The Psychology of Self-Directed Learning (Part 1 of 4)

This is the first in a four-part blog series about the psychology of self-directed learning that underpins the ZTC strategy.

Replacing college isn’t simply about replacing each part of the college machinery. Giving yourself a “college experience” without an institution requires a more sophisticated capacity: self-directed learning (SDL).

Let’s be clear about what SDL is and isn’t. SDL isn’t isolated, unstructured, or unchallenging learning. It isn’t about cursing classrooms and teachers as the root of all evil. Instead, SDL is the art of purposefully choosing what and how you’ll learn. It’s an understanding and embrace of your personal learning style. And it’s the recognition that all types of learning—including highly structured learning—are valid when you consciously choose them.

So why is self-directed learning so difficult? College-aged students (and adults of all ages) doubt their capacities as self-directed learners in three big ways. They tell themselves:

  • I’m not self-motivated enough,
  • I’m not smart/talented enough, and
  • I’m not that type of person.

Mainstream schooling obviously holds much blame for instilling these beliefs. But school isn’t entirely to blame. In my work with unschoolers—including many life-long unschoolers—I’ve encountered a surprising number who distrust their abilities to educate themselves beyond the high school level. These otherwise self-directed young adults suffer the same crisis of confidence as a high school graduate when facing the college choice.

The simplest conclusion to draw from this evidence is that some people are born with self-motivation, talent, and positive self-image—and others are not. The winners are chosen by the luck of the evolutionary lottery. And if you doubt your ability to self-educate, then you obviously didn’t win the lottery. If you’re not a born genius, then don’t try to skip college. Nature beats nurture.

Fortunately, research science disagrees with this layman’s hypothesis. Over the past three decades, a group of psychologists and social scientists loosely affiliated under the banner of “positive psychology” have investigated the problems of self-motivation, talent, and self-image—largely with college students as their research subjects. Their finding: nurture matters much more than nature. In other words: the self-doubt that stops you from effective self-directed learning isn’t permanent.

This isn’t to say that everyone can become an Einstein or Picasso by willing themselves into it. Genes undoubtedly play a role. But the research reveals that, as self-directed learners, we are wildly more powerful than we imagine.

Let’s take a tour of positive psychology’s findings and see how they drive away the three horsemen of “I’m not self-motivated,” “I’m not smart/talented enough,” and “I’m not that type of person.”



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