What a Mountain Climber Can Teach Us about Education

“He climbed with partners now and then but mostly spent time by himself and free-soloed — first on easy routes and then, as his confidence grew, on steadily more difficult terrain. Honnold lived this way for two years, continuing to study climbing history and the rarefied lineage of great free-soloists past, a grand total of three people over 30 years.” “The Heart-Stopping Climbs of Alex Honnold”


Alex Honnold is at 29 years old the world’s best free-soloist, which means that he climbs alone and without ropes. How many of us could learn to do such a thing?


Reading about Honnold this past weekend got me to thinking about self-directed learners, and how incorporating more of the principles of SDL into our K-12 curriculum could result in more engagement for this group of learners.


The Landscape of Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning, or autodidactism, is basically when you teach yourself. What do we know about self-directed learners that can help us incorporate this into a school-based environment?


Studies on self-directed learning indicate that:

  1. Individual learners can become empowered to take increasingly more responsibility for various decisions associated with the learning endeavor;

  2. Self-direction is best viewed as a continuum or characteristic that exists to some degree in every person and learning situation;

  3. Self-direction does not necessarily mean all learning will take place in isolation from others;

  4. Self-directed learners appear able to transfer learning, in terms of both knowledge and study skill, from one situation to another;

  5. Self-directed study can involve various activities and resources, such as self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, and reflective writing activities;

  6. Effective roles for teachers in self-directed learning are possible, such as dialogue with learners, securing resources, evaluating outcomes, and promoting critical thinking;

  7. Some educational institutions are finding ways to support self-directed study through open-learning programs, individualized study options, non-traditional course offerings, and other innovative programs.

Implications for the Classroom

Perhaps one way to think about incorporating aspects of self-directed learning into the classroom is to back into it from where we are today. Consider the most test-centered and grades obsessed environment and, applying the most student-centered learning approach possible, enable kids to focus on learning that matters to them. But we all know it’s not as simple as that.


When we talk about project-based learning, for example, we are also expanding the walls of the classroom to include activities that are relevant to students and the direction of which are also decided by students. Students choose tools, technology and practices from the real world to support their learning. The teacher functions more as a guide or facilitator than in traditional learning environments, but still plays a big role in the design and evaluation of learning.


Letting Go and Stepping Back: The Independent Project

We need to go beyond stepping back, as we do with Project-Based Learning, to “getting out of the way,” as the teachers at Monument Mountain High School did when they undertook “The Independent Project.” When a group of eight students were given the opportunity to create a school within a school for a semester, they worked independently and together to finish their own projects and to explore areas of academics that many of them never thought of themselves as doing.

As student project founder Sam Levin noted, the students “learned how to learn, how to teach, and how to work.” By providing an opportunity for kids to be in charge of their own education, they re-engaged with learning again.


Self-Directed Learning and 70:20:10

Allen Tough first wrote about self-directed learning in 1971 in the Adult Learning Project, noting that “About 70% of all learning projects are planned by the learner himself, who seeks help and subject matter from a variety of acquaintances, experts and printed resources.” While the focus of the study was on adult learners in the workplace, Tough also made it clear that they had also interviewed 10-year-olds and 16-year-olds as part of the study, and “Their out-of-schooling learning is extensive, and is similar in some ways to adult learning. Schools and colleges are increasingly recognizing and fostering such learning, thus preparing their students to be competent adult learners.”


Interesting how these kids appeared to be preparing themselves to be better learners as adults.


Later on, in the1980s, the researchers Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger, and Michael Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership delineated the blend of learning that they felt best “blend” for successful managers included 70% of on-the-job experiences (informal), 20% through interactions with people (social), and 10% from courses and books (formal).


Today, the foremost authority and practitioner of 70:20:10, Charles Jennings, reminds us that the blend is not meant to prescriptive, but is rather a reference model for looking at how people best learn and improve in the workplace.


What we can glean from all of this is that there are a range of modalities through which people learn, but the large percentage of that is on your own through the actual doing of something (preferably of your own choice).


Why Today is Such an Opportune Time to Explore Self-Directed Learning

Many educators will talk about how theories come and go, making their appearance if not in necessarily cyclical patterns, but returning to popularity after so many years out of the limelight. Let’s return to our cliffhanger, Alex Honnold, for some thoughts on this.


If Honnold had been born 20 years earlier, before the proliferation of climbing gyms, he probably wouldn’t have found the sport until adulthood, if at all. Instead, he grew up in the 1990s among the first generation of American climbers to have almost unlimited access to good training facilities, a phenomenon that has produced startling leaps in climbing skill. Wolownick first took Honnold to a rock-climbing gym when he was 5, only to have him scale 40 feet when she turned her back. By 10, he was climbing at a gym many times a week, usually with his father . . .


It’s interesting to note that Honnold’s love for climbing was facilitated by the advent of the indoor climbing gym. He had the tools and technology from his earliest years through which to develop his skills.


What do we have today to help foster the development of self-directed learners inside and outside of the classroom?

  1. Technology is definitely one tool that continues to evolve and continues to grow opportunities for the autodidact to access quality learning.

  2. Neurodiversity’s acceptance has led to more ways for people with different ways of thinking and learning styles to excel as learners, both in traditional learning environments and outside of it.

  3. Alternative learning opportunities outside of traditional schooling provide “homes” for self-directed learners, either physically such as the democratic modelled Sudbury Schools, and NorthStar, for example; or online with Blake Boles’ Zero Tuition College program helping self-directed teens with resources and networks to support their independent learning and career building.

How Do We Know We Are Ready to Try Self-Directed Learning?

We know that students are unhappy. The growing Opt Out movement that supports students and families (and teachers and schools) that want to opt out of standardized testing is a huge indicator of how the current approach is not working. We also know that over a million kids a year are still leaving school.


The original eight students who participated in the Monument Mountain High School “Independent Project,” included honor students and students who were on the verge of dropping out. Levin, the project’s founder, noted “There was a breaking point for me. It seemed like everyone around me was unhappy. I realized that my friends were spending six hours a day, a hundred and eighty days a year just being unhappy. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”


It seems like there are many kids out there at the breaking point, and we need a way for them to re-engage and find the joy in learning again. As Sue Engel, a psychology professor and mother of Sam Levin concluded, implementing an alternative school within a school “Doesn’t involve hiring a lot of fancy people and implementing a lot of fancy programs. The potential for this is inside every school.”


I wonder how many schools would be willing to give it a try. After all, it can’t be as dangerous as hanging from El Capitan at 3,000 feet without a rope.


#AltEd #K12 #LearnerEngagement #ExperientialLearning #LearnByDoing #LearningDesign #SelfDirectedLearning #unschooling #alexhonnold #mountainclimbing




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