Why Is Self-Directed Learning So Important?

What does it mean to be an educator? It means we help people learn what is not yet known to them. To do that we must have a willing learner on the other side. Educators and Managers cannot do the work, or the learning, for another. What they offer are the skills, expertise, and experience. Learners themselves come to learning with their experiences and their curiosity.

I have had the pleasure of educating people since age 15 at my first job with McDonald’s and over the next 35 years, I created training programs and trained people on process and software in many industries and around the world. I earned my Master’s degree in Adult Education and Training in 2012. Most recently, I worked as the Director of Training with Bold Group.

Those of us who studied educational principles learned about the two terms “pedagogy” and “andragogy.” Pedagogy, in its simplest form, is the education of children. Pedagogy, historically, was teacher-centered. The students received lectures and were expected to absorb the information. Think of the theaters of universities and medical schools in the early 20th century. This is learning directed at the learner. Even when the practice looks at being student-centered, there is still a strict and top-down design. When I think of pedagogy, I visualize Socrates standing in his robes with the other men surrounding him rapt by his words.

Andragogy, on the other hand, introduced by Malcolm Knowles, is the education of adults. This theory is based on the belief that adult learners may direct their learning. That their life experience informs their learning and adults have the capacity to seek out and obtain their learning without direct input from instructors.

Even children want to have possession over their learning. How many times have you observed a three-year-old exclaim, “Let me do it!”? Children are natural scientists. They hypothesize that mom, or dad, will pick up their spoon when they drop it off their highchair table, and they discover that indeed they do. So, they repeat the experiment again and again until the adult stops playing the game.

Why should you care about that within your organization?

Any of your staff members that are demonstrating curiosity toward their jobs and their careers are dedicated to not only themselves…they are dedicated to their company’s success.

YouTube is the world’s largest Learning Management System. If a person has a desire to learn how to change the oil in their 1980 Chevy, they can search for that and find a plethora of videos that walk through how to do it. No one asked them to go find that learning. They sought it out themselves based on their need. That is self-directed learning.

YouTube has 2 billion active users every day worldwide and over 90% of people 18 to 44 use the platform regularly. While many are seeking content that is related to entertainment, a good number are seeking how to complete a task. A simple Google search for “Excel how to…” returns 52 million results. People are seeking knowledge and here, today, we have much more at our fingertips.

Every industry is experiencing continual technological changes at higher rates than ever before. No employee is going to have all the skills needed to execute all that a job entails, which means that they will need to learn some things as a part of their job. Even your smartest and most capable employee has gaps in their knowledge. These are also the people who are more likely to, individually, seek out new information to close those gaps. The question is… are you encouraging this for all within your organization, or are you creating “learned helplessness” by controlling how and when your team consumes training content? Forcing your team to rely solely on others for their learning and information allows for the excuse that they never received what they needed to execute their work. This creates risk for the company, the customer, and the employee.

As a manager of a monitoring center several years ago, I created a Wiki and provided access to as many resources as I could for my team, so that if I wasn’t available, they had the information they needed to make a reasoned and informed decision. When they came to me with questions, I responded with “where did you go to get your answer before coming to me?” If they came directly to me, and it wasn’t an emergent situation, I would send them back to their resources. I did this to “teach them to fish.” Yes, it was uncomfortable and sometimes even frustrating to them, but the sheer act of having to go through the struggle of finding an answer increases a learner’s retention. This is because they are most often able to apply what they learned immediately and even may share it with others. This is perceived as active learning. Being told a solution is passive.

I also let my team know that they would not be in trouble for a bad decision if they could describe their process and how they came to it. If the decision was due to a gap of knowledge, we would work to close the gap. If the issue was due to a failed procedure, we would shore it up to prevent the problem from happening again. My team was safe to learn from their mistakes.

Learning is often a challenge, even painful. As children, we learn the stove is hot, not because our parents told us this but by touching a hot stove. The pain of the burn is forever in our bodies as something to avoid from that point on. Some learn through experience, and others learn through observation, and each learning style that people ascribe to themselves only works in conjunction with the others. Some may think they are Kinesthetic learners, but they must also have to have visual and/or auditory clues to act. No learning solely works within a vacuum.

According to a recent article from Gallup.com “A true learning culture goes beyond programs, courses or practices. It requires leaders and managers to actively support and role model ongoing learning. In this culture, learning cannot be differentiated from behaving.” Learning cultures look at every interaction from the “what can we learn” perspective. Many companies do this very well, but according to the Society of Human Resource Management, 90 percent of businesses have yet to learn how to look at every mistake and issue as a learning opportunity.  Which are you?

Most learning happens during the flow of one’s job. For example, a support representative receives a phone call from a customer, and the customer asks them about something they have never encountered. What does the support person do? Tell the customer, “I don’t know that, I can’t help you”? Or, do they start with their troubleshooting experience to find out what they can about this issue?  When the support person completes the call, no matter the successful solution, they learned something new.

Here are some aspects of self-directed learning:

Leverages Learner Knowledge and Experience

When a learner is self-directed, they can bypass the items that contain their existing knowledge. While reviewing what you already know helps you better understand your knowledge, it isn’t always required. Just like we all learned to tie our shoes as children, no one must teach us again how to do it. Learners can evaluate their own knowledge and work to close the gaps they know they have.

Organizing their Learning for the Greatest Impact

Self-direction allows the learner to look at disparate content and build their learning based on what is most logical for them. For example, the content creator may believe that the learner of a new software package needs the administrative items first, setting up the foundation for all the items for the users’ daily work, then step through the application of these items in the main user interface. However, the learner may believe that they need to understand what work they will do in the software before all the back-end items. This is a true “chicken and egg” dilemma. That is where the learner involvement is paramount.

More In-Depth

A learner who seeks out their learning is proven to retain more. Educational researcher Sugata Mitra conducted several experiments of self-directed learning with children and discovered that even when the learners don’t think they absorbed knowledge, they have indeed. Mitra placed biotechnology content in English on a computer in a town where the learners didn’t speak English at the time. When he returned, the students said they didn’t learn a thing… apart from improper replication of DNA causing genetic disease. His TED Talk shares his proof that when the learner is engaged, learning occurs, even if the language is not native.


Learning from one another is a great way to obtain knowledge you don’t already have. One of my favorite experiences relating to this concept was when I was working as a Project Manager and sitting side-by-side with a Conversion Technician. He wrote a query that pulled together eight tables and produced a clear list of what I was seeking. I said, “That was so cool, how did you do that?” He was kind enough to show me the basics of SQL Queries and I went off and started running my own queries. When I would get stuck, I would share my query with the tech, and often it was a comma or order of operations. I would never have learned how to write queries without collaboration.

Self-directed learning isn’t without its detractors. How does a learner know what they need to learn in the business environment? Self-direction is the goal and the organization presents the opportunity. Many times, learners work from a position of fear. They had a negative experience in school with a teacher who thwarted their belief in their own intelligence. I can’t tell you how many times I, as a trainer, have heard “I was never trained!” in response to a mistake they made. I was blessed with a manager, in my 20’s, who re-educated me when I made a costly mistake. She told me that while it was very intuitive (self-directed) to correlate one process to the one where I made a mistake, it had some important differences. She asked me what my understanding of the process was, and from there she helped me understand the differences between the two processes. I never forgot the experience, or what I learned.

A quality learning organization is going to create learning by using diverse formats and making them accessible through as many venues as possible. They allow learners to seek out and find what they need to know.

How Can Bold help?

Bold Group offers BoldU which contains almost 700 individual resources and courses that match the diverse needs of our customers. We are now adding Learning Paths to help those who would like some guidance as to which courses work best for their role within their organization.

Self-paced learning is vital for organizational success. Technology and business are constantly changing. Learning opportunities abound. We encourage you to take a look at your company and processes and see where you can do more to encourage learning.