6 Strategies to Support the Development of Self-Directed Learners

Voices from the Field | Practice   14 January 2020
By Josh Ecker, Salisbury Township School District


No matter which of these strategies you plan to experiment with, it’s vital to remember that helping learners develop these skills and habits is a gradual process that takes time.

Josh Ecker

Your classroom is an oasis of positivity. You’ve put in the work to help learners not only feel prepared but also excited for the shift to learner-centered education. Every burst of their enthusiasm is like taking a sip of career-affirming manna. Even students who were most resistant are warming up to the idea. You’ve collaborated with learners and started implementing some small changes, and now you feel everyone is ready to completely share the freedom and responsibility of learning.

The first day of full implementation arrives. Your morning habit of hitting the snooze button four times is interrupted as you hop out of bed with the nervous excitement of being part of this meaningful work. You can’t prove it, but as you’re driving to work, you could swear the sun is a little bit brighter than it’s been before. Even on the highway, you can make out the melodious chirps of songbirds. Finally, the nervous anticipation comes to a head as you enter the classroom.

The room is buzzing. The learners know what today is, and they’re charged up and ready to go, like marathoners at the starting line. You take a moment to appreciate this moment with them, the growth they’ve made in their thinking, in their readiness for what’s next. That alone is a major feat, and the first step on the learner-centered journey. Now, it’s time to hand over the reins.

Learners are choosing what they want to work on and learn about, what meaningful projects they’d like to tackle. You bask in the glow; in fact, it feels like, even in a dilapidated room washed out in fluorescent light, the sun is still shining on you. You’re deservedly proud of your contribution in creating this class culture and helping prepare learners for this day. After a moment of self-congratulations, you jump into your own work as a facilitator and coach.


Even our youngest learners have years of training in compliance and standardization. To help learners succeed in the unfamiliar context of learner-centered education, we need to help them deprogram the ways in which they’ve been trained to act and think in schools.

Josh Ecker

Walking around the room, you speak with one learner who wants to solve the climate crisis and is already deeply engaged in research. You speak with another who wants to develop 3D-printable school supplies for disadvantaged families. Out of the corner of your eye, you see what looks suspiciously like a paper airplane flying through the air. Safety issues aside, you identify the builder, and ask her some leading questions to see if she can and wants to develop this into a meaningful learning experience: Do you want to be a pilot? An engineer? Have you ever considered learning more about aerodynamics?

After taking a moment, she says “no” to all of the above. She says she just wanted to make a paper airplane. She says she isn’t sure what to work on, and she’s bored. You feel, and confirm later on your smartwatch, that your pulse spikes upwards. You think, How can she not know what she wants to work on? This is all about her interests, who she is. All she has to do is pick something!

This is an assumption we can too easily fall into. But, in reality, it’s more complicated than that, especially for a learner who’s never been asked to make meaningful decisions before.

In my last article, we discussed the importance of helping learners develop a mindset and point of view that’s amenable to fundamental and far-reaching changes in the classroom, changes that make them the primary agents of their learning. But, as the scenario above hints at, helping learners develop the mental readiness for this change only gets you halfway to the starting line.

Even our youngest learners have years of training in compliance and standardization. To help learners succeed in the unfamiliar context of learner-centered education, we need to help them deprogram the ways in which they’ve been trained to act and think in schools. Enthusiasm for this change is a necessary first step, but once you have learners engaged in the process, it’s essential that you help them develop the skills and habits necessary to become leaders in their learning and in their lives.

So, what kinds of learning do we have to cultivate in a learner-centered environment? How do we teach those things? The below strategies are divided by categories that comprise what many consider to define self-directed learning—executive function, metacognition, and social emotional learning. Think of this as a menu, one from which you can choose one or multiple strategies to start with, customizing them for your own context and goals.

Executive Functioning

Executive Functioning refers, at least in part, to one’s ability to self-regulate their behaviors, to align one’s actions with their goals and intentions. For a more detailed primer, check out this introduction from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

Using an Agenda

Setting a daily agenda is an immensely helpful habit for anyone approaching a large block of unstructured time. When I want to maximize the value of unstructured time in my own life (e.g. writing this article), I have found creating an agenda to be the most fruitful tool at my disposal.

The world of work is constantly becoming more and more flexible, less clearly defined. Not only will our current learners cobble together careers that include freelance work, entrepreneurship, and exposure to multiple industries, but even within the structure of a single work week, there will be no easy answer to “what does an average week look like at your job?” There simply won’t be an average.

Looking beyond the work context, an agenda-setting habit is useful for general life goals like authoring a novel you’ve always wanted to write, making it a point to spend more meaningful time with friends and family, or keeping a watchful eye on your finances.

In my professional context, we ask learners to complete an agenda each day with what they plan to do. It’s a simple form with time broken up into fifteen minute increments. Before learners begin their work, we ask them to get an adult to sign off on their plan. Occasionally, for whole-group activities, we’ll have tasks already assigned to blocks of time, and learners fill them out accordingly. Other times, learners have their entire mornings to work on whatever they feel is most important and take breaks as they deem necessary and appropriate.

Developing Physical and Digital Organization Systems

I remember being in 7th grade, battling the confusion and uncertainty of adolescence. It was represented very clearly in my notebooks where notes were scattershot across random pages. It was a small miracle anytime I could find information I wrote down the previous day. Worksheets and documents from different classes huddled together, fearing for their lives and lucky to make it back to the safety of the teacher’s hands without first getting creased and crumpled into oblivion.

As a middle school teacher, I see this all the time and, as a former high school teacher, I used to see it there as well! Organization has always been difficult for many adolescents, but even more so now with the sheer amount of information available to them and the added complexity of organizing information across both physical and digital spaces. Highlighting different systems is beyond the scope of this article, but I will say that we’ve found a mix of digital and physical systems to be best, as long as there is a clear distinction about what kinds of information to put where. If you want to learn more about organization systems to share some ideas with your learners, I’ve found many of Thomas Frank’s YouTube videos to be helpful.


Metacognition is a collection of skills relating to one’s ability to reflect upon and deepen one’s understanding of one’s own learning processes, considering how and why one does their best work. For more information, as well as additional strategies for promoting metacognition in learners, you can start with this overview from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching.


This is another strategy I use in my own life and one that’s been effective in the classroom setting as well. Whether a working adult, newly-minted 1st grader, or somewhere in between, it’s easy for us to rush through life from one task to the next, chasing the dangling carrot that’s never quite in reach. A journaling practice is an important reminder for us to slow down, reflect, and both appreciate and learn from the past. 

For learners new to reflective journaling, it’s often helpful to provide prompts. For example, you might ask them to write a response to the questions:

  • What’s one aspect of your work that didn’t go according to plan this week?
  • Why do you think that was the case?
  • What within your own sphere of control or influence could you do if you were to go back in time to that moment?

You could even use the guiding question for prioritizing tasks, mentioned above, and ask students to journal about it on a regular basis. One of the great aspects of journaling is that it can be as free flowing or as specific as you and the learners want it to be in that moment.

Applying the Scientific Method to Life

There are many ways to break down the scientific method, from the very complex to the very simple. For this application, we can keep it simple. You might introduce it to students as four cyclical steps: observe → hypothesize → experiment → evaluate. 

The scientific method can be applied to any aspect of life. If, for example, a learner observes that he’s been distracted in class recently, he may search for a feasible hypothesis. He could consider what was happening in the classroom, or even at home the day before, that could have impacted his attention.

He hypothesizes that going on his phone right before bed made it harder for him to fall asleep, which led to him being tired and unfocused in school.

He experiments with putting his phone in a different room when he’s getting ready for bed and, upon evaluating the impact, learns he was able to fall asleep more easily and that it did improve his focus in school!

This might be a lofty example, but it’s the kind of reflection that can become second nature when learners know how to utilize the scientific method in their own lives and learning.

Social-Emotional Learning

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) refers to a wide range of competencies. At its core, I view it as one’s ability to identify and manage emotions and manage one’s role and contributions in social settings. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has some great resources for digging deeper into SEL.

Identifying Core Emotions

If we want learners to identify, manage, and communicate what they’re feeling, we need to make sure they have the tools to do so. One of my favorite researchers and authors, Brené Brown, and her team have identified a set of core emotions (note: this link is a pdf download). This relatively small list, Brown and her colleagues argue, covers all the core emotions and combinations thereof that an individual might feel.

Sharing this list with learners, giving them time to learn the meanings of each, and working through ways of applying this knowledge is a great first step in helping them connect with their emotions and consider how those emotions impact their actions and habits. 

This strategy also touches on the fact that memorization doesn’t have to be taboo in learner-centered environments; what matters is what learners are memorizing and why they are doing it. In this case, it’s to apply this vocabulary to themselves in ways that will allow them to more effectively navigate their emotional states.

Communicating and Collaborating

Two of the “4 Cs,” communication and collaboration, are essential skills for learner-centered environments and 21st-century life. While formal communications such as presentations and essays certainly have value, what I mean here is more general and, I would argue, more important.

Can students communicate their thoughts and feelings to others? Can they use this communication skill to improve their collaborative work? When they are collaborating, do they have the ability to navigate through the sticking points that often occur when sharing work responsibilities with others? These are the questions you might ask learners as they reflect upon and learn how to engage in the social processes of life and learning.

Any of these strategies will help you nudge learners toward greater independence and agency—from making paper airplanes as a form of distraction to engaging with any topic or interest, including paper airplanes, in a way that leads to engaging and meaningful learning experiences.

No matter which of these strategies you plan to experiment with, it’s vital to remember that helping learners develop these skills and habits is a gradual process that takes time. If you want to open up these strategies and others to learners, reiterate the same thing to them: Don’t expect instant results, but if you stick with any one of these, you will see meaningful changes.

It’s essential we enable learners to experience and experiment with the process of learning itself, discovering what works for them and what doesn’t. Be prepared for the reality that the first month, six months, first year, even, might be focused primarily on learners developing these meta skills and habits. And, even after that, they will always be refining them, just like we all are.

Only once learners have a baseline ability to self-direct can they productively engage in the learning process and apply it to anything in their lives, in school or otherwise. And, isn’t that the point? If we truly want learners to be leaders, to be efficacious and independent thinkers and doers, then building the mindset, skills, and habits are the first steps.

BONUS: 3 MORE Strategies to Support the Development of Self-Directed Learners

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