7 Ways to Support a Self-Directed Learner

by Je’anna Clements

Supporting another person in SDE is a priceless gift. Here’s 7 (of many) ways to bless their process.

  1. Let go of your goals for them. Realise that nobody else can know for someone else, what needs to be learned when. To make a success of SDE, each person needs to tune in to their own intuition and learn to trust and follow their own wisdom. Even unspoken expectations can distract someone from their own inner direction, especially if they want to please you.
  2. Respect their goals as theirs. Don’t make their stated goals into your new goals for them, and don’t pressure them to set goals at all. Learning to follow through and complete things is important… and develops over time. It’s also really important to experiment, dabble, put things down and come back to them, and drop things you realise you’re not quite ready for, or are not for you, at all. Trying to hold someone to goals can backfire by hijacking important learning processes as well as stressing your relationship. By all means hold people to truly mutual arrangements, but respect their sovereignty and choice.
  3. You will find 1) and 2) easier, if you don’t artificially inflate the value of some activities over others just because schools do. For example, maths and language achievements are not inherently more valuable than other current interests of the learner – such as sewing, painting, or climbing trees. If there is a real need to learn a specific skill in order to live a fulfilling life, this will eventually be felt as a real need – and that will be the best time to learn it. Relax, knowing that nobody in our current culture gets to adulthood without finding a genuine need to read and calculate, and these can be learned at any time.
  4. You will find 1) 2) and 3) easier if you realise that every curriculum is subjective, and that it is a myth that children need to learn steadily, in curricular sequence, at set ages. SDE sees many sudden leaps and bounds in learning, punctuated by long periods of apparent inactivity. It is completely possible for a genuinely motivated teenager to spend a year catching up on formal maths, and pass tertiary entrance exams, without having ever studied it beyond regular life learning. People who learn to read at age 12 can be indistinguishable at 18, from those who learned at age 4.
  5. Give them space to explore and discover in their own way and at their own pace. It’s sooo tempting to correct them, tell them how it works or how to do it, finish the sentence, tell them what to expect, what comes next or what else. It’s a far greater gift to leave them the joy of real discovery, assisting only when asked and only as much as is asked.
  6. Connect rather than evaluate. When they share their learning, achievements or activities, offer observations that show you’re present with them, rather than evaluations that make you into a positive/negative judge. Instead of “very good!”, or “I’m sure you can do better next time”, how about “it looks like you’re having fun with that”, “you got it to balance!” or, if genuine “I like how you made these colours work together.” Try to show an interest in whatever they care enough to share – rather than ignoring their piano experiments while gushing over their mastery of the alphabet or vice-versa. It’s the person and the relationship that matter, not the activity itself.
  7. Let them discover what they’re drawn to, rather than filling their time for them. Boredom from lack of options and feeling mentally or socially starved does need to be addressed. Make sure they have plenty of social, activity, and material options – and then, trust them! Boredom from not knowing what to do next, is positive. It gives incubation time and allows totally new creative possibilities to emerge.