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Why it’s important to support self-directed learning in the classroom

“Self-directed learning” is a major catch-phrase of 21st Century educationalists, and undeniably a critical skill in the labor markets of the future. The modern world of work demands that people have demonstrable abilities to self-manage: their time and their inputs. Employees that can be tasked to solve a problem without micro-management, and can be relied upon to use their resources responsibly and sparingly, are highly prized.

On the flip-side, the freedom to meet targets and objectives in “your own way” is also much appreciated by employees. When organisations set objectives, rather than tasks, employees feel a sense of ownership and freedom that contrasts with the rote task completion of employment in by-gone days. By dictating the end-goal, rather than the process, organisations empower teams to deliver projects in more creative and effective ways.

Then there's the “gig economy” - 34% of America's workforce already self-identify as freelancers. Vast trenches of educated professionals are pursuing bona fide, and profitable careers shopping their specialist skills on the global, highly competitive freelance market. Whether they learned it at school or not - these individuals are required to have massive amounts of daily drive, discipline and time management. In short: their entire work-life is self-directed.

Big companies and organisations have taken note of the hallmark benefits of employees that operate as a freelancers, and some have begun to experiment with a project-based (rather than silo- or pyramid-based) structure. Many organisational specialists believe that the characteristics shown by freelancers could add enormous value to how organisations function and thrive.

Bottom-line: self-direction is a necessary skill in the world we are preparing our students for. However, the classroom culture we have created and inherited is not designed around self-direction, and tends more towards compliant consumption, an un-flipped paradigm where students absorb what teachers say, and regurgitate it via essays, assignments and tests in order to demonstrate comprehension.

And while many teachers will also recognize that teenagers (in particular) are perhaps the epitome of a lack of self-direction, there are examples and case studies that perhaps also show the opposite: the opportunity to act in a self-directed manner in class is highly prized by students, looking for creative freedom, self-expression and a feeling of autonomy.

Let’s look at some classroom techniques that aim to ignite and foster self-directed learning.

Genius Hour

Google is famous for permitting its employees to spend 20% of their time in the office, working on a passion project. The urban legend is that Gmail and Google News are ideas that came out of this process. Starting a Genius Hour in your class needn’t be intimidating, and with a bit of preparation - like finding online tools and LMSs to help you manage 20 or 30 differing student processes - it should be a rewarding and surprising journey for both you and your students.

You may find yourself challenged by what some students propose as their projects - expect a lot of game design, graphic novels and movies - but the idea here is to teach self-direction, rather than specific content, so the best advice is usually to go with the flow, while encouraging students to remain detail oriented, and steadfast in the face of obstacles and challenges.

For a lot more insight and tools on the genius hour and it’s underlying principles read a great book called “The Passion-Driven Classroom”.

Maker Spaces

These days even goliaths like start here and maybe soon your Makerspace lab will also be “making” enthusiastic, self-directed builders and problem solvers.


On a slightly less ambitious level, one can start a self-directed learning project in class with an I-Search paper. I-Search papers have the same academic prerequisites of normal research papers: the development of a research question, methodology, original research and conclusions. The only difference is students are encouraged to research something close to their hearts, something they have always wanted to know, or a subject that affects them, for example a child with asthma, may for once and for all want to find out what it is, and how it will affect his life in the future. A great I-Search resource can be found here.

Projects aimed at self-direction range from the humble to the revolutionary - but they are key to achieving students that are better prepared for a world where self-motivated, independent thinkers are guaranteed to thrive.

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