Off-Trail Learning is about self-directed learning. What a gloriously vague term that is! Let’s explore it.

Here’s My Definition

Self-directed learning is an approach that places freedom, choice, and responsibility in the hands of the person doing the learning.

When you do self-directed learning, here’s what it looks like:

  • choosing to learn, study, or practice something because it’s interesting, important, or meaningful to you
  • proactively seeking out people, resources, companions, and other help you need along the way
  • defining the “success” of your learning as you see fit
  • assuming ultimate responsibility for the outcome of your efforts

Self-directed learning is not anti-structure, anti-school, anti-teaching, or anti-testing. Think of it as intentional learning or consensual learning. Self-directed learners can thrive in any learning environment—including a highly structured or traditional one—as long as they intentionally choose it and consent to its policies.

The opposite of self-directed learning is what we might call unexamined learning. Here’s what it looks like:

  • learning something simply because you’re doing what you’re told, without any consideration of how it serves (or harms) you
  • making little effort to learn something; believing that knowledge or resources will magically appear
  • blindly accepting the definition of success that’s handed to you (e.g. high test scores, fame, getting rich)
  • assuming that someone/something else is fundamentally responsible for what you learn or achieve (e.g. a teacher, institution, or society)

Who Uses Self-Directed Learning?

Everyone uses self-directed learning. Every human has to do at least a little self-directed learning, simply because the solutions to life’s problems are not handed to us on a platter.

Some people make self-directed learning a very large part in their lives; these are the ones we might call justifiably give the title self-directed learners. They commonly include:

  • Autodidacts who love learning for learning’s sake
  • Entrepreneurs, the self-employed, and those who make drastic career changes
  • Those who practice alternative lifestyles (e.g. very low income, long-term travelers, special diets) that require extensive research and experimentation
  • Homeschoolers, unschoolers, and other individuals and families taking alternative educational paths
  • Students doing independent research
  • Makers, tinkerers, inventors: those who build something that has not yet been created

In a nutshell: Anyone who chooses to learn or achieve something for which there is no clear user’s manual is a self-directed learner.

How Can It Help Me?

Self-directed learning makes you more economically resilient. Modern adults are constantly changing jobs, inventing new jobs, and creating our own jobs. Self-directed learning prepares you for this new economic landscape.

Self-directed learning makes you more interesting. When you blaze your own trail through life instead of following the prescribed path, people find you more interesting. That’s a serious asset

Self-directed learning is more meaningful and effective than unexamined or coerced learning. While it’s not always easy or fun, it’s a better experience in the end.

What’s Required For Self-Directed Learning?

Self-directed learning does not happen in a vacuum. It requires:

  • self-knowledge on the part of the learner
  • supportive parenting (in the case of a young person)
  • a culture that permits and celebrates individual achievement
  • enough time and money to enable this kind of learning (often less than we expect)

Please note that self-directed learning does not imply self-isolated learning. Community and interpersonal support is crucial for the success of any self-directed learner.

What Sciences Backs Up Self-Directed Learning?

There’s a lot of overlap between self-directed learning and the peer-reviewed psychology of self-determination theory and intrinsic motivation. Daniel Pink’s book Drive offers the most authoritative answer to this question.

How Does it Overlap With Unschooling?

Think of unschooling as full-time self-directed learning applied at the K-12 level.

Unschooling is appropriate for some individuals and families, but there are other ways to be self-directed that don’t include forsaking school.

Also See

What is “Self-Directed Education”? by Scott Noelle author Maurice Gibbons’ thoughts on self-directed learning (don’t miss his Walkabout Papers)


From The Art of Self-Directed Learning, “What Self-Directed Learners Do”:

Self-directed learners are normal people who wake up in the morning, put on their clothes, and eat their breakfasts. They brush their teeth, check their computers, and feed their pets. Then they ask themselves: Where do I want to go in life, and how will I get myself there?

When self-directed learners choose to go to school, they arrive on time, take notes, and do their homework—because school is taking them where they want to go.

When self-directed learners choose to go to work, they put in long hours, volunteer for the hard tasks that other people avoid, and get promoted—because work is taking them where they want to go.

The difference between self-directed learners and everyone else is: As soon as school or work stops serving their life goals, they don’t stick around. They ditch the well-trodden path, bust out the map and compass, and cut cross-country to virgin territory.

Instead of putting up with a miserable or unproductive school situation, a self-directed learner figures out how to get an education on his own terms. He changes his approach to school, finds a different school, or leaves school altogether.

If work becomes unfulfilling or no longer serves a self-directed learner’s purpose, instead of resigning herself to a life of frustrating or meaningless employment, she takes clear steps to better her situation. She negotiates different workplace responsibilities, interviews for a better job, or starts her own business.

Self-directed learners take full responsibility for their educations, careers, and lives. Think hard about where you’re going, research all your options, and then move boldly forward.

From The Art of Self-Directed Learning, “What Self-Directed Learners Don’t Do”:

Self-directed learners can be defined as much by what they do as by what they don’t. One thing they don’t do is universally condemn teachers, structure, or formal instruction. They recognize that such methods, when freely elected, have their place.

Here are a few more things that self-directed learners don’t do:

  • Self-directed learners don’t spend much time in places where they are constantly bored and unengaged.
  • Self-directed learners don’t hide their passions and interests in order to please others.
  • Self-directed learners don’t give up on their goals at the first setback.
  • Self-directed learners don’t mope when they find themselves in an uncomfortable or foreign situation; they approach life as an anthropologist does, learning whatever they can.
  • Self-directed learners don’t assume they can (or should) learn everything on their own.
  • Self-directed learners don’t worry that if they don’t learn something right now, it will be too late. They know they can always find a way.