User Generated Education

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Posts Tagged ‘self-directed learning

Freedom to Learn

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I was painfully bored during my K-12 education. I looked forward to college anticipating that it would be different – more engaging, more interesting, more innovative. I was wrong. My undergraduate education, except for a few bright spots, was just an extension of my K-12 education including more grill and drill with sages on the stages (literally since I went to such a large university); taking notes and taking lots of multiple choice tests. During my freshman year, I thought that if I had one wish, it would be to change the educational system (which has stayed with me ever since). One of those bright spots was being asked to read Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn, which was published 1969 in an upper level Educational Psychology course. The big aha for me was that school systems should be focused on helping learners develop the skills for how to learn not what to learn, one that was sorely lacking in most of my K-graduate-level education and a concept and goal that as an educator I’ve held onto ever since.

So now when I read about new “pedagogies” and instructional strategies based on self-directed learning, learning how to learn, self-determined learning, I kind of laugh to myself. Solid, valid, and student-focused pedagogy has been proposed ever since the beginnings of institutionalized education – think John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Kurt Hahn, and in this case, Carl Rogers.

The following text provides a summary of Rogers’ major themes  about learning and education from Freedom to Learn and comes from Weibell, C. J. (2011). Principles of learning: 7 principles to guide personalized, student-centered learning in the technology-enhanced, blended learning environment. Retrieved from

freedom to learn

Rogers (1969) listed five defining elements of significant or experiential learning:

  1. It has a quality of personal involvement – Significant learning has a quality of personal involvement in which “the whole person in both his feeling and cognitive aspects [is] in the learning event” (p. 5).
  2. It is self-initiated – “Even when the impetus or stimulus comes from the outside, the sense of discovery, of reaching out, of grasping and comprehending, comes from within” (p. 5).
  3. It is pervasive – Significant learning “makes a difference in the behavior, the attitudes, perhaps even the personality of the learner” (p. 5).
  4. It is evaluated by the learner – The learner knows “whether it is meeting his need, whether it leads toward what he wants to know, whether it illuminates the dark area of ignorance he is experiencing” (p. 5).
  5. Its essence is meaning – “When such learning takes place, the element of meaning to the learner is built into the whole experience” (p. 5).

As an example of significant learning—the kind that illustrates his theory of freedom to learn—Rogers cited the informal notes kept by Barbara J. Shiel, a teacher, who out of despair and frustration decided to try a drastic experiment in promoting experiential learning in her sixth grade class. In the experiment Mrs. Shiel introduced the concept of work contracts. These were ditto sheets that contained a list of all of the subjects the class was to study, along with a list of suggestions for study under each, and a space for students to write their plans in each area.

“Because I was not free to discard the state-devised curriculum time schedule, I explained the weekly time-subject blocks to the children—this was to be a consideration in their planning. We also discussed sequential learning, especially in math, mastering a skill before proceeding to the next level of learning. They discovered the text provided an introduction to a skill, demonstrated the skill, and provided exercises to master it and tests to check achievement. When they felt they were ready to go on, they were free to do so. They set their own pace, began at their own level, and went as far as they were able or self-motivated to go.” (Rogers, 1969, pp. 17-18)

Since evaluation was self-initiated and respected by the teacher, there was no need for cheating to achieve success. “We discovered that “failure” is only a word, that there is a difference between “failure” and making a mistake, and that mistakes are a part of the learning process.” (Rogers, 1969, p. 18)

One cannot measure the difference in attitude, the increased interest, the growing pride in self-improvement, but one is aware that they exist. (Rogers, 1969, p. 19)

The experience of Mrs. Shiel’s experiment is illustrative of the principles of learning that Rogers (1969, pp. 157-164) abstracted from his own experience:

Human beings have a natural potentiality for learning. “They are curious about their world, until and unless this curiosity is blunted by their experience in our educational system” (p. 157).

Significant learning takes place when the subject matter is perceived by the student as having relevance for his or her own purposes. “A somewhat more formal way of stating this is that a person learns significantly only those things which he perceives as being involved in the maintenance of or the enhancement of his own self” (p. 158).

When threat to the self is low, experience can be perceived in differentiated fashion and learning can proceed. When [the learner] is in an environment in which he is assured of personal security and when he becomes convinced that there is no threat to his ego, he is once more free to…move forward in the process of learning. (p. 161)

Much significant learning is acquired through doing. “Placing the student in direct experiential confrontation with practical problems, social problems, ethical and philosophical problems, personal issues, and research problems, is one of the most effective modes of promoting learning” (p. 162).

Learning is facilitated when the student participates responsibly in the learning process. “When he chooses his own directions, helps to discover his own learning resources, formulates his own problems, decides his own course of action, lives with the consequences of these choices, then significant learning is maximized” (p. 162).

Self-initiated learning which involves the whole person of the learner—feelings as wells as intellect—is the most lasting and pervasive. This is not the learning which takes place “only from the neck up.” It is a “gut level” type of learning which is profound and pervasive. It can also occur in the tentative discovery of a new self-generated idea or in the learning of a difficult skill, or in the act of artistic creation—a painting, a poem, a sculpture. It is the whole person who “let’s himself go” in these creative learnings. An important element in these situations is that the learner knows it is his own learning and thus can hold to it or relinquish it in the face of a more profound learning without having to turn to some authority for corroboration of his judgment. (pp. 162-163)

Independence, creativity, and self-reliance are all facilitated when self-criticism and self-evaluation are basic and evaluation by others is of secondary importance. If a child is to grow up to be independent and self reliant he must be given opportunities at an early age not only to make his own judgments and his own mistakes but to evaluate the consequences of these judgments and choices. (p. 163).

The most socially useful learning in the modern world is the learning of the process of learning, a continuing openness to experience and incorporation into oneself of the process of change. If our present culture survives, it will be because we have been able to develop individuals for whom change is the central fact of life and who have been able to live comfortably with this central fact. They will instead have the comfortable expectation that it will be continuously necessary to incorporate new and challenging learnings about ever-changing situations. (pp. 163-164)

Rogers’ theory of learning also included principles that define the role of the teacher as a facilitator of learning. Rogers (1983) summarized this role by stating that “the primary task of the teacher is to permit the student to learn, to feed his or her own curiosity” (p. 18). Rogers’ principles of facilitation are complementary to his ten principles of learning. Together they form a human learning theory that emphasizes learner agency, growth, and affect. These ten principles are as follows (summarized from Rogers, 1969, pp. 164-166)):

  1. The educator has much to do with setting the initial mood or climate of the class experience. “If his own basic philosophy is one of trust in the group and in the individuals who compose the group, then this point of view will be communicated in many subtle ways” (p. 164).
  2. The educator helps to elicit and clarify the purposes of the individuals in the class.
  3. The educator relies upon the desire of each student to implement those purposes which have meaning for him or her, as the motivational force behind significant learning.
  4. The educator endeavors to organize and make easily available the widest possible range of resources for learning.
  5. The educator regards him/herself as a flexible resource to be utilized by the group.
  6. In responding to expressions in the classroom group, the educator accepts both the intellectual content and the emotionalized attitudes, endeavoring to give each aspect the approximate degree of emphasis which it has for the individual or group.
  7. As the acceptant classroom climate becomes established, the educator is able increasingly to become a participant learner, a member of the group, expressing his views as those of one individual only.
  8. The educator takes the initiative in sharing him/herself with the group—his/her feelings as well as thoughts—in ways which do not demand nor impose but represent simply a personal sharing which students may take or leave.
  9. As a facilitator of learning, the educator endeavors to recognize and accept his/her own limitations. “S/he realizes that s/he can only grant freedom to his/her students to the extent that s/he is comfortable in giving such freedom” (p. 166).

(For this final section, I took the liberty to change “facilitator” to “educator.”)

The following graphic developed by the Freedom to Learn Project, is based on Rogers’ ideas and exemplifies their manifesto.


So the push towards self-directed learning – helping learners develop skills for directing their own learning really isn’t new BUT the Internet, social media, and open-source content just make it easier for the educator actually implement these practices especially when working with groups of students.

Online learning opportunities, pedagogical shifts and easy accessibility of Internet through multiple devices offer attractive opportunities for learners to assume greater responsibility and initiative in their own learning. In fact, it may not be hyperbole to state that self-directed learning is now a mandatory skill rather than optional in order to impart both work readiness and the development of global citizenry (diversified, culturally sensitive and fully contributing social citizens) among the growing generation of digital [savvy learners]. (Is Learning Increasingly Self-Directed in the Digital Era?)


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 12, 2017 at 5:15 pm

Show Learners the Possibilities . . . And Then Get Out of the Way

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We are living in an age of advanced user-driven technologies, information abundance, and networked, participatory learning. It should logically follow, then, that education should take advantage of these amazing developments. As many of us in education know, it has not. This theme has permeated many of my blog posts:

Moving from Education 1.0 Through Education 2.0 Towards Education 3.0

The evolution of the web from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and now to Web 3.0 can be used a metaphor of how education should also be moving, developing, and evolving from Education 1.0 towards that of an Education 3.0. The Internet has become an integral thread of the tapestries of most societies throughout the globe. The web influences people’s way of thinking, doing and being; and people influence the development and content of the web. The Internet of today has become a huge picture window and portal into human perceptions, thinking, and behavior. Logically, then, we would expect that schools would follow suit in matching what is happening via the Internet to assist children and youth to function, learn, work, and play in a healthy, interactive, and pro-social manner in their societies-at-large. This, sadly, is more often than not the case. Many educators are doing Education 1.0; talking about doing Education 2.0; when they should be planning and implementing Education 3.0

Learner Agency, Technology, and Emotional Intelligence

The notion of agency as contributing to cognitive processes involved in learning comes primarily from the Piagetian notion of constructivism where knowledge is seen as “constructed” through a process of taking actions in one’s environment and making adjustments to existing knowledge structures based on the outcome of those actions. The implication is that the most transformative learning experiences will be those that are directed by the learner’s own endeavors and curiosities. (Lindgren & McDaniel, 2012)

All of this is fresh in my mind as I just completed four weeks of summer camp teaching maker education and photo-video apps to 5 to 10 year olds. This teaching experience reinforced for me that educators can be tour guides of learning possibilities; showing learners the possibilities, then getting out of the way.

Facilitating the Process

The following section describes some of the conditions in the learning environment that support the educator as being the tour guide of learning possibilities and then handing over the responsibility for learning to the learners. Educators still take on a very active role in the learning environment, but learning is driven by the actions of the learners not those of the educator.

Expectations for Self-Directed Learning

In a learning environment that stresses self-directed learning, the educator conveys the attitude that learners are capable of being masters of their own learning.

In its broadest meaning, ’self-directed learning’ describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identify human and material resources for learning, choosing and implement appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” (Knowles, 1975, p. 18)

In line with showing learners the possibilities and getting out of the way, the educator needs to take a back seat role in the learning process. Learners may not, often will not, do things the way the educator might, but the educator respects and supports this process in a self-determined learning environment.

Educator as an Observer

If educators want to know how learners learn, then they need to observe them learning under their on terms, with tools and techniques they use naturally.  Too often adults assume they know how children and young people learn, and too often they do not especially in this new age of learning. The educator in the role of tour guide of learning possibilities first, observes to discover each learner’s unique way of interacting with the world, and second, based on these observations, suggests or offers resources and strategies to further each learner’s self-directed learning process.

Educator as a Resource

The educator as a resource means that the educator becomes a coach or a mentor. Educators are the adult experts in the room. Learners will often go to the educator for assistance especially when stuck on a problem or to get feedback.

The best coaches encourage young people to work hard, keep going when it would be easier to stop, risk making potentially painful errors, try again when they stumble, and learn to love [their learning] (One to Grow On / Every Teacher a Coach).

The educator as a resource implies that the s/he has multiple skill sets: expertise in the process of learning and expertise in how to navigate online environments along with the ability to mentor learners using these skill sets.

Educator as a Demonstrator of Technologies

A subtitle of this section is It Really Is About the Technology . . .  Sort of.  In order for learner agency and self-directed learning to occur, educators need to keep abreast of current and emerging technologies. There is an assumption that young people are digitally savvy and know how to use emerging technology.

The widely-held assumption that all young people are digitally literate and able to navigate the internet meaningfully is inaccurate. This is something we urgently need to address if we are to support young people to cope with – and contribute to – a complex, global and digital society (New report challenges the assumption that all young people are digitally savvy).

“If educators are serious about preparing learners for their real lives – current and future, then it becomes an ethical imperative to bring relevant, current, and emerging technologies into the learning environment (It really is about the technology and . . .).  This translates into showing learners the possibilities of technology and internet use for learning so the learners can then bring this knowledge into their own learning journeys.

Learning is Viewed as Natural, Fun, Playful, and Joyful

It has been said that learning is painful. I take issue with that phrase. When learning occurs in settings and with processes selected by the learner, it is natural, fun, playful, and joyful. Sure, there are struggles as new learning develops, but it becomes a natural, accepted part of the process.

The highest-level executive thinking, making connections, and “aha” moments of insight and creative innovation are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of what Alfie Kohn calls exuberant discovery, where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.  Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen — literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research (The Neuroscience Behind Stress and Learning).

Climate of Free Range and Constructivist Learning

The learning environment in a setting embracing self-directed learning takes on the characteristics of free range learning resulting in learners constructing their own meanings from their learning endeavors.

Free Range Learning is learning by living. It is learning by following our passions, exploring our world, living inquisitive lives and thinking freely. It is a lifestyle based on trust of a child’s natural desire to learn about the world around them. Every person’s learning journey will develop based upon their interests, experiences and choices (What is Free Range Learning?).

Free range learning is often associated with unschooling or homeschooling but it is intimately related to self-directed learning; and its tenets can be brought into in a more formal learning environment. The result is an honoring of contructivist learning “which holds that learners ultimately construct their own knowledge that then resides within them, so that each person’s knowledge is as unique as they are” (Learning Theories and Transfer of Learning).

Open to Emergent Learning and Learning Possibilities

Emergent learning is unpredictable but retrospectively coherent, we cannot determine in advance what will happen, but we can make sense of it after the event. It’s not disordered; the order is just not predictable (Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0).

Ambiguity is accepted. The educator lets go of what types of learning and products should result. By letting go of expectations “what should be”, there is an opening up to all kinds of emergent learning possibilities.

With an openness to emergent learning and learning possibilities, there is an acceptance that learning is messy:

Learning is often a messy business.   “Messy” learning is part trial and error, part waiting and waiting for something to happen, part excitement in discovery, part trying things in a very controlled, very step by step fashion, part trying anything you can think of no matter how preposterous it might seem, part excruciating frustration and part the most fun you’ll ever have. Time can seem to stand still – or seem to go by in a flash. It is not unusual at all for messy learning to be …um …messy! But the best part of messy learning is that besides staining your clothes, or the carpet, or the classroom sink in ways that are very difficult to get out … it is also difficult to get out of your memory! (

. . . and a trusting of the process and embracing the journey:

I have learned that if you give freedom and trust to students, they will find their own way to the learning that matters the most. Playing it safe is not going to yield the opportunities that will make a difference. Off-script is when you don’t quite know where you are going, but you have the courage to commit to the journey knowing that it is the process itself that will hold the worth (Speculative Design for Emergent Learning: Taking Risks).

Use of Open Technology and Resources

In this age of information and technology abundance, free online technologies and resources are just ripe for the picking. An advantage of open educational resources is “expanded access to learning. Students anywhere in the world can access OERs at any time, and they can access the material repeatedly(Pros and Cons of Using OERs for Instruction). These resources leverage the playing field. They are available to all learners regardless of geographic location and SES level (although access to the Internet is required). This translates in the availability of high quality tools and resources outside of the more formal educational setting. Learners can access them in informal learning environments such as at home or local coffee shops and/or via their mobile devices in order to continue and extend their self-directed learning.

How the Learners’ Benefit

I often say that all learning activities should have multiple and layered benefits – addressing cross-curricular, cross-interdisciplinary areas as well as developing life skills. Here are some of the benefits along with example learner self-statements associated with those benefits that I have observed as a tour guide of learning possibilities:

  • Technology Skills: I can use technology to help me learn.
  • Creativity and Inventiveness: I can create new & worthwhile ideas & things.
  • Risk-Taking: I am willing to try new things when I am learning.
  • Academic Mindset: I am a good and powerful learner.
  • Communication: I can communicate clearly both verbally & in writing.
  • Curiosity and a Sense of Wonder: I wonder about the world around me.
  • Connected Learning: I can network with others to help with my learning.
  • Self-Directed Learning: I know how to learn new things on my own.
  • Self-Motivation: I can motivate myself to learn new things.

Educators as Tour Guides of Learning Possibilities

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