Why Self-Determined Learning Should Be The Main Thing


Learning is a lifelong journey, no doubt about it. If ever you get to a point in life when you believe your learning has come to an end, then you may as well lay down in bed and not bother getting out. When you stop learning, you stop living.

Covey talked about ‘keeping the main thing the main thing’ in his book, First Things First (1994). What should be ‘the main thing’ for learning in schools? Should we continue to use test scores, entry into university or the promise of a high paying job as the main drivers for learning? I remember when I was at school I asked the teachers a number of times: What is the purpose of learning trigonometry? The usual responses were something like, “To pass the test”, “You need to know trig so you can do higher order math later” or, the one I hated the most, “It helps you to think!” For a teenager, who was a passionate musician and surfer, had I known trigonometry was fundamental to sound engineering and oceanography then maybe I would have made more of an effort to engage in the learning.

As teachers, how often do we share with our students the learning intentions and the specific purpose for engaging in an explicit skill-based or concept ‘Explore’ session? What’s your response to a child who asks: Why are we doing this?

I love the concept of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle in which he describes the necessity to start with ‘The Why’. For our school-based research on Organic Learning, ‘The Why’ brings purpose to keeping ‘the main thing the main thing’.

As a school community, there are many responses to the question: Why do we do what we do? There are also many perspectives – system, teacher, leader, parent and student. For an Organic Learning perspective, the centre of ‘The Why’ is the learner. If learning is a lifelong journey, then every member of our community must be considered a learner and hence fundamentally connected to ‘The Why’. For our school community, we do what we do because we want every learner to believe they have the capacity to change the world. This means having the competency to identify or uncover authentic tensions, problems or unknowns, and the capability to do something about it and so impact on the world. The kind of learner required for this is a self-determined one, which for us fulfills ‘The How’.

We explored Hase and Kenyon’s work on Heutagogy, which is the study of Self-Determined Learning (as described by Blaschke). This learning is an ‘active and proactive process’ where ‘learners are the major agent in their own learning’. When learning how to learn they acquire competencies (knowledge and skills) and capabilities (confidence in using their competencies and an ability to determine appropriate action when finding and solving problems in familiar and unfamiliar settings). From our school’s perspective, our learners’ (students and adults) acquisition of competencies was more than adequate, but it was the area of capability that needed further unpacking. We discovered this to be true even for a number of our teachers.

During the development of our school-based research, we were exploring the tensions and commonalities between highly structured, explicit teaching and a rigorous cycle of inquiry. Whilst making connections and synthesising our observations, a debate on the difference between pedagogy and andragogy provoked our thinking to look at teaching and learning a little differently. What does learning look like without the constraints of a pedagogical or andragogical lens? That is not to say pedagogy or andragogy are unimportant, as having the right pedagogical practices in place is critical for student learning and the same goes for andragogy and adult learning. We were perplexed, on a number of occasions, by some of our teachers who found it difficult to be proactive in taking responsibility for their ongoing learning. They appeared to be more comfortable with being told what to learn, which we found quite frustrating.

We found ourselves unpacking learning, free from constraints, and came to a conclusion (rightly or wrongly) that effective learning is effective learning whether you are five, twenty-five or sixty-five. All that is needed is an authentic purpose to drive the desire for learning. This could derive from curiosity, interest, failure or need.


If we want all members in our community to be self-determined lifelong learners, we not only need them to acquire a certain level of competence based on authentic purpose but also to develop the capability to uncover a problem and have the self-efficacy to go about solving it. We wanted this idea to be applicable to all learners regardless of age. We set about aligning explicit teaching/learning and gradual release of responsibility, with inquiry and gradual increase in learner agency.


This became the impetus for exploring how we could extend our alignment of learning principles across the school in our spaces and structures, and gave purpose for developing and aligning processes. With our ‘Why’ in place and ‘How’ established, ‘The What’ became the final piece to our unique Golden Circle jigsaw puzzle.

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