There’s a lot of talk about social learning and social constructivist approaches to learning these days. One of the key features of these approaches is that they are learner-centered/self-directed. But what does this mean? How does this affect curriculum development and learning and teaching practice in the classroom and online?
This article is an attempt to make a clear distinction between learner-centered (self-directed) learning and teacher-led (teacher-directed) learning and to identify their underlying characteristics. These two approaches represent fundamental differences in the ways we view how people learn, learners’ and teachers’ roles, and how we think and act in learning contexts. Hopefully, the following guide will help teachers and curriculum developers discover what their preferred kind of learning and teaching approach is.
The definitions are more or less copied (and slightly modified) from Malcolm Shepherd Knowles’ book, Self-directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers (1975) which, in my opinion, remains an excellent source of advice for curriculum development and covers topics and views that are rarely included in teacher and instructional designer education, training courses, or professional development today.
You’ll probably notice that the outline of learner-centered (self-directed) teaching is much longer than teacher-led (teacher-directed). Why? Because almost everyone has had a lot of experience of teacher-led/teacher-directed learning in schools, colleges, universities, and on professional development and training courses, and so it requires little explanation. Only a small minority of learners and teachers have had experience of learner-centered/self-directed learning and so I’ve provided more expansive descriptions.
“Anything a learner should do and can do for themselves, and we do for them, takes away an opportunity to learn responsibly.”
— Gene Bedely (paraphrased)
Am I a teacher-led/teacher-directed learning teacher?
If you view lesson planning and curriculum development like this:
- What content needs to be covered?
- How can this content be organised into manageable units?
- How can these units be organised into a logical sequence?
- What means of transmission will be most effective for transmitting each unit?
- How can learners’ retention be measured/assessed?
…then your preferred learning and teaching approach is most likely teacher-led/teacher-directed.
Am I a learner-centered/self-directed learning teacher?
If you view lesson planning and curriculum development like this:
- Climate setting
- Diagnosing needs for learning
- Setting goals
- Designing a learning plan
- Engaging in learning activities
- Evaluating learning outcomes
- How can I most quickly get the learners to become acquainted with each other as people and as mutual resources for learning? (i.e. build the necessary relationships for co-operative learning; familiarity, trust, and mutual respect).
- How can I help them to gain an understanding of the concept of self-directed learning?
- How can I provide them with a simple preliminary experience in practising the skills of self-directed learning?
- How can I help them to understand my role as a facilitator and resource to self-directed learners and ensure that they will feel comfortable in relating to me in this way?
- How can I present myself to them as a human being so that they may trust me?
- How can I provide them with a short but meaningful experience in working together collaboratively?
- How can I create an atmosphere characterised by both mutual caring and support and intellectual rigor?
- At what points shall I decide what procedures to use, and at what points shall I present optional procedures for them to decide on?
- On what ethical basis shall I make this decision, and how will I explain it to them and invite their modification or veto?
- What mechanism will I propose for involving them in the decision-making process: consensus or voting by the total group, delegation of responsibility to subgroups, or delegation to an elected steering committee?
- How will I adjust my approach to planning according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?
Diagnosing needs for learning
- How shall we construct a model of the competencies (or content objectives, if you prefer) that this particular learning experience should be concerned with?
- If I start with a model I have constructed, how can I present it so that they will feel free to change it or build upon it?
- If I start with their suggestions for a model, how can I introduce my own ideas or the requirements from the outer environment without denigrating their contributions?
- How can I assure that they will have a sense of ownership of the model finally agreed upon?
- How can I make it possible for them to realistically and non-threateningly assess the gaps between their present levels of development of their competencies and the level required by the model?
- How will I adjust my approach to diagnosing needs for learning according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?
- How can I help them translate diagnosed needs into learning objectives that are clear, feasible, at appropriate levels of specificity or generality, personally meaningful, and so that measuring accomplishment is feasible?
- How can I suggest changes constructively?
- How will I adjust my approach to setting goals according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?
Designing a learning plan
- What guidelines for a learning plan will I propose?
- What optional models of plans will I present?
- What kinds of help will I give particular learners in designing their plans?
- How will I expose them to resources and strategies for using resources that they may not know about or may not have thought of?
- What mechanisms (e.g. consultation teams) can I suggest to facilitate their helping each other in designing their plans?
- How will I adjust my approach to designing learning plans according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?
Engaging in learning activities
- Which learning activities shall I take responsibility for to meet objectives that are common to all (or most) of their learning plans, which activities should be the responsibility of subgroups, and which should be individual inquiry projects?
- How, when, and why shall I intervene in learners’ activities? (i.e. When would it be productive or counter-productive to intervene?)
- How can I make myself available to subgroups and individuals as a consultant and resource as they plan and carry out their learning activities?
- What is my responsibility for assuring quality performance of the learning activities?
- How will I adjust my approach to engaging in learning activities according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?
Evaluating learning outcomes
- What should be my role in providing feedback to the learners regarding my perceptions of the accomplishment of their learning objectives?
- How can I do it so as to not create a dissonance with the learners’ self-directedness?
- What is my responsibility for making judgements about the adequacy of the evidence of accomplishment of the learners’ objectives and the adequacy of their criteria and means for validating their evidence?
- How can I present these judgements in such a way that they will enhance rather than diminish the learners’ self-concepts as self-directed people?
- How will I adjust my approach to evaluating learning outcomes according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?
…then your preferred learning and teaching approach is most likely learner-centered/learner-directed.
Adapted from: Knowles, M. S., Self-directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, 1975, Prentice-Hall.
Follow up post: Presentation on learner-centered (self-directed) learning