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Self-directed Learning, Motivation, and Confirmation Bias

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

On a muggy afternoon after a snack of smoothies and banana bread, I uncoiled the hose in my backyard to fill up the wading pool for my kids. That’s when we discovered that at some point during the on-and off heavy rains of the previous week, tadpoles took up residence in the pool. If you can look past the primary colored plastic mold of the pool, you can see how a mother frog would think it was the perfect pond for egg laying. Stagnant rain water, grass clippings, fallen mango tree leaves, and a couple of drowned beetles in the shade of a full mango tree made for a perfect little habitat. The neglected pool became a pond.

Our tadpole discovery inspired a self-directed learning adventure. My older child explored and led her own learning by asking questions: "How did they get her? Where’s their mommy? Are they fish? What’s that green stuff?" My younger child explored in his way by poking his stick in the water, watching the tadpoles dart away from the tip, and asking again and again, “Fish? Fish?” I responded to their questions with my own questions, which were really just paraphrases of their questions: "Are they fish? How did they get here without a river or stream leading into the pool? Why do we think they look like fish? What is different about them that makes us question whether they really are fish?" A quick internet search turned up a few helpful sites and diagrams about juvenile animals that might suddenly appear in a wading pool, including tadpoles. After examining a few images of tadpoles, my older child concluded that they were indeed tadpoles.

Our inquiry proceeded in this fashion over the next several days. We wondered what kind of frog or toad they might be, how long it would take them to grow up, and what they eat. Most importantly, we wondered if we could transplant them to a different "pond" so that we could use the pool!

I have found that adults often learn in much the same way -- through self-directed inquiry. In my formal education and studies of adult learners, and through my personal experiences as an adult learner, I have seen again and again how powerful it can be to have a chance encounter with something interesting, and then dive into it to learn more. Full transparency: I was an English major in college and I am about to defend a PhD dissertation on school leadership. I have done a lot of reading in my life. But more times than I care to count I have awoken drooling into the spine crease of a book after falling sound asleep out of shear boredom. I have NEVER before devoured books and articles the way I am now. In this moment, all of my learning is 100% self-directed as I prepare to open Cocoplum. I can't read fast enough to satisfy my hunger to learn more. I want to know about all of the nature and forest schools that ever existed. I want to read all of the research about risky play, environmental education, leadership for ecological sustainability, and on and on.

Behold, my growing book stack!

When Daniel Pink in "Drive" writes about motivation, he describes how all people, regardless of age or culture or context, are most motivated when they have autonomy over choosing their tasks, the technique to use for the tasks, the time when they do tasks, and the team they work with -- the four Ts. In our tadpole inquiry and in my nature school leadership inquiry, my children and I had complete autonomy over the four Ts. We were working at the height of motivation.

As all classroom teachers, parents, and managers know, without motivation, nothing is possible. To learn, (really learn, not just memorize for a test, but to create new brain synapses and permanently modify one's way of thinking or develop new skills) we must feel motivated. Teachers, parents, and managers can try offering extrinsic motivators, like extra recess for high test scores, or dessert to reward vegetable eating, or a cash bonus for exceeding a sales goal. Extrinsic motivators work to an extent, but they're nowhere near as powerful as intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivators lose their appeal, they're not always consistently applied, and they're often disconnected from the task itself. Self-directed learning solves the motivation problem because the drive to learn comes from within.

Motivation is high during self-directed learning, but so is a less desirable cognitive process known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new information in a way that fits what we already know or believe.

Photo credit: Meehan, Kieran on

When we direct our own learning, we have the tendency to read books and engage in experiences that go along with things we already know and believe. For example, I already know about and believe in the power of learning outdoors and the benefits of risky play. During my learning pursuits, as Fernanda and I prepare to open Cocoplum, I am selecting books and activities that confirm my biases. And, as is human nature, I'm prone to dismiss as erroneous anything that I might read or experience that could challenge my pre-existing notions. In this way, confirmation bias serves to inhibit learning. Self-directed learning in the absence of a coach, mentor, or teacher is not adequate for challenging our existing mental models and pushing us to know and do better.

Without my guidance, my older child may well have concluded that the little creatures flitting around her wading pool were fish. After all, they were swimming around under water. And without the guidance of my mentors, co-founder, and Board members, I might inadvertently overlook information that I'll need to be an effective nature school administrator.

I'll channel Aesop now, and conclude this post with the moral of the story: Self-directed inquiry inspires intrinsic motivation which is vital for learning, but it must be done with the help of a knowledgable and skilled guide who can challenge the learner to avoid confirmation bias and to truly learn and grow.

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