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What’s involved in successful self-directed learning?

It’s a tragic fact that most of us know only how to be taught;
we haven’t learned how to learn.
–  Malcolm Knowles

I’ve been writing about various aspects of self-directed learning for years here on Mission to Learn, but I’ve noticed recently there seems to be a bit more of a general “buzz” around the topic. That got me thinking that I should offer up some perspectives on what is actually involved in being an effective self-directed learner.

A key source for such perspectives is Malcolm Knowles, considered by many to be the seminal figure in the field of adult learning. In this post, I “riff” on five essential aspects of self-directed learning that Knowles discusses in his 1975 book Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers.

1. Establishing a climate of trust

Knowles starts Self-Directed Learning with the idea of “setting a climate” for learning. This is a deceptively simple but critical step. To learn effectively, we must trust ourselves. We must develop a mindset conducive to being an effective learner and embrace a “degree of responsibility.” We must also develop practices that enable us to gauge the authenticity and trustworthiness of our teachers and other sources of learning. Without this foundation, the pursuit of self-directed learning is very difficult, and I suspect it is because a “climate of trust” is never established that so many efforts at self-directed learning fail or never get started in the first place.

2. Understanding the “why” of self-directed learning

We are always learning, whether consciously or unconsciously, but the “directed” aspect of self-directed learning suggests a motivation, a purpose, a sense of “why.” The effective self-directed learner actively seeks to understand her own motivations and purposes. As Leo Babauta (Zen Habits) has argued effectively in a number of places, motivation trumps discipline when it comes to learning habits. For Knowles, the motivations for self-directed learning run very deep, and extend beyond the individual learner. As he puts it:

the “why” of self-directed learning is survival (emphasis added) – your own survival as an individual, and also the survival of the human race. Clearly we are not talking here about something that would be nice or desirable; neither are we talking about some new educational fad. We are talking about a basic human competence – the ability to learn on one’s own – that has become a prerequisite for living in this new world [16-17]

I make essentially the same point in 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner, but it is worth noting that the prescient Knowles wrote these words more than 30 years ago.

3. Understanding the “what” of self directed learning

If the “why” of self-directed learning is focused on the “directed” part of the equation, the “what” is focused on “self.” There is a tendency to view self-directed learning as something that happens in isolation; as something in opposition to “teacher-directed” learning. This is a false opposition.

Even as self-directed learners, we are reliant on our networks, on our connections with others. And, as Knowles stresses, there are plenty of instances in which we can benefit from formal, teacher-directed learning. Effective self-directed learners recognize when the assistance of a teacher will be of value, but – and this is an essential point – “they will enter into “those taught-learning situations in a searching, probing frame of mind and will exploit them as resources for learning without losing their self-directedness.” [21] In other words, they retain their sense of “self” as well as their underlying motivation and purpose for learning.

4. Developing the necessary competencies

This is the area of self-directed learning to which I dedicate most of 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner. As with most pursuits in life, being a successful self-directed learner requires a certain degree of conscious effort and practice. We must learn to be good learners.

For our most focused efforts, this includes understanding things like how to develop appropriate, measurable learning objectives for ourselves, how to identify strategies for achieving these objectives, and how to interact with others effectively to learn and help them learn. I believe it also involves developing knowledge in less obvious areas like sleep, diet, and exercise as well as in the practice of reflection as a habit. In any case, we need to shed the notion that we emerge from our formal systems of schooling with no need to further develop ourselves as learners. In a world that changes as rapidly as ours does, there is no way we could expect this to be the case. We must continually, consciously develop our abilities to learn.

5. Creating a “learning contract”

This last one could be characterized as the “when the rubber hits the road” aspect of Knowles’ perspective on lifelong learning. He advocates creating a “binding agreement” with yourself – an actual document that articulates a clear goal, objectives, and measures and to which you will hold yourself accountable. I’d argue that this level of formal structure is not required for all – or even most learning – but remember that here we are dealing specifically with learning that is directed, even if you are doing the directing. Setting clear goals, objectives, and measures is essential if you truly want to reach – and know you have reached – the destination toward which you have directed yourself.


So, how are you doing on those five points? What else do you think is involved in being an effective self-directed learner? Please comment and share your thoughts.


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