start or stay motivated?

Self-directed learning (or Autodidacticism) is education without the guidance of masters or institutions. Self-directed learners choose their area of focus, their study materials, and the timing, setting and rhythm of their learning. The value of self-directed learning is primarily two-fold: it communicates to the learner that they are the driving agent of their own growth, and it prepares them for a future that increasingly requires this kind of agency.

What are the behaviors of a self-directed learner? What can you do to promote those behaviors in your child?

At Sycamore, we integrate self-directed learning practices at all grade levels throughout our curriculum. It is most evident during Genius Hour, a one hour weekly period where 5th grade students are given the opportunity to master a skill or area of knowledge that they are curious or passionate about.

Our first step is to have students think about themselves. What are they passionate about? What are they curious about? What types of skills and knowledge do they already possess? This year we have students diving into Legos, the dictionary, poetry, dogs, horses, and anime.

Once they have zeroed in on a topic of interest, the next step is to do a Landscape Analysis, which prompts students to understand their topic and make a learning plan. Students brainstorm everything they know about their topic, followed by a research period where they fill in gaps and discover new things. They then taxonomize (group) all of their brainstorming and research into distinct subcategories and generate study tasks that address those categories. For example, a student studying horses taxonomized her information into ‘training,’ ‘history,’ ‘breeds,’ ‘health,’ ‘food,’ and ‘equipment.’ She then came up with a study task addressing each of these. For ‘health,’ she decided that interviewing a vet about her horse’s health would be productive.

Then the real work begins! Every session, students engage with a study task and reflect on both the content being learned and the process of learning itself. Reflecting on the process is really the meat of it. Were you productive today? If not, what got in your way? If so, what helped you stay focused? What could you do differently next time? We are looking for students to reflect on their environment, learning rhythm (breaks are important!) and engagement with resources and people.

Finally, after a few sessions students are expected to present their learning to the class. The class, and eventually, the entire school community, acts as an authentic audience. The goal is for students to present information and insights that will engage their audience. As a community of learners we want to know what they have discovered about the world and about themselves.

Self-directed learning sets the stage for confidence building, problem solving, and students knowing that their own ideas matter, and can be impactful in their own life beyond elementary school. It not only prepares them for interacting in a complex world but it also motivates them to engage in the present. As one student put it, “It makes you feel like you are in charge, instead of a teacher saying alright now it's time to do this, you get to make your own decisions, which I really love.”

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