Scaffolding Self-Direction at Work

How can L&D support people in managing their own learning?

Curated resources on scaffolding self-directed learning

One of the very real advantages of the internet age is that L&D does not have to be the sole producer of learning and development support in organizations. We have the opportunity to curate materials from the internet’s treasure trove of resources, and employees themselves often have the ability to find what they need on their own. As with all good things, it’s that simple, and at the same time infinitely more complex.

We intuitively recognize that we all have the capability to be independent learners. The evidence is everywhere – in our propensity to Google for quick answers, to find like-minded people to hang with (and learn from/with) and with whom to share our enthusiasm for hobbies, and to simply “figure it out” by rolling up our sleeves and giving something new a try. The ability to learn is a critical human attribute. While that may be true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people who have professional development needs will be ready, willing, and able to tackle those without support.

Even in companies that have done a good job of providing ready access to learning materials and curated collections for key job roles, over half of employees reported that learning resources were hard to find, hard to use, and hard to apply (CEB, 2014). That’s a triple whammy that demands our attention.

We don’t have to revert to defaulting to course creation when there is a knowledge or skill development need to be addressed. Taking a curation-first approach is often the most impactful, most flexible, and least expensive solution, but it may need to be accompanied by strategies that scaffold self-directed learning. That is, we may need to provide a little support to help people to identify needs, find resources, learn independently, and apply new knowledge and skill to the work.

We have the good fortune that researchers have been studying self-directed learning for decades from a variety of perspectives. The cache of insightful theory and research on self-directed learning writ large contains nuggets we can use to guide our strategies here.

The Self-Directed Learning Process

In general, this is how people manage their own learning:

  • Identify a learning need. Something triggers the recognition that a person has a knowledge or skill gap to be addressed.
  • Seek out resources to support learning. Instinctually, people look around for resources to help them – a trip to the library, an internet search, asking around for somebody who knows the subject matter. For bigger, longer-term needs, people may go so far as to craft their own learning plans, identifying multiple resources and strategies.
  • Engage in learning activities. People then consume the identified resources with an eye toward immediate application against the need that prompted the search in the first place. A person watches a video, reads an article or book, talks to subject matter experts.
  • Evaluate own learning. People decide for themselves whether they are “done” learning or need to continue a finding and engaging in additional learning activities. This requires self-evaluation as well as persistence to keep learning if needed.

The process described above is of course grossly oversimplified, albeit a good outline of what is going on. Every step requires some degree of savvy. The process is conducted in a very specific context, which in some ways supports the individual’s efforts and in other ways may make learning more challenging. You likely don’t have to look far to find examples where the process works beautifully, and others where it fails miserably. It makes you wonder why self-directed strategies have inconsistent results.

The Pillars of Self-Directed Learning

Research on self-directed learning gives us clues on the characteristics of the person and environment that make a difference. A survey of the research most applicable to the context of L&D shows these “pillars” of self-directed learning.

Individual Qualities

  • Motivation. Learners value the development of a particular knowledge base or skill and are willing to invest in learning more.
  • Self-Awareness. Learners have wherewithal to assess their own strengths and opportunities.
  • Persistence. Learners are likely to push through any barriers and continue developing themselves over time.
  • Resourcefulness. Learners have the capability and savvy to locate and vet resources that are relevant and useful.

Learning Skill

  • Attention. Learners know specifically what is important to learn and know what to look for when they engage with learning resources.
  • Intention. Learners know where they will be applying their knowledge or skill.
  • Reflective Practices. Learners have capacity to make meaning from the resources and activities they encounter.

Learning Environment Qualities

  • Relationship Strength. Learners know who they can trust for assistance, and those people are willing to help.
  • Engagement. Learners have access to materials and activities that are relevant, interesting, interactive, and memorable.
  • Time. Learners have time to pursue learning during the workday.

If you evaluate the presence or absence of these pillars among the learners you want managing their own learning, you can identify those pillars that need some scaffolding. Make it part of your needs analysis to ask questions that allow you to identify any weak pillars. You’ll need your most sharpened needs assessment and consulting skills to do this effectively; it can be difficult for people to see themselves or their colleagues objectively, plus the qualities are often individual, so you’ll need a good sampling to know where the majority may stand. That said, a good sense of the people and their context can be gained from those who have working relationships with the group you want to support, and from the people themselves.

Curated Resources

//  Tactics for Scaffolding Self Direction  >

The attached document outlies some ideas for scaffolding particular pillars. These recommendations come out of the literature, and from the experience of clients and students with whom I have worked on these issues.

//  Supporting self-direction in the workplace  >

//  Resources  >

  • Learn2Learn. An app by Arun Pradhan that helps individuals to develop learning skills – a solid overview of proven learning practices along with plenty of resources to dive deep. An enterprise version is in the works if you want something for a large group.
  • Learning 4.0. In her book, Unstoppable You, Pat McLagan lays out practices to help people to sharpen their learning skills. And in Unleash Unstoppable Learners, she provides L&D professionals with ideas on how to scaffold learning and develop self-directing learners.

//  More on self-directed learning theory  >

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Last updated: May 14, 2018 by Catherine Lombardozzi
This page is part of a collection of resources curated by Learning 4 Learning Professionals
For more, go to L4LP.com/curated-resources