The Self-Directed Teacher

Most classroom teachers would agree that their job is made easier and is more rewarding when they are working with students who take charge of their learning and have high levels of self -direction and self -regulation.  We should ask if the teachers are modelling the behaviours they are hoping to see in their students.  Are teachers the independent learners they are hoping to see in their classrooms? 

Most national educational policies advocate the need to develop independent or life long learners.  In a professional sense does this mean teachers who engage in constant professional learning or simply teachers who have a life outside school rich in learning about their areas of personal interest such as fishing, gardening or history?  Or are we expecting a commitment to both?  If we are expecting a life-long commitment to improving their professional skills and craft how do schools and educational authorities support this aspiration?

Many teachers would argue that schools do not support self-directed professional learning.  They argue that teachers’ independent learning in schools has little genuine provision.  The time/dollars allocation is usually in-sufficient, there is little or no differentiation between the learners needs and very little opportunity for self-direction.  Directions are more likely to be tied to government initiatives, departmental priorities or school plans.  Often the programs being introduced require high levels of fidelity and provide little or no independence due to their prescriptive nature. The self-directed learner becomes one more of the pie in the sky motherhood statements.  How many teachers experience of Professional Development has been the “one size fits all” version with a hundred or more teachers being lectured to by The Expert.  The medium is the message.  Sarason observed,

 “For our schools to do better than they do we have to give up the belief that it is possible to create the conditions for productive learning when those conditions do not exist for educational personnel” (Fullan, 1998)

Peter Senge argues:

 “In essence the leader’s task is designing the learning processes whereby people throughout the organization can deal productively with the critical issues they face” (Senge, The Fifth Discipline.) 

In schools this leader is primarily the principal.  Leading learning has emerged as a critical aspect of successful educational leadership.  As principals we should be seeking to create a learning environment in which teachers are continually learning.  If teachers are engaged in continual learning it is a fair assumption that students are also more likely to be engaged in independent learning.  

What would teachers’ professional learning look like if it were self-directed?  We can anticipate that teachers would be working in four broad areas covering Curriculum, Examining Practice, Collaborative Work and Training (External and Internal).  Teachers’ independent learning is often seen as simply “Action Research,” however, self-directed learning can have a number of delivery formats of which “Action Research” is only one form.  We could also expect to see:

  • Immersion with the curriculum content
  • Curriculum implementation planning and delivery
  • Developing curriculum replacement units
  • Case discussions
  • Examining and benchmarking students’ work
  • Discussions with students about their work
  • Study groups
  • Coaching or Mentoring
  • Forming partnerships with other schools or institutions
  • Developing parent programs
  • Developing professional networks
  • Developing partnerships with non-teaching professionals
  • Attending workshops
  • University course work

It can be a fruitful exercise to audit your PD over the last few years to see if there has been an even spread of activities or if one type of delivery has dominated. If we are serious about differentiating teachers’ learning then we must allow for a broad menu of activities. Renyi has defined teachers’ professional learning as:

“Any course of action that works to improve my teaching skills to better serve my students” 

These broadened definitions of professional learning could also be supplemented by defining a learning model for all learners in the school community.  At my school we advocate that learning should:

  • Be sustained
  • Be based in an established need
  • Recognise the two phases of learning (First phase is exposure and the second phase includes practise, reflection, refining, modification)
  • Be rich in dialogue with peers
  • Be seeking to change behaviours and beliefs

Armed with these broader definitions and a learning model should we then expect that implementing a professional learning program would be easy?  Teachers will surely rush to join us in this venture.  If only life and teaching were so simple.  Very few teachers’ own experience of schooling would have included self-direction and too often teachers fall back onto teaching the way they were taught.  Teachers have varying degrees of ability to share and reflect with others.  Many are isolated, others have high dependency on colleagues and others are sole practioners with good teaching skills but unwilling or unable to collaborate.  This is the coalface for the principal who is acting as a learning manager for their staff.  Our aspiration for our learning communities or organizations faces its first difficulty in capturing the hearts and minds of our teachers.

Any change moves people away from certainty and shared agreements.  This can lead to confusion or chaos and even a welcome return to the old ways.  Yet there are ways that we can improve performance, achieve growth, develop innovations and provide flexible delivery without falling in a heap.  In introducing a significant change to our workplace we should always bear in mind the importance of a number of critical elements for mediating change.  The first of these is the quality of the relationships that exist amongst the staff.  We should celebrate births and birthdays.  We should be as generous as our budgets allow us in providing pastoral support to staff because teaching is a difficult job with limited rewards.  Second, we should be vigilant in the provision of information to ensure they see and understand the need for and the process of change.  Third, we need to foster and develop trust and support amongst our staff if we are to see collaborations, shared planning, open classrooms and mentoring.  Also we need to model the taking of personal responsibility.  Finally we need to provide and promote flexibility.

The professional learning program that we developed at my school achieved a great deal and has received national awards.  Our chosen Priority Area for the focus of our professional learning was Students’ Writing.  Our achievements included the creation of a K-6 Writing continuum, a Web-page to support parents and students, parent training sessions, understanding our student knowledge of Writing through a “learning as informant approach,” programs catering for the specific needs of low, middle and high achievers, mentoring of staff in new strategies, a new Writing Scope and Sequence with resources to support it, a cross-sectoral support group for kindergarten teachers, surveys of our parents and students attitudes to Writing, a dictionary program, a shared editing symbols system and the trialling of new Writing strategies.

 Our school improvement was not a single program but a diverse and complex approach.  However, there is a side to it that was not part of the submissions and award recognitions.  This was the part that saw teachers involved in dead-ends, other teachers unable to determine what they wanted to do, others coping with the ambiguity of the emerging program, others worked at a meandering pace and some struggled with the amount of time they were spending away from their class.  There were also unexpected gains and surprising results as teachers came to terms with and found their own meaning in the new approach and in the freedom and responsibility that comes with self-direction. 

Teachers taking charge of their professional learning assumes that their schools have a level of independence. Schools should be funded in such a way that the principal and staff are the primary architects of the professional learning within the school.   How much time is appropriate for teachers to be truly engaged in self-directed learning?  If I suggest four days would this be sufficient or seem over indulgent?  How many schools already invest to this level with their staff?  And as learning leaders are we ready to trust and empower our staff to be self-directed teachers?

People will learn what they want to learn from any situation.  The medium truly is the message.  The way we deliver and support teachers’ professional learning will influence both the way they teach and the spirit in which they teach. 


Paul Halford is a Senior Principal with the International Education Agency of Papua New Guinea and is also the Principal of Korobosea International School in Port Moresby.  He has worked in most sectors of Australian schools including independent, community, state, Catholic, Islamic, Jewish and international schools.