Do-it-yourselfers understand self-directed learners

When many parents and grandparents of our current school-age children went to school, the school itself was the source of most of the information.

There were text books, media centers, gymnasiums, science labs, shops, various art media, guest speakers and teachers who were there to coordinate the information into academic packages that enabled students to achieve individual goals in a course topic. It wasn’t perfect. I remember hearing my science teachers griping about how as soon as a book was printed, it was out of date.

Now, almost every home has a computer with access to a worldwide web of information that is updated daily. Wow! I was Googling names of countries I was unfamiliar with during the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Students can access information about nearly anything worth knowing.

So it becomes more and more essential that students learn how to direct their learning toward projects and information that they have passion (an intense desire or enthusiasm) for and can relate to in their own lives. Passion is needed because without it, just a thought about something can change when something else comes along, or the going gets rough.

The story of Boyan Slat from Delft, Netherlands, is an example of self-directed learning that will positively affect the whole world. At age 16 he had been on a diving trip in Greece and saw more plastic pieces underwater than fish. He discovered that there was six times more plastic than plankton. He was shocked that over 100,000 mammals and over 1,000,000 birds are being killed by plastic consumption or entrapment. His passion to clean up the ocean was born!

People he talked to told him that they didn’t think that anything could be done about it, since the Great Pacific Garbage patch, in a gyre (circular ocean current) between Hawaii and California and other garbage patches in gyres in the world covered over a million square miles.

However, when he had to choose a high school science project. he decided to investigate a way to clean this mess up. He thought that there just might be a way. Instead of going to the plastic to clean it up, there might be a way to use the oceans’ currents to bring to plastic to a certain place for harvesting.

Fast forward to now. You can google him on the web at

At 21, he is now the founder and CEO of The Ocean Clean up Foundation which has a staff of 40 including a few different kinds of engineers and scientists, communications managers, a financial adviser, program managers, a COO, and an executive personal assistant. There is also a supervisory board, and they have attracted investors including the Dutch government.

The first 100 meter barrier prototype was to be installed the last week of June in the north seas off the Dutch Coast. He estimated that there was a 30 percent chance that it would break, but that it would be “a good test” for the first operational pilot system in late 2017. So how’s that for accepting the possibility of failure.

He far exceeded his high school science teacher’s knowledge and levels of engineering expertise, but that isn’t the point. The high school science teacher was able to help guide him to the resources he needed. This is what learning in the high schools will be more about under the Every Student Succeeds Act, although being a Self-directed Learner is and has been a Hawaii Department of Education goal for years.

Boyan exemplifies Google’s criteria for qualified people to be hired: “innovator, problem solver, and a self-directed learner.”

Malcolm Knowles popularized the concept of SDL in his book, ”Self-directed Learning.” He stated, “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[ing] human and material resources for learning, choosing and implement[ing] appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” … It doesn’t mean that they learn alone, or without input from others, but that what they choose for a learning experience is their own.

The teacher’s or parent’s job will be guiding them through asking questions and clarifying what they want or need to learn to get to the next step required in the project. I found a wonderful website that offers strategies for developing self-directed learners. It contained a list of 30 Universal Strategies For Learning. Some of them are:

1. Challenge something

2. Make an observation

3. Draw a conclusion

4. Question something

5. Revise a question based on observation & data

6. Critique something

7. Explain the significance

8. Revise something

9. Transfer a lesson or philosophical stance from one situation to another

10. Improve a design

Kids are more likely to complete SDLs because they are feeding their passion. Do-it-yourselfers know what that’s like.

For example, I decide to grow an organic garden to feed my family healthfully. I have to learn about good soil and how to amend it when it’s not; where to acquire and how to plant healthy seeds; insect and weed control; and when I can expect to harvest. I may have to research garden tools, find neighbors to share a truckload of good mulch with and enlist my family to help.

My son learned how to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on an ukulele from the web. My sister-in-law creates dinner masterpieces. My brother researches antiques for his shop, and I’ve learned about symptoms and cures of diseases that various friends and members of my family have had.

What an enriching life we can have when we get to choose the subjects to learn that we have passion for. May we all enjoy the journey!


Hale Opio Kauai convened a support group of adults in our Kauai community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Annaleah Atkinson at For more information about Hale Opio Kauai, please go to


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