From the article, "Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed"

by Gerald Grow, Ph.D.
School of Journalism, Media & Graphic Arts
Florida A&M University
Tallahassee, FL 32307 USA

available at:

Referencing this publication

II. The Model

Situational Leadership

As its starting point, the SSDL model borrows several key concepts from the Situational Leadership Model of Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard.

Hersey and Blanchard argue that management (and, by extension, teaching) is situational: The style of management should be matched to the employee's "readiness." Readiness--a combination of ability and motivation--ranges from "not able" and "not willing or motivated" (in the specific task at hand), to "able and willing" in the task at hand. Readiness is situational; it may even be task specific. (A salesman, for example, may be good at selling, yet "able but unmotivated" to complete the necessary paperwork.) A good manager chooses a mix of directiveness and personal interaction that accomplishes two things

  • First, it matches the employee's readiness so that the task at hand can be accomplished.
  • Second, it helps move the employee toward being more self-managing.

There is no one good way to manage everyone, yet everyone can be managed in such a way that they increase in the ability to be more self-managing.



In developing this paper, I have become aware of holding certain assumptions:

  • Education should produce self-directed, lifelong learners, but sometimes it creates dependency instead.

  • There is more than one way to teach well.

  • The ability to be self-directed is situational: one may be self-directed in one subject, a dependent learner in another.

  • There is nothing wrong with being a dependent learner -- one who needs to be taught.

  • Self-direction can be learned--and it can be taught.

  • This is a model, not a law: Treat it as a tool to dig with.

A note on style: In order to avoid having to qualify every statement, I have adopted a style which first delivers the theory in vivid terms, then qualifies and discusses it. Each statement contains an invisible "perhaps."

Definition of Self-Direction

Here you will find a summary of the complicated discussion of the meanings of "self-directed learning."

The Heart of the Idea

Figure 1 introduces the four stages of the SSDL model, which were inspired by the four leadership styles described in Situational Leadership.

Figure 1. The Staged Self-Directed Learning Model

The teacher's purpose is to match the learner's stage of self-direction and prepare the learner to advance to higher stages.

Student Teacher Examples
Stage 1 Dependent Authority, Coach Coaching with immediate feedback. Drill. Informational lecture. Overcoming deficiencies and resistence.
Stage 2 Interested Motivator, guide Inspiring lecture plus guided discussion. Goal-setting and learning strategies.
Stage 3 Involved Facilitator Discussion facilitated by teacher who participates as equal. Seminar. Group projects.
Stage 4 Self-directed Consultant, delegator Internship, dissertation, individual work or self-directed study-group.

Contents Figure 2 Figure 3

Stages 1 - 4 are discussed in detail in the following section, which is the heart of the article.

Stage 1: Learners of Low Self-Direction

Learners. Dependent learners need an authority-figure to give them explicit directions on what to do, how to do it, and when. For these students, learning is teacher-centered. They either treat teachers as experts who know what the student needs to do, or they passively slide through the educational system, responding mainly to teachers who "make" them learn.

Some learners are dependent in all subjects they are "taught;" others are dependent only in some subjects.

Some dependent learners become excellent students within a specialized area; they can be systematic, thorough, and disciplined, mastering a settled subject or transmitting a fixed tradition.

Some learners are enduringly dependent; others are temporarily teacher-dependent because, in Pratt's terms, "they lack either relevant knowledge, skills, and experience or the motivation and self-confidence to pursue educational goals" (1988, p. 168).

Being a dependent learner is not a defect; it can, however, be a serious limitation. All learners--of whatever stage--may become temporarily dependent in the face of new topics. Learners of other stages may freely choose to learn in a dependent mode--e.g., for efficiency or to gain access to a certain teacher.

Teaching Stage 1 Learners: "Coaching." There are at least two ways to approach the teaching of dependent learners--through coaching and through insight.

To use the coaching method, you must first establish your credibility and authority. In this stage, the teacher is an expert whose mastery must be real. Dependent learners respond best to a clearly-organized, rigorous approach to the subject. Prescribe clear-cut objectives and straightforward techniques for achieving them. Many students at this stage expect discipline and direction--so provide it.

Some Stage 1 learners test their teachers, so decide in advance how you will answer overt or veiled challenges to your authority. Organize the course clearly, with rigorous assignments and definite deadlines. Keep S1 students busy learning specific, identifiable skills. Set standards beyond what students think they can do, then do whatever is necessary to get them to succeed. Create and reward success. Many well established behavioral teaching methods work well in the S1 stage.

Avoid giving choices to S1 learners. Keep your communication clear and thorough, but mainly one-way. Instruction does not have to be impersonal, but the focus should be on the subject--not on the learners. Grading must be unequivocal, objective, and cleanly related to the task at hand. Feedback should be immediate, frequent, task-oriented, and strictly impartial.

Teacher expertise and effectiveness are the key in dealing with the dependent learner. Don't be too nice about it. If you are, they may dismiss you as soft, try to take advantage of you, or lapse into self-defeating habits of non-learning. Many learners at this stage of development depend on teachers to make decisions they themselves will later learn to make. Don't be shy of accepting the role.

Many of the characteristics of Stage 1 teachers sound terrible to proponents of student-centered styles of teaching. Dennis Fox, for example, criticizes this method as the "transfer" theory of teaching -- where teachers pour knowledge into students. Freire calls it the "banking" approach.

Stage 1 teaching can be limiting and even punative; the SSDL theory proposes, however, that Stage 1 teaching is bad only when it is applied to the wrong students or used to perpetuate dependency. Learning in a dependent mode goes against the grain of progressive, humanistic, and adult education. Yet, as Pratt emphasizes, "there is nothing inherently demeaning or destructive in pedagogical, temporarily dependent, relationships" (1988, p. 168).

The insight method. A different approach to teaching Stage 1 learners requires involving them in the design and content of the learning. Students begin from insight into who they are and what they want or need to learn. Adult educators customarily begin this way. Freire

Examples of Stage 1 Teaching.

  • Formal lectures emphasizing subject matter.
  • Structured drills.
  • Highly specific assignments.
  • "Ditto'd" exercises.
  • Intensive individual tutoring.

Examples of the insight method: developing critical awareness of one's life situation; needs analysis; goal-setting. (More under Stage 3.)

Models for Stage 1 Teachers.

  • Coaches in sports, drama, music.
  • Vocabulary and spelling drill.
  • A karate instructor. Drill sergeants.
  • A high school band conductor at the phase of getting the mechanics of the music right.

Stage 1 teaching seems to be rejected by many writers on education, but it has tremendous popular appeal. People who want to go "back to the basics" usually want to get there in Stage 1 classrooms. A successful Stage 1 teacher can be seen in the film, Stand and Deliver. That teacher drives, goads, pushes, and cajoles a group of disenchanted underachievers until they learn calculus almost to spite him. Then he lifts their self-esteem with the realization that they did it, and they can do it again. He prepares them (as a good Stage 1 teacher must do) for higher levels of achievement and self-direction.

Another example of a Stage 1 teacher appears in the film, Lean On Me, where a strong father-figure with an authoritarian style revives a high school that had gone out of control. But like most admirers of Stage 1 methods, the makers of this film do not ask how students progress to greater autonomy and responsibility.

Motivating Stage 1 Learners

Contents Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4


Stage 2: Learners of Moderate Self-Direction

Learners. Stage 2 learners are "available." They are interested or interestable. They respond to motivational techniques. They are willing to do assignments they can see the purpose of. They are confident but may be largely ignorant of the subject of instruction. These are what most school teachers know as "good students."

Teaching Stage 2 Learners: "Motivating." Stage 2 teaching is what is known as "good teaching" in many schools and colleges. The Stage 2 teacher brings enthusiasm and motivation to the class, sweeping learners along with the excitement of learning. Such a teacher will persuade, explain, and sell--using a directive but highly supportive approach that reinforces learner willingness and enthusiasm.

Learners at this stage go along if they understand why and the instructor provides direction and help. Or they will go along because they like the teacher. Learners at this stage respond positively to personal interaction from the teacher--something not always true of S1 learners.

To teach at this stage, give clear explanations of why the skills are important and how the assignments help attain them. Show concrete results in what you teach. Motivated and encouraged, S2 students will continue to learn on their own.

Because part of the function of a Stage 2 teacher is to prepare students to become more self-directing, it is important at this stage to begin training students in such basic skills as goal setting. Use praise, but with an eye to phasing out praise (extrinsic motivation) and phasing in encouragement (which builds intrinsic motivation) (Dinkmeyer & Losoncy, 1980). Build confidence while building skills. Help students begin to recognize their different personality types, life-goals and styles of learning. Set high standards and motivate students to achieve them.

Communication is two-way. The teacher explains and justifies each assignment and persuades students of its value. Students communicate their responses and interests. A good Stage 2 teacher ties the subject to the learners' interests.

Stage 2 teaching is still quite directive. The Stage 2 teacher resembles Fox's "shaper"--the teacher who "views students, or at least student brains, as raw material (metal, wood or clay) to be shaped, or molded, or turned to a predetermined and often detailed specification" (1983, p. 153). Typical of innovative educators, however, Fox devalues the Stage 2 teacher and promotes other, less-directive teaching styles. The SSDL model proposes that this teaching style may be the best way to teach learners who are at the S2 stage (in relation to the specific subject matter to be learned), and one should be prepared to use it without apology.

Examples of Stage 2 Teaching.

  • Lecturer as inspiring performer.
  • Industry training programs.
  • Teacher-led discussion.
  • Demonstration by an expert, followed by guided practice.
  • Structured projects with predictable outcomes, close supervision, and ample encouraging feedback.
  • Highly interactive computerized drill.
  • The structured projects of commercial art and design studios (Fox's example).
  • A mother teaching a child to talk (note the combination of two elements: strong personal interaction and strong focus on subject matter).

Models for Stage 2 Teachers.

  • Many inspiring school teachers are Stage 2 teachers.
  • Others include great lecturers, evangelists, and charismatic TV teachers, such as Carl Sagan and James Burke (of "Connections").
  • Aerobic dance classes combine Stage 1 directiveness with Stage 2 motivation.

Stage 2 teaching is what many learners need when first faced with a difficult subject--such as Shakespeare. The teacher's enthusiasm carries students until they have learned enough to become self-motivated. If students remain dependent upon the teacher for motivation to learn, however, the teacher has failed.

The Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society is an example of the Stage 2 teacher as lecturer-performer. He challenges a jaded but accessible group of boys to become excited about poetry. His methods are theatrical; he is a master performer when he lectures. He also requires them to become involved, to stand before the class and recite their own work, to take risks. Interestingly, in response to his encouragement, they move to a version of Stage 3: they form their own poetry group. Notice that their self--direction is situational: They do not also form a geography group or become more self-directing in in the ability to talk to their fathers. The problem with Dead Poets Society.

Shirley MacLaine, in the film, Madame Sousatska, shows a different kind of Stage 2 teacher who drives, goads, cajoles, inspires, woos, critiques, and dominates the developing student (incorporating many Stage 1 methods). The poignancy of this film derives from the fact that her best pupils must--and do--outgrow her and move on to less-directive teachers.

Motivating Stage 2 Learners

Contents Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4


Stage 3: Learners of Intermediate Self-Direction

Learners. In this stage, learners have skill and knowledge, and they see themselves as participants in their own education. They are ready to explore a subject with a good guide. They will even explore some of it on their own. But they may need to develop a deeper self-concept, more confidence, more sense of direction, and a greater ability to work with (and learn from) others. Stage 3 learners will benefit from learning more about how they learn, such as making conscious use of learning strategies (Derry, 1988/9).

As part of the process of weaning from other-direction, students in Stage 3 may examine themselves, their culture, and their milieu in order to understand how to separate what they feel from what they should feel, what they value from what they should value, what they want from what they should want. They may learn to identify and value their own experiences in life. They may learn to value the personal experiences of others.

Successful Stage 3 learners develop critical thinking, individual initiative, and a sense of themselves as co-creators of the culture that shapes them. This may involve a therapy-like shift of personal paradigm--a "perspective transformation" (Mezirow, 1981) or "life-world transformation" (Wildemeersch & Leirman, 1988 )--or it may come as a gradual enhancement of developing power.

Stage 3 college students see themselves as future equals of the teacher, as professionals or worthwhile adults in the making, but they may not be experienced or motivated enough to continue on their own. They may want to be involved with teachers and other learners and to be respected for who they are and what they can do.

Stage 3 learners work well with the teacher and with each other in the design and implementation of learning projects. Students can learn collaboratively at any stage, but students who are ready for Stage 3 learning can accomplish far more together than students in earlier stages.

Stage 3 can be an exciting phase; students are happy working in the warm interaction of a friendly group--and many don't want to leave it. However, a vital part of Stage 3 is for students to become empowered, so that they learn to create lifelong learning situations for themselves.

Teaching Stage 3 Learners: "Facilitating." The teacher comes closest at this stage to being a participant in the learning experience. Teacher and students share in decision-making, with students taking an increasing role. The instructor concentrates on facilitation and communication and supports students in using the skills they have.

The teacher can serve in the role Dennis Fox calls an experienced "local guide." The teacher leads students through terrain that is well-studied but richly various. The teacher offers tools, methods, techniques of mountain-climbing, ways of interpreting the experience. The teacher-guide shares experiences and opens others to those experiences.

As students mature toward greater self-direction, the Stage 3 teacher will help them structure the transition toward independence. The "facilitator" might begin by negotiating interim goals and interim evaluations, then give learners more rope. Standards at this level are not the teacher's; they are negotiated with the student and often related to some external standard--such as professional accreditation requirements.

Stage 3 learners can be assigned to work in groups on open-ended but carefully-designed projects. Written criteria, learning contracts, and evaluation checklists help learners monitor their own progress. As they become more competent at setting goal and pace, learners can take on greater freedom and more difficult assignments. The teacher's goal is to continue making certain that students both learn the necessary subject matter and learn how to learn.

Examples of Stage 3.

  • Seminar with instructor as participant.
  • Student group projects approved and facilitated (but not directed) by the instructor.
  • Group projects progressing from structured assignments with criteria checklists, to open-ended, student-developed group projects performed without close supervision.

Models for Stage 3 Teachers.

  • Humanistic education. Humanistic group therapies.
  • Critical pedagogy as described in Shor (1987).
  • Collaborative learning.
  • Training literature for adult professionals.
  • Non-directive teachers who develop students' own motivation rather than provide that motivation.
  • Andragogical adult education.

Carl Rogers (as seen on film) is a good example of a Stage 3 teacher: listening, drawing out, facilitating, encouraging, validating feelings, honoring risks, supporting those who venture beyond what is safe and known for them, cultivating personal awareness and interpersonal respect.

Motivating Stage 3 Learners

Contents Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4

Stage 4: Learners of High Self-Direction

Learners. Self-directed learners set their own goals and standards--with or without help from experts. They use experts, institutions, and other resources to pursue these goals. Being independent does not mean being a loner; many independent learners are highly social and belong to clubs or other informal learning groups.

Learners at this stage are both able and willing to take responsibility for their learning, direction, and productivity. They exercise skills in time management, project management, goal-setting, self-evaluation, peer critique, information gathering, and use of educational resources.

The most mature Stage 4 learners can learn from any kind of teacher, but most Stage 4 learners thrive in an atmosphere of autonomy. Some learners become situationally self-directed; some become self-directed in a more general sense.

Interestingly, Stage 4 learning does not completely do away with teachers. As Candy puts it, "There are certain skills and other bodies of knowledge which are best and most easily mastered under the tutelage of an expert" (1987, p. 229).

Teaching Stage 4 Learners: "Delegating." The progression is now complete from the subject-matter focus of the earliest stages to the learner-focus of Stage 4. The Stage 4 teacher's role is not to teach subject matter but to cultivate the student's ability to learn. The ultimate subject of Stage 4 is the learner's own personal empowerment as a mature creator and evaluator of knowledge, or as a high-level practitioner of a skill.

In teaching Stage 4 learners, the teacher may:

  • Consult with learners to develop written criteria, an evaluation checklist, a timetable, and a management chart for each project they develop.
  • Hold regular meetings so students can chart and discuss everyone's progress and discuss problems.
  • Encourage students to cooperate and consult with each other, but not to abandon responsibility.
  • Focus on the process of being productive, as well as the product. Work on more advanced projects with clear meaning outside the classroom.
  • Emphasize long-term progress in career or life, through stages such as: intern, apprentice, journeyman, master, mentor.
  • Bring in speakers who represent each stage in such a journey.
  • Suggest biographies of role models.
  • Require self-evaluation.

There is clearly more than one way to be a good Stage 4 teacher. The Situational Leadership model--which assumes an organizational setting in which the manager is trying to produce self-managing subordinates--advocates a lessening of interaction between teacher and student. Due to the psychological maturity of Stage 4 students, the instructor gradually reduces both two-way communication and external reinforcement. As enjoyable as it is to interact with such advanced learners, such a teacher will fade back, so that the learner's own efforts become the unequivocal focus. The relationship between teacher and student is collegial and distinctly not intense; relationship is high between students and world, students and task, and perhaps among students. The teacher actively monitors progress to ensure success, but steps in only to assist students in acquiring the skills to be self-directing and self-monitoring. The teacher weans the student of being taught.

There are other S4 roles besides delegating. Another S4 teacher might inspire and mentor. Another might challenge or provoke the learner, then step back. Another might become the externalized professional conscience of the learner, directing and evaluating the learner in almost oppressive detail--but ensuring that the learner internalizes those functions thoroughly. (S4 learners sometimes need the enlightened reapplication of S1 methods.) Another might plant concepts, questions, or paradoxes in the learner's mind which require a lifetime to work through.

Fully self-directed learning is not possible in an institutional setting, and the SSDL model does not require it. Rather, self-directed, lifelong adult learning is offered here as the single most important outcome of a formal education.

Examples of Stage 4.

  • Internship, term projects, independent study, senior project, dissertation.
  • Student-directed discussion with teacher involved mainly as asked to join.
  • Student newspaper or magazine with faculty sponsor.
  • Creative writing.
  • (Many other examples occur outside educational institutions.)

Models for Stage 4 Teachers.

  • Non-directive therapies and meditation.
  • Consultants.
  • Writing coach for professional reporters.
  • Inservice teacher training.
  • Mentoring.

In Stage 4, the learner may not need a teacher at all. A Stage 4 teacher might set a challenge, then leave the learner largely alone to carry it out, intervening only when asked to help--and then not help meet the challenge, but help empower the learner to meet the challenge.

Castaneda's Don Juan, Gandhi, and Joseph Campbell are possible models. Judging from the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu must have been one of the ultimate Stage 4 teachers. Some Stage 4 teachers, like the Sufi master Ajnabi, teach invisibly:

Nobody ever knew what they were learning, because he made them possessors of learning in a manner which prevented them from prizing learning. They generally thought that they were taking part in some completely irrelevant activity. (Shah, 1970, p. 22)

Many graduate professors are Stage 4 teachers of a more familiar kind. They supervise the learner in a project or thesis, stay far enough away for the student to progress alone, but remain available for consultations. They monitor to assure that students make progress, rise to the occasion, and use what they know. They are always ready to step in to offer a change in direction, to suggest a skill, to help evaluate, to serve as a sounding board, to empower.

But the ultimate task of a Stage 4 teacher is to become unnecessary.

Motivating S4 Learners

Contents Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4

Discussion of how to determine a student's stage of self-direction.

Discussion of Stage 1 learners.