Inquiry-Based Learning

How to Put Self-Directed Learning to Work in Your Classroom

April 14, 2017 Updated April 11, 2017

Self-directed learning is not the latest trend in education. It has been around since the beginnings of cognitive development (Aristotle and Socrates), and is a natural pathway to deep understanding and efficacy. By being mindful of the ways self-directed learning can appear in the classroom, and leveraging it as an integral part of how we learn, we can create a more meaningful learning experience for students that will last beyond the regurgitation of memorized content. Self-directed learning is something we live.

What is Self-Directed Learning?

Some of the first modern formal theories of self-directed learning came from the progressive education movement and John Dewey, who believed experience was the cornerstone of education. By integrating both past and present experiences based on personal interpretations and subject matter, students would most effectively learn. And as a result, the educator’s role is to be a guide, supporting students in exploring the world around them, formulating investigative questions, and testing hypotheses.

Today, there are a variety of educational systems that incorporate self-directed learning as pedagogy and are based on the idea that all humans can and should be responsible for their own cognitive development. Notable models are Democratic Free Schools and programs, such as the Institute for Democratic Education (IDEA) and the Sudbury School, which focuses on educational freedom, democratic governance and personal responsibility.

Self-directed learning can be as diverse as simply discovering new information and thinking critically about it, actively participating and contributing to a learning community, or designing your own learning path and selecting resources, guides and information.

How Can I Use It?

No matter how you choose to integrate self-directed learning into your learning community, there are several methods teachers and parents can use to increase ownership and responsibility in learners, and support them in creating their own learning path:

Thinking Critically

The most valuable resource for engaging in self-directed learning is the ability to be aware of self and the world around us, and to inquire deeply about both. Though many interpretations exist about what critical thinking is and does, Robert Ennis defined it as “Reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” (Ennis, 1996, p.166). Educators typically use critical thinking in the classroom as the 5 W’s and the H (What, Why, Who, When, Where, Why and How).

However, being a critical thinker who is responsible for one’s own learning is so much more than asking questions. These are all deeper facets of thinking critically:

  • Awareness of self-interests and responses
  • Considering the credibility of content
  • Being open to new sources of information and perspectives
  • Continuing to build on the combination of feelings, information and new discoveries

How can I use this in the classroom?
One great way to foster tools for learning, versus telling students how to learn, is through activities that promote Design Thinking. Offer opportunities in the classroom where students can write their own critical questions about content. You can begin by asking them, “What do you think you need to know about this information, event, perspective etc?” or “What questions can be asked to uncover new information and perspectives about this topic?”.  

Locating Resources

When students express an interest in a particular subject, skill or event, it can be difficult for them to know where to start learning. As students progress and their learning evolves, new questions emerge and new resources are needed. Types of resources can be guides or mentors who have expertise in a particular field, information and media, access to learning programs, or processes and steps to unlock cognitive scaffolding.

The experience of locating resources and discovering new information and opportunities is contagious. The more students feel the pride of figuring it out on their own, the more they will feel empowered to keep learning, and will repeat the pattern of discovery when applied to other interests and subjects.

How can I use this in the classroom?
For example, if a student expresses interest in languages, a school curriculum will orient the student to a language course; but to really experience the language and reach fluency, a course is not enough. Students need additional information to immerse themselves in the process that will go beyond comprehension and analysis. A well of resources can be available to them provided they know how and where to locate them. Great free online programs exist like Duolingo, travel opportunities like AFS, or a peer group in their community who speaks the desired language.

Language is only one area of interest. Other valuable platforms for self-directed learning opportunities are embedded in the Open Education movement. Open Education Resource Commons (OER) ( is a hive of literature, scholarly work, instructional materials and open courses via reputable institutions. All OER resources are free and do not require permission to use. This is incredibly valuable for students who do not have the benefit of privilege and access.

Vetting Information

“Fake news,” sensationalized by media itself, is not necessarily a new occurrence, but is metastasizing at an obscene rate with the Internet of Things. Knowing how to think critically and locate sources of information is imperative for effective self-directed learning, but can lead students down convoluted paths if they also do not know how to investigate sources. To support the public in addressing this need, sites like Facebook have begun reviewing sources of news on social media. Other sites like Snopes acts as an online fact checker to uncover fake news. Although these measures may be beneficial, self-directed learners should not rely on larger sources to do the work for them. Institutions like Georgetown University provides students with methods for determining credibility (See below) for their sources. Remember, even fake news is sourced in someone’s opinion and contributes to someone’s reality.

How can I use this in the classroom?
One great way to explore the source and impact of various perspectives is by not simply settling on the information provided.  Self-directed learners should create ways to experience information and consider the impact of basing ideas and perspectives on it. What can this look like in the classroom?

  • Creating activities that support students in weighing outcomes, taking into account the possible results
  • Acknowledging a variety of perspectives using Mind Mapping or Infographics
  • Comparing and contrasting maps between students supports them in noticing differences
  • Using reflective techniques such as journaling and dialogue help to explore the emotional implications and effects on social situations and the collective environment

Modeling Experiences

Once a self-directed learner is in the zone of thinking critically, locating resources that support their growth and development, and exploring those sources for validity and impact, it is imperative they are able to model their learning in new experiences. As in Bloom’s Taxonomy, deeper learning includes our ability to create new possibilities, which in turn provide us with new information.

How can I use this in the classroom?
Find ways to emulate and “pilot” the decisions made through critical exercises. Allow for test and hypothesis based on experiential and problem-based learning. Consider the following paths of inquiry:

  • In what way can students explore their conclusions in a safe and responsible way?
  • How can students scaffold their own learning experiences as a method for trying new ways of interaction and discovery?
  • How can we support students through the process of experimentation and help them manage moments when they disregard others, show bias, or participate in discrimination?
  • In what ways, can we as educators allow students the space to try new theories and identities without making them feel stigmatized, reduced to labels, or wrong for their judgements and opinions?

A strong learning community is one that is built by self-directed learners who contribute powerfully to supporting, elevating, and empowering each other. In order to create this level of inclusion and innovation, all learners (students and teachers alike) need to know how to learn and how to collaborate effectively by taking ownership of their own contributions. Self-directed learning will always exist without our trying to force it into the curriculum, but a curriculum that illuminates and seeks intention through self-directed learning will take our communities to the transformative level.

Ennis, R. H. (1996) Critical Thinking Dispositions:Their Nature and Assessability. Informal Logic, 18(2), 165-182.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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