The Power of Self-Directed Learning

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In the digital age, many young workers inherently understand self-directed learning, even if we’ve never heard the term. Who among us hasn’t used Google to solve a technical issue, or spent hours in a Wikipedia hole because we were so fascinated by the minutia of the respiratory system? Learning on your own time, at your own speed, can be as enjoyable as it is rewarding.

This is the principle that has made the Montessori education system so popular – children are given an environment with plentiful and well-supported educational opportunities, but no mandate as to what they should be learning when, or how quickly. The result is that Montessori school children consistently perform higher on standardized tests, despite deviating from the established curriculum to pursue their own desires. And the reason is simple: when we are empowered to pursue our own path to knowledge, we are more motivated to overcome roadblocks and push our own limits.

So how can this be applied to the working world?

Over four days at the Association for Talent Development International Conference and Expo, trainers and learning specialists from all over the world have come together to discuss strategies for workplace learning and talent development. I heard a lot of big ideas in my time at the conference, but one of the ones that really resonated with me was the notion that self-directed learning, if properly implemented and supported, is the surest route to ensuring all successful learning initiatives.

The learning process is often obfuscated in a lot of fancy words, despite an abundance of research. And the process for self-directed learning that has been revealed is actually quite simple:

  1. The learner identifies a learning need
  2. The learner determines how they should meet this need
  3. The learner engages in learning activities
  4. The learner determines whether the need has been satisfied

This goes against many contemporary training methodologies, where the need for learning and the satisfaction of that learning comes from outside sources. But research has demonstrated that you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to be taught. So how do you enhance the power of self-directed learners?

  1. Encourage your employees to reflect on their strengths, weaknesses, and desired areas of development. This can be done through various self-report measures, such as the EQ-i.
  2. Empower employees to take responsibility for devising their own learning through a training allowance or a dedicated period of time where they can set aside their daily work.
  3. Foster a culture of engagement by identifying a few trailblazers to try out the program, and let social norming do the rest.
  4. Commemorate the completion of a learning period by inviting your learner to share the results of their learning with their team. At my old job, we had bi-weekly pub nights at the office where one or two staff members would share something they’d recently learned. Their passion for acquiring knowledge became contagious, and the team became more engaged in their daily activities as a result.

At the bottom of all of this is the understanding that learning should be fun. Research shows that we retain more information with the help of neurotrophins associated with pleasure. We have all experienced times when learning was truly enjoyable, and we probably remember the lessons learned from that experience far better than some Canadian history dates that we memorized and regurgitated for a test. Take the best parts of your own educational journey, and use them to create remarkable experiences for your team.

By Kate Salmon (@CSCKate)
With insights from Catherine Lombardozzi’s session on Fostering a Learning Culture at ATD2015

Kate HeadshotW
I’m a communications specialist and general word nerd from Ottawa, Ontario. Upon learning that in the 21st century I could still get a degree in rhetoric, I went to the University of Waterloo to do precisely that. Now I get to continue my learning journey at Learnography, a non-profit education consulting organization that really practices its principles of continuous development. With a great team of former educators who are dedicated to creating transformative learning experiences, we are changing the face of corporate training.

I live in Toronto with my cat and my curmudgeonly but endearing roommate.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.
ksalmon@curriculum.org'

Author: Kate Salmon

Communications specialist and general word nerd from Toronto, Ontario. Upon learning that I could still get a degree in rhetoric in the 21st century, I went to the University of Waterloo to do precisely that. Now I'm continuing my learning journey at Learnography, a non-profit education consulting organization that really practices its principles of continuous development. With a great team of former educators who are dedicated to creating transformative learning experiences, we are changing the face of corporate training.

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