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Why self-directed learning doesn’t really work

In this blog post, you can read some essential recommendations to consider when you start with self-directed learning.

Blog Posts
Why self-directed learning doesn’t really work
February 6, 2024
Why self-directed learning doesn’t really work

While self-directed learning does offer empowerment, autonomy, and alignment with today's dynamic work environments, its effectiveness is often questionable.

Why? Because what professionals choose to learn may not align with what they actually need to learn for their roles…

Instead, it’s important not only to ensure that learning journeys are tailored to the specific job roles but also are relevant and applicable, aligning with both career and business goals.

However, if self-directed learning is your chosen path, it's crucial to approach it strategically.

To that end, here are some essential recommendations for you to consider when you start with self-directed learning.

What is self-directed learning?

In the book Evidence Informed Learning Design, Mirjam Neelen and Paul Kirschner define self-directed learning as a “meta-cognitive process in which learners take the initiative to diagnose their own learning needs, formulate goals, select and perform tasks, and evaluate their performance.”

Imagine a scenario where each team member says, “I can choose what I learn and how to learn it.” This autonomy is not just empowering; it’s transformative.

But, self-directed learning isn't just about throwing resources or programmes at your team. It's more nuanced and requires a supportive environment to flourish.

Challenges to self-directed learning

Before embracing self-directed learning you must recognise some of the obstacles that can get in the way

  • Cultural readiness: Is your organisation’s culture aligned with self-directed learning, or is it still anchored in the ‘training will solve the problem’ mindset. Self-directed learning still requires support, opportunities to practice and feedback from others.
  • Identifying and evaluating needs is a skill: L&D professionals find it challenging to pinpoint and assess learning needs so how can we expect individuals to do it effectively?
  • Dunning Kruger effect: Few people know the most effective ways to learn and most of us overestimate our skills in learning (or anything else - the Dunning Kruger effect) and because of that we may waste time and energy on ineffective activities.
  • Fun vs. functional learning: It's common to mistake enjoyable learning for impactful learning; so we do what we enjoy like watching videos rather than the harder but more useful task of practising.
  • Balancing operational demands: Training is often ‘kicked back’ because of operational pressures and it’s even more likely to be the case for informal, self-directed learning that hasn’t been sanctioned by the boss or cost money to rent a hotel or buy the lunch.

Our recommendations

So, how do you implement self-directed learning successfully in your organisation?

  • Develop and mature your learning culture: Connect continuous learning and growth to organisational needs like agility, innovation, performance, productivity.
  • Showcase learning leaders:  Illuminate senior or influential people who actively engage in learning, admit to failure and willingly share their knowledge or expertise. Make sure managers know how to guide, give effective feedback and support practice and reflection.
  • Make learning progress visible: progress is motivating so show people how to measure and track their progress and keep their outcomes in mind.
  • Safeguard learning time: Share the impact and benefits and encourage people to recognise and safeguard time dedicated to learning.
  • Teach effective learning techniques: Educate team members to find out about how they really learn – what works and what doesn’t.
  • Focus on developing strengths: Encourage people to enhance skills that energise and motivate them because they are far more likely to stick at it

Whilst self-directed learning offers significant advantages, its success depends on creating the right environment, understanding its complexities, and implementing effective strategies to overcome potential obstacles.

Recommended further reading about self-directed learning

Evidence Informed Learning Design -  Mirjam Neelen and Paul Kirschner

Neuroscience for Learning and Development - Stella Collins

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