Self-directed professional development has been outlined as a way for individuals to take control of their own learning, as a way for learning to be more effective by being more personal and relevant. Self-directed learning can be seen as a cure-all to the frustrating, ‘one size fits all’, top-down approach to teacher development which you may have experienced yourself. If self-directed PD can help provide individuals and organizations with such benefits then we must look at the potential barriers towards the implementation of such practice, and how organizations can help a culture of sustainable self-directed learning flourish.
In order to achieve these goals, schools and institutions should look to the fundamentals of self-directed PD and help to support the components which make it successful. Let’s begin with the following areas:
- Control: How do we empower ownership and control over learning?
- Flexibility: How do we organise learning content to ensure flexible access and use?
- Motivation: How do we try to ensure that this is sustained and self-perpetuating?
From the perspective of the organization, these three areas can be harnessed as our drivers of culture change towards one of independent learning. However, in order to offer comprehensive answers to these questions, we must have a clear understanding of the potential challenges, including:
- Lack of structure and organization, and how that can affect motivation and direction.
- Issues around resources and how to use, access, and exploit certain resources.
- The potential for isolation and the need to scaffold social learning in certain circumstances.
From a personal perspective, from my experience engaging in self-directed PD I can say that the biggest difficulties were the lack of feedback and the need for a second pair of eyes, or to have a colleague as a sounding board to help me make sense of certain elements of my own development.
What makes our development motivating, beneficial, and sustainable?
Deci and Ryan Self-Determination Theory (2017) looks at self-directed learning and how to provide the best conditions for engagement, based mainly on motivating participation. This theory suggests that we need to focus on meeting three basic needs in order to promote participation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. While autonomy goes back to our mention of control in a previous section, the sense of competence is an area which may be neglected in discussions on development, so we should address it here. This theory suggests that learners are motivated by knowing something about the topic at hand, by having a degree of competence in the skill or knowledge area. In terms of self-directed PD this would suggest to us that learning material should be engaged with in order to add a deeper understanding of an already existing knowledge/skill base. A venture into an entirely unknown area of knowledge, unsupported by expert guidance, may be demotivating. ‘Relatedness’ in this case can best be defined as how relevant the information or activity is to the teachers’ context. This guides us again towards utilising social learning as a scaffold for supporting self-directed learning, and encouraging peer-to-peer relationships as a valid avenue for learning.
Relevant to us here as well is Davachi and the AGES Model of Learning (2010) which outline four principles that can help guide our learning in this case:
- Attention: Learning should involve minimal distractions and cognitive overload
- Generation: Forming memorable learning moments and positive engagement
- Emotion: Enhancing positive learning experiences, reducing negative ones
- Spacing: This involves delivery and content overload
Failure to follow these principles may make our learning less beneficial or sustainable. In an area like self-directed PD, where learning is not always visible, this can mean a lot of wasted time and energy and the growth of frustration and dissatisfaction.
3 Top Tips for Effective Professional Development:
So with all of these considerations, we must consider what we can do both as organisations hoping to support self-directed PD, and also as teachers engaging in such development:
Organise content and resources
If there is one thing that the internet is not short on, it is content. This can be incredibly exciting but also overwhelming and there is a growing need for content curation/organisation and delivery as a core role for educators. Curation in this case can be defined as the selection, organisation, and presentation of relevant material. This does not only involved gate-keeping best practice, according to Rohit Bhargava’s 5 Models of Content Curation (2011) it also involves simplifying or reordering, among other things. Effective content curation allows for a degree of ‘controlled autonomy’ for the learner, as well as ensuring flexible access to appropriate resources.
Promote Social Learning
While self-directed learning should be exactly that ‘self-directed’, there is nothing to suggest that using colleagues and peers as a resource makes the learning less effective. I would suggest that someone who is seeking to engage in self-directed learning should keep an open mind towards the use of online or offline social forums for idea generation and sharing, and to seek to share the burden of learning while generating positive and non-isolating learning experiences.
I am in favour of using a relevant competency framework (such as the Equals TD Framework) in order to provide a degree of structure to the development process. The competencies are designed to encourage progress at an appropriate pace and to seek to challenge the learner at a level most beneficial for their development. A framework like this not only helps to provide structure to development, it also helps to narrow down the scope of success by giving the learner achievable ‘next stages’ to aim for.
In conclusion, I think that self-directed learning is incredibly beneficial to both the learner and the organisation and should be encouraged at all stages of the teachers’ journey. While there are still a number of challenges to face before this becomes a common and ‘normal’ avenue for development, the potential long-term benefits certainly outweigh the short-term difficulties.
If you want to learn more about professional development and how you can take control of your own learning journey, try reading our position paper on Self-Directed Professional Development.
Chris Farrell is Head of Training and Development with the Centre of English Studies. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of EAQUALS and he chairs the English UK Teacher Development Advisory Group. He is a guest lecturer at University College Dublin, and has written and delivered online courses for NILE and Trinity College London. Chris is a consultant on this paper.