Articles by Maurice Gibbons
Phi Delta Kappan papers
Saturday, 22 July 2017 22:06


A Selection of papers published by the Phi Delta Kappan journal By Maurice Gibbons

A collection of articles published in the "Phi Delta Kappan"  For several years the "Kappan" produced a Walkabout Newsletter and Walkabout school programs appeared.

Six articles in pdf format:

Walkabout: Searching for the Right Passage from Childhood and School

Pardon Me, Didn't I Just Hear a Paradigm Shift?

Eleusis: The Secondary School Ideal

Helping Students through the Self-Education Crisis

Zen and the Art of Motor-Behavior-Cycle Maintenancel

Walkabout Ten Years Later: Searching for a Renewed Vision of Education


Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 July 2017 21:54
Paradigm Shift
Friday, 07 January 2011 03:26

Pardon Me, Didn't I Just Hear A Paradigm Shift By Maurice Gibbons

[From The Phi Delta Kappan, February, 2004]

Carmen hurried out of her classroom and grabbed my arm. " I thought you'd like to know that I've decided to make my classroom completely brain compatible," she told me emphatically. I was surprised. Carmen is a long-time straight-ahead middle school science teacher with a computer full of lesson plans, a rack of videos, a file drawer packed with worksheets and plenty of attitude about "trendy changes." When I asked her what she would be doing, she was quick to answer: "Students learn the lesson best when it's connected to their personal experiences and when we start from what they already know, so that's where I'm starting our next unit on the solar system." I was going to ask what methods she might use to help everyone connect but she was already moving on. "Kids comprehend new material quickest when they can use their unique abilities, so I'm including activities in my lessons for as many of the nine intelligences as I can.

I've even written a planet rotation rap for us to sing." I was curious about her other applications but Carmen was into her list and not to be stopped. " We know the brain is pattern-seeking and since days, seasons and eclipses all arise from patterned relationships, I'm adapting my lessons to emphasize them." She was demonstrating the positions of imaginary suns, earths and moons as she talked and hurried to the next feature. "Because the brain needs to be challenged to get sharp and stay sharp, I'm setting tasks at different levels of difficulty and challenging my students to take on the most ambitious ones they think they can handle.” She looked up at me, smiling, and I was nodding. Her ideas all seemed workable and worthwhile, but something was nagging at the back of my mind.

Something wasn't quite right; the applications didn't fit snugly to the principles; the connections were possible but not necessary. I started looking for an alternative perspective, and then I saw it, another equally appropriate way to apply the principles of multiple intelligences, connection to the familiar, pattern-seeking and challenge. The message of the nine intelligences, for example, can be interpreted as a directive to provide students with lessons and course alternatives that enable them to apply and develop their greatest talents.

But if I step out of my classroom box and back away from familiar practice, I see a different imperative. Howard Gardner’s description of multiple intelligences, the many descriptions of learning styles and the studies of strengths from the Gallop Polls by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton all imply the same message that arises from psychological studies: students, like the rest of us, are unique in their experience, perception, drives and capacities. This means that students should approach learning in an equally unique way that enables each of them to make the best use of their nature, their strengths, and their accumulating competence. The message of uniqueness in the person is uniqueness in the program, but what whirling dirvish teacher even in fast forward could possibly deliver a separate lesson for each individual learning style? Accommodating such diversity only seems possible if students play a much more active part in selecting and designing their own learning activities.

When research shows that students learn better when new concepts are connected to their personal experiences, teachers can try to establish those connections in their lessons, but surely the appropriate experiences will be as diverse as the students' preferred approaches to learning. With a shift in perspective, we can also see that students connect new content to their personal knowledge and experience naturally when each of them decides what to learn next for themselves. When students decide or are involved, learning is rooted in their experience not just connected to it.

If our brains are pattern seeking, we can emphasize the patterns in what we teach, but then the teacher is the pattern-seeker. Shouldn't we be teaching our students to seek out pattern themselves? Science is the search for replicable patterns that lead to concepts; art is the search for, or invention of, unique patterns that lead to original visions and works. The energy that propels our species is curiosity: the brain not only organizes, it wants to organize, to find the pattern that reveals the answers to our questions. Shouldn't our courses and lessons be designed to lead our students into the pattern-seeking process and guide them through it? And that is where challenge comes in. We can invite students to select the most challenging task among those we assign, but the trick of the alert though aging nuns of Minnikota , Minnesota, is that they challenge themselves to pursue their own stimulating activities througout their lives.

And isn't that the secret of learning, pushing ourselves to take on risky new tasks that are achievable, conducting excursions into our fields of ignorance or passion in order to extend our knowledge and ability?

If I think of these ideas together—individual approaches to learning, relating learning to personal experience, seeking patterns and pursuing challenges, I see a model quite different from Carmen's thoughtful applications. I see the possibility of teaching students to challenge themselves to pursue activities that arise from their own experiences, employing their own emerging styles to find patterns of meaning and processes of productivity that lead them to a high level of achievement and fulfillment. The prime imperative, at least in these few applications, is not to enhance teacher-directed learning, but to develop a more student-directed model. I did not say anything about this to Carmen, but I wondered if other recent research and argument confirmed this conclusion, that self-directed learning is brain, mind, body and life compatible, and that it would be reasonable to say, "Pardon me, didn't I just hear a paradigm shift?

Has the Paradigm Shifted?

I confess that researching this conclusion and asking this question are not accidents. My interest in self-direction is long standing: early in my career I published The Walkabout article in the Kappan (May, 1974); my latest book is the Handbook of Self-Directed Learning (Wiley, 2002). Nevertheless, anyone interested in the development of new school programs has to find the question compelling. Is there evidence in recent studies in neurology, cognition, developmental psychology and other related fields that the paradigm of learning we apply to schooling should be shifting to self-direction?

In The Theory of Scientific Revolutions , Thomas Kuhn observes that the accumulation of anomalies to an existing paradigm presages a shift that occurs when the exceptions are synthesized into a new paradigm. I believe that the anomalies to the teacher-directed model are gathering, and that they are consistent with a model of self-directed learning, even though it is difficult to see when you are, like Carmen, standing in a conventional classroom. I do not presume to present a comprehensive review of the literature, but I do propose that there is an interesting accumulation of support for self-directed learning.

Many conclusions drawn from research on the brain have been itemized and translated into recommendations for enhancing the teacher-directed classroom. Here are ten typical items: the human brain.....

1. is unique in each individual
2. seeks meaning
3. seeks and generates patterns
4. responds to stimulating environments
5. responds to active involvement
6. involves both conscious and unconscious activity
7. interacts with emotions and psychological functioning in general
8. connects new experiences to familiar experiences and structures
9. receives through both focused and peripheral perception
10. responds to challenge; is inhibited by threat and anxiety

Each of these can be translated into teaching guidelines. Uniqueness for example, is adapted through such practices as designing instruction to suit several different learning styles or intelligences. To apply the search for meaning, teachers may be advised to turn course concepts into questions and a collaborative search for answers. Teachers are urged to turn their classrooms into rich environments for learning; to accommodate peripheral perception with posters, concept maps, and other adjuncts to their lessons placed around the room, and to involve students by organizing group work and other participatory activities.

Teachers are also advised to promote positive attitudes, to encourage students to be aware of their feelings, and to guide students through a process of self-observation to review what they have learned and to study the procedures they are employing.

In addition to helping students find connections between the lesson and previous learning and experience, teachers are encouraged to challenge students while maintaining a relaxed non-threatening environment.

All of these recommendations promise benefits for the teacher-directed classroom. If we look at them as guides not to improving teacher-directed learning, but to what education should be like, we see a strong recommendation for personal self-directed learning. If by unique we mean that each brain operates differently, learns best in its own way, for its own purposes and toward its own ends; if by the search for meaning we are suggesting that the brain is driven to find meaning in experience and render it into concepts in our developing knowledge base; if by stimulating environments, we mean those that provide the real experience, complexity, and opportunity that enhance learning; if by pattern-seeking, we mean the organizing capacity that enables individuals to sort, sequence, and explain the complexities in their experiences; if by active involvement we mean participation in consequential activities with others; if by the involvement of the unconscious and feelings we mean learning to reflect for self-understanding, self-guidance and self-motivation; and if by challenge we mean taking the initiative and the risk to reach as close to the limits of our capacity as we dare; if that is a reasonable application of these characteristics of the human brain, then we are describing the practice of self-directed learning.

One theme of cognitive science is metacognition—thinking about thinking, becoming aware of and gaining control over our thoughts. Studies in metacognition have led to a number of applications in teacher-directed learning. Some of these focus on teaching students to relate success in their classroom studies to personal effort rather than chance. Other applications emphasize teaching self-regulation in which students learn to manage their own participation, studies, and assignments efficiently.

Still other applications emphasize teaching students learning strategies, processes and systems they can apply to a range of tasks and situations, that is, they emphasize teaching students how to learn., and teaching students how to learn is the first step in equipping them to be self-directed. Metacognition is the engine that drives self-directed learning: students learning to think for themselves, set goals, make plans, take action, assess results and reflect on the significance of their experiences. Agency in their thoughts and actions is inseparable from agency in their lives, relating what they are learning to themselves and to their futures. Teaching students to direct their thinking, to manage their learning and to relate it to their lives is peripheral to teacher-directed studies but central in self-directed learning.

The psychology of development outlines a second curriculum that is of central interest to students, especially adolescents, but is not a shaping factor in programs based on the teacher-directed model. The main theme of the developmental curriculum is change, change in students, change in their relationships with those around them, and change in their place in the world. They must address the task of determining who they are and who they will be, that is, the crisis of identity formation, the shaping of their personalities and the consolidation of their values expressed as character. Both research and observation tell us that they experience this struggle while their brains are convulsing into working order, hormonal storms are blowing them into a new world, and their bodies are lurching into adult form. They are in the throes of leaving childhood behind and becoming adults. Relationships with adults and peers change, and looming ahead is the great chasm they must cross between the comfort of school and home and the wild, inhospitable world in which they must make their way. This is a powerful, experiential curriculum.

Self-directed learning , by combining freedom with responsibility, reflection with action, and challenge with opportunity, is very compatible with these demands of development.

The third curriculum is social. Students have a number of interpersonal tasks to accomplish. They need to interact with others to learn about themselves, to learn adult social skills, to accomplish what individuals can’t, and to learn from each other . David and Roger Johnson summarize these values in Learning Together and Alone (1991, p.17):

There is a great deal of research indicating that, if student-student interdependence is structured carefully and appropriately, students will achieve at a higher level, use higher level reasoning strategies more frequently, have higher levels of achievement motivation, be more intrinsically motivated, develop more positive interpersonal relationships with each other, value the subject area being studied more, have higher self-esteem, and be more skilled interpersonally. In self-direction students often learn with other students in partnerships, groups, teams, seminars, and advisories; they often learn with adults in the community as well as in the school; and they learn from extended travel and work together in the field. Learning to accomplish tasks with others is excellent preparation for doing them independently, just as working together prepares students for the social nature of family life, work and recreation ahead. Self-directed learning is very compatible with this social curriculum.

Self-direction is immobile without self-motivation, and blind without self-assessment. Self-motivation provides the drive that propels students through their pursuits; self-assessment provides the feedback that keeps them on course and sustains their intensity. We need a body of literature on self-motivation, but Martin Ford’s excellent book Motivating Humans ( 1992 ) gives us a good start. As he says, “research shows that little else matters if there is no goal in place”, especially if the goal is challenging, if it has multiple valuable possible outcomes, and if it is influenced by potent “Personal Agency Beliefs”. These include capability beliefs (can I do it?), context beliefs (will this activity be supported by a responsive environment?), and the strength of the emotions related to the goal. People sustain their efforts best in a flexible environment that permits adjustment, problem solving and improvements. Fortunately, the basic approach to self-directed learning has many aspects of self-motivation built into it: teaching students to draw on their strengths; to pursue passionate, personal goals; learning in receptive, responsive environments; using a system of constructive feedback, support and assistance from others; training in skills, processes and systems that empower them to be productive; and experiencing success under their own direction in real-world situations.

We could examine other fields: studies of successful people all suggest the characteristics of self-direction. Adult education is often self-directed. Inescapably successful learning throughout life—and life itself-- is self-directed. But I think we have raised enough anomalies and alternative possible hypotheses to challenge the existing paradigm. If we ask, “What form of education does this research and argument suggest?” rather than, “How can this research be applied to teacher-directed learning?” we will often conclude that the evidence points clearly toward a self-directed model of education. The question is, what does that self-directed paradigm look like?

The Self-Directed Learning Paradigm

Self-directed learning is any increase in knowledge, skill, accomplishment or personal development chosen by an individual and brought about by his or her own efforts using any method in any circumstances at any time. As we have seen, it contrasts sharply with teacher-directed learning. In practice, many teachers already employ features of self-directed learning; I draw these stark distinctions to emphasize the underlying assumptions implicit in both models. Here are the basic shifts involved in moving from one to the other; shifts we have seen indicated in the research-based recommendations viewed above:

Many teachers ask, “Do you expect me to leap all the way over there from here?”Fortunately, there are steps that bridge the space between teacher direction and self-direction both for students and for teachers. Here are five of them:

1. Incidental Self-Direction: introducing self-direction in assignments, stations, special projects or brief use of any of the other approaches to self-direction listed below.

2. Independent Thinking: teaching students to form their own judgements, ideas and solutions to problems by transforming the curriculum into questions to be answered as a class, in groups and individually; or by using such participatory approaches as case studies, trials, debates and dramatizations.

3. Self-Managed Learning: creating guides that tell students how to achieve course outcomes, then teaching them how to regulate their work on the guides, and providing support systems to assist them.

4. Self-Planned Learning: teaching students how to design their own plans for achieving course outcomes, negotiating their proposals with them , and coaching them to success.

5. Self-Directed Learning: teaching students to analyze the situation, formulate their own goals, plan how to achieve them, take action, solve problems that arise , and demonstrate their achievement.

These forms of self-directed learning can be viewed as a bridge both for students and teachers, a bridge of five stages each involving a new set of tasks, and together providing steps in a gradual transition to self-direction. Teachers may use the five stages as a menu to sample, they may find one stage that suits them perfectly, or they may use the stages as steps to self-direction in their courses. In a high school it can provide a sequence for moving toward self-direction grade by grade, and leading to a final year that is self-directed, perhaps featuring challenging passages that students must complete.

“Teachers often ask, “Where are these practices being used?” Here are three examples.

Independent Thinking is the central theme of Ted Sizer’s Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devers, Massachusetts . A question such as “What matters?” or “What is community?” is pursued school wide each year. Classes are integrated and inquiry-based, addressing sub-sets of related questions. Students are required to develop eleven essential skills. Three times during their high school years students appear before a committee to demonstrate their achievements and readiness to advance to the next level of performance. Graduation requirements include inquiry into essential questions that students set for themselves. These pursuits are supported by a number of excellent instruments, practices and services.

At Thomas Haney High School in Maple Ridge , British Columbia , Canada , students master the curriculum through self-managed learning. Every course is presented in twenty learning guides which tell students the outcomes to achieve, the resources at their disposal for achieving them, and the means by which they will demonstrate that they have achieved the outcomes. Students make their own timetables; they work alone, work with others, consult with teachers and their aides; attend seminars, workshops and labs; watch videos, work on computers, and utilize other resources to help them in their self-regulated efforts.

Over 80% of graduates go on to higher education.

Jefferson County Open School near Denver , Colorado , is a self-directed learning school that features independent work at every level, a day each week is set aside for independent activities, regular educational trips and six challenging passages—based on the Walkabout program—that students complete in their senior years. These include ambitious challenges in the fields of logical inquiry, creativity, practical applications, global awareness and service, adventure and careers—a Walkabout. Students complete their work—often in the community, at universities or in the field—and present their accomplishments to their own groups of peers, teachers, parents, and other adults at graduation. Students meet thirty other expectations, often with the help of regular classes. Their individual work is supported by an advisor, an advisory group, and a small peer support group. A high percentage of graduates go on to higher education, experience success and report satisfaction in life.

A number of challenges face the teacher who considers crossing the bridge between teacher-directed and self-directed learning for the first time. The first is making a commitment to self-directed learning, which is followed by the difficult step of defining the course in twenty or thirty outcomes that students are required to achieve. The next step is to choose the approach and framework that will be most effective, using the five forms of self-direction in the bridge as a guide. Next the teacher decides what skills and processes students will need and how they can be taught effectively. The classroom is organized into a rich, stimulating, and hospitable environment for learning;, the instruments for self-assessment are set in place—potfolios, rubrics, demonstrations, and transcripts-- and the teacher is ready to teach students to be self-directed.

The media-- especially access to computers and the Internet—are transforming education and provide an enormous resource for self-directed work. The computer provides students with instruction, research resources, connections with others and tools for productivity. The working journal--the student’s own book of information, ideas, plans, records and reflections—is an essential text book of self-direction, and the student is the author. As in Leonardo da Vinci’s journal, information and ideas lead to visions, goals and plans which lead to action and progress records that lead to reflection and renewal. The small group becomes the essential training ground for individual work and the basic element in a network of assistance and guidance for students of self-direction. Advisory groups, for example, help students to prepare their proposals for individual work, and support groups of two or three peers help individuals to develop ideas, solve problems and complete the work itself.

A great deal of evidence from researchers and argument from theorists is applied to enhancing teacher-directed learning. Examination of those findings and applications to determine what form of education best fulfills the conditions they define shows that a self-directed model is far more appropriate than a teacher-directed model of education. Examples from a wide range of themes—the way the brain functions, metacognition, human development, group work, motivation and the literature on success—challenge the teacher-directed approach to instruction. The self-directed model can be defined, a pathway to it can be described, examples of the model in action can be found, and a process can be outlined for implementing that model of self-direction in any classroom. Try on the new paradigm. As Stephen Covey says, “A paradigm is like a new pair of glasses; it affects the way you see everything in life.” (p. 125).

Wearing self-directed-learning glasses, you may see that paradigm shift, too. If we believe that practice should follow evidence, perhaps we all should all be shifting to brain and person compatible self-directed education. What do you think? Let us know.


Last Updated on Thursday, 13 October 2011 02:19
Friday, 07 January 2011 03:13

Maurice Gibbons & Milton McClaren (c) 2008 Personal Power Press International


We propose the establishment of a centre that offers personalized learning to the large population that current programs do not serve. The major feature of this centre is that participants will design their own programs to attain competence in their own fields of interest. There will be no prerequisites except a desire to learn and to achieve. Anyone of age with any background may enter the one-year program. Instruction will focus on the skills and processes required to plan and execute a course of action that will lead to competence. Participants will build a portfolio of products and achievements that will be the cornerstone of their certification. Teaching—both in-class and on-line--will provide the instruction, support, and learning environment that participants require for success in self-directed studies. Our intent is to develop a model of education that can readily be replicated elsewhere.

The College Centre for Personal Achievement (CCFPA) will enable people of any age and with any background to pursue their personal interests and achieve a level of competence worthy of certification within the one year of the program. The program will feature the following:

* Enrolling students with any background who can read and write.
* Offering the pursuit of any field of interest.
* Training in self-direction and self-development skills, processes, and systems.
* Development in three phases: Apprentice, Practitioner, and Expert.
* Training and practice in the pursuit of the competencies required to progress   through these stages.
* Three weekend intensives combined with on-line support and interaction each     semester.
* Use of many retired experts as mentors.
* Committee review of students’ public presentations, portfolios and transcripts with emphasis on confirmation of proposal completion.

The Centre and it’s programs will open a large new college clientele, and will unlock potential in participants that will lead to significant achievements. The college or university that develops this centre, will be the model for other institutions of higher education that may soon wish to follow. In addition, it will attract grants and other development money. We invite interested colleges to establish this unique centre with this unique program whose time has clearly come.


The first draft of this proposal was written in September, 2007. Several reviewers have read the proposal and made very helpful suggestions, many of which have been incorporated. These include Lynn Jest (Director) and Ruth Fluevog from Continuing Studies at Capilano College; Jim Carter, former High School Principal and Deputy Minister of Education for British Columbia; and Brian McConnell, French Immersion school teacher in North Vancouver. We are grateful to them all for such generous help.

Maurice Gibbons and Milton McClaren

Executive Summary

We propose the establishment of a college centre that offers personalized learning to the large population that academic higher learning leaves behind. This centre will admit adults of any age or educational background who express a desire to learn. Participants will learn how to focus on a field of interest and then design a personal program to attain competence in it. During this one year process, they will compile proof of their achievements in portfolios which they will present to a review committee for Certification.

Faculty will create a community of practice in a stimulating learning environment, and will guide students through the three stages of the program. They will teach students the skills of self-direction in the Apprenticeship phase, mentor students through the Practitioner phase and coach students through the Expert phase to completion. This centre, its clientele, its program and process will combine to create a new focus of higher education for everyone, a concept replicable in colleges throughout the country.


We propose the establishment of a Centre for Personal Achievement (CFPA) at the college level. The Centre will enable adults of any age and with any background to pursue their personal interests and achieve a level of competence worthy of certification at the end of the Centre’s one year program.

This proposal is designed to meet a significant need in our educational community by inviting many who find themselves outside the educational system back into it. Many people are left behind when they are screened out in the competition for higher education. Men and women who abandoned education to work and raise families, people who want to make a change in what they are doing, and people who once weren’t ready to learn but are now, will find the opportunity they need in this proposed centre. People in transition from high school to work, from marriage to single life, from one job to another, or from work into retirement, for example, will find the training they need to refocus and move forward in their lives. This Centre will open the door to higher education for a significant population and will provide participants with the skills, environment and opportunity they need to be successful. Their portfolios which they can continue to enhance and refine, will be testimony to their achievements and capabilities, a testimony they can attach to any application they make.

This unique centre will offer an innovative program which will be self-directed, oriented to action projects, and focused on everyone finding and mastering a field. Such a program requires faculty members suited to it and trained to meet its’ special demands. These include teaching the skills of self-direction, guiding individual practice and coaching independent activities. All of these features stand in sharp contrast to traditional programs which offer a single content taught to all students through presentations and tested for right answers. Students must make a paradigm shift in thinking and practice and faculty must be prepared to guide them through these rough waters successfully.

The institution that establishes this centre and its’ program will enjoy many benefits, it will....

These are a few of the many benefits that the founding institution will enjoy by deciding to establish this Personal Achievement Centre. Other benefits will emerge as we describe the process.

Primarily, however, the Centre has the potential to empower people who have lost their way, been left behind or have suddenly awakened to education. It offers them a passageway to advancement in a new format designed to maximize their success.

The Success of Every Participant

This Personal Achievement Centre is founded on the principle that everyone has the right to learn at the highest possible level in a program designed to offer every possible opportunity for success. The second principle is that everyone has significant undeveloped capacity that we can help them to discover and develop. The third principle is that finding out what we can do and who we can become is a central human task.

The fourth principle is zero-impediment teaching, that is every activity and all aspects of instruction and program structure must be designed to enhance learning and achievement. The faculty must be committed to the success of every participant.

The fifth principle is achievement focus, that is, the intent of the program is a range of achievements centering on productivity not a study of content leading to tests. The sixth principle is disappearing instruction, which means that initial instruction is designed to foster independence and a shift from instruction to coaching, guiding and otherwise supporting participants in their enterprises.

The final principle for now is “stacking”; organizing instruction, experience, contacts, technology and environment for multiple beneficial achievement outcomes. These concepts, taken together, outline the underpinnings of the program described in the following sections.

A Program in Three Stages

Participants will move through this program in three stages: Apprentice, Practitioner and Expert. They announce when they are ready to move from one stage to the next and then enter the Passage Process.

The focus of the Apprentice stage is on mastering the skills and processes required to manage one’s own learning, achievement and personal development. Participants learn to identify their interests and abilities, to design plans for activities and implement them, to assess and revise the processes they have used, and to develop the other skills and process required for successful productivity.

In the Practitioner stage participants identify and pursue a field on interest. They learn to study the field, generate observations and ideas, conduct a challenging project and to make major achievements in personal and social growth. The object is to know the field and be able to conduct the basic operations in it.

In the Expert stage participants make a commitment to master their fields of choice, then they develop their plans to master it. This mastery includes a study of the field and practicing and producing until an expert level of performance is achieved. As they move toward completion, participants will be displaying a professional attitude in assessing their productivity and improving themselves and their performance.

Each person decides when to move from stage to stage. The final Passage is to completion and certification, which involves a panel review.

The Four Dimensions of Accomplishment

Four dimensions of accomplishment run through the three stages of the program (see Diagram #1 on the following page). They are performance, growth, relationships and service. Imagine that these are four columns that rise through the Apprentice, Practitioner and Expert stages, each dimension reflected in the competencies participants are required to fulfill.

Performance is the central dimension and the main emphasis is on action, process and productivity. It includes becoming focused and intentional, gathering information and ideas, laying plans and seeing them through to completion, reviewing performance and designing steps forward in an upward spiral of achievement.

The second dimension is Personal Growth. All of the activities in the Centre require a significant level of self-awareness and self-management, which amounts – basically – to assuming responsibility for ones’ self and ones’ performance. Success in any work is inseparable from success as a person. Assuming responsibility for oneself, developing competence and becoming productive are all value laden, such performances require character and performing them develops it.

The third dimension, Relationships, refers to the many connections with others involved in a productive life. This involves being able to establish and maintain relationships, being able to work in groups and being able both to seek help from others and to offer it. This is the development of social intelligence.

The fourth dimension, Service, is the most difficult to define. It refers to the pursuit of productivity and excellence for something other then self – for others, to make a difference, to contribute. Underlying this is the development of a world view, a sense of ones’ place in the larger framework of things and ones’ responsibility to it.

Students progress through the three stages and develop in the four dimensions by achieving the competencies that outline the path of progress.

A Program of Competencies

The program is outlined in competencies – what participants have to be able to do, and have to demonstrate that they can do. Participants can achieve the competencies and demonstrate them in the ways that suit them best. Every competency is a skill that everyone will be able to use repeatedly throughout their lives.

One competency, for example, requires the participant to be able to state and achieve a personal goal. This is a life skill, in fact, goal setting is at the core of both this program and an intentional life. Each participant will have a different goal and may approach the task of choosing and pursuing their tasks differently. Here are examples of the competencies that will be required in each of the three stages of the program.


Participants can....

1. identify their strengths, talents, desires and experiences.
2. identify a personal interest and make a commitment to pursue it.
3. state an intention, formulate a workable plan and pursue it to completion.
4. identify their resistances to work and resolve them.
5. participate cooperatively in a group.


Participants can...

1. gather useful information and ideas about a topic of interest, drawing on a variety of resources, including books, magazines, the Internet and authorities.
2. generate original ideas about their topic of interest.
3. set a challenging goal for a project, plan it in detail and complete the project on time by their own schedule.
4. can systematically solve the problems they meet.
5. can help others achieve their goals.


Participants can...

1. select a field of interest to pursue and describe it in detail.
2. design and execute a plan to master the field.
3. identify skills and processes needed for success and accomplish them.
4. recognize personal improvements needed and achieve them.
5. lead a group to a successful outcome.

Students design programs to achieve each of the competencies, and faculty teach them the skills and provide the support that they need to accomplish the task successfully.


Maurice Gibbons & Milton McClaren (c) 2008 Personal Power Press International

The Journal, Computer and Portfolio

These instruments will provide participants with the personal tools they need for working through this program, tools they can use throughout their lives. The first, the working journal, is the book they will keep to record information and ideas – both their own and those they gather from others – as well as plans for, and records of, projects that they conduct. The journal will also contain reviews of their work and themselves to provide guidance for their future development.

The second instrument, the computer, is essential for on-line research, communication and their own productive work. It will be their primary resource for pursuing their individual interests and finding resources on the internet. Through email, chat rooms and blogs they will be able to communicate with each other, their instructors, their mentors and others involved in their fields of interest around the world. The computer, through its range of productive programs, will also enable them to produce many of the products they design.

The portfolio will contain the best work they produce as a record of their achievement, as well as such proof of performance as statements from mentors and employers, grades from courses and photographs of completed work such as art, designs and constructions. It will also include their certification from this program and a list of their achievements.

These three instruments will not only equip them for the program, but will also equip them to continue the work they have begun for the rest of their lives.

Competencies, Projects, and Passages

Competencies state the accomplishments that participants must attain in each stage of the program. Like a rubric, they announce the requirements to both faculty and students and act as a contract between them. Participants conduct activities in order to learn and demonstrate the practices referred to in the competencies. Often several competencies can be achieved by pursuing a project which involves them. Projects are the units of this program. In them, students explore the task, immerse themselves in the knowledge and skills required, and then set challenges for the task itself.

The Apprentice Stage will usually be activities leading to a challenging project, the Practitioner Stage will usually be projects leading to a demonstration of competence; and the Expert Stage will be activities and projects within a chosen field, leading to a graduation project and certification.

Participants work to achieve the transition between stages and to become certified. When they feel ready, Participants propose advancement to the next stage. This involves three elements: agreement by their support groups that they are ready, a proposal presented to faculty, and their success when they present their proposal to a Transition Team. The team includes one faculty member familiar with the students’ work, the support team and anyone else who wishes to attend. The candidate sums up his or her proposal for advancement and then answers questions. The candidate and guests leave while the others discuss the proposal and whether or not the competencies have been achieved. If “yes,” the candidate advances, if “no,” the shortfall in specific competencies is cited and the candidate returns to work.

Graduation, the final transition in the program, leads to certification and is different from the previous two. The participant still gains the support of his or her team and proposes graduation, but this time meets with a Review Committee composed of a faculty member, a participant and a specialist in the field of expertise involved. The student proposes graduation, presents a portfolio of program achievements and discusses his or her final project. The committee meets, decides, signs the creditation sheet and celebrates the candidate. A final meeting of graduates to celebrate their success with the class and guests concludes the program.

Assessment begins at the beginning and is in the hands of participants as much as possible. The requirements are announced in detail and are clear and attainable. Students judge their own progress and test their judgment in regular meetings with support groups. Major activities are proposed to a faculty member and discussed in individual conferences. When they propose advancement or graduation, success should be at hand, although suggestions for progress may follow. At graduation, display, ceremony and celebration should be the main order of business, after certificates of personal achievement are presented. The certificate describes the program, cites the candidates’ achievements, and is signed by the Review Committee for the College.

The central document for participants will be the portfolio, which at graduation will contain illustrations and proofs of their program achievements.

Working Together to Help Each Other

A central theme of the program is cooperation rather than competition. (In this program everyone can be successful) Participants will compete with themselves to increase their level of accomplishment, but will help each other to succeed. Similarly, the class will be run as a support system to help every participant to achieve outstanding results; it will be a community of practice.

To this end, everyone will work in small support teams of 3-5 members. Members will hear group member’s proposals, assist them in their work, and participate in their stage meetings for advancement. Small groups are the crucible in which members learn the basics of the program together and the dynamics of working with others for mutual benefit. Communication practice will be based upon principles of appreciative inquiry. Teachers and learners may also set up working teams that cooperate to complete shared projects, especially where several people share an interest or where their skills are complimentary.

Participants will also work with other adults, especially in the Practitioner Stage where guided practice will be the key instructional method. The program will benefit from the large pool of retired experts who may be called upon to provide the guidance that will assist students in their efforts to achieve the basic skills of their field of interest. They may also play a role as mentors and coaches for students in their graduation projects.

Teaching for Personal Achievement

Teaching will emphasize instruction in the Apprentice Stage, guided practice in the Practitioner Stage and coaching in the Expert Stage.

As Apprentices, students will be learning the basic skills of focusing and directing their own learning. While this will involve instructions, it will be designed to teach skills that enable students to be mindfully independent for the rest of this program and for the rest of their lives. These skills include performance skills, personal management and development skills, relationship skills and the practice of service, each of which require the teacher to employ different approaches, organizations and environments.

In the Practitioner Stage, with its emphasis on achieving skilled performance, faculty will often be conducting individual conferences with students to review their proposals for projects. This requires the skill to combine encouragement, support and guidance. In this stage, instructors will also be organizing students with co-operative action teams and matching them up with mentors as they move into the more specialized skills required to conduct their more demanding projects. These interactions require organization, guidance and supervision.

In the Expert Phase, students conduct inquiries into the nature of their fields of study, plan and execute a personal program to develop expertise in it, or a specific portion of it, and then conduct their major project. Instructors begin this stage with instruction and then shift to coaching students to success in their self-directed activities both in class and in the community.

Instructors need to be carefully selected for a positive attitude toward such programs, and a readiness to learn the new skills that it requires. If they have been program presenters, they must be willing to make the paradigm shift to helping students become self-directed, teaching them the skills they need, and guiding their individual efforts. In addition, instructors must also be competent in conducting class inquiries, followed by small group practice and later individual application. Since modeling is a powerful instrumental method, instructors should also be visibly devoted to self-directed learning and its practices.

To assist new faculty in making the transition to working in the Personal Achievement Centre, we recommend that they take at least an abbreviated program of two weeks duration, or four weekends (Saturday morning to Sunday noon). The program should be launched with a cadre of about 30 students and 3 faculty.

Organization for Accessibility

The program will be offered as two two-and-a-half hour night sessions per week, plus four Saturday workshops per semester. The program will be two semesters long at the beginning, but will be assessed when the first cadre has finished for the potential to develop into a program that is three or four semesters long. Graduation, featuring presentations by all participants, will be one weekend from Saturday morning to Sunday noon. Sunday will involve all participants, faculty and interested members of the community. We suggest that CFPA begin with a cadre of 30 people in the fall of 2008.

An Organic Program That Will Grow

The CFPA, as described in this paper, is a beginning. The overall mandate is to create the success of participants in finding their field of interest and pursuing it to a high level of competence. Anything we can discover that will increase our effectiveness will be employed, and as a result, the program will develop organically, perhaps to a format that we had not even dreamed of in this formulation. To this end, we will employ regular feedback from participants, teachers, and from research studies that we will organize in cooperation with faculties and graduate students at local universities. A new program offers many opportunities for research and we will encourage professors to connect their graduate students to our work. We are open to all findings that will guide the program to greater success in this new arena. Our commitment is to developing the most effective program possible to support people pursuing their interests to a high level of proficiency.

A Final Comment

We intend to offer new participants a new route to success in higher education. Our intention is to create a model that will be so successful other institutions will be anxious to adopt what we are doing. Our intention is replicability so that they will be able to do just that. We hope that you can see the potential of the Centre for Personal Achievement to accomplish these goals.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 October 2011 03:45
Toward a Theory of SDL: A Study of Experts Without Formal Training
Monday, 03 January 2011 16:00

By: Maurice Gibbons - (c) 2008 Personal Power Press International

from The Journal of Humanistic Psychology (Spring, 1980), pp. 41-56

Maurice Gibbons, Alan Bailey, Paul Comeau Joe Schmuck, Sally Seymour, and David Wallace


The authors analyzed the biographies of twenty acknowledged experts without formal training beyond high school in search of commonalities that might suggest ways people become effectively self-directed in learning and accomplishment. Of the 154 characteristics identified, the fifty rated as most important were examined. They outline a pattern of education that is sharply focused, active, experiential, self-directed, situational, and often personally challenging. They indicate a personality that is both traditional and radical, and they suggest a life theme of gathering purpose and drive. The authors transform their analyses into fourteen hypotheses about education, about a form of schooling that would prepare students for a life of self-directed learning and attainment. 

The Problem

We usually think of learning as something that occurs in an educational institution under the direction of a teacher, within the structure of a course, based upon textbooks and evaluated by a written examination. To become expert one is usually expected to attend such an institution until some certification of expertise is granted. But this is a narrow view of learning and education, even for the development of expertise. We learn informally as well as formally, and our skill at informal, self-directed learning may in the long run of a lifetime be the more important of the two.

People spend much more time out of school than in it, even on a school day. And when school days end, even the best educated have forty or fifty years of life and learning still ahead of them. Continued growth during those out-of-school hours and years requires continued learning – learning to master new jobs, to become better lovers, to meet life-crises, to find new interests, to handle changes in society, to master new roles, to open new dimensions in ourselves and our relationships, and to make contributions worthy of our capacities. Such growth, or informal learning, is very different from formal education. The self-educator must be independent, energetic, creative, and strongly self-directed. But schools, as well as such ever-present entertainments as TV, and a growing number of institutions encourage us to be dependent, passive, conforming and, generally, willing to be directed. A way of helping students of all ages to become skilfully self-directed must be found and made a part not just of schooling, but of all forms of education, including the education parents give their children and the education that all of us give ourselves throughout our lives.

What are the basic principles of self-education and of teaching people to be self-educated? Unfortunately, self-direction is so inconsequential a part of formal schooling that we have few researched answers to that question. There are, however, several bodies of theory and opinion either on the subject of self-education or subjects closely related to it. A number of psychologists (e.g., Rogers [1969, 1977], Maslow [1954], and Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman [1951] help students or patients to gain control of their lives by helping them to make their own decisions, to actualize their own potential, and to convert their inner conflicts into inner dialogues so they can resolve them. Other psychologists (e.g., Bradford, Gibb & Benne [1964], Harris [1973], and Schmuck, Runkel, Satunen, Martell, & Derr [1972] help students and patients learn about themselves through different froms of group process: the self-directed Training-Group, the transactional group that learns to analyze and modify the interactions membes have with each other, and the group method of management that enables organizations to be productive while cultivating individual growth. On a more personal level, Schutz [1967] and others have described ways of increasing our personal awareness and responsiveness by becoming more sensitive to our inner lives, the world around us, and other people.

A number of writers have developed arguments and techniques for personalizing education, and even for teaching people to teach themselves. George Isaac Brown [1971] describes ways to make academic learning a personal experience. Alan Tough [1971, 1978], discovering that nearly all adults conduct ambitious self-directed learning projects every year, analyzes their duration, nature, and purpose. Edgar Faure, chairman of the UNESCO committee that produced the book Learning to Be [1972], concludes that education must combine practical experience with academic studies, and it must do this in a way that promotes self-education and prepares people for life-long learning.

Recent developments in both humanistic and behaviorist psychology are also potential contributions to self-education theory. Russell Hill, in “Internality: An Educational Imperative” [1978], traces the relationship between an internal locus of control over events and desirable traits of personal, educational, and social behavior. Herbert Benson [1975] and Claudio Naranjo [1971] demonstrate the broad spectrum of beneficial effects that accompany deep relaxation and meditation, pointing to the potential usefulness of zen, yoga, and other Eastern disciplines of mind to self-education and becoming expert. A number of more behavioral theorists (e.g., Watson & Tharp, 1972]; Barbara Brown, 1974; and Mahoney & Thoreson, 1974] describe ways of teaching people to plan their own programs of action, feedback, and reinforcement.

The tradition of the self-tutored expert, the self-made man, is recorded in the popular, very widely read self-help literature [e.g., Maltz, 1960; Peale, 1952; Smiles, 1888] which urges people to think positively, to imagine themselves already successful, and to act dynamically and with confidence. One aspect of the self-help formula, personal will, is also discussed by several pyschologists [Assagioli, 1974; May, 1969; and Frankl, 1969] as the essential ingredient of personal efficacy and accomplishment. Will, they say, is the source of the initiative, drive, and persistence necessary to energize and sustain self-directed activity. Theorists concerned with the pattern of human development, such as Erikson [1950] and Levinson [1978], also conclude that these aspects of will are important. In the form of autonomy, initiative, industry, competence, and intimacy they become the major goals of personal growth and the dimensions of maturity. Finally, there is the literature describing and analyzing life histories [Collins & Moore, 1970; Csikszentmihalyi & Beattie, 1978; and Goertzels & Goertzels, 1962]. Collins and Moore studied the lives of entrepreneurs, the Goertzels analyzed the biographies of famous and notorious people, while Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie studied the life themes of thirty ordinary subjects. A significant number of the subjects in each study were self-taught. The entrepreneurs – hard drivers primarily in pursuit of financial rewards – learn from practical experience and often suffer several failures en route to their success. Among the many commonalities shared by the Goertzels’ subjects, one prominent feature was their drive toward achievement, a feature also displayed by their parents [although the subjects and their parents also share respect for learning, three-quarters of the subjects had problems at school, especially high school.] Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie propose that the pattern of this drive is shaped by life themes whichb begin as the pursuit of solutions to specific personal problems and develop into generalized response-systems to problems in later life.

Each of these bodies of literature raises issues and ideas of importance to self-education, but they have not, as yet, been integrated into a coherent theory or practice for a form of education which will teach people to pursue excellence voluntarily in a productive field of human activfity. One useful approach, the analysis of lives, will be pursued in this study

The Procedure

One of the most promising sources of knowledge about self-education is the live sof people who became expert in a field which did not include formal training. Adapting the method employed by Collins and Moore, Goertzels and Goertzels, and Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie, we decided to study the biographies of a sample of self-educated people to find out if they shared characteristics and experiences that might help us to understand the dynamics of the self-education process. These we defined as people who became expert in any socially accepted field of human activity without formal training past high school or the equivalent [except Frank Lloyd Wright who studied one year at a university]. Although the decision eliminated self-educated people like Mendel, Michaelangelo, Spinoza, and Shakespeare, we restricted the sample to those whose contribution was made in the last hundred years.

Our sample was not randomly chosen. We simply constructed a list of subjects as broadly representative as our resources allowed. Only much later did we discover more than 450 self-educated people sufficiently expert in their fields to deserve biographies or autobiographies in print. Nevertheless, when we later developed four different groups of subjects – entertainers; inventors, explorers, and creators; people of letters, science and philosophy; and administrators, organizers and builders – we found all four well represented in the list we had assembled. A modified free-sort system was employed to gather and classify the data. We began reading the biographies to find any item of any kind which could possibly have influenced our subjects’ lives and their becoming expert in their fields. When readers found such items, they identified the book and page on the file card, then wrote a precise, one-sentence summary of the reference. After the biographies of six of our subjects had been analyzed, the several hundred cards were spread over large tables and the process of category building began. All the readers consulted in the sorting and re-sorting. Eventually, the cards were piled into 154 categories, each representing a distinctive feature of the subject’s nature, life, or times. These categories were consolidated into the following eight metacategories:

1. Background (e.g., family, community, personal history)

2. Subject’s Personal Characteristics

3. Subject’s Learning Methods

4. Subject’s Relationships with Others

5. Conditions under which the Subject Lived

6. Key Incidents in the Subject’s Life

7. Motives, Causes, Reasons behind the Subject’s Behavior

8. Subject’s Attitudes, Opinions and Philosophy

To establish and maintain clarity in the minds of the readers about the 154 categories, a definition of each was written and recorded. A rating scale which included all the categories was then developed from this dictionary of definitions. When a reader finished a book and filled out the cards, he or she then rated each item on a scale of 1 to 7 according to its apparent influence on the subjects’ becoming expert in his field. From numerical averages of these ratings on the twenty subjects, the 154 items were listed in rank order. The 40 items judged by the readers to be most influential on the subjects are listed in Table 2.

Analysis of Data

The subjects of this study were not selected as models to be emulated but as eminent, self-educated people from whose lives something of the self-education process might be learned.

The purpose of our analysis is to find clues rather than proofs, clues that will both lead us to more pointed empirical investigations of self-directed learners and guide our search for effective ways to teach self-directed learning. An overview of the list of our twenty subjects in Table 1 and the list of forty characteristics in Table 2 leads to several obvious but important conclusions about self-education which seem to differ from the assumptions underlying formal schooling. First, there is great diversity in the kinds of expertise developed by these widely admired people and in the kinds of skills they require to become experts in their fields. This contrasts with the narrow range of fields and skills emphasized in many schools. Second, their accomplishment grows directly out of their extracurricular life experiences. School seems to play a remarkably insignificant role in their becoming expert, and when it is influential, the effect is often reported as negative. Third, rather than learn a little bit about many subjects, these people tend to focus sharply upon one particular area of activity. They maintain unbroken concentration on one problem, project, or cluster of skills. This contrasts with the rapidly changing focus and concentration typical of undergraduate schooling. Many of our subjects became knowledgeable in an array of fields during the process of becoming expert in their own. Many also achieve wisdom based upon their wide experience. But it is possible for some to become expert in their fields without having the breadth of knowledge or culture usually stated as a goal of formal education. Fourth, they tend to develop their expertise through active, experiential,, self-directed, situational, often challenging means rather than the passive, abstract-theoretical, teacher-directed means which often occur in classroom situations where the challenge is predictable and controlled. Finally, these subjects seem to have unusual strength of character which enables them to pursue their purposes even against great odds, in the face of public disapproval and in spite of failures.

The most prominent group of characteristics identified in the study describes this strength of character in more detail. Several of them are related to drive: industriousness, perseverance, self-disciplined study, self-confidence, assertiveness, and ambition. Several are related to independence of thought: curiosity, single-minded pursuit, ingenuity, independent exploration, and nonconformity. Several characteristics are also related to talent: creativity, natural ability in the chosen field, ingenuity, intelligence and a well-developed memory. Several suggest a strong moral or philosophical element. Besides those characteristics usually associated with the protestant ethic (e.g. industriousness and perseverance), integrity, altruistic motives, and strong personal guiding principles are also reported regularly. The subjects in this group are also characterized by their attractive personalities and good health. They tend to have personal charisma, to be sensitive to others, to be optimistic, to be pleasing in appearance, and to have a sense of humor. In addition, they have good physical and mental health and tend to live accident-free lives, characteristics confirmed by Maslow’s study of self-actualizing people.

The homes the subjects of this study come from seem to share some characteristics, and their relationships with people outside the family also seem important. The members of the family tend to be warm in expressing feeling for each other. The parents model active lives and encourage or require their children to participate, often in challenging activities. The family tends to stay together, offering a more or less coherent base for the subjects during their early years. As Goertzels and Goertzels found in their study of eminent people generally, the mother seems to be the major parental influence in the majority of cases. Beyond the family these subjects find a few people who support them, their ideas and their efforts, no matter what difficulties arise. Sometimes a partner provides the primary relationship and even the complementary skill or knowledge to make the mutual activity successful, as Orville did for Wilbur Wright’s early efforts and Eb Iwerks did for Walt Disney’s. When people are functioning independently in unique ways in unusual fields, a social support system seems to become a vitally important aspect of maintenance and development.

Among our 20 self-educated subjects, most developed an interest in their fields during their youth. Some key experience either incited their interest in the activity or consolidated it. As a result of their interest, they launched a single-minded pursuit of excellence in which the main method they employed was self-disciplined and self-directed study. This they accomplished by independent exploration of the field through their own investigations or experiments by observing experts working in the field, and by reading everything they could relating to the problems and issues that concerned them. Accidents or coincidence seem to play an important part. Chance occurrences often led to a new perspective that enabled them to solve problems and make breakthroughs in understanding.

It seems inevitable that people who take an independent position or pursue a valuable goal come into conflict or competition with others. This usually motivates the self-educating subject to even greater learning or effort. The economic environment seems to work both ways: sometimes people seem successful because they struggle to overcome poverty, and others seem successful because their economic independence – or disregard for wealth – left them free to pursue their work. From another point of view, they seem determined or destined to become expert and successful, and neither being poor and abused nor rich and spoiled seems able to deflect their course. One of the strongest motivators seems to be personal accomplishments that have the desired effect on the world. Whether they are cartoons, buildings, novels, paintings, athletic victories, the success of labor in combating management, the development of new industrial processes, or the formulation of satisfying philosophical statements, simply doing the activity seems rewarding. Working toward an ambitious goal gives the subjects’ efforts order, direction, and purpose: The promise of such recognition and reward makes the goal even more important.

Analysis of these twenty subjects’ biographies resulted in a list of component parts. Is there any way of reassembling these representative parts into a pure personality called the self-educated person? If we cannot design the prototypical model, we can sketch an experimental design of a life theme that seems common among those who become expert without formal training. Although greatly different from each other in many other aspects of personal history, they do seem to share the following narrative plot:

Some primary experience, usually during youth, focuses their attention and interest on a particular field of expertise. This is followed by a single-minded pursuit of excellence in the field largely through self-disciplined study and activity. Early on, they place themselves, or are placed, in a demanding position which forces them to learn fast and perform skillfully under pressure. Their achievements and the resulting recognition from others consolidates their interest and encourages them to go on. The activity becomes a way of life. Their previous experience seems to open them to unusual opportunities, on the one hand, and intense conflict and opposition on the other. In retrospect, both seem to have somehow contributed to their expertise and success. Throughout this period they are helped by a primary relationship with a colleague, a friend or a lover who provides support or the missing ingredient to make the subject successful. Development continues through a pattern of incidents which cast new light on the field and by challenges which lead to new insights.

While this pattern may be limited to the lives of talented people, it seems equally likely that it may be the pattern by which any person can discover and develop the unique potential for talented behavior which each of us possesses. These people have stumbled upon life themes that give expression to their interest, ability, past experiences, and present opportunities. They learn early to focus on the field of activity they find compelling and to relate all their random experience to it. In this way, they tap into the process that leads to accomplishment, expertise, self-education and their recognition as talented people. Talent may be the retrospective acknowledgement that a person has identified and intensively pursued his or her work. Talent may be a product people create, rather than a gift they receive. In this regard, most schools seem to cultivate and reward a narrow segment of the spectrum of talent for expertise, and they seem designed to ensure that no one is able to focus his attention and effort on any life theme. This study suggests a number of changes that might lead to more people finding their work and learning how to develop challenging and satisfying themes of activity throughout their lives.


These descriptions of informally educated experts suggest a number of interesting alternatives to traditional practices in schooling, but our analysis must be tempered by recognition of some fundamental weaknesses in the procedures we used. The most important is that a biography is a questionable data base open to many forms of bias. An autobiography is even more vulnerable. Important facts may be withheld or distorted by the subject or the author. Events, motives, and causal relationships without any basis in fact may be added intentionally or unconsciously. Even the mores and fashions of the times may leave their imprint on life stories so that when industriousness and perseverance, for instance, are respected virtues, they tend to appear in portraits of admired people written at that time. In autobiographies we may be reading the authors’ advertisements for themselves, often describing what they wished had been rather than what actually was. The free-sort technique and the rating-scale used in this study also lend themselves to human error. The categories created by the raters may be slanted by their nature and training, just as differences in their viewpoints may lead to widespread differences in ratings, even of the same book.

Not much can be done to eliminate the biases inherent in biography and autobiography except to be aware of them. Authoritative biographies can be searched out, or several biographies of the same person can be used wherever possible or necessary. The free-sort was polished in a number of ways. To improve the recognition of items for each category and the reader’s ability to rate their importance, the category definitions were sharpened and examples were added. By conducting regular reviews of the cue-cards on which the items concerning each subject were summarized, we were able to monitor the quality of the entries. For further clarification, all the readers read and rated the same biography. The interrater reliability, when analyzed, was well within an acceptable range, but more important, when we examined specific differences in the ratings, they proved to arise from different interpretations of the categories among the readers. These categories were subsequently debated and redefined.

Several reviewers of the study complained that analyzing people whose success could be attributed to their native talent proves nothing except that exceptional people do exceptionally well at what they do. Others complained that no failures were examined so the sample is loaded. Failures, they argue, tell us as much about what works and why as success does. Another group argued that our references to self-education were meaningless because all people are self-educated. and still another group argued that very few of our subjects can be called educated by any of the normally accepted criteria we expect can educated person to meet.

These are serious criticisms and deserve response. First, studies have shown that such measures of talent as IQ are not reliable predictors of success in fields of activity outside of educational institutions. Many people identified in school as potential failures become life successes, and many identified as potential successes become failures, even in school. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that talent requires such additional features as character, strategy, interest, energy, encouragement, and opportunity. It also seems possible to hypothesize that if the right combination of ability, experience, interest, opportunity, and encouragement can be found, every person can be expert, excellent, and therefore judged in retrospect to be talented. Next, studying failures may be helpful. Unfortunately, not many have biographies written about their lives. Samuel Smiles (1888), the author of the 19th Century best-seller Self-Help , when criticized for studying only success, answered,

...there is reason to doubt whether (failure) is an object to be set before youth...Indeed, “how not to do it” is of all things the easiest learnt: it needs neither teaching, effort, self-denial, industry, patience, perseverance, nor judgment. Besides, readers do not care to know about the general who lost his battles (or) the engineer whose engines blew up...It is true the best of men may fail, in the best of causes. But even these best men did not try to fail, or regard their failure as meritorious [pp.iv-v].

All education is self-education in the same way that all jumping is high-jumping. Just as sure as you can distinguish a high jump from an ordinary jump, you can distinguish self-directed education from teacher-directed education, even though the individual ends up doing the learning-or the jumping-in both instances. In self-directed education, the individual masters all the activities usually conducted by the teacher: selecting goals, selecting content, selecting and organizing learning experiences, managing one’s time and effort, evaluating progress and redesigning one’s strategies for greater effect. In addition, the student of self-directed learning, must have the initiative to launch these processes as well as the personal motivation to continue learning, even when there is no pressure, guidance, or extrinsic reward. In self-directed education the student has the major responsibility for the purposes and methods of learning as well as the achievement of learning involved.

Finally, the question of the educated person. Is Ali an educated man? Was Picasso, when he could neither read nor write? What about Hemingway, a tinkerer like Thomas Edison, a rough union man like John L. Lewis, or even Jesus for that matter? It may be argued that a study of experts can only help us to understand how people became self-trained and not how they became self-educated. Education, the argument continues, requires the development of a range of knowledge, a refinement of taste, a strength of character, and a concern for issues that transcends self-interest. Education in this sense is not guaranteed by schooling, nor is it denied to the self-educated. Self-educated people approach this more refined, more profound state of learning by a different route, but many apparently do attain it, as an examination of the list of names in Table I will show. George Bernard Shaw, H.L. Mencken, and Virginia Woolf were educated people by anyone’s standards. The opposite argument may also be made, that a person is not educated if he or she has knowledge and refinement, but is incompetent in dealing with real-life issues, even in his or her own field. An ideal learning system will lead both to expertise and to the broader characteristics of an educated person; it will be a system for teaching oneself everything about something as well as something about everything; and it will be a system that may begin with teacher-directed learning, but always concludes with the power and skill to direct learning securely in the hands of the students. Nevertheless, the subjects were chosen as examples from which we can learn about self-education, not as examples of self-education to be emulated.


On the basis of this limited study we could call for the examination of a larger sample of self-educated subjects by different readers. That is being done. More important, we could call for empirical investigation of some of the principles of self-directed learning that emerged from this study. That, hopefully, will be done by some scholars interested in this subject. We have chosen to develop our knowledge about self-education by trial and error with programs in the field rather than tests in a laboratory. That is, we have chosen to formulate some tentative principles about self-education, to translate these theoretical principles into strategies we can teach to people, and then to modify both strategies and principles interactively as we find successful combinations and eliminate unsuccessful ones during practice.

The following principles of self-education, and their implications for teaching, have been extrapolated from this study for that purpose:

1. In self-education the locus of control is in the self-educator whereas in formal education the locus of control is in institutions, their representatives, or their prescriptions. Teaching for self-education involves helping students to internalize control over their own learning.

2. Self-education is usually a concentrated effort in one field rather than a general study of many. Teaching for self-education involves helping students to identify and become expert at the activity or activities that may become central in their lives

3. Self-education is usually applied education – learning for immediate application to a task, and from the practical experience involved in executing it. Teaching for self-education involves integrating theoretical studies with technical training and practical application. It means learning for specific use now rather than learning for possible use years later.

4. Self-educators are self-motivated, that is, they are committed to achievement in the field of their choice, even when faced with difficulties. Teaching for self-education involves helping students to generate their own drive toward their own goals rather than stimulating them to pursue goals set for them by others.

5. Self-education is usually guided by a vision of accomplishment, recognition or rewards valued highly by the individual. Teaching for self-education involves helping students to see themselves successfully experiencing very desirable attainments. It involves learning to plan an effective way of making that vision a reality.

6. Self-educators tend to settle on the particular field in which their interests, talents, past experiences, and opportunities are combined. Teaching for self-education involves patterns of exploration which enable students to try out a wide range of fields of activity.

7. Self-educators tend to settle on the unique pattern of formal, informal and casual methods by which they learn best – drawing from such possibilities as study, observation, experience, courses, training, conversation, practice, trial and error, apprenticeship, productive activity, group interaction, events and projects. Teaching involves helping each student to develop a personal learning style.

8. Self-education involves the development of attributes traditionally associated with people of character: integrity, self-discipline, perseverance, industriousness, altruism, sensitivity to others, and strong guiding principles. Teaching for self-education should promote, model, and reward the development of personal integrity rather than the opportunistic pursuit of offered rewards, of self-discipline rather than obedience, of inner drive rather than the avoidance of punishment or the pursuit of artificial rewards, of caring rather than sustained competition and of strong internalized principles rather than externally imposed rules.

9. Self-education involves the development of attributes usually associated with self-directed and unique, even radical, people: drive, independence of thought, nonconformity, originality, and talent. Teaching for self-education involves promoting drive rather than passivity, independence rather than dependence, originality rather than conformity, and the talents that make individuals unique rather than the tasks that make them all act the same

10. Self-educators use reading and other process skills to gain access to the information and guidance they need for their projects. Teaching for self-education involves training in the process skills, such as reading and remembering, especially at the moment students urgently need to gain access to information.

11. Self-education emerges as a theme that runs through a number of important experiences in the person’s youth; later experiences maintain and develop the theme until it becomes a conscious focus of choices in the person’s life. Teaching for self-education involves helping students to identify themes emerging in their lives, to build on those they choose, and to create new themes they desire.

12. Self-education is best cultivated in a warm, supportive, coherent environment in which people generally are active and there is a close relationship with at least one other person. Teaching for self-education involves creating an active environment in which a student’s self-directed activities are warmly supported and there are many opportunities to form close working relationships.

13. Self-educated people seem to like others and to be liked or admired by them; they seem to be healthy in attitude, body, and mind. Teaching for self-education involves promoting a holistic approach to learning so that students not only master some knowledge or skill, but they also develop a healthy attitude toward themselves, others, the world and their activities.

14. In addition to cultivating expertise, the characteristics described above outline a process of education suitable for the development of a mature personality, for achieving self-actualization and for the process of learning. Teaching for self-education involves helping each student to become an expert, a participant, and a person. These principles will become the basis for programs developed by the self-education study team at Simon Fraser University. We have already designed and field-tested a challenge program based upon individually negotiated learning contracts. That program is now in its third generation. The systematic implementation, evaluation, and modification of self-directed learning programs will continue until we have a set of principles which generate practices that enable people to become expert without formal training.


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Last Updated on Thursday, 13 October 2011 03:28
Empowering Students to Act
Saturday, 17 July 2010 16:00

Motivating Students And Teaching Them to Motivate Themselves By Maurice Gibbons

» Motivating students to pursue SDL
» Dealing with the SDL crisis
» Motivating SDL students and teaching them to motivate themselves
» Dealing with difficult students

Motivation is both a unique and critical issue in teaching adolescents to be self-directed. It is unique in that the teacher must motivate students to take on the task of managing their own activities, and must then teach them to motivate themselves as an essential aspect of continuing self- direction. It is also unique in that we are dealing with adolescence; a dynamic and sometimes troubled stage in students’ lives. Our efforts are most successful when they are appropriate for the tasks their unfolding natures present to them. Students often begin SDL activities with enthusiasm and then “hit the wall” of responsibility and become disheartened. This is discouraging both to students and teachers. It is critical to anticipate this possibility and be ready to respond to it as an important teaching opportunity rather than as a sign that the program is failing or that the student is hopeless. Finally, some students will begin with prior experience in, and a proclivity for, self- direction; others will arrive with little experience of personal responsibility and a dependence on direction from others. Those not ready must be identified quickly and given special guidance. As with any adolescent group, some such students will be especially difficult, and the teacher must be ready to respond appropriately. Fortunately, the dynamics of the SDL process itself provides the teacher with a framework for dealing with all of these issues successfully.

Motivating Students to Pursue SDL

The first step of motivation in SDL is to build enthusiasm for involvement in the process. This begins with the teacher’s understanding of SDL and commitment to it so that s/he can be a strong promoter of it. At the beginning, especially if the program’s students are volunteers, the teacher should present SDL as an outstanding choice for students to make, one full of opportunities challenges and benefits for those who participate. Even for those arriving in the classroom, display posters summarizing the program and its advantages to students, collect slides of student work in previous classes for a show of what is possible, and personally promote the program as an exciting adventure in learning. Including parents in a promotional meeting and securing their endorsement can also be influential in selling the program to students.

The second principle is modeling SDL. The teacher should be a model of the process; one who is committed to it and is actively employing it. The first SDL activity teachers can celebrate is the decision to teach this program and to address the challenges that it offers to them as well as to the students. A second activity, one in which the teacher is pursuing a special interest, not only assures students that the teacher values the process , it also inspires their efforts. By employing the process, the teacher also gains insight into the skills and struggles involved. One SDL teacher, for example, used his efforts to become a published writer as a model for the process with his students. They followed his progress with interest and especially the difficulties he faced and how he responded. At every turn, he learned what his students were going through and what help they needed.

A third principle of motivation for SDL is creating a positive climate that nurtures student productivity. That environment should be stimulating, non-threatening, inviting and positive. A stimulating SDL environment would be an ever-changing visual provocation to think and act created by both teachers and students. Pictures, posters, charts and examples of work should abound. Stations should be available for computing, reading and any special activities of the course or field. There should be private places, small-group meeting corners and space for class meetings. Build a think-tank, a .com tone of individual effort with common purpose; individual roles in a shared, exciting enterprise. Busy, active meeting times should alternate with quiet reflective times. Imposed competition is threatening. Competition chosen, competition in teams or competition with oneself is generally a positive stimulation.

SDL flourishes in an atmosphere of practical or realistic positivism. Students must believe that they can be successful in the enterprises they undertake. This begins with setting a warm, respectful businesslike tone in teacher-student interactions. It means teachers communicating to students their confidence in the students’ ability to be successful in the circumstances at hand, but always accompanied by the training and guidance that makes success probable. It also means teaching students to internalize that positive attitude in their conversations with themselves and to intervene if they become negative. SDL flourishes also in an atmosphere that says “We are altogether in this; we are going to help each other; we are going to make sure we all succeed.” Make the classroom a garden for SDL.

A fourth general principle of motivating student involvement and progress in SDL is providing initial or sustaining adventures, and using them as metaphors for the challenge involved. Any first-time dramatic experience will serve this purpose. When location permits, a camping experience provides everyone with responsibilities, requires independence on the part of participants and encourages bonding as a special group. Such an experience gives students who usually don’t shine in classroom work a chance to contribute and excel. When experts are available, a rock-climbing experience on a cliff-face (urban climbing walls are often available, too) provides an excellent model adventure. Such service activities as working with the elderly, the handicapped or young children one on one can also provide a rewarding experience. Choosing a charity and conducting an urban hike, bike ride or work project with each student sponsored for how far they go or how much they do, is another approach. No matter what challenge is presented, an orientation to it and a meeting to debrief the significance of the activity later are essential. The basic message is, “If you can climb this cliff-face and rappel down it, what else might you be able to do that now seems too difficult?” In such efforts, the involvement of parents or their substitutes can also prove invaluable.

A fifth principle of motivation for students of SDL is to adapt your course or program to the students’ experience of adolescence and the demands it places on them. Adapt it so that by doing the course students are helping themselves to achieve the transformations and transitions that they face. Adolescence is a very distinctive state. We know that many teens experience growth spurts and hormonal storms, and now the latest research shows that the brain goes through a period of chaotic adjustment, too. Students are becoming adults and have to accomplish the demanding task of setting childhood fantasies, dependencies and behaviors aside. And then, students have to take on the task of developing the person they will be, establishing new kinds of relationships with others, becoming independent and competent, shaping their values and character and generally beginning the transition to more adult-like behavior.

Fortunately, the features of SDL are well matched to the demands of adolescence. They require students to learn in a way that promotes these transformations and this transition. The freedoms and responsibilities, the challenges and relationships, the lifelong skills and processes as well as the accomplishments that students experience, all make SDL a training ground for the successful completion of the psychosocial adolescent agenda. Make that agenda a guide to course design, construction and interaction. Treat them with respect, acknowledge their challenging journey, encourage independence, recognize mature behavior and celebrate all achievement. Every classroom period will present many opportunities to nurture these student accomplishments, and every time you do, you will be helping them with the unavoidable demands of maturation that are boiling in them.

These five approaches –- selling SDL, modeling it, creating a positive environment for it, introducing dramatic experiences and matching the program to the demands of adolescence –- comprise a dynamic framework for motivating students to adopt SDL and to be successful in pursuing it.

Anyone coming in for the first time could surely think there’s a lack of discipline here. No lineups. No bells. Kids coming and going. But that’s all out here. We’re concerned about what’s going on inside them. Their sense of purpose and direction. Their ability to manage themselves. The thoughtfulness that they show to others. That’s the discipline we care about. Jefferson County Open School Principal

Dealing with the SDL Crisis

Becoming self-directed is not easy. There is much for students to learn both about managing learning tasks and about managing themselves. Some students who have experience in self-direction or a proclivity for it will readily adapt to the process. Others who are dependent, have low self-esteem or come fresh from a pattern of failure in other classes will find it difficult and need special assistance. Many students will begin with enthusiasm, but when the responsibilities involved accumulate, some, perhaps many, will falter. When that happens, some students will accept their failure as their own and become discouraged. Others, however, may blame the program or the teacher for their difficulties, and complain. If this condition continues without treatment, a crisis can develop for students, the teacher and the program.

Since this crisis is a predictable event, it is important both to take steps to prevent it and to be ready for it with solutions that will help students through it successfully. The prevention is to introduce the skills and responsibilities of SDL gradually. The solution, when the crisis occurs, is to regard it, not as a failure of the program, but as an important teaching moment. The crisis brings the difficulties involved into sharp focus. This enables the teacher to identify them, focus on them and guide the student through them. When students make it through successfully, they will later regard the event as one of the most important experiences of the course, if not of their learning lives.

If students are simply “turned loose” to achieve course outcomes or course projects on their own, the course is in jeopardy. If, on the other hand, we gradually introduce students to the tasks and the skills they need to achieve them, we give every student the opportunity to be successful. In such a graduated approach we begin with a high degree of teacher direction in completing course outcomes and, as students become skilful, gradually withdraw direction until they can achieve them on their own and the transition is complete. Gradualism is the key. Pursue the outcomes together as a class, then in small groups and finally as individuals. Make initial tasks simple and easy and gradually increase the level of difficulty and complexity. Ensure initial success and then teach them the problem-solving process. In self-direction, especially in self-directed activities that are challenging, problems always arise. Giving up is one of the most common gumption traps. Teach them to be proud of their ability to identify and resolve the difficulties they confront. By preparing them thoroughly by introducing tasks and skills gradually, teachers both minimize the crises students will face, and lay the groundwork for getting them through the crises that cannot be avoided.

The crises that students experience seem to follow a pattern. It is not universal, but is common enough to merit our examination. If a particular experience of it varies, many of the stages in the pattern will appear in some form with some students, and the responses we describe will prove useful.

Decision. Students are often in an SDL class because they chose to be. In such instances, they begin with high expectations. When students enter a class unaware that SDL is involved, teachers often begin with an introduction that also raises expectations. Students usually begin in anticipation but in ignorance of the rigors involved. The teacher can help to prepare students in a number of ways. One is to tell the story of a famous self-directed person. This person can be anyone who has achieved greatness through their own efforts: civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier and golfer, Tiger Woods. One excellent example is the Wright brothers Wilbur and Orville. With only high school educations and no sign of exceptional talent, these two bicycle-shop owners systematically solved the problems of powered flight, and at Kittyhawk in 1903 flew their famous biplane for the first time. It was an exceptional self-directed learning project. Such stories provide a vivid introduction to the process. Students could also compile lists of local and other global SDL achievers and, from such examples, compile a list of features both of self-directed learners and achievers, and of the process of SDL. Such discussions might conclude with Winston Churchill’s six-word graduation speech to an Eastern American college: “Never give up! Never give up!”

Initial Excitement. New experiences are exciting, especially when they offer new freedoms and many opportunities for interesting, adventuresome learning. Students often begin the program eagerly. They enjoy having their own space, being free to move around and talk and setting up interesting activities. Some will take on huge projects through misjudgment or in an attempt to impress both peers and adults, and then plunge into the task. Others will set minimum goals and defend their value heatedly. They may even believe that token learning is either acceptable or all that they can accomplish. They will dabble and socialize. These excesses represent both poles of the spectrum of misconception of an SDL project.

At this point, the challenge is to maintain the excitement but also to nudge the student responding excessively into a more appropriate level of intensity. The individual conference or meetings with the support group and advisory group offer excellent opportunities. While discussing the learning contract, for example, the teacher can raise the issue of task intensity and discuss the task and its magnitude. Role playing students who are pursuing excessive projects and what happens as a result will give students a chance to see the necessity of manageable expectations and the true intensity of the challenge that lies ahead. The teacher knows; the student may not.

Recognition. As students pursue their SDL projects they soon experience the magnitude of the task and many will be shocked at the enormity of it. Gradually they realize all that they have to learn and accomplish, the difficulties that they have to overcome, the arrangements they have to make, the people they have to work with and the visibility of their success or failure in accomplishing what they set out to do. This shock is a reasonable response for any dependent, disorganized or casual student and may occur to students of any capability. It breeds in them feelings of confusion and doubt, but it is a normal stage – and an important one – in the progress toward accomplishment in SDL. This trauma of freedom is the recognition of the responsibilities that go with increased autonomy, the same responsibilities they must learn to assume as they approach adulthood.

The key responses here are clarification without accusation and assistance without rescue. The challenge is to identify problems and consider solutions. Clarify the new teacher and student roles they are experiencing. Say, “This you can expect from me, and this you are expected to do for yourself.” Help the student to analyze exactly what is happening; conduct a forensic review. Ask them to identify what is working and what is not. Follow a pattern that they can use themselves for troubleshooting in the future. Start with the students’ intentions and goals. Are they too ambitious or too trivial? Have they pursued a real interest or what they think they are expected to pursue? Follow the steps in the process. When the problems are identified, list them. When the review is complete choose a key obstacle and encourage the student to generate solutions. Choose the best and expand it into a plan.

During this process, the teacher may observe that the student needs certain important attitudes, concepts or skills. This is an excellent time to teach them - - when they are most needed. One skill that often seems lacking but necessary for students is self-management: setting personal goals, drawing up a prioritized list of tasks, creating a timetable and monitoring progress. These approaches can also be taught to support groups so students can help each other to avoid difficulties or to work through them. Let students know that their struggle is real, that it is normal and that by understanding and resolving the challenge of responsibility now, they are preparing for a successful adulthood.

Crisis. The shock of recognition may merge with crisis or follow it despite the teacher’s efforts. In this stage surprise turns to abandonment in hopelessness or resistance and avoidance in anger. Some will be immobilized by the complexity of their self-directed tasks, fail to meet deadlines or perform at a level much below the one they anticipated. The crisis intensifies until they must deal with their failure. Some will blame themselves, feel hopeless and become lethargic; others will become hostile and blame the teacher or the program. Whether students internalize or externalize their reactions, calm, confident response is essential. Students must be guided through this crisis.

When kids run into problems and get down - - you wonder. When some just can’t handle all the responsibility and want out, you worry. Then their parents start calling and you panic. But that’s not the time to quit. That’s the critical moment. That’s the time to teach them what self-direction is all about.

Open School Teacher

In responding to students in crisis take nothing personally. Keep focus on this critical issue and upon helping students to resolve it in a way that prepares them to deal more successfully with the next problem or crises when it arrives. Ask for and listen empathetically to the students' concerns. Acknowledge them and move to solutions. This may be a good time to renegotiate the learning contract, to make it more manageable or to consider a new activity. Help students to recall a time when they faced such difficulties and worked through them successfully. Use it as a model, explore what attitudes and strategies accounted for their success and then transfer them to the current situation. Revisit this hope, vision or dream for the activity underway. Encourage them to value the outcome and to reconfirm their dedication to it. Then take a piece of the old goal and plan to complete it as a separate activity. Breaking the plan into sections around sub-goals as separate challenges enables students to address each one more hopefully. Arrange for students to work with an admired peer or small group in the class. Consider setting a high-interest, brief activity to give them a success from which to move forward.

Students who internalize their difficulty and blame themselves may benefit from a counseling approach in which the teacher encourages them to discuss the feelings they are experiencing. Listen and respond without judgment. Help them to identify the feelings and the aspects of the situation from which they arose. Help them to test the truth of assumptions they may have about their inability to handle such situations by setting another task and pursuing it. The transition to successful self-direction means replacing “No, I can’t” assumptions with “Yes, I can” affirmations. Make sure the test is appropriate and do everything possible to prepare the student for success and to guide him or her to it.

Changing negative assumptions begins with hard evidence.

Realism. In this stage students accept the reality of the difficulties involved in SDL. They recognize what is required from them to overcome these obstacles and they acknowledge the advantages of becoming skilled at solving their own problems. In the best scenario, students covert the experience of overcoming their difficulties into valuable lessons. They clarify their role in the process of self-direction and accept the roles of others. They develop a clearer picture of what they can accomplish, they accept the need for organizing their time and effort, and they value the importance of SDL learning. This state of readiness is the turning point in the transition to productivity.

This is an important opportunity for the teacher to confirm and nurture this transition. Encourage students to write about their difficulties and success in their journals. Encourage them to share their struggles and resolutions with others in groups or with the class. Celebrate them. Underscore these achievements in personal comments and in comments on the student’s contracts, comments that can be included in their portfolios and can be seen at home. Reaffirm the value of challenge, struggle, achievement and personal growth. Build a climate of realistic optimism, nurture “Yes, I can” efficacy.

Commitment and Achievement. After their struggles, students become successful in their SDL activities and more committed to its practices and principles. As they become more self-disciplined, more systematic and effective, and as they begin to achieve the outcomes they seek, they will also begin to report positive changes in themselves and their parents will begin to report such changes at home. Problems will arise, but in most cases, students will solve them proudly. They will report feelings of empowerment, satisfaction and pride.

This is the time to confirm, celebrate and more forward. One excellent way to confirm and celebrate is to conduct the first self-evaluation conference with students and their parents. Organize for one to four students to be reporting on their progress at one time, each telling about their difficulties and their final achievements. This will also allay the fears that parents of struggling students may have about the program. Then move students on to the next task with new contracts and more challenging endeavors. Problems will still arise but will seldom be so devastating again. Now seasoned, students will work with enthusiasm, celebrate and help each other and they will dare to aspire.

Plateau and Remobilization. After a period of success, students may tend to relax, feel comfortable and slack off. They resist new challenges and rest on their laurels from past achievements. Having reached a plateau of success, they pause. This pause is often deserved, but it is not uncommon for students to settle in and need to be pried out of the nest again.

Keeping track of student activities daily on an observation sheet provides an indicator of where individuals are in their progress and where the class is generally. It provides an early warning system for detecting problems and slow downs. When students slack off, distinguish between breathing in between efforts and slowing down in effort altogether. When a slowdown occurs, it’s time to remobilize the students concerned or the class in general. This may be a time for firm insistence on performance, for challenging contracts and dramatic action. Confront students proposing familiar, comfortable and easy projects. Introduce a provocative stimulus. Invite former students to return and talk to the class. Introduce a class project such as a science trip to a new environment for field studies or conservation activities. Conduct a service for people in need. Organize an adventure or a retreat to re-energize the class. Be careful before you confront apparent slackers. One girl seemed to be doing nothing, but when the teacher approached, he found out she had discovered data bases that enabled her to compare personal habits among women and the incidence of breast cancer. She had been up late running the data for three nights.

Knowing that students will experience these stages helps teachers to be prepared for them. It also enables teachers to avoid them or to reduce their impact by preparing students and the program so that both are free from make-or-break crises. In SDL as in life, however, problems abound and these kinds of issues will arise. The responses suggested here should be helpful in motivating students to address their difficulties and in guiding them through to success.

Motivate Students and Teach Them to Motivate Themselves.

The key to self-direction is motivating students to design and accomplish their own learning tasks, and then motivating them to motivate themselves to learn.

Is this possible? Yes, if we create a motivating program, and if we can teach students to create highly motivating tasks to pursue and compelling ways to pursue them. SDL is designed to motivate. The program is aimed at the crises adolescents face. It offers a transition from control by others to control of themselves. Freedom is given as responsibility is taken. Students learn to find and pursue their interests, to struggle and achieve and to demonstrate their achievements and reap the rewards. They learn about themselves by finding out what they can do and become. They learn about others, find companionship and see themselves as they are seen by the many individuals and groups they experience. And they learn about the world and how to move through it competently. If a program were designed for motivating adolescents, this would be it. Unfortunately, much of the positive feeling comes after the struggle through the fires. Knowing that the appreciation of their students will come is important for the teacher’s motivation.

Recognition by students that the program is dealing with their issues will gradually emerge, and you can help that process by connecting the activities to their greater purposes. As they take control, for example, students should realize that it is an adult act and a step toward maturity. Be your students’ challenge cheerleader. Above all, sell competence. Competence is its own reward, but they have to get there first. Do whatever you have to do to get them to the place where they taste the pleasures of skill. Competence is also their passport to the future; excellence in a field is their employment visa. The advantages of life go to the competent – the pleasures of the experience, the admiration of others and the greatest financial rewards.

The greatest motivator is the active pursuit of personal interests in real circumstances. In his book, Motivating Humans (1992), Ford outlines the main principles of motivation that he derived from research. They not only support the practices that follow, they also demonstrate that SDL is a motivating program. That is, as students master the processes of SDL they are learning also how to motivate themselves by discovering their interests, by finding compelling ways to pursue them and by sustaining their efforts to a rewarding conclusion.

Help students to find and pursue a passion. The most recurrent theme among SDL teachers is the importance of helping students to find something that interests them, something that is theirs, something that is full of promise. Everything flows from that compelling interest. The search for a passion is the purpose behind the drive to expose them to a variety of experiences in a variety of situations. When Jeremy Tanner discovered a passion for flying, he became energized in all of his work.

Help students to translate interests into clear and compelling goals. As Ford suggests, specific, desirable goals are essential. Without them, little else matters. Once a passion has been identified, the next step is to translate it into specific goals that can be acted upon. Competencies and challenges provide a general framework within which each student can find personal focus and effort. By learning to set their own goals, students also learn to motivate themselves. The learning contract and major challenges or graduation passages focus students on the task. Make sure that the goals are stated so clearly that the student and anyone else reading them know what needs to be done. Be sure that each goal is the student’s own and that it is compelling. If several are tied together in a common enterprise, motivation is even stronger.

Where did that kid who couldn’t wait to get to school or swimming and piano lessons go? The kid who helped me in the kitchen, loved to go camping, read books, brought his friends over. Who is this surly monster who swears, loafs around, can’t stand school and comes home later smelling of smoke and god knows what else? I want that nice kid back. A teenager’s mother

Connect students with at least one person who cares about them. Students in SDL need to know that there are people who care about them specifically, and especially one person who is directly connected with them and their progress. Belonging to a community is important, but a special contact is critical. In many programs this person is the advisor with whom they meet regularly in an advisory group, and individually at least twice a week. As an advisor, be available, connect, support, counsel and guide. At Jefferson County Open, the program begins with each advisory group taking a camping trip together so that such special connections can begin.

Deal with each student as an individual in an individual situation. The special contact, such as the advisor, should treat the student as a unique individual in a unique situation. Many students will have unique issues to deal with in order to become self-directed. Some will have issues at home, others with peers and still others in dealing with themselves that impede their progress. Monique may be running from her stepmother’s abuse, Bill may be in trouble with the police, Angie may be spoiled helpless and Sangit may be in cultural crisis. These issues must be resolved by the students themselves, but they need the opportunity to talk, confirmation that they are okay and guidance in developing alternative strategies for resolution.

Provide feedback to students and teach them to secure feedback for themselves. The effort to achieve goals flags without specific, helpful feed back. Students not only need feedback, they also need to know that feedback is coming. Responses to their efforts are most useful when they clearly specify successes and point out ways that the student can improve. Keep track of everyone; provide regular commentary. Conferences provide a good opportunity to give feedback, but be sure that it guides improvement and is perceived as useful. SDL programs are designed to build in several feedback systems: peer support groups, advisory groups, teacher-student conferences, working with mentors, their community activities, demonstrations and celebrations. Teach them to ask for feedback and to “read” the effectiveness of their efforts, that is, to determine from the results of their initiatives which are successful, which are not and why. Feedback motivates by naming successes, identifying problems and suggesting solutions. Without feedback, students lose their way and their momentum.

Challenge students appropriately, and teach them to challenge themselves. Challenge students in activities they value. Outward Bound challenges students unfamiliar with rock climbing to climb difficult faces on a safe belay and then to repel down again. The cliff-face, the mountain, is used as a metaphor for the challenges we all face in life. “If I can climb the mountain when I was sure I couldn’t, what else might I be able to do that I think I can’t?” Challenge is an invitation to break out of limits, to exercise one’s strengths, to know one’s power. A pattern of successfully meeting challenges leads to a sense of efficacy. When we ask students to write contracts, we invite them to challenge themselves to reach new levels of performance that they can only imagine. We invite them to test and to realize their powers. But, we must be careful that the challenge is neither so great that it is unattainable, nor so trivial that it is not worth doing. Challenge should be difficult but possible for the individual.

Recent research has made it clear that we need challenge throughout our lives if we wish to develop our mental capacities thoroughly, and to retain our alertness into old age. It is also clear that challenging ourselves to do things that we value is the major means by which people learn when schooling ends. Successfully meeting challenges also confirms our talents, reassures us that we can meet what challenges lie ahead and lifts us to a higher platform from which we can see even greater challenges ahead.

Encourage students to identify their strengths and to employ them as often as possible. Every student has strengths that they can identify. Their strength may be relationships, athletics, artistic expression, character, assertiveness, languages, humor, organization, caring, construction, reliability or any among hundreds of others. In Now, Discover Your Strengths (2001), authors Buckingham and Clifton identify thirty-four themes of strength based on a Gallop study of over two million people, and then propose that everyone can learn best by building on their five signature strengths. When we use our most powerful frame of mind or form of intelligence, our preferred style of learning and utilize our strengths in pursuit of goals that thrill us, we build a momentum that is difficult to stop. Students may take Gallup’s Strengthfinder. com Profile on line or simply decide for themselves what they do well, what strengths they bring to anything they do, what others would say were their powers. Using a group to anonymously list each other’s strengths is also a good group-builder. Make your own class muster list of SDL strengths; keep it displayed on a chart.

Ensure that every student experiences success. Success motivates. When we see that we can complete a task, we are ready to do it again; when we do it well and are acknowledged, we want to do it again. If it is a success we want and achieve it after a struggle, we can’t wait to do it again. If the success was also exhilarating and earned us praise, we will do anything to do it again. Sequences of such successes, especially when they are occasionally interrupted with difficulties that are overcome, are life-altering. They are the threads that compose the fabric of our lives, and shape the images that define who we are.

Create successes by employing gradients of intensity in assigned work and by encouraging students to set units of work that are attainable. Provide many pathways. Urge students to employ their strengths. Convert one overwhelming task into a sequence of easier ones and urge them to do the same. Evaluate so that each student has an opportunity to succeed, such as, by measuring progress against personal baselines or by seeking validation letters. Celebrate achievement; be sure that everyone is celebrated. But make sure that the success is real and that there is hard evidence of achievement both for the student and for others to see. Do not claim success for the empty-handed fisherman. In every activity every student should have an opportunity to succeed and should feel that the opportunity exists. Patterns of real success increase effort, raise self-esteem and nurture a sense of efficacy.

Help every student to become competent in achieving their goals, and if possible, in becoming expert in a field of their own choice. Competence is the ability to succeed. As such, it is the other side of the success story; it is the ability to generate the skilful outcomes that are deemed successful. Competence is its own reward, but also is the chief means by which we gain the rewards offered by society -- praise, respect, status, power, greater opportunity and financial reward. The deeper reward is becoming absorbed, going beneath the surface of things. In Creativity (1996), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes this feeling of contented absorption as flow, the effortless involvement in intense activity for the quality of experience it provides. We also experience such absorption when we exercise skills in challenging projects.

Teach students to be skilful and teach them to be very skillful — expert, if possible, in a special field of choice. Every child should be working on becoming absorbed and competent in a field of activity that gives them pleasure. The balance of curriculum coverage is depth of study. While it is important to learn something about everything, it is equally important to know everything about something, or to come as close as possible. All approaches to assigned topics, and all worthy fields of human endeavor are open to them.

Never stop trying to motivate students or to teach them to motivate themselves. There are many ways to motivate students, far more than we can cover here. Somewhere there is an approach, an experience or a comment that will click and the student will be on the move. Don’t give up. The jump-start event is often a surprise. Who wold have anticipated that when Billy sat down with little kids he would be in his element, or that a problem-kid to us would be a hero to them. When he came into the room, they all wanted him at their tables; and when he was teaching them, they looked at him with open adoration.

Billy, one of the toughest students imaginable, found his transformation, to everyone’s amazement, when he agreed to help the kindergarten teacher and became responsible for a group of little children. Get your students going any way that you can. We can only wait so long for them to set themselves on fire. Spontaneous combustion may not happen. The inert sometimes need to be nudged into action. They need to discover their powers be using them. Billy discovered his by chance. It was not his choice. He sat with folded arms, putting much more energy into not doing than into searching for something to do, not to mention into searching for a passion. Billy was asked to help out in a class and found his strength and interest. Once in flight he started to take over and was soon on his way.

A final note. It is difficult to be civil to students when they are resistant and objectionable. In such instances, however, treating students respectfully is critical, especially since we want them to respect themselves and then others. When you don’t give up or become resentful, students see what is happening. They know. The door stays open. These guidelines for motivating students are also guidelines for the self-motivation that ensures continual, life-long learning.

Working with Difficult Students

Here are ten ways to work with difficult students that you can build into your SDL program. Every teacher has to put together an approach that suits his or her own style, but these approaches will significantly reduce the unruliness of most difficult students, if the teacher is comfortable employing them. These techniques are not designed for seriously delinquent students, however. The control over such students is usually the treat of losing the privilege of being in an SDL class, and going back to TDL. Once calm is established, negotiating the terms of the course begins: freedom for responsibilities. In a broader sense, the SDL process is the best method of managing difficult students. Get students to a success and then build on it. The process gives students the power to produce and involves highly motivating elements, such as the pursuit of personal interests and demonstrating success to an audience of peers. When success leads to passionate involvement in a field students become too busy to be difficult. Find what works for you and them.

Teach students the behavior you expect from them. Make clear what is expected and give them the repertoire of responses to meet those expectations. Students can’t behave the way you want them to if they don’t know what is expected, and they can’t give you what is expected if it isn’t in their repertoires of behavior. Establish clear, simple routines for exercising the responsibilities that go with the new freedoms that they have in SDL. When they begin the day or period, have them file a plan for the work they intend to do. When they go out of the classroom to another part of the school, into the community or beyond, teach them to seek permission from home, from you and from anyone responsible for them where they are going. Make up appropriate slips.

Tough kids respond to heroes — especially sports heroes. I encouraged one group to write fan letters to players on local teams. The kids labored over these letters and were thrilled when players responded, and most did. One even accepted an invitation to join the kids for a street hockey game. We kept a record of players’ performances, worked out their stats and started a corner for responses and memorabilia. It’s a winner. Brian Hodgins, retired special education teacher

Before they go to work sites, for example, teach them how to handle themselves, how to introduce themselves, how to interact with adults, how to get the most out of the situation and how to give back to it, and how to thank people. Role play these situations, doing them both badly and well. Make the expectations clear; that they will go where they say they are going, that they will do what they say they are going to do and that they will conduct themselves well. Make it clear also that if they violate these expectations, they will lose their privileges for a certain period of time. New freedoms are earned by meeting the new responsibilities that go with them.

Help the lost student to decide. For a variety of reasons, some students may have difficulty making choices or the commitment to any choice they make. Some are very dependent or have been so controlled or so criticized or punished for their initiatives that they are immobilized. They may act out when confronted with a decision to make, but more likely they will not be any trouble, just helpless. Be patient. This is an enormous issue for the student and a critical transition for their SDL work. Begin with small tasks. Discuss possibilities with the student at first and then assign a promising activity. Next offer a choice of topics and discuss making a decision between the two. Repeat these if necessary and then move to an independent but non-threatening decision. Guide the student through the process of considering interests, choosing one and transforming it into a goal or task. If necessary, begin with choosing desired experience rather than a task.

If the student is responsive, discuss the feelings that accompany such decisions and commitments. Counseling is an important role for the SDL teacher. If necessary, acquire counseling skills, consult with a counselor – include one in some of your consultations or arrange with the student to visit one if the situation seems to require it. Help such students to trust their own interests, desires and decisions. Without faith in themselves, progress in SDL is doubtful.

Connect students to their powers. Students become successful in SDL by becoming connected to their capacities; through SDL successes, they discover and develop those abilities to manage their own learning and their lives. When they learn to challenge themselves and to meet those challenges, they are inspired not by us but by their own achievements and their realization that “I can make my vision of the future a reality.” SDL teachers do not use their powers to control students but to help students to gain control over themselves in the exercise of their own powers, their own powers to decide, manage and produce. As one SDL teacher said,

I thought we were poor, that I had no inheritance, until I discovered a quote written by my father and remembered that it was what he often told me, ‘All that hinders the individual from expressing the full power of the infinite universe is his lack of faith, his inability to realize the stupendous truth that he himself is the very power which he seeks.' It's a rich inheritance, and what I try to help my students to discover.

Many problems recede when students realize, by what teachers say and do, that the purpose of SDL is to make them confident, competent executives as well as workers in the creation of their own successful lives. The major impediment to this realization, and the cause of many student difficulties, is self-doubt, their wondering if they have power and can realize their dreams. Their struggle to achieve is matched by their struggle to believe - - in themselves. As teachers will discover when students tell their stories during demonstrations and graduation — often in very moving terms — winning this inner struggle is the greatest challenge and their most important victory.

Build pride. Keep a sharp eye out to catch students being successful. When you do, have a repertoire of ways to acknowledge them. Have a recognition time each week when achievements are recognized before the class or advisory group. Students will work to be recognized. Find or create real reasons to recognize struggling students. Send notes home — and to students. Create a recognition wall and post achievements on it — a wall of honor. Recognize all achievement. Do not compare students. Measure progress individually. All progress counts.

Set appropriate challenges. All SDL programs are challenge programs. They challenge students to take charge and create achievement. Find appropriate challenges for difficult students and assign them or work them out with the student. Billy’s work with little kids was transformative. When he graduated, he thanked his teacher for persevering with him, and later began a career with the YMCA. Search for the right challenge. Make up a questionnaire at the beginning of the year asking each student to identify interests, experiences, talents, activities outside of school, hopes and dreams. Add notes to each student's dossier as you discover things about them. Use the dossier as a guide to selecting appropriate challenges. Keep initial tasks brief and when you find a positive response, extend them.

Connect students with admirable adults. Teachers are often associated with parental roles and so become the targets of the adolescent struggle to separate from controlling authority and establish a personal identity. This can be a stormy experience for parents, teachers and especially the embroiled students. Try to understand rather than react. Other adults can be very helpful. Find out if grandparents or aunts and uncles are available. Approach service organizations, such as Rotary, to see if they will take part. Find people who will take students on as apprentices even for a short time. Service roles with the elderly or with children or anyone in need can also be influential. Move students toward adulthood by connecting them with models of the adult role, people who can listen to them, counsel them, work with them and show them positive adult styles.

If what you’re doing isn’t working, stop doing it and try something else. Reframe: rethink the situation. Ask, “When were things better than this? What would be happening if things were better now?” Remember when you were successful with this kind of kid before and draw on that experience. If you haven’t been successful before, find someone to advise you who has. Gary Phillips, Educational Consultant

Teach students who need it. Some students may need to be more gradually weaned from teacher direction than others. For a few, the sudden loss of familiar structure will be confusing and distressing. Students who have learned to plan the TDL game skillfully may resent the new structure which rewards a different kind of learning performance than the one they have mastered. If they can’t figure out what the teacher wants, they may founder or continue to produce familiar study products, such as, the answers to questions in a textbook or essays. Provide a teaching bridge for such students. Hold a brief seminar; teach lessons, give assignments that are marked and returned. Gradually make the assignments more open so students have to make more decisions and develop their own themes and activities. Make the graduation topic from this seminar a brief passage activity.

Place difficult or struggling students strategically in groups. When groups are set up for various learning activities in school or outside it, place difficult or struggling students with a strong group. If group success depends upon the contribution of all members, the pressure is on everyone to work, and if group members are skilled they will encourage their difficult member to contribute. Success with the group, even by not acting out and especially through participation, can give students the success they need to start. Be careful; a determined dissident can destroy all but the strongest and most skillful groups. Be ready to intervene and possibly to withdraw such students. Similarly, be ready to encourage and reward those who modify their behavior and help their groups.

Provide students with diverse resources for learning, and experiences in diverse environments. Many students feel lost in the classroom because they cannot find a way to be successful or competent. They either become passive and avoid school or find a way to establish a role that maintains their self-esteem, that gives them some status and that helps them to belong. Causing trouble is one way, resisting the process is another and insulting the teacher is a third. By offering alternative ways to learn and by changing the environment so that a greater range of activities is possible enables more students to find productive ways to succeed.

Brian Herrin takes his class camping early in the year so that students who may not excel academically can raise the tent, start a fire, find the way, canoe, fish, cook, identify birds, plants and animals. “Change the location”, Brian says, “and different kids get a chance to star. It makes for a very different classroom.” The faculty at Jefferson County Open agrees. The first two weeks are devoted to a camping trip. Each advisory group plans and conducts a one week outing together. “We want them to see a completely different way to learn. We want them to bond with each other and have their own core group right from the beginning. We want them to know each other so they can help each other and accept help. They are going to need it,” observed one teacher. Find diverse environments enable more students to shine.

Diverse resources also enable more students to find the right means of learning for them. When the hook is made and the student finds success, the trouble is often over. Introducing learning through video and computer may catch some. Laboratory research and fieldwork will grab a few, Apprenticeships and work experience may be essential for others. Drama on a mountainside, in river rapids or plunging from a plane will hook many. Service with aids patients, infants or the elderly will be compelling for many more.

Target specific students with specific transformative experiences. Troubled Billy found teaching children and was never the same again. When “Maddog” Manson got the chance to train his dog, during the process he trained himself, too. Helen Barr invited two of her promising but troubled students to an elegant dinner with candles, classical music and a tough reading assignment “to ensure a stimulating conversation.” She gave them a marvelous crash course in a cultural life style they knew nothing about. “Instead of punishing them, I fed them. The poor boys never recovered. They did the most amazing things,” she said. Melvin took Amber, his most difficult student, to a Rotary meeting and asked her to speak in his place about the SDL program she was in. He said that it was a risk, but he knew it was all right when Amber began, “Any program that can put up with me being in it, has to have a lot going for it.”

Teachers can also target the resources and experiences for themes in their own subjects. Marcia Stankowski insists that her English and drama students see a compelling play performance in the theatre, or act in one for an audience. Mark Hatcher takes his earth science students on field trips to study landforms and collect mineral specimens. “Different kids get hooked in the field,” he says. “I give the difficult kids responsibilities and bargain with them that if all goes well this time, we’ll do more trips later.” Help every student to find a means of learning, a sense of importance and a place to shine. If the students can’t find it, find the experience for them.

Motivation is the engine that drives learning. Do everything possible to engage students in SDL. Help them find the determination to work through their first confrontations with the difficulties involved in directing themselves. As they begin to achieve successes, confirm their accomplishment and use success to teach them to employ the SDL process to motivate themselves. Conduct that process as a motivational activity and be ready to focus on troubled students with a repertoire of responses that will help them to find a pathway to achievements that will give them the pride and self-esteem they need to change.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 October 2011 01:00
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