In my work on self-directed learning, I have aimed to support people whose learning projects need a plan. I provide guidance on how to engage a self-directed learning process in a deliberate way so you can efficiently and effectively satisfy your deeper and longer-term learning needs. But (as I have discussed before) that’s not always the way self-directed learning works.

Buried within conceptual and research papers on self-directed learning is a smattering of telling phrases: learners take a “voyage of discovery,” within “borderless” spaces or “learning ecosystems,” relying on “digital serendipity” and “fortuitous” finds to engage in learning. Another description that is used for this kind of learning is “foraging.” Citing the evolution of our species, people point out that humans have always had a penchant for being constantly on the lookout for resources they can use for ongoing sustenance – beginning with food and other materials for survival. It seems we apply these instinctive and ingrained skills when we need to learn as well.

What foraging for learning looks like

On a recent Learning Geeks podcast, Harrison Gerald told a foraging story about learning to design 3D graphics. He decided to use a specific software that was available for free and went first to YouTube (“the educator of my generation”) to take tutorials. He learned baseline skills in a bootcamp-like course he found, then looked up more specific points (how to’s) as he had the need. He was also able to rely on a lively learning community that has gathered around the software.

Because of his background, Harrison had an artist network who could provide useful critique, and he posted to Instagram – where he got unsolicited feedback and advice. It was important to be selective about whose feedback he valued and ignore uneducated positive feedback, unkind critical feedback, and subjective artistic feedback from random people on social media. He had to be in a safe space for experimentation and failure in order to push himself to improve. Harrison’s foraging expedition included finding learning resources, practicing new skills, and learning through feedback from trusted others. Notably, his story did not include an up-front planning step.

This is indeed a terrific example of a modern learner managing his own learning path, helped by the fact that Harrison had a strong background in the field (so he knew what he needed) and he had friends and colleagues that he trusted to advise him and provide feedback.

Disadvantages of foraging for learning

Foraging relies on serendipity for its effectiveness. You hope to come across the right resources and connect with the right people. But with the vast array of possible learning resources and the overabundance of inaccurate and unhelpful content, one has to be extremely lucky to find just the right thing. It’s like foraging for food without deliberately looking for fruits and vegetables and therefore finding only greens and bugs (possibly somewhat nutritional, but not very appetizing or sustaining).

A better metaphor

Perhaps rather than foraging, we should be more consciously tracking – looking for signs that will lead us to the best learning resources. Tracking involves these actions:

  • Looking for resources from known, valued contributors in your field – professional organizations, thought leaders, sites you trust for their consistently high-quality content
  • Targeting deeper learning resources – long reads, in-depth explorations of a topic, extended podcasts and videos that are robust and nuanced
  • Following the advice of subject matter experts and other trusted advisors (asking for recommendations)
  • Digging for robust activities and human connections, not just content – seeking to include in your learning diet actions that help you to reflect on and process what you take in, to engage with others who have the skills you need, to create guidelines and job aids for yourself, to practice and apply your learning, to fine-tune your knowledge and skills through feedback

So maybe you don’t care to chart a course (make a considered plan) but instead set out on a learning journey with just a goal in mind. Using tracking skills rather than foraging skills on that journey will be more likely to lead you to the kind of rich resources and engaging learning activities that will accelerate your development. It’s not that foraging can’t result in good finds, it’s just that tracking will help you turn up real sustenance. Happy hunting.


Also in the Charting Your Course for 2022 series, all about effective self-directed learning:

For help with planning a self-directed learning project, see Charting Your Course.