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Aurora Institute

My Journey as a Self-Directed Learner

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jonathan Vander Els

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

JVE-USCapitol-2There have been a number of recent studies completed that ask employers what their future employees need to know to be successful within their job. Their responses, although not surprising when you consider it, are not competencies that have been typically “taught” in schools. Overwhelmingly, these employers respond with things such as “Self-direction,” “Collaboration,” or “Ability to Communicate Effectively.” They follow up with, “We can teach them what they need to know to do their job, as long as they can do these other things.”

There has been a growing body of research related to the absolute necessity and import of these skills and dispositions within the overall learning process itself, with some suggesting that these skills are as important, if not more important, than the academic competencies we tend to focus on.

I consider myself a very self-directed learner at this point in my life, but that has not always been the case. Throughout my K-12 experience, I went to class, attained pretty good grades, and moved on to my next class. I was always able to communicate and collaborate effectively, yet never was really pressed to direct my own learning, as I moved from class to class, studying as I needed to and completing the requirements needed to go to college.

This inability to direct my own learning, however, caught up to me when I went to college. I was now expected and required to figure things out on my own, and I was unable to do that as effectively as I needed. It was no one’s fault but my own, but it resulted in learning a hard, yet incredibly valuable lesson. Ironically, I would learn this lesson from “teachers” and from an “education” that I still consider to be one of the most important ones I’ve ever had, and it didn’t occur in a school.

On the eve of my twenty-first birthday, April 29th, 1993, I began my first night of Basic Training as an Infantryman in the United States Army. Yes, that’s right… I turned twenty-one sitting on a hard, wooden bench in the humidity of Fort Benning (or as we affectionately referred to it as, Fort Begin-Again), GA.

Obviously the skills of communicating, collaborating, and yes, even being creative are absolute necessities, but self-direction is a skill that is going to save you and your platoon-mates a LOT of push-ups. I consider myself to be a very quick learner, but the Army and my drill sergeants expected and required that we take responsibility for not only ourselves and our own learning, but for each other’s. If you didn’t demonstrate your understanding of something, you needed to study or work harder to be successful. If you didn’t understand a concept, or couldn’t do the required number of sit-ups or push-ups, or complete a run in the expected time, you studied, practiced, or exercised in any spare minute to get better at whatever it was you were struggling with. Failure was not an option, and their assessments were true performance assessments. You had to DO. We were faced with scenarios in which you were required to process the information provided very quickly, think critically, and respond appropriately, utilizing and applying what you had learned.

I believe now, more than ever, that these are life skills that should translate to learners at all levels. At our elementary school, Memorial School in Newton, NH, I watch teachers at the primary level focusing more and more on our CARES behaviors (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-Regulation). Teachers are recognizing the absolute leverage that these skills and dispositions provide for students. And they can continue to grow and learn. Traditionally, these may not have been skills that were outright taught, but that is all changing.

Carol Dweck’s research related to growth mindset has been a catalyst in changing many things, shedding light on the understanding that students (and adults) CAN continue to grow in ANY area, whether academic or behavioral. Even more powerful, when students are aware of their areas of strength and areas for growth and they become responsible for assessing their own growth within these skills and dispositions, this ownership and increased understanding will have potent results.

School became much easier for me once I returned from my time in the military. I was older, yes, but I was also a highly self-directed learner. I knew what I had to do, and I developed a plan to accomplish it. I was reflective in my learning, and I identified not only where gaps may exist, but developed plans to remediate any areas for growth.

Providing opportunities within our schools for students to practice, assess, and grow within these “other” competencies will not only allow students to become more complete learners, but will allow them to become the College and Career Ready adults that our workforce requires.

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Jonathan is the Director of Innovative Projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, overseeing the personalized and competency-based work related to NG2: Next Generation Collaborative Learning Design and the State of New Hampshire’s efforts integrating Work Study Practices into curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Formerly, Jonathan was principal of Memorial Elementary School in Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire. Under his leadership, Memorial became a nationally recognized model professional learning community (PLC) on All Things PLC ( and competency-based learning elementary school.

Jonathan lives with his wife and three children on the New Hampshire Seacoast. You can follow Jonathan via Twitter @jvanderels