The Great Minnesota Get-Together is in full swing! As I walk through the 4-H Building, exhibits display the intense work of youth from across the state. These youth have researched, created and implemented more than 3,000 projects covering a range of topics that amazes me. The reason for this impressive variety is the imagination and self-direction of the youth themselves - the glory of 4-H projects is the self-directed learning that takes place.
What is self-directed learning? Maurice Gibbons, one of the leading thinkers of SDL, defines it as when "the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. Individuals select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, which can be pursued at any time, in any place, through any means, at any age."
Malcolm Knowles, the pioneer of SDL, described it as a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.
The process sounds rather simple:
- Through exploration of subjects, youth discover a passion for a topic.
- Through healthy youth/adult partnerships, youth expand their knowledge on that topic.
- Through inner drive, youth want to learn more and apply the newly gained knowledge to their lives.
The benefits of self-directed learning are:
- Willingness to try new things
- Viewing problems as challenges
- Desiring change
- Enjoying learning
- Motivated, independent, persistent and effective learners
- Ability to represent ideas in different forms
I believe it's vital that we have educators who are trained to recognize and nurture this kind of learning and to create learning environments to foster it. But although the learning process may begin in the hands of the adult educator, at some point, the control of the learning environment moves from the educator to the youth. This transition happens when the learner's motivation shifts from extrinsic to intrinsic and she begins to apply it. The educator who allows the freedom of learning and is open to it can accelerate the transition.
My middle son is a self-directed learner. His wildlife biology project, a bee nesting box, is one of the 4-H projects at the state fair this year. I marvel at the way he takes his passion for wildlife and spends enormous amounts of time researching the topic, gathering supplies and resources, engaging adults to partner with him and then publicly displaying his knowledge in some venue. His passion for animals and research has him seriously considering becoming a veterinarian. His internal motivation has led him to job shadow our local veterinarians this summer and explore different colleges. He has always learned best this way. Luckily, teachers throughout his formal education have also identified this and allowed him to direct his own learning in a variety of ways.
As I continue to research SDL,I wonder if all youth have the potential to be self-directed learners or is it an innate learning style? If it is a natural way to learn, as Knowles says, then what techniques can out-of-school-time educators use to draw out self-directed learning? What institutional changes need to be made?