I have always done high school for grades and I have never really enjoyed the academic experience of this school.  I make good marks, but this has mostly been to be in the top ten percent of the class, and to be accepted to a college I will love.  For the first time in high school, I am learning because I want to, and for the very first time, I am in a class supporting that goal.      —Marianne S., student

The curse of doing school.  Because of their academic experience, students often develop deep-seated habits of mind that are counterproductive to becoming prepared to live life well. Successful students are often successful because they have learned to game the system: doing what is asked of them, answering test questions correctly by successfully cramming (as opposed to learning), and getting good grades.  They are successful, in other words, because they have mastered the art of “doing school”. Unsuccessful students, on the other hand, are often those who are either unable to compete in the game of doing school or have rejected it as meaningless and refuse to participate. In fact, the ability to do school is often the central difference between successful and unsuccessful students.

Teachers often make the mistake of believing that their successful students are proficient at the skill of learning.  After all, they have many of the superficial attributes of success: they do their homework, they do well on tests, they are engaged in discussions.  Unfortunately, what they are often truly proficient at is the skill of getting good grades. Academic success — excellent grades and high test scores — is no guarantee that the curriculum is being mastered.   Doing school is a very convincing simulation of learning.

An essential component of good teaching is helping students learn how to become effective in the act of learning, as opposed to going through the motions.  But we have to be very clear about what we mean by this phrase: What is self-directed learning?  

Self-directed learning.   Think about how you learn something when it is important to you, say mastering a new piece of technology or a sport or some new skill.  If you care about it, you put everything you have into the task of learning this new thing. You are learning it with the whole of who you are, not just, in the words of Sir Ken Robinson, “from the neck up, and slightly to one side.”

In this book, the phrase “self-directed learning” means much more than successfully transferring the curriculum into the mind of a student.  It also includes the engagement of the whole person doing the learning. It must entail her learning not just about the subject at hand, but about who she is, what she is capable of, what she cares about and is good at.  Self-directed learning is about her becoming who she is as fully as possible. By definition, self-directed learning is what a student does to prepare to live life well.

Self-directed learning has the following attributes:

  1. It is driven by the internal motivation to learn and excel, as opposed to external rewards like grades.

  2. It requires students to have the freedom to make choices about the learning process, including the ability to make mistakes.

  3. It is lasting.  The student integrates the new material into long term memory; it has not been crammed and forgotten.

  4. It is about both intellectual and personal growth.  It involves the acquisition of desired character attributes.  The goals of academic success and personal growth are seamlessly interwoven.

  5. It is meaningful to the student.  She understands the context of what she is learning, and she sees how she might apply it both in school and in life beyond school.

It often involves other students.  For most people, under most circumstances, the meaning of new ideas is relational. Conversational learning anchors the experience and allows students to make sense of new concepts and skills.

If students are experiencing this kind of learning, they will integrate the knowledge and skills they need to live life well.  The learning process will feel much more authentic and meaningful to them.