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Self-Directed vs. Self-Determined Learning; What's the Difference?

"We need to move beyond the idea that an education is something that is provided for us, and toward the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves." - Stephen Downes

In this age of abundance of information, shifting classroom pedagogy isn't nearly enough to make learning in school more relevant and authentic for the learner. Self-directed learning (andragogy), and self-determined learning (heutagogy) are the ideals necessary in making students "future ready" to live and learn in a web-connected world. While original research applied these concepts to mature learners, it has become apparent that even young children have an abundant capacity for recognizing and directing their learning. Anyone who has observed toddlers learning how to walk and talk understand the motivation and skill development that quickly develops during these processes. Considered by some to be on a learning continuum, self-directed learning, and self-determined learning has at least one distinct difference. What is this difference, and why should educators care?


"Self-determined learning, also called heutagogy, is an educational phenomenon that is sweeping the world. From Brazil to Germany, England to Australia, the US to the Czech Republic, traditional teaching-centered approaches are being replaced by an approach that focuses on learning: What do you want to learn? How will you learn it? Who are your learning guides? How will your learning success be measured?" - "Experiences in Self-Determined Learning"


Self-Directed Learning - is a process in which learners take responsibility, typically under the guidance of an instructor, for diagnosing learning needs, articulating learning goals, identifying materials and resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes. (Knowles, 1975)

Self-Determined Learning - is a process in which learners take initiative for identifying learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying learning resources, implementing problem-solving strategies, and reflecting upon the learning processes to challenge existing assumptions and increase learning capabilities. (Blaschke, 2012)

Obvious similarities indeed, but the key difference between self-directed learning and self-determined learning is the "double-loop" capability. Beyond problem-solving, double-loop learning involves scrutinizing variables and questioning original concepts, and learning processes. Reflection is a key aspect of increasing learning capabilities promised through double-loop learning. (Argyris, 1974)




This distinction between self-directed learning and self-determined learning is important for educators wanting to impact organizational change, as well as, help students become "future ready". In this age of rapid change, organizations need leaders willing to question belief systems and thought processes. For example, the concept of "teacher cognition" suggests changes in education struggle to keep pace with economic, societal changes because of teachers' long-standing thoughts and beliefs about learning and school. These views don't carry the same weight or relevance in our current information abundant, web-connected world. 

Self-determined learning centers on "learning how to learn". Students who can reflect and make decisions about their learning will be empowered through motivation, flexibility, and self-awareness. Schools are attempting to prepare students for careers that generally do not yet exist. The best way to help students become future ready is to guide them towards becoming self-determined in their learning. Upwards of ninety percent of our learning will occur outside formal educational settings. (Jennings, 2010) With this in mind, it's easy to understand the value of learning how to learn.

Proponents of "growth mindset", "lifelong learning", and "connected learning" will recognize the value of increasing learning capabilities through reflection and learning relationships. Teachers who adopt a learner-first mentality will understand the motivational power of autonomy, purpose, and mastery as these characteristics apply to learning and education. Self-determined learning is not a quick fix. Reflecting upon and challenging one's learning system takes time, practice, and understanding. When solutions aren't readily available, it's easier to find fault in the problem than to self-evaluate. However, real and lasting progress is made when shortcomings are identified, and new processes increase learning capabilities. These improvements in learning skills make self-determined learning a relevant topic worthy of our attention and understanding.

What steps are you taking towards becoming a self-determined learner?


How does your learning impact the learning of your students?


For Greater Depth & Understanding


Self-directed Learning and Self-determined Learning; An Exploration - Stewart Hase

Digital Age Learning - Learning With E's, Steven Wheeler

Experiences in Self-Determined Learning - L. M. Blaschke, C. Kenyon, & S. Hase


Is Learning Increasingly Self-Directed In The Digital Era? - Huffington Post


Where is Reflection In The Learning Process - Dr. Jackie Gerstein


Education and the Pedagogy of Mobile Learning - Dr. Jackie Gerstein




photo credit: sciencesque via photopin cc

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