I had an interesting debate with some of my students in a class once over self-directed learning. I had gone off on some diatribe about learning and student responsibility and one student flat out asked "why they couldn’t just learn what they wanted to learn"? If they could do that, they would enjoy classes so much more they said. You know, because education is all about student happiness.
I responded saying “I loved Choose Your Own Adventure Books when I was growing up and I don’t think education has to be all one way.” I actually like the idea of some part of education being similar to Choose Your Own Adventure. Of course, they had no idea what I was talking about as most had not ever heard of that series!
But I get it. It doesn’t all have to be so formal and structured. The issue I explained to them was if all learning was self-directed, would any of them self-direct themselves into learning Organic Chemistry or Biochemistry which were foundational courses for their major? A few of them, maybe, would have worked their way through some of it, but not most of them. I knew that. Hell, I wouldn’t have when I was a student and I like to learn. Those classes in particular were hard and as a student I didn’t understand how those courses were foundational to what I would be doing, what my interests were or how they helped me learn to think about the world. I lacked context then, as do they now.
Here is the issue with 100% self-directed learning. It is my job as an educator to do 2 things in the classroom:
1) Create an environment where learning can take place.
2) Prepare them as best I can for the real world, which includes employment.
If all learning was self-directed then many students would not cover the material necessary to adequately prepare them for the real world and the job market because they wouldn’t find it interesting or they wouldn't see the relevance. Now this does not mean I don’t think some of their education shouldn't be self-directed. In any course there are pieces of information and concepts to which students must be exposed because it builds into future courses or they are really going to need it directly in some capacity as a “professional” in their field. Now as students, they don’t know what they need as a professional so there is an obvious disconnect between what is being covered in class to what they will be doing in the real world. Hence, their unhappiness.
That being said, once the core pieces are covered, there should be some room remaining for self-directed, “choose your own adventure” learning. I try to give my students in every class this opportunity. This is one of the reasons I co-founded TheHubEdu. It’s a space that is less formal, less structured and more social than a traditional classroom. We promote self-directed learning beyond the classroom and the opportunity for exploration and discovery for both students and instructors.
There is room for this type of learning in the “traditional” education model. Instructors just have to loosen the reigns a bit and guide students through the process. Instructors are no longer the primary source of information, but I think some of us still don't get it. It's all about context and connections now. Still, some of us are reluctant to change. I remember having a conversation with a colleague of mine in the hallway one day where he was discussing the issues he was having establishing a couple of "make-up" days for a course that was cancelled due to weather. My initial thought was "Okay, maybe my being happy classes were cancelled last week is not an appropriate response for an instructor". So I asked him, why? Why go to all the trouble to try to schedule a make-up class? He said "Because if I don't cover the information, where will they get it"? And I said "Google, like everyone else"! He didn't get it.
Tiffany M Reiss, PhD