Applying research on learning: Self Managed Learning

21st November 2023

Author: Dr. Ian Cunningham, chair of the Governing Body of Self Managed Learning College, UK

I based the development of Self Managed Learning on research that was extant by the late 1970s. As a quick summary, we knew by then that people learn differently; that personal motivation and ownership of learning is crucial; that peer support for learning is highly beneficial; that most learning that helps individuals to be successful in their careers occurs outside education institutions and training courses; and that learning at work needed to be responsive to the real context of organisational life.

Through the 1980s up to the present-day, extensive evaluation studies have shown the high value of Self Managed Learning programmes in organisations (Cunningham,1999, Cunningham et al, 2000, Cunningham et al, 2004, Cunningham, 2022).

In 2000, I was pressed by parents and educational experts to apply our research and experience to working with young people. I then created Self Managed Learning College, which now caters for 65 young people aged 9 to 16. I was able to test whether the methodology developed in organisations could transfer effectively to working with young people and this has proved correct (see Cunningham, 2021).

Basically, the college uses the content free methodology that I and my colleagues developed for adults in organisations. The young people in the college plan and structure their learning with support from adults, who we call learning advisers. Our role is to help young people think about the kind of life they want to lead and the sort of work they would do in the future so they can learn whatever they want that would feed into those requirements.

Genuinely, young people are given no boundaries as to what they can learn. Our research also found at least 57 different ways of learning for young people and since we started no one has asked us to recreate the kind of classrooms that exist in schools. Because all of our 65 students are different, there is no basis on which to lock them into classroom-based learning.

Here is one small example of how we work

Coco came to us aged 13, having been pretty much pushed out of school because she just, according to teachers, doodled all day. She was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD and this was manifest when she joined us. In her first year she basically chatted to other students and made little animals out of plasticine. And doodled. By age 15 she had published a graphic novel that the publishers could not believe a 15-year-old girl created.

She also took GCSEs at age 15 and 16. One GCSE that she chose surprised us as she decided to do Law. Given her dyslexia this seemed quite a stretch. However, she said because she learned visually she would, for instance, create little matchstick figures of say barristers and solicitors and then have speech bubbles coming from them about the differing roles.

She was mainly learning out of a book, and I asked if she would like to meet a real lawyer. She decided to take up the offer and a lawyer who was on our governing body spent the morning with her. I also asked if she wanted to see the law in action. She said yes. So, we arranged a trip for her and other students to the local magistrate’s court. There they could see how solicitors and a whole court system worked.

Research by local universities and an independent researcher have looked at the lives and careers of ex-students some 5-10 years after they attended the college. What they found were high degrees of personal fulfilment in their lives and great satisfaction with the choice of careers that they had made. In one aside, a researcher commented on the fact that many of our students had not gone through traditional education via University but had gained quite high-level positions in work at an early age. This included a 21-year-old events manager, a 22-year-old IT manager and a 21-year-old pub manager. In general, we find that all our students who leave at 16 go on to educational or work activity – that is no NEETs (Not in Education Employment or Training).

Research has been crucial for our success. Initially, I drew on research from others and then eventually we used independent research to evaluate what we have been doing. Our research shows that there is a better way than schooling to support the development of young people. (Cunningham, 20210).



  • Cunningham, I. (1999). The wisdom of strategic learning: The Self Managed Learning solution (2nd ed.). Aldershot, Hants.: Gower Press.
  • Cunningham, I., Bennett, B. and Dawes, G. (2000) (eds) Self Managed Learning in Action. Aldershot, Hants.: Gower Press.
  • Cunningham, I., Dawes, G. and Bennett, B. (2004) The Handbook of Work Based Learning. Aldershot, Hants.: Gower Press.
  • Cunningham, I. (2021) Self Managed Learning and the New Educational Paradigm. London: Routledge.
  • Cunningham, I (2022) Self managing leaders; lessons in learning, in Gray, H., Gimson, A. and Cunningham, I, 2022 (eds) Developing Leaders for Real. Bingley: Emerald Publishing.
our goals

Quality education for all

We believe in quality education for everyone, everywhere and by highlighting the issue and working with experts in the field, we can start to find ways we can all be part of the solution.