Seven Laws of the Self-directed Learner

In 1888, John Milton Gregory published The Seven Laws of Teaching, providing instruction on what contributes to being an effective teacher.  While this list is over a hundred years old, most readers today will resonate with this list of laws. This is one of a dozen or so books that I try to read each year.  It is a short read that one can usually finish in a few hours.  As I picked up the book to read again today, I started to think about these laws in terms of self-directed learning, rewriting the laws from a self-directed learning perspective (which, by the way, fits nicely with law #7).  Below is the original list of “elements” from which Gregory devised his seven laws.  Using these as a starting point, I revised them to create the seven elements of a self-directed learner, adding one additional item that did not seem to have adequate emphasis in Gregory’s original list (although it is embedded within several of them).

Gregory’s original seven elements of teaching:

1. A teacher must be one who Knows the lesson or truth to be taught.

2. A learner is one who attends with interest to the lesson given.

3. The language used as a medium between teacher and learner must be common to both.

4. The lesson to be learned must be explicable in the terms of truth already known by the learner — the unknown must be explained by the known.

5. Teaching is arousing and using the pupil’s mind to form in it a desired conception or thought.

6. Learning is thinking into one’s own under standing a new idea or truth. re-knowing, and re-producing of the knowledge taught.

7. The test and proof of teaching done — the finishing and fastening process — must be a re-viewing, re-thinking, re-knowing, and re producing of the knowledge taught.

Seven elements of the self-directed learner:

1. Everyone (including the self) and everything is a teacher. This is not limited to humans. Experiences, books, online and face-to-face communities, practice, thought experiments, personal reflection, and the observed world can all serve as teachers for the self-directed learner. The self-directed learner strives to identify and learn from the teachers that can best assist with the desired lesson, skill, question, problem, or project.

2. A self-directed learner establishes the desired learning goal and attends to pursuing and achieving that goal. The lesson is not given as much as it is created.

3. The self-directed learner learns the languages and discourses necessary to reach the desired learning goal. Many of the “teachers” that the self-directed learner seeks to leverage will use a different vocabulary, unfamiliar examples and illustrations, and patterns of speech and thought that may seem confusing at times.  The self-directed learner seeks to become adept at learning how to learn these new languages and ways of thinking, making meaningful connections between her own current speech and thought and that of the many “teachers” that she may use along the way.

4. The self-directed learner builds cognitive bridges between what she already knows and can do and what she aspires to know and do. Sometimes other “teachers” help the self-directed learner to build these bridges, but she considers it her responsibility to seek and make connections that help her to achieve her learning goal(s).

5. The self-directed learner aspires to learn how to motivate herself and what motivates her.  She uses these lessons to meet her desired learning goals.

6. The self-directed learner strives to embody the new knowledge or skill. The goal is for her to own the lesson, for it to become a part of her thoughts and actions. She communicates the ideas in her own words and her own ways.

7. The self-directed learner reviews, refines, and re-creates what she learns. Once a learning goal is achieved, she returns to it, reviews what she learned, and uses it to learn and create new knowledge and skill.

8. The self-directed learner establishes feedback loops that give her insight on whether she is progressing toward the desired learning goal(s). This might be feedback from self, mentors, peers, or any number of non-human feedback sources.


Posted in blog, education, heutagogy, self-directed learning

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.