3 MORE Strategies to Support the Development of Self-Directed Learners

As I was writing my most recent article for Education Reimagined, I realized my list of strategies was growing too large, even for a long form article. I knew all nine strategies would hold value for someone out there, so instead of eliminating them outright, I split three of them off as this supplemental article. If you would like some additional strategies for helping learners develop their ability to self-direct their learning, please keep reading! If you haven’t yet read my most recent article on Education Reimagined, I encourage you to start there for additional context and the first six strategies.

Executive Functioning

Prioritizing Tasks – Identifying the importance of tasks and deciding between them is an essential skill when building the agenda-setting habit but also stands on its own. In their book, The One Thing, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan identify a guiding question: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” The beauty of this phrasing is that it allows a single, important task to hold our full attention and moves us away from unproductive multitasking, which is especially common when working on internet-connected devices.  This question can be made less ambiguous by adding more detail. Let’s say the student who is developing 3D printable school supplies wants to apply this question to his work. He might ask, what’s the one thing I can do to learn more about 3D printing such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary? Ultimately, the goal is to help learners work on things that matter to them. This question or something similar is a good starting point to help them frame their thinking in that way.


Considering Learning Preferences, Skill Sets, and Pathways – As educators, most of us are familiar with the idea of learning styles. While some research has contradicted the belief that learners’ brains are uniquely suited for some styles over others, it is agreed upon that engagement is a core component of any meaningful learning, and one’s current ability to learn with any given approach is determined by one’s practice with that approach. This means that the ways in which learners prefer to access information and their unique skill sets are essential considerations for their educational progress.  In Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas’ book, Dark Horse, they use the example of master sommeliers. Some approached wine tasting from a trial-and-error perspective, refining their palettes through repetition. Others relied on their physiological responses to different grape varietals to identify wines. Then, there were the lucky few who had biologically refined palettes. What all these people had in common, and what led to their achievement of becoming master sommeliers, was that they identified their preferences and skill sets and used this strengths-based approach to learning.  While learners won’t be applying this approach to sampling wines, encouraging learners to reflect on their preferences and skill sets is an important step towards them becoming independent and skillful learners.

Social-Emotional Learning

Being Vulnerable and Taking Creative Risks – For this last one, I’ll return to the work of Brené Brown, who I referenced in my primary article. Embracing vulnerability is an important habit to develop. However, it’s a habit that runs counter to our human instinct of protecting ourselves from danger, whether that danger is a woolly mammoth or the ridicule of our peers. That’s why it’s essential that one makes a conscious effort to be vulnerable, with the payoff being a sense of integrity and authenticity in one’s thoughts and actions.  For learners in a learner-centered environment who are being asked to take creative risks and put their unique personalities into their work, becoming comfortable with vulnerability is necessary. It’s important to note two things: 1) vulnerability doesn’t mean over-sharing with those around you and 2) being vulnerable never feels good, but it’s a habit one can and probably should develop gradually. Learners don’t need to go from never speaking to performing interpretive dance in front of the whole class; it can start with something small like sharing a fun activity they did that weekend or sharing something stressful that happened to them at school. As learners get into this vulnerability habit, their trust in each other and in you will build, creating a virtuous cycle.

Even using just one of these strategies has the potential to greatly improve learner self-directedness. It might be better, in fact, to start with fewer strategies and give yourself and your learners enough time to adapt to the changes that will occur as they increase their agency. These strategies can be layered on top of each other over time and help each other synergistically. For now, just start small; make it easy for you and your learners to adjust and appreciate the changes that occur as learners become leaders of their educational experiences.

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