Seven Elements of Self-Directed Learning

In researching various aspects of education (and technology, media, futurism, and more) over the past two years, I’ve started to identify the things I think are most important to a flexible, modern, individualized and holistic approach to the entire process of learning — which includes not only an individual’s initiative, but teaching and entire educational systems as well. To start, I’ve come up with seven qualities: I think learning must be modular, concise, engaging, essential, adaptable, intuitive, and effective.

I want to take a brief look at each of these and explain why I think they’re important. These are qualities I think are critical for a modern self-directed learning curriculum — which includes the aims of this site, other specific “Guides” I want to put together, and a whole bunch of other potential efforts at helping make resources for this stuff.

These are qualities I think it’s important for students to be aware of, and to seek out in any course of study they’re putting together, in the materials they find and aggregate, whether that’s some of the content I publish and/or stuff from elsewhere…the idea is that they’re pretty general qualities, but provide a context for elaborating some of the specifics of what I hope to do with the site content, and why, and how! Note that these are not in any particular order.


Modularity is one of the key principles upon which the idea of self-directed learning is predicated — the principle here is that students should be able to put together a variety of pieces, customize their learning journey, find content that makes sense for them…that is, learning should be custom-tailored (or have this capacity); there should be a well-designed balance between guiding students on a path that makes sense, and letting them explore and choose things for themselves. This might mean including a broad overview and many sub-options for the order in which to dive deeper in a given subject; and it can also mean exposing students to a wide range of topics and making it easy (and interesting) to combine various topics/subjects — basically giving them not only roads and routes but a map that may imply connectors, ways of getting from one place to another, to another, in creative/unexpected ways (I’ll return to the physical space/map metaphors often). This should combine a liberating degree of autonomy and flexibility with a well-curated introductory starting path and sensible defaults…


Cutting corners is never a good idea, but neither is wasting time on busywork and getting mired in details that detract from the larger vision of the most important things to be learned in any given subject or course of study. Concision is not about reducing learning content to its absolute barebones minimum, but rather is about cutting the fat and making things as clear and simple as possible.


Not everyone will agree, but I think that learning should be fun. Pretty much every subject has this potential; those who truly know something deeply, even if it’s mundane to an outsider, will finds its intricacies fascinating. The problem is having to start with someone who is an outsider and knows nothing about a topic, and find a way to bring them into the fold, give them glimpses of the beauty and power and significance of a subject that intrigue them and make them want to spend time learning more deeply, dedicating the necessary resources, investing the time and effort, to get to the point where they can really appreciate the material at an expert level. Not every minute of studying has to be fun in the sense of entertaining or superficially pleasant, but it must be rewarding, showing a clear utility and meaning/reason for the learning taking place; it must be immersive and gripping, drawing students in and keeping them active learners rather than outside observers…there are many ways to do this, including gamification, community, experiential/applied learning etc., each of which can be done well or poorly…


The material that students spend time and effort learning must above all be worth learning! This does mean making some value judgments, and it’s always tricky to do so, but inevitable — because even though, as mentioned above, almost everything can be made to be incredible interesting and engaging, unfortunately life is finite, and even if students dedicate their lives to learning (as we advocate!) one will find it impossible to learn all there is about everything, or even to learn a little bit about most things — there’s simply too much. So if we must inevitably choose what’s most worth our time, we should do it in a careful way, well-reasoned, constantly reevaluating…and that’s what we try to do here. We don’t claim any absolutes, and particularly encourage each individual student to think long and hard about what they love and what makes most sense to them and what (and how) they can learn, and apply what they’ve learned, to enrich themselves and provide value to the people and the world around them. So with Self Starter’s Guide we’ll give a starting point as to what things seem most essential for people today and in the near future [walking backwards into the future seen through a rearview mirror?] based on lots of intensive research, but it’s only a starting point — part of the individual journey is figuring out for yourself over time what’s most essential to you.


Learning resources in the classic sense are great, and among the most important and useful things you can possibly find: great books, libraries, web archives, papers and collections, videos and more — these, along with interactions and applied study with other people, and real world experience with projects etc., will form the bulk of the resources for your educational journey. But we’re of the opinion that these resources can be made even better, more useful, etc. if they have the capacity to adapt to the individual, if they can be shaped for each unique student to fit as closely as possible their learning style, the particularities of their interests and abilities… This can be done via complex technologies, and companies today are building platforms to make this commonplace in the classrooms of the next generation, but there are many ways right now that learning can be made more adaptable to the individual — in more simple ways that anyway can implement. These include such things as finding mentors who can give you guidance, study groups or other students who can give you feedback, and also taking the time to carefully curate your own personal library and establish good patterns/processes in how you learn, absorb, study, create…


Similar to how educational content should be concise (with not extra fluff beyond what’s necessary) it should also be intuitive — it should make sense, flow logically from one thing to the next, provide both deep principles and practical examples that demonstrate them…it should involve hands-on exercises that make the concepts learned easy to grasp in a way that is felt not only on a mental level, but embodied, put into practice. The material you learn from should be well-designed, and it should be the best stuff you can find, from the brightest experts who are not only incredibly smart but are great teachers as well. Our goal is to take a combinatory approach where we provide you with some content that we’ve created, but mostly source the greatest content from the top experts and provide it to you in a way that’s easy to follow; we are in some respects teachers, but in large part curators, as well as mother birds that predigest content for you at the early stages to make it easy to get started, then point you to where you can feed yourself later on as you become more comfortable [note: terrible image for a metaphor, but a good one in principle].


This is the final measure of great learning materials — not only should they be engaging and enjoyable and nicely designed and all that, but they ultimately have to actually teach you stuff! This can’t always be measured in precise ways, but it’s good to at least try, and one of the things we’ll try to do for each thing we help you learn is to also provide ways for you to put the stuff you learn into practice and self-evaluate…this could include ways to talk about what you learn with others and how teaching can reinforce learning; it might be practice projects that you can try in order to test what you’re capable of when it comes to actually applying various concepts, etc.

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