What is the role of a teacher in a self-directed learning environment?

What is the role of a teacher in a self-directed learning environment?  If students are self-directed, then why do they need a teacher?  The goal is for students to become increasingly independent, but self-directed learning is not about solitary learning. Similarly, while self-directed learning is about learners become increasingly independent, it does not necessarily suggest independent learning. It can be highly interdependent, collaborative, and cooperative. Furthermore, the reality is that learners in a given context will likely have varying levels of competence and confidence with self-direction, especially those who spent years in a learning context that was dominated by a teacher-directed approach to learning.  Even for students with significant confidence, a self-directed learning approach does not devalue the role of experts, mentors, coaches and guides.  Self-directed learning is more about how people learn and creating an environment where that can flourish. It elevates the role of the learner, recognizes that learning happens when the individual learner takes ownership for her own learning.

A teacher/mentor can play a valuable role as one engages in self-directed learning.  Roger Hiemstra, a scholar of adult learning and self-directed learning, addressed this question in “Self-Directed Learning: Individualizing Instruction– Most Still Do It Wrong!” In his essay, he proposes six roles: “content resource, resource locator, interest stimulator, positive attitude generator, creativity and critical thinking stimulator, and evaluation stimulator.” In other words, the teacher helps to cultivate an environment that is conducive to self-directed learning, and provides assistance for individuals and groups of learners.

Following is a paraphrase and reflection on some of Hiemstra’s six roles:

  • The teacher helps to make accessible and available rich content and resources that will benefit individual learners. This content might be digital, traditional texts, artifacts, experiential, help coordinating visits and interviews, or it might simply be conversational (content acquired through dialogue with the teacher, peers or others).
  • The teacher aids the learner as she grows in confidence and competence with information and research literacy. Googling an idea may be helpful, but there are many other valuable ways to explore a topic.  The teacher can help learners develop these skills in many ways, including coordinating opportunities for learners to share and guide one another (peer-to-peer learning).
  • The teacher provides guidance and outlets for critical thinking, brainstorming, and various types of creative thinking. Hiemstra talks about this in terms of helping learners engage in outlets that help with critical and creative thinking (different forms of journaling, reflective writing for an audience as may occur with blogging or contributing to a wiki, engaging in small group discussions, workshopping, etc.). I also see opportunity for the teacher to offer opportunities for learners to explore specific mind tools (things like the SCAMPER approach to creative thinking).
  • The teacher helps the learner to engage in an evaluative process, assisting the learner as he identifies ways to check his progress toward certain goals, and establishes ways to evaluate the benefits and limitations of his work. This can start with feedback as each learner produces a learning contract.
  • Hiemstra also describes the teacher as having a helpful role with regard to the social, emotional, and psychological aspects of the learner experience; offering experiences that might aid with motivation and confidence-building, for example.

Note that all of this can be done without turning the environment back into a teacher-directed experience.  The teacher is not doing these things to or for a learner, but providing guidance and help as the learner does them. Consider, for example, the role of a librarian. It is not to decide the research topic, conduct the research or even to formally evaluate the work of the patron. However, a great reference librarian is a tremendous guide and resource. I am not suggesting that the role of teacher and librarian are the same in a self-directed learning environment, but there are at least a few similarities. The teacher that is devoted to these tasks will have more than enough good and important work to do.  The main focus is simply upon being a guide as students grow in their capacity for self-directed learning.