Self-Directed Learning: How Do We Know What We Don’t Know?

This question comes up in many conversations on self-directed learning. How should kids know what they don’t know? How should they know what is worth learning? In fact, it’s usually not meant as a question, but to make a point: Kids need a knowledge base to be able to ask pertinent questions about the world. Without this knowledge, the world appears pitch-dark, and they can’t see the many things in it that are worth exploring. It’s a valid point, basic to education. But it’s just an idea, and it has little value by itself. The real question is, how can we bring this idea to life? More specifically…What knowledge is needed to ignite curiosity and a desire to know more? And how should it be built? Is it just a matter of giving children some preliminary knowledge and skills?


Consider this…

Learning is a natural process. It starts from the moment we’re born. Actually, as soon as we open our eyes to the world, knowledge starts to build up. Our senses begin gathering information right away. Life starts happening to us. Data from our experiences gets recorded. And our knowledge grows fast. What drives our learning when we are little? How do we know what we don’t know? The thing is, we don’t always know, and that’s alright.

When we’re little, acquiring knowledge is not an explicit goal to us – We don’t deliberately set out on a learning journey. For example, we don’t tell ourselves, I don’t know how to climb these stairs – I need to learn. But we want to get up the stairs, and that’s why we learn. Most learning occurs out of necessity and spontaneously – we follow our most pressing needs, curiosities, and desires. For instance, kids learn how to ride a bike because of the fun that riding a bike promises to offer. They learn to speak a foreign language easily when they know it will help them communicate with playmates. They learn the rules for a game because they want to play it. The focus is not the process, but the goal. And in most cases, even if they can’t articulate it, the goal is clear – and personal. As kids, we’re motivated to learn something new, not so much because we don’t know it, but because learning it gets us somewhere we want. And so, even if we don’t always know what we don’t know, we always know where we want to be. Which makes the process of learning happen smoothly, as if there was a gravitational pull toward our desired destination.

My point? Self-directed learning is innate. We’re fortunate to be naturally inclined to learn and wonder – the drive for knowledge is ours from birth. And, since children already have that drive, the challenge is how to preserve it. How can we help kids stay personally invested in learning? How can we ensure that, as they grow up, they continue to be drawn to learn by their own needs, curiosities, and desires – while, at the same time, they keep their eyes on worthwhile goals? I think these questions are hard, but only because modern life, including how we raise and educate kids, has come to neglect some of our natural inclinations. What if we could go back on some of that? I wonder…

What if …

…kids didn’t spend so much time with other kids? What if instead they spent more time around adults, and they engaged with what adults were doing?

…kids were not given so many toys? What if instead they had to invent ways to play, and made their own toys?

…kids didn’t receive answers to their questions right away? What if instead we helped them find the answers themselves?

…kids didn’t have so much of their lives scheduled and structured by others? What if they had more free time, and opportunities to choose and decide what they wanted?

…kids didn’t receive so much empty praise? What if we rewarded them only for accomplishments we truly admired?

…kids were not regarded as unfinished adults? What if instead we treated them as our partners in learning?

I know these ideas don’t fit well the only lifestyle most of us know. But it helps even to just imagine them! Who knows, maybe some of us will care enough to reconsider our routines and lifestyle? Maybe some will dare to make this leap of faith?

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that children don’t need guidance. I’m far from thinking that we should leave them to discover the world on their own. That they should explore and learn by themselves. Of course adults are essential to creating and expanding kids’ experiences. Before they start to ask questions, kids must become aware of what is out there, and of course that adults must mediate some of that. But, to preserve and nourish their intrinsic drive to learn, we should let kids decide where they want to go. It should be up to them to pick their destination. Then, once they have a clear destination in mind, the hard part should be over. Kids would likely be motivated to do what it takes to get there – And, by figuring out their way there, they’d learn.





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