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                                           How to develop Self-Directed Learning?

Denis CRISTOL  PhD (CREF Paris Ouest Nanterre) – 4cristol@free.fr



From a French perspective, this contribution develops the idea that self-directed learning[1] is particularly useful for the training of managers.

1) Relations between trainers and students.

2) Benefits expected for companies.

3) An illustration based on three field cases.


Finally, the key factors to succeed in developing self directed learning will be presented.



                          The development of self-directed learning

The development of self directed learning ability is certainly one of the thorniest educational paradoxes, and one of the most critical issues to strengthen the learner’s capacity to learn.

By posing this question of self directed learning development, we mostly anticipate and foresee that the student would not be independent.


If a trainer's instruction to the students is of the type "Be independent!"

Most likely Learners’ response will be: "Yes, but tell me how do I do it?"

In such a case, we are faced with paradoxical injunctions as identified by Watzlawick, Beavin, Jackson (1972).


The relationship between the trainer and the student is immediately locked into dependency. To observe the psycho-social maturation that occurs during adolescence, we may assess that autonomy is not taken for  granted, it must be gained! It is often through confrontation and negotiation of rules that freedom of learning can be achieved.


Negotiation and transgression are ways to impose one’s  own style. If transgression or negotiation are related to self-directed learning, then the curriculum design and the educational culture must allowed their expression.

It should, henceforth, provide possibilities for  "training" to have a programme that is partly  free or even questionable.


Development of self-directed learning is rooted more in the posture of the trainer and the representation of his goals than in any 'a priori' dependence of the learner. It is even possible to hypothesize that by thinking the act of teaching, the trainer clings to his  power and protects his social function. Developing a self directed learning pedagogy certainly goes through a gradual evolution of the trainer and changes in the relationship between Master and Student.


              4 steps towards self-directed learning pedagogy.


First step,

It is not the norms, which will provoke the desired effect but rather the ability to exploit the odd events, the failures, the randomness specific to a learning situation.

In the same way as a machine breakdown is an opportunity for a trainer in mechanics to have a real training ground for its students, similarly, difficulty in managerial training (unexpected absence of a trainer, programming error, hardware problem, social disorder in the company etc.) allows to set up   new regulations for learning.


Second step,

When a trainer discovers empirically the formative power of chance, he may then introduce a difficulty forcing the group to react. Once he has mastered this step, he may take the risk of further manipulating the process.

Learners may not be fooled by this set up for a long time. This becomes an opportunity for them to question their place in the programme.


Third step

Then the trainer may propose to the learners to construct part of the programme as originally planned or even to build up business cases. They may, as well, work on situations which they propose themselves.


Thourth step

They may even redefine together the terms for some learning goals.


The table below (Figure 1) offers a path with few steps to establishing a mutual contract between learner and trainer.


management of a hazard

Autonomy is produced by an unexpected event and authorizes a new content, or a different way to learn

creating a hazard

The trainer imagines a problem requiring the group to control the hazard.

He proposes  learners to build all or part of their curricula, but it remains the guardian of the sponsor's objectives under action

Construction of a learning programme

The trainer contracts with individuals and groups about the purposes and meaning of learning

Teaching Contract

The roles and responsibilities are clarified in a learning agreement

Figure 1: Pedagogy of self directed learning


The self-directed learning pedagogy can be conceived as a balance between the prerogatives of the trainers and those of the learners. The more self-directed learning grows, the better the learning control is structured by the learners themselves.

However, the weight of previous academic performances establishing the relationship of teacher-student authority is so powerful, that establishing a new type of programme can sometimes be upsetting for both parties.

The example of Sinclair (2007) attempting to introduce a critical pedagogy of management in an Australian MBA to teach leadership is a good one. Part of the group rejects the  innovation of self-directed learning and reflexivity and claims for more traditional approach.


In the perspective  of what is outlined above, learning self-determination stems from a relationship between learners and  parties involved  in the learning regulation process.

If regulation of content is the first step, then regulatory process is the second  and the regulation of the goal is the third. If regulation process is amended, it destabilizes both parties in their roles. It is much more comfortable for each party to stick to their agreed roles of  teacher - student.


To successfully  achieve freedom of  learning, the teacher is led to take a  risk or accept the challenges of participants.   As Giddens, (1994 p98) said , he can  only do it  if he has an ontological security . By ontological security, he means that  the trainer may possibly fail in his interventions , but not completely destroying his self-confidence. This self-confidence is an essential component of one's professional identity. It allows, whatever happens, to project new teaching again into the future. This security will be even stronger if the educational institution tolerates a minimum of errors, failures and promotes  creativity

So, Self-directed learning for the learners and ontological security for the trainers are to be developed  simultaneously.


                                                   Which benefits  for the company?

Quoting Bandura 2007:

"The self directed learning pedagogy developed here is a great power for the development of self-efficacy" .


This ingredient is essential for motivation. Managers impregnate themselves with the  ability to learn by themselves and to self-regulate their approach. This  simultaneously has repercussion  in their self-efficacy at work (Nagels 2008). They become more attentive to events in their environment and are able to give them a meaning only by changing the representation which they had of them.

As a result:

They  do not just hear,  they listen.

They do not only look, they see.

They are less upset by the uncertainties.

They will understand weak signals from a situation.

They will learn rather than resist to change.


But if the company hires proactive managers, these one will also have a more critical appraisal on company's choice.

In the same way, just as trainers will have to question their attitudes to contract with learners, company management will need to do the same with their managers. If they don’t, they will take the risk to generate loss of initiative and creativity or, even worse, generate frustration.


Three Examples

The three following success stories will attest the establishment of a self directed learning pedagogy.  The three examples are part of certified training courses at Masters level aimed at  adults who work or are exercising managerial responsibilities.


First Example: (Two methods were used to discover how the relation to knowledge and power take place in a group between the trainer and the learners )


A course aimed at training designers and training managers. Several educational activities are contributing. The first is to be open to the relationship to knowledge and provide an assessment on the relationship with oneself.


The first method  is to impose on  the first day a particular teaching situation somewhat childish. A didactic course with note taking, a minimum of interaction and high directivity. The introductory sequence was to cause negative reactions from the group and triggered a debate about what it means to teach and learn. The focus is on an infantile situation used to increased awareness of the framework.


The second method :Conversely, the same type of group can be addressed by a completely non-directive approach. The first day the leader can integrate the group and remain silent until one of the participants is concerned about the situation. The silence, the ambiguity  , the blurring of the moment lead to  reactions. This is a convenient way to debate over the relationship of training using power and authority. Why does the institutional trainer does not express itself?


Suppose  the trainer is quickly put into a position of authority and conduct a debate. It is explicit, in the rituals and the  decorum (the reserved space, the proximity of the projector or enjoyment of an isolated office), to impose an agenda/program and  objectives.


In both situations, the frustration experienced and expressed is an opportunity to build up a learning contract, to initiate action on shared bases. The first action of delegation leading to emancipation can then be assigned to the group. The group is empowered to organize part of their training, to identify its own growth needs and to agree on sequences. The launching process requires learners to get involved. This is the first step towards self-directed learning.


Second Example (training managers of a company ,

The training aimed at future managers who are or will take responsibility of teams or of a department. They have been selected by their companies to attend a 1-year course part-time. Besides the courses of finance, management, people management, organization theory and project management, a personal development seminar is planned.


For the specific organization of this development seminar the pilot training phases were negotiated with the whole group,

Participants were invited to organize themselves their personal development seminar. However, the group has to respect the charter indicating the expected goals of the seminar.

The budget of the seminar was entrusted to the group. Creating a one-week residential seminar for members of a group is a real learning experience. Leadership phenomena appeared. "Being involved in an action with real issues produces real learning". The debriefing of the vicissitudes (up's and down's) during  preparation phase highlighted the dynamic of the seminar. Learning from a situation which highlights issues produces a personal impact highly favourable as compared to the conduct of a traditional seminar  planned by the organizer. In this traditional way the organizer guarantees security and comfort, not self-involvement. The participants are just consumers of seminars  not the actors they ought to be.


Third Example (A Reform of a Masters in Human Resources)

 In a part-time training program, short courses are linked together to each other, each month, to implement the program. Assessments are recorded after each course to measure the learning process. If the situation is academically satisfactory, it provides poor preparation for the reality of a complex function.

Human resources require responsible network action, taking initiative and examining problems from different angles. That is why reform is bound to develop more autonomy, flexibility and mental initiative. It takes place in several stages. A first work on modeling behaviors of leaders (HRD) is performed with a group of HR experts. It validates the problem situations faced by HR and how they apprehend their interventions. Then a set of diagnostic cases of increasing complexity is collected.


The cases were detected by the trainer and proposed by HRD of SMEs or large groups. These are real and ongoing cases. The solutions are built in teams defended in front of  the sponsors. Participants are placed in consultant’s position.


For example (a company wants practical solutions for successful integration of young apprentices, another  may want a complex training design).


 Investing in a consulting role rather than in a student's leads every learner to research by himself through books and resources available to find out effective solutions. In the second area of reform, teachers were asked to leave the classroom at 15 h 30 (the day usually ends at 18h00) but entrusted the group with selected activities for the rest of the afternoon. The activities chosen were such as cross-training, organization of a conference, site visits, expert testimony, sharing best practices, research group on the internet. As for the second slot of the afternoon, it should be noted that teachers are paid for to empower the group and not to transfer knowledge.

During the first year of the reform, teachers were refusing to leave the room arguing that a group needed to learn more. Consequently, on the second year, teachers were paid up to 15 h 30.

A HRD coach replaced them to convene the group and to encourage ownership of their learning functions. Activities were freely chosen by the participants, however marked for the award of the diploma.

Of course, periods of stress and anxiety were regulated by the HR Coach. Participants were rather passive and sometimes worried about the quality of their choice of learning activities.


Similarly, the whole process requires a pilot phase and a link between the contributions made and participants' personal research .


In these 3 examples, if the teachers have played the game, it is because they themselves have learned something new in human relations. In certain cases, they  have been discarded.


Key points

§ Life is full of surprises and bifurcations. Creating freedom to learn goes through acceptance and integration of unexpected events in the learning process

§ Use Risks  as a source of learning,

§ Insert  times  without the presence of a trainer,

§ Convince and interest teachers to leave room for the learners and to change the center of their attention,

§ Use professional or personal situations concealing real issues,

§ Integrate control points for  learners and teach them how to learn,

§ Return to the meaning and purpose of learning to explain the new teaching methods in case of group reaction,

§ Create and exercise a tolerable level of uncertainty with regard to the profile of participants.



Denis Cristol, PhD

Continuing education manager at ADVANCIA and NEGOCIA

Member of SAVOIRS scientific comity, international research review in adult training and education

Vice President of AFREF French association for reflecting and exchanging on training issues

Member of the editorial staff of PERSONNEL review



·         BANDURA, A. (2007), Auto-efficacité : le sentiment d’efficacité personnelle, Bruxelles : De Boeck.

·         GIDDENS, A. (1994), Les conséquences de la modernité, Paris : L’harmattan.

·         NAGELS, M. (2008), L’auto-efficacité au travail, trait d’union entre dispositif de formation professionnelle et compétences du sujet. Colloque « Efficacité et équité en formation », CREAD Rennes 19/21 novembre 2008.

·         SINCLAIR, A. (2007), Teaching leadership critically to MBA’s : experiences from heaven and hell. Management learning, sept 2007, 38,4 p458-472

·         WATZLAWICK P, BEAVIN H, JACKSON D (1972), Une logique de la communication. Paris : Seuil

[1] Self directed learning is the power to act and make choice about one’s own training


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Commenter cet article
The stuff you are penning blows out my mind.
Developing a self directed learning as dictated by you should be an easier way to accomplish this task. The briefing was really helpful in understanding the details regarding it and I think everyone should benefit by adapting this method. Thank you.
If you are a franch reader you can find many more idéeas in my new book<br /> enjoy
I agree with you, but my proposal is to design room to facilitate SDL development
<br /> <br /> Thanks you are right we have to design new room to learn<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
In self-directed learning (SDL), the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. Individuals select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, which can be<br /> pursued at any time, in any place, through any means, at any age. In schools, teachers can work toward SDL a stage at a time.
<br /> <br /> I agree. Teacher may help people to develop SDL. They must adopt a low position and accept to be only ressources.<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />