Can We Teach Someone to Be More Self-Directed?
If you are familiar with the story of Timothy Doner, the kid who taught himself 20 languages, you are probably not only impressed by his linguistic prowess but also by his belief that language opens you to a new world view.
Doner tells us that his language learning journey began after years of instruction at school, instruction that started with French class in third grade and continued with Latin in seventh grade. He was unable to converse in French, and in learning Latin, he was really learning some systems for analyzing language but not really a means for communicating through it.
So how did he transition from old school to a new way of learning language that enabled him to learn 20 languages over a period of a few years? On his own?
The Power of Self-Directed Learning
Listening to how Doner talks about his language learning journey, I was struck by how his story is a testament to the power of self-directed learning, even if his own narrative is focused on the relationship between language and culture.
Wanting to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Doner started to teach himself Hebrew by listening to the lyrics of popular Israeli rap music. He eventually started visiting Israeli cafes in New York neighborhoods, perfecting his accent, vocabulary and listening skills along the way. From there he went on to Arabic, practicing at first with street vendors, and moved on to Persian, Russian, Mandarin, Swahili, and others.
Like most self-directed learners, Doner was compelled to teach himself something and found the means to do so outside of school-as-usual.
The Traits of a Self-Directed Learner
Self-directed learners are by nature independently minded and driven in their pursuit of knowledge. In addition to this, studies on self-directed learning tell us that:
Self-directed learners take more responsibility for decisions associated with their pursuit of learning.
Not all self-directed learning takes place in isolation.
Self-directed learners can transfer learning from one situation to another.
Activities associated with self-directed learning include: self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, etc.
Doner’s initial forays into language learning did not yield very positive results. Learning a language in absence of a cultural context and need makes it difficult for most of us. Once he found his motivation (a need for first-hand knowledge), he began to develop a means to teach himself (Israeli rap music). Having laid that foundation, he started to expand not only his repertoire but his toolset as well.
An Evolving Toolset for Self-Directed Learning
Self-directed learners are resourceful. In today’s digital world, there’s no shortage of good sources for learning almost anything, especially language learning, including traditional text-based materials, online lessons, discussion groups, etc. Doner doesn’t mention much of that and instead began with rap music as his textbook and neighborhood cafes as his classroom.
As he started to build his repertoire, he expanded his classroom to include outdoor vendors, bookstore owners and practically anyone who would talk with him in whatever language he had undertaken. When that became limiting, he posted videos of himself on YouTube and grew his classroom even further.
Talk about the power of social media! Doner notes that he had teachers and conversation partners for any language he wanted to study.
What We Can Learn about Failure from Self-Directed Learners
When I think of Doner out there, I see him as an intrepid explorer of new worlds, new ways of thinking and refusing to fear failure. He created his own community of learners, as he has pointed out, by “visiting the outer boroughs and embarrassing himself.” As he worked to improve his language skills, he oftentimes struggled in those conversations with native speakers. “Maybe you have to use a lot of English. Maybe you aren’t that articulate or interesting when you talk.” He illustrates how through one awkward exchange, he learned a word that he will never forget. He appears to be a fearless learner.
Does Self-Directed Learning Have a Place in Institutional Learning?
We’re divided in our perspective of education. Depending on where you live, how much money you have, and how much impact you want to have on your child’s learning, there may or may not be very obvious options for how they do so. Doner’s story is admittedly extreme, but it should serve to excite us about the possibilities that exist when kids can find and fuel a passion for learning.
How does that translate into the public or private education systems today?
There’s a few things we can do to provide opportunities for engagement where currently there is not enough room for generating interest on a student-by-student basis. And it needs to happen on a curricular level so that teachers are left with the room and capacity to spark individual flames of interest.
If we look back at the list of traits of self-directed learners, we know we need to make room for:
Project-based learning activities that provide the time and leeway for kids to take on more responsibility and to discover, albeit in a more structured format than outside of school, areas of interest that may grow over time.
With project-based learning and other more extended engagements comes an opportunity to fail, change course, and maintain a sense of confidence that can engage kids more significantly than when asked to complete short-term exercises that demand right or wrong answers without much opportunity for exploration. An interesting take on this was presented in an article this month on math education in KQED’s Mind/Shift column.
Design thinking and maker curriculum opportunities can provide the tools and processes for young learners to start exploring on their own. Provided with the experience of working together on shared and guided projects, kids might build on such opportunities to engage in projects of their own.
Modeling mentorships within the school system can help kids gain the confidence to work with the support of an adult or peer mentor on projects of their own interest.
At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily about teaching people to be more self-directed, it’s really about providing opportunities where kids can become independent thinkers and problem solvers and feel confident about exploring their own passions. In the workplace, we are seeing how expanding the opportunities for informal learning is positively impacting workplace performance. We’re also seeing how corporate training is evolving into more of a curatorial role in order to make learning available to meet the needs of different learners in different situations. A one-size-fits-all approach to learning doesn’t work anywhere along the continuum of the learning experience.
The bottom line is that we need to start early on to help kids find the spark that will develop into a lifetime passion for learning and doing.