Self-directed learning as a tool for lifelong learning: fundamental to meet the demands of our ever-changing world

1st August 2022

Author: Dr Thomas Howard Morris, School of Education, Bath Spa University, England

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This is a plea for action: education must be set up to afford all young people with the knowledge, skills, and competencies to prepare them to confidently and competently deal with the demands of our changing complex societies.

The problem: Foundational knowledge, alone, provides no basis for security in conditions of rapid societal change

Digitisation and COVID-19 have been key drivers of changing conditions; and, whether our citizens are equipped to adapt and manage the demands of change has become ever more important (Morris & König, 2020).

Arguably education must then be set up to enable young people to confidently deal with change, as:

  • For most young people, gone are the days in which they can learn foundational knowledge for a specific job and then hold onto that job for the rest of their working careers; and
  • Gaining only foundational knowledge provides no basis for security (Rogers, 1969).

The solution: Fostering self-directed learning competence provides a basis for security in conditions of rapid societal change

SDL competence is defined as "the ability to pursue self-directed learning with success and efficiency: to proficiently direct one's own learning means and objectives in order to meet definable personal goals" (Morris, 2019b, p. 302) – a competence to seek knowledge – a tool of lifelong learning that provides a basis for adaptivity, thus security (cf. Rogers, 1969). In recent times, a person’s ability to proactively adapt to change has even been identified as the conditio sine qua non of professional expertise (Ward et al., 2018); and has directly been correlated with long-term career success.

However, importantly, studies have shown that many young adults are not competent in self-directed learning, especially after experiencing years of teacher-directed "traditional" learning in formal education – where the teacher directs the learning objectives and means (Morris, & Rohs, 2021a). This is concerning given that self-directed learning competence may enable the person a certain level of protection against changing conditions by affording them the ability to adapt to change (cf. Morris, 2019b) by:

  • proactive upskilling and/or retraining; and/or,
  • competently and confidently seeking (and sometimes creative) solutions to problems.

Thus, self-directed learning competence may provide:

  • a certain protection against long-term unemployment;
  • opportunity for emancipation from oppressive life situations; and/or
  • long-term career success.

How can self-directed learning be fostered in current formal education structures?

It is my professional opinion that some teachers (knowingly or unknowingly) foster self-directed learning competence to various degrees (cf. Morris, 2018). I have recently argued that elements of the necessary skills of inquiry needed for self-directed learning can be fostered in the following educational activity forms (Morris, 2020; Morris, & Rohs, 2021b):

  • Experiential learning
  • Experimental-based learning
  • Maker learning
  • Task-based learning
  • Interest-based learning
  • Inquiry-based learning
  • Problem-based learning
  • Case-based learning
  • Workplace simulations
  • (E-) portfolio based learning

The above "taxonomy" of learning activities – to foster self-directed learning competence – is not an exhaustive list, but I believe is a good starting point to "build in" fostering of self-directed learning competence in the present educational structures worldwide. A key commonality of the above learning forms are that teachers task learners to:

  • solve or resolve authentic problems in real-world based contexts through an inquiry process – celebrating a constructivist epistemology;
  • hold (co) responsibility through the learning process; and
  • practice being producers/creators, not just consumers of knowledge.

Self-directed learning for meeting the demands of the knowledge economy

In addition, if part of societal change is that the knowledge economy is becoming ever more so "important", then governments and other educational stakeholders should also acknowledge that it is producing and creating of knowledge that may add the most value (cf. Ball, 2021), and, on this basis fostering self-directed learning competence through practice of the process in formal education settings – which includes positioning learners as producers/creators, not just consumers of knowledge – is arguably fundamental.


Ball, S.J. (2021). The education debate. Policy Press.

Morris, T.H. (2018). Vocational education of young adults in England: a systemic analysis of teaching–learning transactions that facilitate self-directed learning. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 70(4), 619-643. doi: 10.1080/13636820.2018.1463280

Morris, T.H. (2019a). Adaptivity through self-directed learning to meet the challenges of our ever-changing world. Adult Learning, 30(1), 56-66. doi: 10.1177/1045159518814486.

Morris, T.H. (2019b). An analysis of Rolf Arnold’s systemic-constructivist perspective on self-directed learning. In Rohs, M., Schiefner-Rohs, I., Schu¨ßler, I. and Mu¨ller, H.-J. (Eds), Educational Perspectives on Transformations and Change Processes, pp. 301-313. WBV Verlag: Germany.

Morris, T.H. (2019c). Self-directed learning: A fundamental competence in a rapidly changing world. International Review of Education, 65(4), 633-653. doi: 10.1007/s11159-019-09793-2

Morris, T. H. (2020). Creativity through self-directed learning: Three distinct dimensions of teacher support. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 39(2), 168-178. doi:  10.1080/02601370.2020.1727577.

Morris, T.H., & König, P.D. (2020). Self-directed experiential learning to meet ever-changing entrepreneurship demands. Education + Training, 63(1), 23-49. doi: 10.1108/ET-09-2019-0209

Morris, T.H. (2021). Meeting educational challenges of pre- and post- COVID-19 conditions through self-directed learning: considering the contextual quality of educational experience necessary. On the Horizon, 29(2), 52-61. doi: 10.1108/OTH-01-2021-0031

Morris, T.H., & Rohs, M. (2021a). Digitization bolstering self-directed learning for information literate adults–A systematic review. Computers and Education Open, 2, 100048. doi: 10.1016/j.caeo.2021.100048

Morris, T.H. & M. Rohs (2021b). The potential for digital technology to support self-directed learning in formal education of children: A scoping review. Interactive Learning Environments. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/10494820.2020.1870501

Rogers, C.R. (1969). Freedom to Learn. Columbus: Charles Merrill.

Seibert, S.E., Kraimer, M.L. and Crant, J.M. (2001). What do proactive people do? A longitudinal model linking proactive personality and career success. Personnel Psychology, 54(4), 845-874. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-6570.2001.tb00234.x

Ward, P., Gore, J., Hutton, R., Conway, G.E., & Hoffman, R.R. (2018). Adaptive skill as the conditio sine qua non of expertise. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 7, 35-50. doi: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2018.01.009

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