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The Fully Engaged Student: An Explanation of Self-Directed Learning

Each experience we have leads us to the next. It is that simple. The experience leads us, not a person, not the teacher or parent (a valuable guide), but experience. More to the point, it is our response to that experience that leads us – our own personal internal response, not someone elseís. When we are allowed to hearken to that inner voice, follow our instincts, our nature, and eventually our heartís desire, life becomes self-directed; learning and growth become natural. But if someone else tries to force our path, away from our own inclinations, we feel a growing resistance, and learning becomes a chore.

I pity the poor teachers and students who are forced into a preset curriculum, saturated with standardized exams, work sheets and fill-in-the-blank learning. Students must write an essay on a subject that they have no feeling for, and teachers must read thirty or fifty in a single evening all on the same subject. Learning, by its own definition, should be exciting – an awakening – an expansion of oneís horizons. Yet the essay I just described is the work of student and teacher drones, where the teacher dreads reading the assignment as much as the student dreads writing it.

I know that I will always get wildly different essays from every one of my students. They will be written with focus and passion, fueled by the eager interests of the individual. In years past, my historical fiction students wrote stories that took place in: Victorian England at Queen Victoriaís Jubilee; the American Civil War at Shiloh; England in the early 1800s with Edgar Allen Poe as a boy; London in the mid-1660s during the plague; pioneer Wisconsin (drawing on the authorís personal family history); and the time of Nefertiti in ancient Egypt. There is just as much variety in my playwriting courses, where the work ranges from the comic and absurd to the seriously dramatic, in settings as diverse as the Kentucky mountains, the Eiffel Tower, and outer space. Even in my most serious essay classes, topics have included: Einsteinís theories, memories of cooking with a grandparent, life seen from a dogís point of view, and the future of farming. It is not difficult to meet the needs of students who are studying different things. In fact, it is a joy to share their enthusiasm, and a pleasure to read a variety of work.

When learning is self-directed, each experience beckons the student onward. We are not destined to all live the same lives or take part in the same professions. The foundation of learning can be created no matter what the subject. What is most important is that learning happens and the student is fully engaged. For this we need self-motivation, and that happens when the student is allowed to choose. The most we can do is to create an environment that supports the freedom to learn.

See also Ten Reasons Why Self-directed, Child-led Learning Works (article by Laurie Block Spigal)

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