How to Support Self-Directed Learners

We have many opportunities to be teachers, mentors, and guides.

It feels like a big responsibility. One we don’t want to mess up.

We want to get it right.  We care.

So, how can we best support self-directed learners?

Dale Stephens as a baby climbing up a slide being supported by his dad. Supporting self-directed learners.

 We trust that we can all learn and find the sweet spot that makes learning  joyful.

We are all natural learners. We differ in how we like to learn.

One very natural way to learn, which you see it operating in children all the time, is imitating a model. A child is naturally inspired by whatever parents or older siblings are doing. At the beginning, the models closest at hand play the biggest role in learning.

We start with observing. Then with interest and enough confidence we try to imitate. We take small steps, figuratively or literally, with support. As we gain more confidence and skill, we start innovating or modifying as desired.

What is the goal when supporting self-directed learners?

The goal is to help the learner move from where they are, to where they want to be.

Ideally, we want the learner to enjoy a sense of challenge but not feel overwhelmed.

Helping someone to find this sweet spot of learning is sometimes referred to as scaffolding or finding the zone of proximal development.

My experience with learners of all ages, from working with tots to my 80-year-old mom, is to recognize and respect the interests, strengths, and current ability level of learner. If they want help, you can offer the kind and amount of support the learner needs to feel confident and inspired to learn more.

Some folks freeze up when faced with a blank page, or just being told to follow their interests. But if I provide a list, an example of some sort, or a story it helps them to warm up.

They begin to feel and think, “Oh that’s not as scary as I thought. That doesn’t look so hard. I can do that.”

Many people enjoy referring to a model, especially when they get to choose the model based on criteria important to them. Whether it is a recipe book from a favorite restaurant, how-to advice from a musician you admire, or wanting to copy a neighbor’s garden idea, adopting or adapting a tried and true system from someone who has demonstrated the results you desire are valid and effective ways to learn.

It doesn’t mean people who prefer to learn this way will not be strong self-directed learners.  Finding examples or models can be a source of inspiration and efficiency.

If we can find a shortcut or learn from someone else’s mistakes, great!

The beauty of self-directed learning is that we get to search out the examples or advice we want.Then we get to decide if we want to use it, adapt it to our situation, or ignore it.


I love creating and innovating. I also love using something great that someone else designed that gets the results I want. No need to reinvent the wheel if I don’t want to. When I was a kid we used to say, “I’m not to proud to copy …”


How do you like to start a new learning project?

  • Do you love to just dive in, creating from the heart and learning by trial and error?
  • Do you like to research, find a model and learn from the experience of others?
  • Is there some other way you like to begin?


There is no right or wrong answer, no right or wrong way to learn!

Join the conversation in the comments below.

I hope to share my experience to help you have more confidence and joy in finding the best learning options for you or your family. Please subscribe to the email list and join me in joyfully learning all the time. Do you know anyone else wondering about how to help self-directed learners? Please share this post with them. I would really appreciate it, Lisa


Below are some links for those interested in more learning theory.

3 thoughts on “How to Support Self-Directed Learners

  1. Dawn, thanks for joining the conversation! I love building on what someone else has learned – I feel like I get the benefit of everyone else’s brain and feel less alone.

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