Self-directed learning

What is self-directed learning?

Self-directed learning is driven by a genuine desire to understand. That genuine desire causes self-directed learners to ask insightful questions and to challenge their sources, because they're not interested in merely absorbing someone else's ideas, but actually building their own knowledge.

The ability to learn in this way requires, as a prerequisite, the freedom to self-direct. The litmus test is that if you stop being interested in something you're learning, are you able to quit easily and move onto something more interesting? If yes, then your learning is self-directed. Otherwise, someone or something else is has control over your what you learn. Self-directed learners will change direction in an instant if they experience a change in their curiosity, interest or desire to understand. This often happens as they learn one idea, which uncovers new questions to explore.

The largest group of people who have the freedom to pursue self-directed learning are adults who have finished their formal education. Any learning from then on tends to be largely driven by interest, curiosity and a genuine desire to improve themselves. Some real life examples include:

  • Learning what you need to start a business
  • Learning new things while raising a young child
  • Learning things that make you happier or more productive at work
  • Learning a new hobby without rigid instruction
While children can also self-direct, they are usually not given the opportunity to. If you're young and enjoy self-directed learning, congratulations!

What's not self-directed learning?

Learning that is driven by external factors, such as social approval, the need for high scores, exams or other external rewards is not self-directed. Instead, whoever controls the external rewards, controls the learning.

For example, course instructors can make students learn from Book A instead of Book B simply by awarding marks for reading one book instead of the other. In this way, course instructors get to choose, or direct, what students pay attention to and learn from. In such an environment, self-direction is a matter of luck - if you happen to be completely interested in 100% of the course content, then your learning results will be self-directed. Otherwise, if like most students you are interested in some content but not other parts, you will be riding in the passenger seat as they drive.

School and university students experience many instances where they are required to learn something that they are not really interested in. So they keep studying and often are able to master the material, but the results are inevitably short-lived.

Ambition to master is not self-directed learning. While on the surface, it can look similar, ambition - for example, to become a top tier lawyer - can often include the desire for social recognition, or some other external rewards. In that case, the choice of learning material is still driven by those external factors. You can however be ambitious and self-directed.

Why does it matter?

In general, self-directed learning almost always results in higher quality of learning.

Self-directed learners are able to ask more insightful questions, and have real motivation to challenge their sources, because they are genuinely trying to pick apart ideas and make sense of them, rather than passively absorb what's given to them. In the short term, this extra learning energy results in a better understanding of the finer details and stronger memory of what they learn. In the longer term, genuine interest often prompts them to revisit ideas - whether using tools like Dendro, or just through the fact that they like being engaged with those ideas, and are attracted to think about them again. That type of long term review and exploration, driven by a passion that grows along with the understanding, is the pathway to true mastery.

When learning is driven by marks or other external forces, the effort to learn naturally disappears as soon as the course is over. The material that was shallowly understood is then promptly forgotten. After many years of this approach throughout school and university, it's easy to forget how much more enjoyable and effective learning can be.

How Dendro serves self-directed learners

The ability to self-direct is paramount in Dendro because pretty much all ofthe tools give complete power to the learner. You choose what sources to import, which notes to take and which parts to ignore, which things to remember or to forget. You choose what to remove from your feed, which might simply be because it bores you, or because you can't see the point of it. That freedom is what can make learning with Dendro so fun and effective.

A good learning process is about separating the golden nuggets from the mass of dirt. But when other people decide what's important, you have to learn everything "just in case" they test you on it. Hence, people who've tried to use Dendro when they don't have the freedom to self-direct, often create a mess. They import everything that their course instructor has provided, clip out notes of everything they read, and create flashcards of every single idea they come across. The resulting mountain of content is just plain overwhelming.

Is Dendro for you?

Hopefully you understand now what we mean by self-directed learning. If you are lucky enough to be able to pursue self-directed learning, Dendro might be a great fit for you! On the other hand, if you're not in control of your learning you may find other approaches more useful.

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