Self-directed learning

by Dick Ratering

In my view, improving personal efficiency means increasing one’s grip on difficult situations in a positive way. However, existing teaching-methods for improving personal efficiency show little consistency and are sometimes based on points of departure that differ enormously. In one case, improving personal efficiency is aimed at by focusing on the development of personal power and qualities, in another case by focusing on the learning of certain skills, and in a yet another case by focusing on acquiring more knowledge, insight and awareness. The ‘either/or’- approach is a real pitfall here. It would be better to ask ourselves how the different techniques can be integrated in one approach.

Self-directed learning provides an answer to this question. The point of departure of self-directed learning is a comprehensive view on learning and the coaching of personal processes of development. The emphasis here is not on the traditional transfer of knowledge and skills, but on learning from experience in actual work-situations. It means using your heart, more than you head, in the process of learning. Not only does it give better results, it corresponds more to the way employees wish to be taught, and to the need of more self-direction that is felt by organizations. The starting point of self-directed teaching is the creation of a vital ‘learning-environment’ which allows other people to improve their personal performance in various practical situations. In this article I will describe the points of departure, the working-methods and the essential preconditions on which a successful practice of self-directed teaching is based, when aimed at improving personal efficiency in organizations.

The method of self-directed learning
Participants in a training aimed at personal efficiency will often react positively in the beginning: ‘Wonderful, I learnt a lot’, ‘Very interesting’, ‘I’m glad I came after all’. Soon little of the enthusiasm is left. ‘Oh, well, it was all quite nice, but there is little I can do with it in real life.’

Why does this kind of training yield a much poorer result than one would expect, in view of the learning efforts that have been made? Here our notions on learning play an important role. When I ask people to think about learning, in nine out of ten cases they will describe a desk in a school. Apparently, learning is still identified with the classical teaching situation in which a teacher transfers his knowledge and skills to a pupil.

It is, however, obvious that we do not learn only by the transfer of knowledge, but also from experience. It is possible to clearly distinguish between these two approaches. Transfer of knowledge implies an emphasis on content. A teacher, trainer or executive transfers the knowledge of content and the skills to somebody else: a pupil, student or employee. Learning by experience focuses much more on processes, because it puts general human (working) experience and problems of development in first position.

Learning by experience comes closest to the deeper meaning of learning:
It means following a track, not somebody else’s, but your own track. It is the type of learning one immediately recognizes in the behavior of children. They are surprised, are searching for limits, and discover the meaning of things by themselves. A toddler that has touched a hot radiator does not need to be told again what the word ‘hot’ means. With grown-ups, this may be observed in the IT-specialist setting up an internet company, or a top manager opening up new markets. Self-directed learning is based on this original sense of learning. It finds its roots in the theories of prominent scientist like Paul Freire, Carl Rogers and David Kolb, who doe not limit learning to ‘learning with one’s head’, but involve the whole person.

In its essence, self-directed learning is about ‘actively directing the learning process by establishing a meaningful link between thinking, feeling and acting while interacting with the environment’. If we take a closer look at this description, certain elements attract attention. In self-directed learning you are personally responsible for the learning process. You are not a passive follower, but you take control of the learning process yourself, aiming at changes that you want to, and are able to accept. And you will do this being fully conscious of it, which means that next to your brain, you are also using other main capabilities like perception, strength of will and feeling. Though the method of self-directed learning is, in principle, a solo action, in practice one almost never directs one’s own learning process all by oneself. On one’s way to complete maturity of self-direction, one is often consciously looking for interaction with the environment: a trainer, boss, or colleague.

The Learning Circle
In order to be able to put the elements of self-directed learning into practice, I have developed the ‘learning circle’ (see illustration 1). The circle consists of four closely connected phases of learning, which enable you to optimize the self-directed learning process.

Phase 1
In phase 1 we focus on questions with regard to concrete experiences. What is on your mind at the moment? What do you experience in a certain problematical situation? What happened exactly? What are the facts? Here you are sharing things with the other person that are really topical at this moment. They may consist of specific working experiences, or important events in your personal life: problems with a customer, a silent conflict with your partner, a disturbed relationship between two departments. Next you will choose a theme that seems prominent and that you want to deal with. To summarize, this phase consists of:
– sharing of experiences
– looking for different themes
– establishing the most vital theme

Phase 2
In Phase 2 you will use reflection as a means of freeing yourself from the everyday routine and its worries. You consciously examine the most vital theme and deepen your understanding of the situation by looking carefully at its different aspects. You will think about the origins of a problem, about contradictions within the situation and about your own barriers and limits. The aim of this phase is to discover what you really want to change and to put this into a learning question. For example: ‘How can I continue to work in the best interests of my customers, when these customers are becoming more and more bad mannered?’ To summarize, this phase is about:
– defining different aspects of the vital theme
– discovering and examining dilemma’s
– phrasing a learning question

Phase 3
In Phase 3, after a profound theoretical analysis, you will look for the best solution to your problem. You weigh up the different alternatives, and choose the option best suited to certain objectives. Once you have made up your mind, you will translate your true aim into clear agreements and concrete action. To summarize, this phase will result in:
– the discovery of solutions
– weighing up different solutions
– planning of action on the basis of an adopted solution

Phase 4
Last, but not least, phase 4: the experiment. Here we finalize the learning process that is connected to the theme that was chosen. This is an active phase in which we try to implement plans, in which you examine how solutions effect the working-situation, and in which certain changes will be made permanent. To summarize, this phase is about:
– implementing plans
– evaluation of action taken
– putting the solutions into practice

The illustration of the learning circle shows how the different steps of learning would follow each other in an ideal situation. In practice you will notice that the process does not always follow the consecutive steps of the learning circle. But then, self-directed learning is not meant as a linear description of a process, indicating exactly how you must get from a to b. Sometimes you will go back to your experience for a moment, at other times you will stop a little longer at a bottleneck, or you will advance towards a solution more quickly. Rather, the process of self-directed learning may be compared to an upward spiraling movement. A continuous process of discovery, acquiring new insights, finding solutions, taking action, and examining results, as was described above.

Coaching towards independence
Guiding self-directed learning aimed at improving personal efficiency in organizations is very much dependent on coaching as an approach. This involves, among other things, supporting and stimulating other people as they are directing their own process of learning and change. The success of this approach depends partly on being familiar with the steps of self-directed learning, and partly on the attention you pay, during your approach, to aspects like:
– attitude
– quality
– skills

As a coach you are not the ‘manager’ of the learning process, but a guide to the process and the organizer of learning situations. You adopt an attitude of service towards the other person, and you create an environment in which equality is self-evident. If you are used to being in the position of the expert and explaining to the other person what to do, it may be difficult to change you attitude in the beginning. Yet, you will have to switch from presumption to investigation, from command to support, from monologue to dialogue, from imposing to asking, that is, from one way traffic to two way traffic.

The quality of your behavior as a coach is determined to a great extent by your own depth. You cannot obtain depth from one day to the next. But you can work on it. For instance, by scrutinizing your own approach and examining your own pitfalls, preferences, automatisms, projections and unconscious strategies. The more you know yourself, the better you will be able to approach the other person with compassion, respect and sincerity, comprehend his motives and guide his learning process.

In order to set the process of self-directed learning on the right track, you will use skills like listening actively and with empathy, summarizing, probing, making things concrete, empowering, consulting, collaborating, giving support, etc. You will apply these skills in order to activate the autonomous learning ability of others and get rid of barriers that obstruct maximum learning performance. As a coach, you do not stand on the side, but you are part of the learning process. This means that you can give and receive attention in different situations.

Self-directed learning can be applied in many ways and in many different functions. For instance, an employee may discover by himself how he can improve communication, an executive how he can put forward his opinion more convincingly, a top manager how he can negotiate with more focus. Self-directed learning processes are never the same, and differ in time, speed or theme.

It makes self-directed learning at the same time a fascinating and difficult task. You will make your role as a coach easier if you are prepared to work on broadening your perception of the basic themes of individual co-workers, teams, and organizations.

Questions regarding self-development may be strongly connected to age groups. As a twenty-year-old you will obviously ask learning-questions that are different from those of someone near retirement. Learning-questions may also depend very much on a person’s relationship with the past, the present and the future. Sometimes one is taking along a lot of weight from the past, at other times the past is thrown overboard as having had its day, or the emphasis is on the future.

When the method of self-directed learning is applied in order to improve performance in personal work or in a team, those basic themes always play a bigger or smaller part. In personal work, for instance the following type of questions is addressed: What keeps me from improving my communication? What should I do to appear more convincing? How can I learn to take more initiative in the future? In a team, the important questions are: What barriers do I feel in the collaboration with others? How can I inspire other members of the team? What should I do to make my role in the team more clear?

Prerequisites for success
Self-directed learning is not a method for the fainthearted. Courage is needed to learn to steer by one’s own compass, but maturity of self-direction, too: directing oneself independently, set up and adjust learning processes, and being motivated to examine and broaden one’s own style of learning. Learning ability is less important. It is always possible to indicate one’s limits, and to have enough patience to think about personal experiences and learn from them.

These personal qualities determine the success of self-directed learning to a great extent. Apart from this, communication on actual matters is of the essence. Self-directed learning depends on the degree in which people respect and value each other’s experiences and contributions, and are willing to cooperate in solving problems and to developing and implementing improvements.

Working with self-directed learning, moreover, requires a willingness on the part of the management to give priority to learning in general and self-directed learning in particular. A prerequisite is setting up a structure of organization which:

– meets the questions and demands of individual employees with regard to learning;
– provides the necessary authority, sources and tools to make self-directed learning a possibility;
– allows space for meaningful experiences of employees;
– offers the employees time to be able to keep a distance from daily chores;
– actively involves employees in solving problems;
– makes way for stimulating and rewarding risk-taking behavior.

At the outset, the question was put how personal efficiency may be improved when approached by a comprehensive learning method. Self-directed learning, in my view, may be applied with this aim, because it brings together different ways that may lead to improving personal efficiency. For self-directed learning means a profound examination of what is happening in our personal lives, and looking for bottlenecks, before finding solutions and experimenting with them in practice. The process of self-directed learning finishes only then, when a real improvement in personal efficiency has been obtained. The method of self-directed learning does not unconditionally guarantee self-improvement, of course, but gives it a better chance, as it combines different approaches to learning. A successful application of self-directed learning to improve personal efficiency requires maturity of self-direction from employees, and the willingness on the part of organizations to create structural conditions for this method of learning. It involves time and money. As we find ourselves emotionally and economically in a positive situation, the matter becomes urgent. For, as any sailor can tell you, changing direction is easy when a full wind is blowing, and so reorganizing the process of learning is easier in times of prosperity than in times of adversity.

A practical example
During a counseling session, the regional manager of a large supermarket chain expressed his concern with the way things were going. He indicated that he was experiencing problems with certain changes, like the implementation of a new system of registration of working hours, the training of new supermarket managers, the enforcing of measures that would limit costs. He was quite willing to implement all these changes, but required much more transparency and support from the management. ‘Just tell me what I have to do, and I will, but I want to know what is really going on, for now I need to do this on one day, and that on the other day, and it makes me really tired…’, is what he said. A further examination of the essence of the problem made it clear that he was having trouble standing his ground in situations that were constantly subject to change. It would still go well if clear rules and values were available on which to act, but when they were lacking, he would lose his overview and it would become difficult for him to steer by his own compass. During the session he began to put the question to himself how he could himself actively provide transparency and support in situations of change. Keeping this learning question in mind, solutions were looked at. The solution he found to be the best, was also the most threatening: to be clear, during the weekly team discussion with his managing director, about his own wishes and expectations. Up till now he had been non-committal, as in former rounds of discussion other members of the team had been put in their places rather rudely. He was afraid the same would happen to him if in the presence of the managing director, he would vent his opinion. With the help of the RET-method a development script was written. Fears that would arise in similar situations were identified and the irrational thoughts underlying them, were replaced by rational thoughts. Having acquired this mental ‘luggage’, several experiments were set up, all with regard to situations that required an assertive attitude from him. The results were evaluated on a 10 point scale, on which he recorded his daily progress. The result of this approach was that in discussion rounds, he increasingly dared to bring forward his own opinion, and so created more transparency and support.