Self-Directed Learning Definitions

It occurred to me recently that, while I have been writing and talking about self-directed learning for years, this is not a familiar term to many in education. Or, even if people have a general sense of the term, they are not necessarily informed about the broader conversation and understanding of the term. As such, I would be wise to take a couple steps back and offer a couple self-directed learning definitions. At first glance, self-directed learning could be interpreted as solitary learning, independent learning, teacher-less learning, and a dozen other things. It can include any of those elements and more, but it is also a concept that has relevance whether you are exploring learning outside of formal learning organizations, learning in traditional schools, as well as the myriad of learning communities in various alternative schools.

To help dispel myths and generate more productive conversation about the value of self-directed learning, this article is focused on defining our terms, or at least getting familiar with two solid self-directed learning definitions. Both are by thought leaders in this area. The first is by Malcolm Knowles, is over 40 years old, and originally has adult learners in mind. The second has a history as well, but it is more current and has a broader set of learners in mind.

“Broadly, as a process in which individuals take the initiative with or without the help of other[s], to diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select and implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes.” – Malcolm Knowles, 1975

Knowles popularized a common definition for self-directed learning, and his definition is still the most quoted one in the academic literature. He used it to focus on his primary area of interest, adult learning. Some used his writing and ideas for younger learners, but that was not the target audience. For decades (and even today), some argued that this concept of self-directed learning is better suited for the adult learner, that younger learners are neither capable nor developmentally ready for doing what Knowles describes in this definition.

In more recent conversations about self-directed learning, some argue that this is an “approach” to teaching that is better suited for gifted and talented learners. This is why starting with Knowles is important because his definition and application was certainly not focused upon some small, élite group of minds. It was a concept applied to a broad set of adult learners ranging from formal higher education to continuing education, informal learning, and continuing education and community education.

If we look at Knowles’ definition as representing a spectrum, we can see that an environment need not be entirely self-directed or absent of self-direction. It is possible for learners and teachers to partner on identifying learning needs, setting goals, planning the learning experiences and monitoring progress toward learning. In one circumstance,  the teacher might set the goals and plan out each detail of the learning activities and the assessments.  In another, the learners might have some input on one of those elements. In yet another context or at the “right time”, the learner might be a true partner with the teacher and classmates in designing one or more of those elements. And finally, at a time and context of great learner independence, the learner might be in full or nearly full control, using the teacher simply as a guide or coach on occasion. As such, we can benefit from thinking about degrees of self-directed learning and not just labeling something as self-directed or not.

Advocates of self-directed learning argue that at least creating a progression toward this type of learner independence is important. It represents a collection of skills that are valuable, sometimes critical, for independence and a high degree of agency in the rest of life. Most people agree with this idea. Where we disagree is in considering the best pathway(s) to helping learners become independent and more self-directed.

A common myth related to defining self-directed learning is that it is somehow inherently anti-teacher. In a sense, that is correct on one far side of the self-directed learning spectrum. Yet, for many, even most, that is not how it works. In a chapter in The Sourcebook of Self-Directed Learning (edited by Rothwell and Sensenig), Hiemstra explains it this way when writing about self-directed learning in training environments. “SDL calls for trainers to adopt new roles. SDL does not mean that trainers are superfluous and that trainees should learn everything in a sink-or-swim manner. Instead, in SDL, trainers enact such important roles as: facilitator, enabling agent, and resource agents.

Adding a stronger editorial comment to this, my greatest concern is not when formal education is heavily teacher-centered, but when there is no intentional planning or vision for helping learners progress toward independence. This is a short-sighted and short-term approach to education that is only concerned with what students “need to learn” about a given content area and not how to equip learners to grow as self-regulated, self-motivated lifelong learners. Learning how to learn, the joy of learning, and developing effective habits as a learner are important enough to call for a national conversation.

This is important whether we are teaching elementary school children or teaching doctoral students. As an example, consider the difference in quality between doctoral programs. Some programs only accept highly self-directed learners. Others accept capable but dependent learners, but don’t help them progress toward the independence needed to thrive on a thesis or dissertation (having a high non-completion rate). Still others have changed doctoral programs to make them more step-by-step, helping people finish well but never really learning how to be a self-regulated and independent researcher and scholar.  They graduate with a terminal degree and are not much more self-directed than when they started.

Another helpful definition for self-directed learning comes from Maurice Gibbons.

“Self-directed learning is any increase in knowledge, skill, accomplishment or personal development that an individual selects and brings about by his or her own efforts, using any method, in any circumstances, at any time.” – Maurice Gibbons

This is a less tactical definition than what we see in Knowles definition but they certainly have similarities. What they have in common is that self-directed learning is about the learner having competence and confidence to not just be a passive recipient of learning, but to be an active agent, even the director of one’s own learning. What I appreciate about Gibbons’ definition is that it contrasts self-directed learning with other forms of learning by focusing upon one key component. It is by the learner’s “own efforts.” At the same time, the “any circumstances, at any time” part of the definition allows us to recognize that self-directed learning is not limited to one context or setting, one type of school or program. The self-directed learner can make use of any method or circumstance, including traditional teacher-directed learning environments. What makes it self-directed is that the learner “selects and brings about, “the increase in knowledge, accomplishment or personal development.”

I’ve never spoken directly with Gibbons about this, but his definition itself has the breadth to help us see self-directed learning as starting with agency. The learner is the agent, not just a recipient. In mandatory K-12 public school settings, this might be difficult to see. Yet, even in such mandatory settings, the enlightened learner can still recognize that she has final say on what, if, how, and why she learns. She might choose to submit to the instructions and guidance of a teacher. She might not. She might also blend some of her own goals and strategies with that of the teacher. Some learners do not perceive this as a choice. This might seem like splitting hairs, but learner choice is always present in learning environments (unless that environment is using manipulation or brain-washing strategies).

Both of these definitions give us a helping starting point for thinking and talking about self-directed learning. As with most terms in education, there is not uniform agreement or universal usage of a single definition. Yet, these two provide enough clarity for us to have fruitful conversations and to consider how we might nurture or at least leave room for the growth and development of self-direction.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. 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), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.