I have a problem with the use of the term ‘self-directed learning’. Or more precisely, the misuse of the term, certainly as it relates to formal programmes of study as defined by United Kingdom (QAA) and New Zealand qualifications authorities (NZQA), and others. The casual use of vernacular language to define specific concepts is a constant problem for me. I would prefer if we would use the term ‘independent learning’, which is more accurate.
In my worldview, self-directed learning has a specific definition. Based on the work of Malcolm Knowles , self-directed learning requires the learner to have the freedom to decide what outcomes they intended and the resources and the path they will travel to gain the learning. Knowles’s own definition was that “In its broadest meaning self-directed learning describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” (Knowles, 1975, p. 18). My emphasis.
There is an important distinction to be made here between formal, non-formal, informal, and incidental learning. Formal, non-formal and informal learning all have intentionality, the learner intends to learn something. That distinguishes it from incidental learning, which is gained ‘accidentally’, without the learner intending to learn anything. Formal and non-formal learning can be distinguished from informal learning because both forms have some structure, some curriculum, and some prescribed learning goals (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2012).
It's important to make this distinction because so much of the commentary on the web, and even in the academic literature, journals, books and YouTube or LinkedIn videos conflate these concepts.
Clearly, any programme or course that has a defined curriculum, which accounts for most of the learning that takes place in schools, colleges, polytechnics, and universities, has learning goals, or outcomes, prescribed. This makes it literally impossible for the student to be ‘self-directed’. Self-directed is, by definition, learning where the individual decides for themselves what their curriculum is going to be and what the outcome of their learning will be. Self-directed learning cannot be non-formal or formal learning because both forms have curriculum already prescribed.
I would advocate that there are three modalities of learning applicable to contemporary formal (and non-formal) education. These three are taught, guided, and independent learning. Taught modality requires relatively close proximity to the instructor. Using Vygotskyian language, ‘taught’ constitutes the in inner space within the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) close to the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). ‘Guided’ still requires close attention to the voice of the MKE but can be experienced at a distance, spatially and temporally, but is still closely following a predetermined path. ‘Independent’ study may deviate to varied degrees from the voice of the MKE, encouraging students to explore their own learning context, real-world experiences or identifying multiple voices from which to learn, but all within a prescribed learning journey with predetermined outcomes in mind.
We can encourage students to explore specific learning resources and activities more independently of the tutor’s gaze and away from other students. This is independent study. This is likely still to be guided by the teacher with an agreed set of outcomes in mind, it is just not taught learning.
We would serve the learning community better if we talk about self-directed learning only in the context of informal learning. Self-directed learning requires the individual to decide for themselves the outcomes they want to achieve. When we are talking about learners doing their own thing in the context of formal and non-formal programmes of study, we should describe that as 'independent study' or 'independent learning '.
I would like to see national qualifications authorities to adopt these distinctions. ‘Taught’ implies face-to-face real-time encounters between learners and teachers. ‘Guided’ is more suitable for time-displaced and distance learning, but still requires students to follow the lead by the voice of the MKO. Independent learning is still restricted by the agreed outcomes but allows the student to move away from the voice of the teacher and to make autonomous decisions as to best achieve the prescribed outcomes. There is no place for self-directed learning in formal and non-formal education.
Disclaimer: this post represents a personal view and in no way represents the views of any institution with which I am, or have been, associated.
Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed Learning: A guide for learners and teachers. Association Press.
UNESCO Institute for Statistics. (2012). International standard classification of education: ISCED 2011. UNESCO Institute for Statistics. http://www.uis.unesco.org/Education/Documents/isced-2011-en.pdf