Cultivating Self-Directed Learners Starts Here

Uncategorized / June 21, 2019

 – Dan Jones –

The year when I heard from my students, “Mr. Jones, what website should I click on? Should I pick this one? What about this one? MR. JOOOOOONES,” is a year I will never forget. Every time I turned the students loose to conduct research, I would get a question from them about every ten seconds. The students had never been given the freedom to choose. Placing students in a position to make choices, made them tentative at first, but they were on their way to becoming self-directed learners.

If you have ever been the first flipped classroom teacher your students had, you know the struggle is real when it comes to moving your students from directed learners to self-directed learners. For years, my students had relied entirely on their teachers to tell them exactly what they needed to do, what they needed to click, and exactly how to approach each problem they encountered. To quote one of my favorite movie characters, Yoda: “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Moving students from dependent to self-directed takes time, but the structure of the flipped classroom equips students with the discipline and skills needed to embark on their educational journey successfully. Many students must unlearn the educational process they have experienced so that they can become what the world (and college) needs them to be, self-directed. There are numerous ways that Flipped Learning helps students unlearn traditional instruction so that they can blossom and grow.

  1. Relationships

It is becoming more and more apparent that positive relationships are the glue that holds the flipped classroom together. When teachers have positive relationships with their students, the freedom to try new ideas emerges. Students understand that the classroom is a safe place to make mistakes, to fail and start over, to ask questions when they don’t understand, and take risks. Showing our students how invested we are in them gives them permission to invest in us. When we care about our students, we care about what is impacting them, we care about how they are supported, and we see them as people who have real concerns, struggles, passions, joys, and potential.


When students feel valued, their behavior in the classroom improves. When behavior improves, more learning occurs. According to the book, Educator’s Guide to Preventing and Solving Discipline Problems by Mark Boynton and Christine Boynton, when students know that they are valued, they have a greater desire to please you, which directly impacts their behavior. They write, “This is why it is so important to remember that, when it comes to student behavior, it’s far more often the relationship students have with you than it is the rules themselves that encourage students to follow those rules.”

Relationships set the stage for every other aspect of students becoming self-directed learners.

  1. Modeling

It is hard to model the skills of self-directed learners when the bulk of the time in class is spent on acquiring new knowledge. In a flipped classroom, teachers get to spend their time with students modeling everything they want their students to do. As students apply their knowledge, they can identify gaps in their understanding, thus prompting questions. This is great because teachers are then able to work side by side with those students who have questions while simultaneously empowering those that don’t have questions to keep moving forward. Having micro-conversations to help students fill in those gaps teaches them that it is okay not to know everything, and you can help model for those students how to navigate through their questions. As flipped educators, we are less likely to hand-hold students through their questions, but we can model appropriate questioning, guide students to necessary resources, and celebrate with students as they take greater ownership in their learning.

Facilitating the learning experience shows students that they are capable and that instills confidence. Jennifer Bartell wrote an article for EdSurge titled Why Self-Directed Learning Is Important For Struggling Students. In it, she writes about how she was hesitant to allow students that had struggled or were labeled as “at-risk” to become self-directed. But when she empowered them to take ownership of the learning, she saw more students working together, and she had more students complete the work. Each and every day, my students impress me with their ability to think creatively, connect the dots in their understanding, and their application of content information. We need to encourage our students each day by modeling how to become self-directed learners.

  1. Design Thinking

Design thinking teaches students that there are many ways to approach learning. Each student comes to us with things that bring them joy, and it is so important to encourage students to use those things as they process new information. A student’s joy is their filter. It is how they determine if the content or a class is boring or worthy of their attention. TALENT X, a Toronto based tech firm, writes in their article, Help Your Students Brainstorm Using Design Thinking, that Design Thinking teaches students to look at information using multiple learning styles. It asks them to combine learning styles to achieve the greatest results. Design Thinking also requires students to self-assess and then redirect their approach if necessary.

Students can invest in the content, regardless of the content area, when they can use Design Thinking as their approach to applying their understanding. Students see greater value in the work and are more likely to become self-directed in their application of their new found knowledge.

  1. Organization

Self-directed learners are organized learners. This concept does not mean that every self-directed learner has crisp, clean desks, pencils all in rows and every piece of paper is in the appropriate folder. What it does mean is that self-directed learners can organize their time as well as the information they learn. Because initial contact with new content occurs before the group space, students have to be self-disciplined to sit, listen, and process that new information independently of a teacher standing over them forcing them to do so. Students learn that this new responsibility requires a certain amount of time. The key word here is: requires. This requirement promotes time-management. Patrick Liew offers some interesting thoughts on time management in his blog post titled Becoming a Self-Directed Learner: Part 3: Time Management. He writes, “time management is life management. Success in the use of time will lead to success in life. In fact, how matured we are depends on the level of our responsibility, autonomy, and competence in using time to achieve worthwhile goals.”

Flipped Learning requires students to self-monitor their time outside of the classroom to ensure they are prepared for the application of that knowledge in the classroom. This requirement prepares students as they advance on their educational journey to use the time they have to get the required work accomplished.

Now my students are not constantly in need of my assistance. Instead, they have become learners who know where to look for resources, are willing to take chances, and desire to have a deeper understanding of the content they encounter. Self-directed learners organically emerge through flipped instruction. As we build relationships, model how to engage with the content, integrate design thinking into our structure, and help students to develop organization within their approach to learning, we will see outcomes beyond what we could have ever imagined.


Dan Jones
Dan Jones Jones
Dan Jones is a middle school social studies teacher at the Richland School of Academic Arts. He earned a BS in Middle Grades Education from Ashland University and a Master's Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from American College of Education. Dan is the author of Flipped 3.0 Project Based Learning: An Insanely Simple Guide. He is a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty and has earned numerous FLGI certifications including the certification Flipped Learning 3.0 Master Class Facilitator Certification Level - I.

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