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“Oh, my students are all self-directed learners!” Mr. Simpson beamed. “They all choose to do exactly what I say.”

I smile. I have heard this point time and again from my colleague. I don’t buy it. I have seen too many examples of profound self-directed learning from pre-kindergarten up to graduate school and beyond to accept his opinion.


So what do I think it takes to earn the self-directed learner label in today’s classroom? That requires a change in the classroom culture and a switch from teachers like Mr. S who rely on fear and punishment so that students depend on them as sole sources of wisdom-- to teachers who build a climate of mutual trust and respect in which students are empowered to choose their learning paths—who learn how to determine what, when, where and how they will learn.

1. From A Culture of Rewards or Punishments. When the classroom is a place where “I talk, you listen,” “I give directions, you follow directions,” students make choices to obey or suffer the consequences of lower grades. It’s “Do your homework, or…” “Study for the exam, or...”

In this context, all students start each day with two hidden choices. First, “Do I or don’t I do what I am told?“ If the answer is “I will”, the second choice follows. “How much do I comply?”

2. To A Culture of Mutual Trust and Respect. On the flip side, I see more and more school leaders and teachers come to understand the need for a total transformation of school culture. Their alternative view begins with abandonment of “ye old rewards and punishment.” It its place they build a climate driven by reciprocal respect relationships among students, faculty and school leaders. Enabled by a climate that encourages students’ choice of what and how they learn, students not only self-direct their choices, but also develop capabilities as self-directed learners.


In a mutual respect culture, adults collaborate with student by abandoning their traditional commander role and adopting the new enabler role. In this new role, teachers give top priority to development of students’ skills for making authentic decisions about what and how they learn and will live. This collaboration aims to replace the obsolete “we know best what is good for you” forced choice world-view with one that values students’ desire to chart their own life courses and learn from both successes and failures. As a result, a new curriculum develops from students’ own goals, plans, strategies, and skills as they learn to think critically and creatively and solve problems so they can make their future world.

Starting with students’ authentic interest in the world in which they live, teachers empower their students to make a personalized curriculum that is designed to develop the goal setting, planning, critical and creative thinking, intrinsic motivation and growth mindsets that actively foster self-directed deeper learning.

Rigorous content does not go away. The three Rs don’t disappear. They take a back seat to students’ self-directed designing-planning and doing of projects in which they gather information, not by listening to lectures or filling in worksheets, but by using technology to research, collect data, and draw conclusions that lead to deeper understanding. Students then transfer their answers to their driving questions about science, current events, history, communications media, engineering, and other disciplines.


Self-directed-learning is distinct from making forced choices. When students are free from fear and bribery because their teachers enable rather than command, they are free to make intrinsically-driven choices about what and how they learn, to sharpen their learning skills, and to develop mindsets that drive them to set their own goals and make plans for future learning success.


Jim Bellanca is President/CEO of the Illinois Consortium for 21st Century Learning. Since his days as founder of a high school Center for Self-Directed Learning, he has worked with educators around the globe to create classrooms and schools that empower self-directed learning. Recent books include Enriched Learning Projects and Deeper Learning: Beyond 21st Century Skills. Current transformation projects in Chicago and Atlanta incorporate whole school adoption of the MindQuest21 PBL school model.

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