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Self-directed Learning and the 21st Century Learner
by: Priyanka Raha ~5/13/2022


The increased use of technology in our homes and schools has paved the way for more opportunities towards self-directed learning among our kids.

Self-directed learning is the process by which students take control of their learning. Malcolm Knowles introduced the concept of self-directed learning as taking the initiative to assess one's learning needs, set one’s own goals, choose the appropriate learning materials and strategies, and evaluate one’s own learning.

All kids have the potential to be self-directed learners. By providing a learning environment that encourages independence and choice, our children have the chance of becoming confident individuals who can make decisions, solve problems, and take responsibility for their learning success.

To paint a picture of self-directed learning, let's go back to what it's like in preschool. Learning corners are set up in classrooms for the different areas of learning and development. There are corners for reading, writing, math, art, drama, science, music, blocks, toys and manipulatives which kids are encouraged to explore during free play. This allows them time to find out what they like and grow their interests. Kids will then build on these interests, often by themselves or sometimes teaming up with others. They could go from drawing an airplane to building one with popsicle sticks, putting on costumes to role playing their favorite story book, making marks on a paper to scribbling a whole story even if they can't make out the words. Their creativity is innate to them as they continue to find ways to improve what they have made. They will start to think about what they could use as propellers for their plane, make props to go with their role play, or learn to write words by themselves. All of this comes naturally to them when their learning environment is designed to support and inspire them.

As educators, we can teach them to set goals and model questions, such as those listed below, to help them acquire the skills to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning. Skills that are key to becoming successful self-directed learners.

What do you imagine the outcome will look like?
What materials or help do you need?
What's the next step you want to take?
What skills do you need to develop?
What do you want to change?
What challenges do you see yourself facing?

This form of self-inquiry leads to a concept in education known as "metacognition” which simply means, "thinking about one's thinking". When kids are taught to be aware of how they think and learn, they will be empowered to seek out the right tools and strategies that would benefit them the most. In turn, they develop research skills and resourcefulness. By reflecting on their learning experience and evaluating what works and what doesn’t, they strengthen their problem solving skills and learn to make corrections quickly.

But what does this all mean for the 21st century learner?

Kids today have more control over their learning than ever before because they can choose which forms of media they interact with. Just like in preschool when they are presented with choices and they are naturally drawn to an approach to learning that makes most sense to them. For example, they can prefer to read articles, watch a documentary, or interview people if they are tasked to complete a research project. As they take responsibility over the methods and media they use to learn, they gain a better understanding of what they need to learn effectively. It teaches them to be accountable for their own successes and oversights. While not all technology is created equal and distractions abound in their online environments, this is the moment we can step in as mentors. We can help chose the right tech tools that can support our kids in pursuing the knowledge, skills and experiences that will keep them on track and reinforce their love for learning. This is the moment we encourage healthy digital habits so that they can enjoy being confident and self-directed learners.

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