Self-Directed Learning

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Self-Directed Learning
Self-Directed Learning
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Prepared By
Kane McDermott,
Director of Learning & Teaching 
Date Prepared
Effective Date 
Reviewed By 
Learning & Teaching Circle; Full EC
Date Reviewed
Approved By
Learning & Teaching Circle; Full EC
Date Approved

A Guide for Students, EC, and Families on How Self-Directed Learning Happens At Milestone

Who does self-directed learning?

Each term, students create a Personal Learning Plan. Each learner works with their Advisor and their family to decide what they want to learn, and how they want to learn it. Any student who wants to learn something that is not part of a course offered at Milestone, or who wants to learn in a different way than the courses offered at Milestone, is enrolled in “Self-Directed Learning.”

The School Plan says: “No student is required to take classes if they can meet all their learning goals through other experiences (projects, internships, for example).”

What is self-directed learning?

There are three “flavors” of Self-Directed Learning at Milestone: courses taken at partner sites, student-directed design projects, and independent inquiry studies.

Courses Pursued at Partner Sites and/or Online

The School Plan says: 

“Milestone constantly builds partnerships and agreements with other sites of learning in our communities, and students may initiate new partnerships as well. Off-site and on-line courses can be part of any student’s Personal Learning Plan.”

Students may propose to take a course anywhere and anytime (Khan Academy is the least-exciting example, but a common one — fitness classes at local gyms is a more exciting and equally common example). They then use their Self-Directed Learning time to access those courses — or build their PLP schedule around attending an off-site course.

Student Directed Project-Based learning

“Students have the freedom to design their own independent or group Project-Based Learning (PBL) experiences around their interests, with the guidance of an Advisor. No student is required to do projects if they can meet all their learning goals through other experiences (classes, internships, for example).” (From the School Plan)

Students may propose to create something meaningful, utilizing a consistent and rigorous “design thinking” framework, and document their learning along the way.

Independent Studies

“With the support of the advisor, students are encouraged to create challenging and dynamic assignments, inquiry and research work, and units of study that support their PLP while exploring learning strategies that work best for each individual student.” (From the School Plan)

Students may propose to study a topic of their interest, using a consistent and rigorous research methodology, and producing a culminating product that documents their learning.

Why do self-directed learning?

Students’ agency to choose what and how they learn is a core element of a democratic school, and is enshrined in the school plan for that reason.

There is a long and rich history of project-based learning, which demonstrates clearly that when students become designers of their own learning experiences their academic engagement increases dramatically. The ability to direct yourself and manage long-term projects is also a crucial learning objective in its own right.

Inquiry learning also has ample data to support its value. When students generate meaningful questions of their own and then seek out answers, deep learning results. Likewise, research skills including scientific, historical, and social inquiry, or essential for all people to develop. Students are learning how to learn while they’re pursuing their interests.

When does self-directed learning happen?

The current Milestones schedule is built around Advisories in the morning, and PLP learning experiences in the afternoon. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, are broken into four 50 minute blocks starting at noon and ending at 4 PM, with a 10 minute break between each. Every student has a personal schedule in their PLP which dictates the blocks that they are in classes, meeting with interventionists, or participating in self-directed learning.

Where does self-directed learning happen?

When personalizing learning to this degree, we must also personalize student access to facilities. The nature of the projects or inquiry study will drive whether the work needs to be completed in a classroom, a recording studio, the auditorium, outdoors, or in the community. The instructors leading self-directed learning each block must know where all students enrolled in that hour’s Self-Directed Learning session are at all times. We will use a central gathering classroom to start each Self-Directed Learning session, with breakout “Design Lab,” “Inquiry Lab,” and “Coursework Lab” spaces, with a sign out sheet to indicate when students need facilities other than that classroom.

How does self-directed learning happen?

The Student Experience of Self-Directed Learning

There are two looping cycles that a student will engage in whenever they do self-directed learning.

The first cycle is the project or inquiry cycle. This begins with an authentic question or possibility for creation that a student finds highly motivating and meaningful. If the student’s starting point is an open ended authentic question, they propose an inquiry study using the form linked above. Any teacher leading self-directed learning can and should support them in developing their proposal. If the student’s starting point is a desire to create something meaningful, then they propose a design project using the planner linked above.

Once an inquiry study or a design project has been approved, then students begin following the protocol for their respective work. Inquiry studies should use this document, or something very similar to it, for gathering and analyzing data. Design projects should utilize this notebook, or something very similar to it, to move through the phases of design.

When a student completes the process, or when a new and exciting idea occurs to them, they can begin this loop again and repeat the process to initiate a new study for design.

The daily looping cycle of participating in self-directed learning begins with students self identifying the place they are in their process (proposing a new study/design, working through the process for an already approved design/study, or documenting and curating their work in a recently completed design/study). Once a student knows where they are, they should establish a SMART goal for themselves for the time they have available that day to work. SMART is an acronym for 

  • Specific (it is important that students can identify exactly what they are going to try to accomplish), 
  • Measurable (students must be able to explain how they know when they have reached their goal for that day),
  • Attainable (students must know that their goal is realistic and feasible within the time and constraints they have that day),
  • Relevant (goals must be connected back to the major project or study — making sure that they are moving forward with their work), and
  • Time-bound (knowing that there is a time limit to accomplish this goal).

Finally, students should communicate what “roadblocks” are getting in their way. Do they need some 1-on-1 conferencing with a teacher? Do they need access to particular materials? Do they need a quieter place to work? Communicating these needs with the teacher running Self-Directed Learning is crucial.

At the end of the block (or consecutive blocks in one day), students should self-evaluate how they did with reaching their goals. Did they meet or exceed them? Were there unanticipated roadblocks? This reflection should inform their approach the next time they are in Self-Directed Learning.

The Teachers’ Experience of Supporting Self-Directed Learning

This style of learning only works when adults are actively and intentionally supporting, scaffolding, scribing (at times), prompting, pushing, nudging, and encouraging students. Your experience in Self-Directed Learning should be VERY active — asking for student check-ins at the beginning of each session, making careful note of which students identify roadblocks so you can work to clear them, and sitting down 1-on-1 or in small groups with students frequently to identify their needs and provide supports. Help them “make their learning visible” by documenting their work-in-progress. Help them take accountability by making goals clear and public. And, most importantly, celebrate successes at every opportunity!

Self-Directed Learning Time

Assumptions: Approximately 40-50 students signed up for self-directed learning time at any given time. 

Staff members available to cover SDL: Minimum of 2 – at least 1 staff member in each space.


Makerspace and Auditorium to be used as primary classrooms for self-directed learning time, with additional space(s) available as staffing allows. The makerspace is used for design work and the auditorium is used for quiet inquiry or coursework. Other classes would be scheduled in other rooms during those times. Default to the auditorium during lunch and if only 1 staff member is available. If a class is held in one of the rooms, a secondary room can be offered.


  1. 1-2 Computers set up in both spaces, build a routine of students checking into computers immediately upon coming in with computers placed by door. Facilitator can help students fill in the form but emphasis is placed on building the routine of the student filling out the form.
    1. check-in form, QR code and simple typable link posted above computers for people to enter.
  1. Google tracking sheets based on student responses to check in and check out forms posted on walls of main SDL spaces.

Streamlining Tracking Form:

  1. Simple form for check-in:
    1. What are you working on today? (Design Project, Inquiry Study, or Class Assignment). Be specific. 
    2. Where would you like to work? (Auditorium for quiet inquiry or coursework or Makerspace for design projects). Online calls should be open for both rooms for check-in.
    3. Lobby, Fitness Room, Advisory Meetings and Stepping into Hallway available for break times.
  1. Simple form for check-out: What did you accomplish this hour? Please document your work. (E.g. provide a link to designer’s notebook, inquiry notebook, portfolio, or assignment)
  1. Check-in and check-out forms feed into an excel spreadsheet that tracks longitudinal input from all students from the previous week. Tracking sheet is printed out and displayed in a public place so that self-directed learning facilitators can track progress for each student.
Last updated bySean Anderson on September 20, 2023
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