Working in an office, you may have some idea of what self-directed learning is. But self-directed learning (or SDL) has been around for decades and means much more than you would expect. When used properly, it can change the attitude, culture, and productivity in a work environment completely. Here’s everything you need to know.
What Is Self-Directed Learning?
To put it simply, SDL is transferring the responsibility of learning from the instructor to the learner, giving the learner—or in this case, the employee—the opportunity to make every decision when it comes to learning.
Imagine that your boss asks you to plan a company party. Some people may say that simply choosing the venue of your party would be an example of SDL. But self-directed training consists of so much more: not only is it about choosing the venue, but it’s also about planning how employees will get to the venue, what time they should get there, what to do when they arrive, what they will eat and drink, and, perhaps ironically, questioning why you’re even planning a party, to begin with.
SDL is so unique because it allows the individual to direct their learning as they see fit. Instead of being ordered to do this and that like a mindless drone, you are taught to understand the mechanics of a task, by choosing what you want to learn, how you want to learn it, and why you should even bother. When it comes to SDL, the most important criteria is simple: the choice must be theirs. When it comes to SDL, the most important criteria is simple: the choice must be theirs.
The Benefits and Challenges of Self-Directed Learning
But is SDL in the workplace really the best way to help employees evolve and develop new skillsets? Like all theories and learning strategies, self-directed learning activities also have their benefits and challenges.
Benefits of Self-Directed Learning
- Greater development of specialized skills: When employees are allowed to choose their own learning paths, they’ll have the chance to gravitate towards self-directed training that helps them learn skills they are genuinely interested in. With a higher interest, there is a higher chance they will develop new skills, thus improving their value
- Adjustable to a learner’s specific needs: We don’t all learn the same way. Information isn’t absorbed and understood at the same pace or with the same methods; some of us would prefer to read, whereas others may prefer to do. The self-directed learning model breaks this mold and allows learners to do as they wish, and learn in the ways that feel right.
- The learner experiences “deep” learning rather than “surface” learning: When an instructor teaches a task to a learner in a plain and direct manner, the learner may learn the task, but nothing more. With SDL, the learner would understand the concept of the task and would be able to apply this concept towards other situations. This is the main difference between deep learning and surface learning; in the former, learners think about the task critically and truly wrap their minds around it. With surface learning, there is little more than memorization.
Challenges of Self-Directed Learning
- Some learners can’t learn on their own: This is perhaps the main challenge when it comes to this method. SDL assumes that learners simply need the freedom to work at their own pace and with their preferred strategies to achieve their learning potential. The truth, however, is that this is not the case. Some learners require the guide of another to understand certain concepts, thus rendering SDL a failure on them.
- Biases may influence learners the wrong way: When learners are allowed to learn without guidance or even supervision, there is no guarantee that they will extract the intended lessons or concepts from the program. This is especially true when you have a workplace with individuals from different demographics, such as culture, beliefs, values, and even age and gender. A more hands-on approach than self-directed online learning would be required to counter this.
- It may offer too much freedom: Can there be too much freedom? Some people believe there can—by letting learners have the entire breadth of possibilities when it comes to dealing with tasks and solving challenges, some people can be stifled and ultimately frozen by these options. Uncertainty will take over more than any meaningful learning, and instead the learner will only experience stress and anxiety.
As can be seen, this method may not be a perfect system, with its own faults and limitations. However, no perfect system exists, and SDL has been touted by many as one of the most effective learning strategies developed. If it requires some tweaks here and there for certain learners, then tweak away; the goal, after all, is to get everyone on the same page, as long as that may take.
If you decide to apply SDL to your workplace, here are some self-directed learning strategies you may consider.
How to Apply and Support SDL in the Work Environment
If this were an easy answer, everyone would be doing it. However, implementing SDL in your workplace isn’t simply a matter of buying the right guides for your HR department. It’s so much more than just a program, but rather a change of general culture and attitude in your workplace.
Getting everyone on board and believing in SDL may be the greatest challenge you could face in workplace HR, but if done successfully over several years, it would be one of the most rewarding.
Here are some strategies you can employ to start shifting your workplace culture to a self-directed learning environment:
- Start small: Once a week or twice a month, let your employees have some time to do what they want, as long as it has something to do with improving their skills or contributing to their ability to work. Keep this up for months, until employees stop seeing it as secret free time and truly understand it as an opportunity to develop in ways they did not realize before
- Hold meetings: And this time, don’t be the lone voice ordering everyone around. Let your employees have the chance to direct the flow of the conversation sometimes, without letting them know that you’re doing it. If they begin to realize that your office is a safe environment for them to use their brains (rather than mindlessly listen to the checklist of tasks), SDL may organically manifest
- Open up your resources: By allowing your employees more access to the company’s resources, training courses, and specialized software, you accomplish two things at once:
- You allow them to browse through training courses they would never have previously thought to consider; and
- You reinforce a more positive atmosphere, in which the barrier between you and your employees is less rigid
Letting Your Workplace Adapt
Remember: SDL won’t happen overnight. It’s a matter of rinsing out the air in your office and letting your employees see that you are moving in a more rewarding and open direction. Like any kind of habit or culture, it takes time for it to truly develop. Once this has been established, self-directed learning will begin to show itself; sometimes, without you even noticing!