Three keys to self-directed learning

Warning: Star Wars references inside.

In many ways, the quest to become a self-directed learner is a hero’s journey. 

For any learner, learning how to learn is an unpredictable course with increasingly complex tasks on the way to the ultimate freedom— the heroic efficacy of being able to learn anything in a world that doesn’t stand still.


It’s kind of like Star Wars

In Star Wars, the hero begins the quest with uncertainty and ambiguous conditions. Luke was stuck in Tattoine as a whiny teenager who apparently had talent in flying spacecraft. He lost his family and was a player in a war of good versus evil long before he even recognised this as his destiny (Episode IV). He had to travel through space to find a great teacher, Yoda, and learn the ways of the Force to become a Jedi until he had to leave his studies for an authentic performance in battle as the Empire struck back (Episode V). Then, he underwent major identity shifts when he lost his mentor, Obi Wan Kenobi; when he found out his father was a villain but reconciled with his father’s spirit; and rejoined his twin sister as a Jedi in the rebellion against the evil Empire (Episode VI).

Every day we learn we are already beginning with uncertain and ambiguous conditions. 


The first key to self-directed learning might be the child’s curiosity.

We can learn this from children: children are powerful because they inhabit curiosity from birth. In a book titled The Importance of Being Little; What children really need from grownups, Erika Christakis (2017) explores the world of the littlest learners and deconstructs the difference between schooling and learning:

“…schooling and learning are often two different things. Young children aren’t blank slates delivered to preschool classrooms by storks, but rather they are complex persons who arrive already connected to families, communities and cultures—environments where they have done an awful lot of learning before they set foot through the [classroom] door.”

(Christakis, 2017, p. xvi)

Christakis (2017, p. xx) asserts that “children themselves contain within their brains the ingredients for their development. If we observe them carefully, they will show us the way forward.”

Three things Christakis emphasises in her discussion are the value of relationships in a child’s learning; the role of the environment; educators’ perceptions of the child. The key to these three domains of creating conditions for curiosity to flourish in a learner are all within the spheres of influence of the adults in the school.

We can choose to build relationships with young learners. We can intentionally create environments that not only remove barriers to learning but positively allow for the inherent agency in a curious learner to be manifest and supported through the environments we create. Finally, we can make the conscious decisions to surface our assumptions about children and humble ourselves to be better teachers by allowing children to teach us how to better our pedagogy, policy and shifting narratives around learning.

The second key might be to build competencies.

The skills most valued in the real world are the forces we cannot see but can only sense in their manifestations: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.


One of the biggest shifts in pedagogy in the last decades has been the change of focus from concrete to abstract in the curriculum. From topics and facts, what is worth learning is now built on a foundation of conceptual frameworks. A wider framework that’s rising in importance includes human skills, self management, mindfulness, reflection and other skills, which manifest in complex tasks but which are difficult to measure. 

With the significance of these new competencies, the facilitation of learning is not as linear as traditional systems had believed it to be. Learning how to learn, and raising generations of meta-learners is a dynamic and non-linear system and involves the complex tasks of providing multiple entry points, personalisation of process, asynchronous processes for a diverse group of children, and opening pathways for expressions of understanding that have authentic contexts. We’ve had to unlearn many of the things we learned in our own education and embrace new vistas, an endeavour which is sometimes painful but never not exciting.

Learners also need to master technical skills. Not so much lightsaber flighting, but skills that also involve using unfamiliar approaches to help our learners win at open-ended tasks.


The experiences in school might require these skills in increasingly complex performances in safe conditions until we get to use them in the real world to solve for problems that are new and unpredictable. School is a safe place to fail for our padawan (Star Wars speak for ‘apprentice’). As we co-construct the environments that foster the learner’s agency on individual pathways to understanding, competencies and efficacious visions of futures, we can deliberately design ways for learners to iterate toward complex performances, building confidence and capacities to self-direction.

The third key night be being open to transformation. 

The exponential change in the world asks of people to keep shifting our ways of being, knowing and doing. In the VUCA world, a panoramic consciousness needs cultivating, one that is able to consider multiple perspectives and find many alternative solutions to unfamiliar problems.

The future and education’s role in creating it remains significant today, and the change that we can make in ourselves in this hero’s journey is learning how to learn. When we learn, something changes within us. We wake different from the day before. In this cyclical venture, a flexible mind is the Force that unites us in this powerful, human endeavour.


All GIFs from GIPHY
Featured Photo by Simon Zhu on Unsplash

Christakis, E. (2017). The importance of being little: What young children really need from grownups. New York: Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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