The Importance of Becoming a Self-Directed Lifelong Learner

David Handel, MD
6 min readAug 7, 2020
Child reading with a flashlight
Courtesy of BrickRedBard via Pixabay

The COVID-19 pandemic has unmasked the inequities and deep flaws of our formal education systems to degrees that the average person was likely unaware existed. Beyond the many problems inherent with public education in the majority of countries, we have also discovered that K-12 remote learning is generally an inferior substitute for in-person education.

But, the even bigger wakeup call is that our parenting practices and education systems have never been delivering the end-product that we desperately need. The success of humanity depends on the maturation of our youth into self-directed lifelong learners as the norm rather than the exception.

The adults who tend to have the greatest success in their careers, who contribute the most to the betterment of society, and who achieve the highest degree of self-actualization are, by-and-large, self-directed learners lifelong learners.

What is a self-directed learner?

A self-directed learner is a person who takes responsibility for their education, for their attainment of knowledge, and their development of mastery. They are capable of determining not only what they want to learn; they can determine what they need to learn. They can recognize gaps in their knowledge and then develop plans to narrow the gaps. Finally, they execute on those plans and acquire the missing knowledge.

I surmise that the majority of adults hold the opinion that learning is something that you do in school but that once your formal education is over, you’ve ticked that box and learning becomes relatively unimportant for the remainder of your life.

A self-directed learner has developed a set of skills required to fulfill their never-ending lifelong education. These competencies may be innate to some of us to varying degrees, but there are specific areas of acquired mastery that make one more capable of success at lifelong learning. Chief among these is learning how to learn.

In reality, learning how to learn should be the primary goal of a K-12 education. We tend to focus our formal education years on learning the core subject matter we all need in order to move onto successful adult lives. But the greater imperative during our K-12 years, after we have learned how to read should be that we learn how to learn. Knowing how to learn and then possessing the drive to use those tools is the recipe for becoming a self-directed learner.

What is the essence of learning how to learn?

Learning how to learn begins with learning how we learn. With that knowledge, we can leverage the evidence-based cognitive science strategies and tactics that facilitate learning more efficiently and effectively: retrieval practice, spaced-repetition, the spacing of knowledge acquisition, and interleaving. They are all at the core of learning how to learn. These practices are further enhanced when we master the ability to focus, do deep work, and develop the habits that eliminate distractions when we need to get work done. All of this can be addressed through education and training.

If your career is in a profession such as in medicine, law, education, or any career where licensure is required, continuing education requirements exist and are intended to force you to keep up with the latest advances. But if you want to excel in your career or profession, keeping up is not sufficient.

What if you are not in such a career or profession? Is there a role for self-directed learning in your life? The answer is a resounding yes. Being a self-directed learner is part of living life to its fullest. Further, it is the path to personal growth and enlightenment. It is a requirement for being an independent thinker and someone who is less susceptible to untruths and fake news.

Besides learning how to learn, what are the other requisite skills needed for successful lifelong learning? Chief among them is a finely developed ability to exercise metacognition.

The many questions you should ask yourself as you learn.
Metacognition starts with thinking about your thinking.

Most frequently metacognition is described as thinking about your thinking. But the real story is much richer than that. Firstly, it is a supervisory kind of thinking and not at all passive. It is the act of observing your cognition and interrogating your thinking. This prevents your everyday cognition from accepting and filing away to memory inputs from the external world that may be misinformed or outright bogus. Without this filter, we may end up concluding that fake news is real or that science is a hoax.

Metacognition is our personal grownup in the room that is needed to make sure our cognition isn’t led astray through naïveté. Using metacognition, we should question everything except that which we have established as trustworthy and then subsequently developed heuristics that save us time and mental energy. In the absence of heuristics that we can trust, we should question everything that we don’t completely understand. We should question our understanding of something new right down to the level of its first principles. This is akin to the mind of a child that annoys by repeatedly asking its parents why.

You should never accept learning a concept that you don’t fully understand. This maxim is your best tool for deeply understanding the true meaning of new ideas and concepts. When you are faced with a new concept, before you accept it and learn it, ask yourself questions like “Do I truly understand this?; “Is this the complete story?; “Does this contradict anything else that I know?”; and “Where else can I learn more about this?”

Metacognition is also about possessing the ability to know what you know and know what you don’t know. We all suffer varying degrees of the Dunning-Kruger effect in each area of our personal knowledge and expertise. For some concepts and pieces of knowledge, our degree of confidence that we know and comprehend is spot on. For others, we are falsely under-confident. The most dangerous scenario is when we are very confident that we know something but in fact, we either know it incorrectly or we don’t know it at all.

Where, when, and how are we supposed to develop into self-directed learners?

There are three possible places and times in our lives where, if we are fortunate, we may develop this skillset.

The first is at home. Our parents, family, and mentors should teach us these skills. It should be a rite of passage out of childhood. You shouldn’t get to be anointed into adulthood without becoming a self-directed learner.

The second is during our years of formal education. It is critical that our educators and institutions of learning prioritize training students to attain these skills. Again, these skills are teachable and trainable.

Finally, if our parents, family members, mentors, and teachers fail us, we need to parent ourselves and take responsibility to become the successful, self-actualized adults that represent the best versions of ourselves.

I was a very unsuccessful student during my K-12 years. I didn’t know how to learn. My parents didn’t have a clue about how to teach me because they were not self-directed learners. For whatever reason, my teachers weren’t able to get me there. But through some miracle of good fortune, I was able to transform myself during my transition years from youth into adulthood. I learned how to learn and ultimately went to medical school where I graduated #1 in my class. I believe that self-parenting through reflection and personal choice is a quality that society should imbue upon all its members. Life does not always grace us with perfect parents but we have the opportunity to step in and repair any deficiencies in our rearing by parenting ourselves. Self-parenting should be the norm throughout our lives.

The final traits of successful self-directed lifelong learners include grit, drive, and self-esteem; the kind of self-confidence comes from mastery but also supports the quality that successful adults need: have zero fear of looking stupid. There are no dumb questions. Get over it and learn to always ask why until you fully understand any new thing. Always be questioning!

Our world has become a much scarier place in the age of Covid-19. Science and education are our irreplaceable tools for advancement and salvation, both personally and as a species. Each of us must take responsibility for our continuous lifelong learning.

If you want a tool that helps you leverage proven cognitive science tactics and strategies to become a much more successful learner, give the FREE FOREVER version of iDoRecall a try.

If you are an educator and would like free access to iDoRecall for the Fall 2020 semester for you and your students, apply here.

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David Handel, MD

Co-founder iDoRecall.com. Helping students achieve academic success. Retired MD. Graduated #1 in my med school class using proven cog-sci learning techniques.