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Who Is Self-Directed Learning Really For?

Who Is Self-Directed Learning Really For?

There's an interesting buzz around the world of learning right now, a returning interest that makes me both excited and concerned. The idea of self-directed learning seems to be becoming a prominent and popular theme once again, allowing adults in our organisations to take the initiative and responsibility for their own learning. My excitement comes from a lifetime as a professional educator who has always tried to encourage, and always taken pride in, individuals taking responsibility for their own learning. My concern is around a nagging cynicism that adopting this approach to corporate learning is more about easing pressure on under-resourced L+D functions than any belief that it is a better way to achieve organisational learning goals.   


This month in the UK, we've recently come through Learning at Work Week, with 2024 taking the theme of 'Learning Power', with a triple focus on the powers to grow, connect and engage. This is a great initiative, bringing together the L+D community to consider how this theme can be applied to positive effect across organisations by fostering inclusive learning. There's a strong emphasis on utilising internal expertise and assets to encourage and share learning, exploiting untapped pockets of knowledge in formal and informal learning activities. Yet if I allow my cynical side to dominate it's entirely possible to view this as a shift away from a dependency on expensive external resources, a cheaper way of filling a learning activity calendar with events and activities. I try hard not to let this be the way I see these initiatives, but to satisfy myself that these measures are being adopted as a learner-centric approach I have to look hard at one particular dimension:


To what extent are learners being given full and progressive support to understand, extend and utilise their own learning power?


The thinking behind this question is that if learners don't understand how they learn best, and what's getting in the way of them learning better, then expecting them to be able to select and manage their engagement with sources of learning is not a reasonable approach.


Human learning is a complex and extremely individualised phenomenon that requires a great deal of insight to understand and direct. Pragmatically we can't expect every L+D practitioner to have the depth of understanding needed to define how any individual learns best - but the fact is that practitioners are not alone in seeking that definition - the learner themselves can become a part of what is an experiential process. So, the shift to self-directed learning has at its core a shift in the focus of the supporting practitioner - they have a different job to do and it's a job that is fundamental to the success of the new approach. 


There are two stages in this new job. The first is to work intensively with the learners to help them understand their own learning power and their own preferred learning processes. The second is to engage in an ongoing dialogue with the individual learner to facilitate their efforts to develop and extend their learning. 


Given my own background and experience I'd always say that this first stage is best achieved through exposure to experiential activities that are subsequently reviewed with considerable emphasis on understanding the role of learning in achieving the outcome. For example, if a group has just completed a session using Simbols or Colourblind I'd be including in my review questions such as "What was different about how people described their shapes/tiles towards the end as compared to first efforts?" or "How did you filter what you were hearing to select the information that was relevant to you?" The answers will be specific to their experience of the activity, so I'll be looking to follow up by asking individuals to project this forward by recording their 'learning about learning' takeaways.


The second stage can also be supported by shared experiential activities, but the focus needs to be on learning that can be taken from, and applied to, the world outside of the classroom. Everyday learning, workplace learning, interpersonal learning etc are all sources that feed into the development of the learning power that has been defined and given a vocabulary in stage one. The role of the practitioner is to help the learner progressively become more adept at manipulating the world to offer them the learning they need, a task made infinitely simpler by having the individual keep a learning-diary and giving them the time to make considered entries.


To conclude, I hope that I've dispelled the idea that moving to self-directed learning reduces the load on L+D, if anything it makes the job more intense by shifting the emphasis to the level of the individual. What I hope to have illustrated is that the potential rewards also shift towards the individual, giving them a set of tools and insights that are the foundations of life-long learning. Speaking personally this is a much more satisfying outcome in that it translates across organisation, time, and role to be 'the gift that keeps on giving'.

If the topic of Learning Power is of interest to you then check out our Learning to Learning Package

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