Thursday, November 15, 2012

Supporting Self-Directed Learners

The fact that people can and do learn on their own, without the aid of an educator, is no secret. However, in the 70s and 80s, researchers began exploring the possibility of instructors facilitating self-directed learning among their students. This formalized self-directed learning (SDL) was pioneered by the educational theorists Malcolm Knowles, Allen Tough, and Cyril Houle. The methods within SDL that have developed over time have become quite popular in today’s institutions of higher learning. The goals of the person facilitating this learning are to help learners be self-directed, and to encourage transformation and social action (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).
            A lot of self-directed learning is already going on in our society. So, what can we do more intentionally to direct that in our work and life? The answer to this question will vary from institution to institution and person to person, based on the roles and resources at your facility. One method is to simply ask the right questions. Part of the interior design of the facility and/or promotional materials can ask questions to stimulate people into reflective thought or conversation, such as “What do you want to be when you grow up?” or “ What do you still need to do to get from where you are to where you want to be?” or whatever practical or deep philosophical questions you come up with. Another option is to design student activities that allow the learners to make choices about what they want the goal of the activity to be and, then, challenge them to decide how they want to achieve it. This has been creatively done in middle schools in Bloomington, Indiana, with an activity that could easily be changed to suit a theme relevant to adult students. The activity is called Reality Store and is provided to the middle schools via The Franklin Initiative. Businesspeople from the community come to the school and work tables, each representing a different item adults spend money on (housing, groceries, child care, etc.). Students are given a certain amount of money based on their grade point average. They have to budget that money by getting all the things they need, and then, they can upgrade or buy extras if they have any money left over. It’s a powerful life lesson for the students. They can decide whatever life they want to have, but it has to fit into a realistic income potential for them based on where they are academically. How could you adapt this type of activity for the learners with whom you work?


Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., and Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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