Trusting the Process of Self-Directed Learning


By Wyatt Hack

As a self-directed learner, how do you trust yourself and get trust from others as far as your education and personal growth?

It is my strongest belief about learning--especially the self-directed kind--that it is most effective when driven by passion and interest. This process begins with trust. Not only the trust of the one learning, but the trust of the teachers and supporters. If you allow yourself and others to follow their fascinations, you allow the process of learning to come about organically and naturally; it becomes not a chore, but a hobby. I’ve found that anything that comes about from passion, rather than necessity, is more true and easier to understand.

In many ways, I feel like I was born to be a self-directed learner, but I was also the product of a supportive environment that was always open to letting me explore what I wanted. When I was ten years old and still unschooled, I became fascinated by Mendelian genetics. I compiled a folder of articles about the inheritance of coat colors in cats that I had printed from the internet, and I took it nearly everywhere. My favorite activity was drawing Punnett squares, but even then I had no idea that this information would ever be useful to me in a practical, professional way; I just knew that I adored learning it. Five years later and now a student at Village Free School, I was in love with neuroscientist Oliver Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and listening to episodes of Radiolab. I used my time after lunch to type up a document listing the parts of the brain and their functions, still not expecting this to be something I would ever use in “real life”. Two years after that, a few months away from graduating, I was accepted into an internship at a behavioral neuroscience lab. Although I had no transcript or grades, no experience at all in a traditional schooling system, they recognized the passion and interest I had in the subject and decided to take a chance on me. After the internship program was completed, I contacted the lab to see if I could take a few hours out of my school week to help out--not because I wanted it to look good on a résumé, as they assumed, but because I genuinely loved the environment. They hired me seven months later, and I continued to work there for the next six years. It felt like a dream come true that setting up breeding pairs of mice, taking down coat colors as I did, was part of my job.

From my experience with peers who have only been in a traditional school system, I know that self-directed learning is its own skill-set. I know many people my age who have told me they don’t know how to teach themselves, because it’s not something that public school rewards. By being able to drive my own education, and having the trust put in me that I would reach appropriate milestones and know what I needed to learn, I developed the skill of absorbing information in a way that sticks, instead of relying on rote memorization.

Based on my own experience, here is an Unschooler’s guide to self-directed learning:

1). Follow your interests and expand on them

Even something very specific and small will have a story behind it. Once an interest has been identified, look into the things surrounding it and see what you can learn from the broader subject. Nothing exists in isolation, and understanding the context of something will enrich it further.

2). Learn to research

Read books, find articles, listen to podcasts, get stuck in a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Get information from plenty of sources and compare which things are always consistent.

3). Ask for help

Knowing yourself is knowing your limits. Part of trusting your own capacity to learn and teach yourself is also knowing where your weaknesses are and being willing to ask for help. Being a self-directed learner is not necessarily about going at it on your own; it’s about recognizing what you can do and also when you need someone or something else to fill in the gaps.

4). Put it down on paper

The more sensory input you use to learn something, the better it will stick. This is not about memorizing something in order to regurgitate it, but rather about absorbing information in a way that makes sense. Try not to copy your source directly, but put it in your own way so you can understand it--do it with words, drawing, collaged images, a Powerpoint; anything that gathers what you’ve learned together in a tangible way that allows you to come back to it.

5.) Share your passion

Once you can explain something to someone else, I think that’s when you have truly learned it. It forces you to put something in your own words, and also shares not only the information but the passion that you have for it--others can recognize this passion, and when you share something that truly matters to you, it inspires learning to continue and grow.

One of the easiest traps to fall into is believing that one kind of learning is more important than any other kind, or that there is a set order in which learning needs to happen. Probably the most valuable knowledge that I gained during my time at the Village Free School was social knowledge rather than academic. Not to say that there isn’t a value in academic knowledge, but that the societal expectations of traditional education tend to unfairly prioritize it. A lot of self-trust comes from the security in social and interpersonal relationships; if you know you have the support of a community in which your “knowledge” is not a dependent factor, it takes a lot of pressure off of academic learning.

If I have learned one thing from my own educational journey, it’s that nobody’s path looks the same. Our societal education system is built in a way that often impedes passion and creativity, and instead relies on a set of rules and structure that in many ways are obsolete. There are many kinds of intelligence and learning that don’t fit into this box. Following your passions is a way to trust what you know about how the world works, and sharing what you know with others expands not only your own knowledge and understanding, but everyone else’s. Instead of putting trust in a system, self-directed learners have to put the trust in themselves and the community around them.

What’s far more valuable in our society, rather than being able to follow a strict set of regulations, is following a path that allows you to understand the world and your place in it. Leaving someone the space to learn is important, but so is community: trust is the combination of those things. In addition to this, trust and autonomy in learning go hand in hand: allowing self-directed learning to happen is trusting that autonomy will guide a student down the right path for them.

Wyatt Hack is a 23-year-old graduate of Village Free School. She recently completed an Associate of Science degree at Portland Community College, and currently works in a behavioral neuroscience lab at the VA hospital doing alcoholism research. She lives in SE Portland with her roommates and dog.