The Opportunity—and Threat—of Self-Directed Learning

BY Celisa Steele


Self-directed learning isn't always easy.

A few weeks ago I learned about Blake Boles and Zero Tuition College (which you can learn more about in a five-minute video by Boles). Boles challenges college education specifically—why pay $20,000 a year for the “opportunity” to accumulate a sizable debt and graduate with unsure job prospects? why not invest that money and time instead in self-directed learning experiences, like travel, one-on-one tutoring, etc.?—but it doesn’t take much imagination to see his point applies beyond the college campus, to organizations in the business of lifelong learning.

Why should I pay for a membership and to attend an annual conference when I might better spend the same money on books and coaching sessions with a mentor to achieve personal and professional goals?

Yes, CEUs Are a Factor But Not a Magic Bullet

If you’re in a field with licensing or certification requirements, you might argue that the need for CEUs (which I use here generically to cover also CPE, CLE, CME, etc.) answers the question. That is, people will come to you because they have to.

But there are at least two points to consider if you think CEUs completely answer the “why you” question:

  • Options for CE are burgeoning—in other words, competition has grown. Are you the sole source for CE? Even if you can say yes now, how long can you reasonably expect that to be the case? And, once individuals meet their CE requirements, the sky is the limit on where they can go to learn more.
  • Do you want people coming to you because they have to or because they want to? In this era of abundant competition, brand loyalty is an incredible asset, and that loyalty is an emotional connection, not something you can command.

What Andragogy Says About Self-Directedness

We’ve written on this blog about the “rub” of andragogy. Malcolm Knowles believed that adults want—and need—to be seen and treated as self-directed learners. But many adult learners don’t know how to be self-directed because their prior learning experience (in the K-12 teacher- and curriculum-centric pedagogical model) didn’t prepare them to participate.

Knowles and his collaborators wrote in more recent editions of The Adult Learner: “The minute adults walk into an activity labeled ‘education,’ ‘training,’ or anything synonymous, they hark back to their conditioning in their previous school experience, put on their dunce hats of dependency, fold their arms, sit back, and say ‘teach me.’”

Your Organization’s Role in Facilitating Self-Direction

Don’t let your learners put on their dunce hats. More than ever, learners must think strategically about how they build their professional skills and knowledge over the course of their career. You have to recognize self-direction as an inherent need of adult learners and help those learners clearly see where your organization fits in the strategy.

Helping learners see where the organization fits in means, of course, that the organization understands how it fits in, which will require new thinking and throwing out old approaches. For example, organizations need to give up the idea of being a one-stop shop for their learners. That’s an antiquated notion in today’s information-everywhere reality that makes it easier than ever for adults to direct their own learning.

But the other side of the information-everywhere reality is that learners need help in finding their direction. If your organization doesn’t play the role of guide, then you’re not helping your learners as much as you could—and you’re leaving a lot to chance in your own business strategy.



P.S. See also: 15 Ways of the Successful Self-Directed Learner

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