The Autodidactic Learner

The use of autodidactic principles to enhance non classroom-based leadership programme design.


There is a leadership crisis just around the corner: the recession-weary baby-boomer generation will be finally retiring en-masse in the next five years (Source: Global Leadership Forecast 2014/2015) and we currently do not have enough leadership talent to fill their shoes. With growing dissatisfaction and doubts regarding the effectiveness of formal faculty-led “bootcamp” leadership development programmes (Source: Seven Leadership Development Trends), maybe autodidactic learning is the answer.

Autodidacticism literary means self-taught (from the Greek autos meaning self and διδακτικός didaktikos, meaning teaching). Famous autodidacts from history include Leonardo De Vinci, James Watt, Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln. In the late twentieth century, autodidacticism and the self-taught approach became synonymous with the self-help movement, an industry worth 10 billion dollars in the US at its peak in 2007. As the self-help and “teach yourself” movement moved into a multibillion dollar global industry, it was discredited and criticised by mainstream academics and publishers as being pseudo intellectual and lacking in pedagogical substance. This damaged its reputation and since 2007 the self-help industry sales have halved (Source: Overview and Status of the US Self-improvement Market).

Below are two well respected and researched autodidactic learner-centric models and some ideas to apply them in corporate leadership development contexts.

1. Resource based learning (RBL)
Resource based learning is where multiple digital and non-digital materials and resources are researched by a subject matter expert (SME) and made available to the learner who assumes the responsibility for selecting from the wide ranging resource pack materials that appeal to their interests, abilities and learning preferences and builds/constructs a point of view and/or seeks a solution to an intractable problem through independently processing the material. Essentially the pre-provided resource pack acts as a scaffold to support the learner. Often used in the past to supplement instructive class-room based learning, RBL is increasingly becoming a stand alone model for the independent learner. The rise of Information technology (particularly the internet) has proven to be an excellent platform for RBL where learners can surf information that has been designed, structured and provided for them and self-discover and create meaning from the material. Notable early pioneers of resource based learning include Beswick (1977) and Haycock (1991). In terms of the application of RBL in leadership development in a non-classroom corporate environment, one idea would be for the LD specialist to create and make openly available to the organisation an online or offline information and skill-builder resource pack outlining organisationally approved core leadership competences and behaviours. This pack should include the case for leadership, the organisation’s strategic approach to building leadership, a list of core leadership themes and behaviours and skills, tools and processes for developing that leadership. Linked to this basic framework should be a varied selection of digital and non digital multimedia resources such as books, webpages, articles, films, self-scoring psychometrics etc.

2. Self directed learning (SDL)
Self directed learning is where the learner fully coordinates and controls the learning endeavour (kicks away the scaffolding so to speak) and makes key decisions around such things as building learning objectives, selecting content and resources to suit the individual objective and learning need, planning and monitoring a learning timetable and the pace of the learning, working out how to apply the learning to the workplace and evaluating success. These things would normally be managed by a professional pedagogue or LD specialist. Sometimes SDL is confused with autonomous and home learning. These can be SDL but only if they have the vital component of the individual learner controlling the planning, implementation and outcome of the learning. Early research pioneers in the field include Houle (1961 ) , Knowles (1975) Tough (1979), Guglielmino (1977). In terms of the application of SDL in leadership development in a non-classroom corporate environment, SDL works really well supporting social and workplace learning initiatives where the learner plays a freehand in planning, implementing and evaluating learning. For example, in social learning such as shadowing leaders, temporary stretching leadership assignments, the learner can self-direct things such as structure, goals/outcomes, resources, reading/research, feedback and success criteria associated with the social learning activity. Similarly, a learner can apply SDL with work-place assignments that are part of a broader leadership programme. The role of the LD specialist here would be to create the theoretical context by outlining what Self Directed Learning is and its benefits and methodologies so that the learner has a point of reference and a pedagogical framework.

With both these non-classroom based autodidactic models the emphasis is on the learner not the instructional teacher (they are learner-centric and not teacher centric models). There is a shift in roles from instructor to constructor, from expert (subject matter expert and instructional design expert) to enabler, facilitator, resource provider and coach.

As in most things in life, there are positives and challenges associated with autodidactic learning.

On the plus side, it promotes self sufficiency, increases problem solving, heightens motivation, empowers and increases information literacy. These are a set of transferable life-long-learning skills where the learner goes at their own pace and schedule and is more likely to produce deep learning and sustained behavioural change than traditional classroom training.

In terms of challenges, this approach requires a great deal of self-discipline and is very difficult for organisations to measure and centrally strategise their leadership effort. There is an overwhelmingly strong preference for faculty-led classroom based learning (particularly with regard to behavioural-based learning such as leadership). Learning heads will say it is because leadership is a strategic enabler and therefore needs to be centrally managed through funnels, pipelines, pyramids and the like. Cynics would argue that classroom-based learning is more statistically measureable than any close alternative – every year, the head of learning can flash a powerpoint side showing (proving) annual spend and reach (that X amount of programmes were run, in x amount of locations, attended by x amount of people with X amount of dollars being spent on faculty, programme management and conference room facilities). You just can’t do that for autodidactic and self-paced learning – it may make sense, but it does not make a compelling powerpoint slide that is statistically precise as “bums in seat” stats.

The challenge of developing the next generation of leaders is on the “key priority” powerpoint slides throughout organisations. With organisational spend on leadership development already running at an all time high and an increasing cynicism of the effectiveness of classroom based training “bootcamps”, it is time for LD specialists to be more imaginative and courageous in how they develop leaders. Autodidacticism has gone through cycles of popularity over the years but with the introduction of the internet and social media and an up and coming Y generation of potential leaders who are independently minded and self-resourceful, maybe Resource Based and Self-Directed Learning will finally come of age and make an impact.

Richard Kelly PhD.
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