The Secret to Supporting Self-Directed Learners

Jan 18, 2017

Lisa is a former teacher, and the mom of unschooled Dale Stephens. Here she gives examples of foundational skills for self-directed learning and how interest-led projects can include many things we think kids need to know.

The secret to supporting self-directed learners is feeding their curiosity while giving them autonomy to meet their goals, connect, and create. Ultimately, what they most need to know is how to effectively approach learning.

If you’re a parent who wasn’t homeschooled, you probably find yourself wondering,

“How can I help my child be a self-directed leaner when that’s not how I learned?”

Self-directed learners take responsibility for their learning. As parents and mentors, we empower and support children as they learn the skills to allow them to learn anything, such as how to:

  • Identify interests
  • Set specific goals and break them into actionable steps
  • Find resources
  • Make decisions and solve problems
  • Manage time while meeting goals
  • Document their process and results
  • Communicate needs and make connections
  • Reflect on their actions and progress, and self-evaluate to determine next steps.

Sounds tricky? It’s not so hard, but it can feel uncomfortable when you first shift your focus from a predefined outcome to the learning process. Embracing a beginner’s mindset, THE IDEA THAT IT IS OK TO FAIL, will help you and your child accept the awkwardness when attempting something new.

Remember, kids learn to walk and talk without experts, curriculum, or grades. Walking starts out with bumbling, falling, and teetering steps—you aren’t perfect when you start. Making eyes at Mama, eliciting a smile, reaching for, grasping, and shaking a rattle are simple examples of self-directed learning at a young age.

Consider non-academic projects that involve learning new things like cooking something you crave, making a crafty gift, or figuring out how to make a repair. You probably have more experience with self-directed learning than you thought.

Self-directed learning projects can be as small as one meal or as large as self-publishing a cookbook, creating a business, or learning 12 years of math in 4 months—the sky’s the limit!

Even with tiny projects you informally work through the entire self-directed learning process and practice many skills you will use in life. You can help your kids become self-directed learners by creating an environment that makes it safe to make mistakes and easy to learn by doing.

Cooking projects encompassed all kinds of learning and skills beyond cooking!

Dale’s questions and curiosity about comparing and trying foods from around the world crystallized following a homeschool geography co-op and a family outing to a food and wine event. He decided to learn about cooking but he also developed and practiced skills in reading comprehension, writing, math, fractions, physical and cultural geography, budgeting and finances, and event organization.

  • Dale defined his project overview: he wanted to cook dishes from all over the world and invite people over to share the meals. We talked together to help him drill down and set specific goals with a timeline to implement his plan. We also discussed issues with the family calendar and finances. He came up with a budget that we were willing to support. If he wanted to spend more he would have to use his funds from savings or earn more.

  • At the library we checked out cookbooks, books about learning to cook, and books about the countries he wanted to start with. Dale looked up more ideas and resources online.

  • One book, cooking from around the world, had recipes from countries Dale had never heard of before. Out came the maps and atlases, igniting questions and discussions about the countries’ history, culture, climate, and why certain foods were the mainstay of the diet in different countries.

  • New questions to explore would bubble up, for example: How much did it cost to feed a family of four for a month in each country? Were people going hungry? Why? How much did we spend on food each month? How much did we need to budget for inviting people over for meals? What would the budget be if we had a potluck instead of hosted the entire meal?

  • Dale used a simple notebook as a journal to keep track of recipes used and the results, shopping lists and plans, who was invited and who attended, and reflect on the project.

How do you balance “things we need to know” with self-directed learning?

First, challenge your assumptions about “things we need to know”. The world is changing rapidly and our children need to learn to be resilient in the face of change and learn new things when needed.

Second, remember that learning anything is easier and more effective when there is interest or desire to learn.

Third, with a bit of creativity and curiosity, almost anything can be learned within the context of an interest-led, self-directed project. Learning doesn’t have to look like a teacher standing at a chalkboard explaining or working through a textbook about one isolated topic.

Fourth, you can facilitate without coercing or coopting the learning process. Supportive and loving relationships strengthen learning. As a facilitator helping children reach their goals, you build relationships and ask questions to deepen learning, discuss perspectives, share your expertise, and coach while giving children the choice about how to engage.

Fifth, you are in a relationship with someone you love. Communicate openly and honestly. Listen. Trust their ability to learn and focus on their strengths. Model being curious and interested in self-improvement and ways to deepen learning. If there’s a topic you think is important to learn, show your interest and commitment by making it a part of your lives and making it enjoyable. Talk with children honestly about how they can choose to use the Ask Try Do framework to improve their skills and meet their goals.

Don’t worry about a long list of topics covered at school you think your child must know. The first thing we really need to know is how to figure out the best way to learn what we want to learn. Being able to follow your interests makes learning more meaningful, motivating, and fun for you and your child! It will also prepare them to enjoy lifelong learning and successfully navigate the messy and nonlinear adventures of life.

Lisa Nalbone

Lisa loves learning. She unschooled her son, author & founder of Her LifeSPARKS Workbook has A-Z strategies and tips to make self-directed learning easy and fun.