Heutagogy Community of Practice

Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning

Self-directed learning and Self-determined Learning: An Exploration

by Stewart Hase

Some bloggers as well as (surprisingly) authors of book chapters and papers have either confused or conflated the notions of self-directed learning and self-determined learning (heutagogy). This is not surprising given the similarity of the concepts. I’d like to explain how I see them as different.

Chris Kenyon and I, in our first paper on heutagogy in 2000, deliberately described heutagogy as an extension to andragogy. We had the view that we wanted to build on the concept of self-directed learning developed by Knowles and then subsequently others. Hiemstra (1994) in a review of self-directed learning points out that the idea that people can be independent learners goes back to antiquity and the original philosophers. As Candy (1991) suggested there has been a lot of variability in the way in which self-directed learning has been conceptualised. In particular, whether or not it is a process or an outcome. However, Knowles defined self-directed as:

In its broadest meaning, ’self-directed learning’ describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identify human and material resources for learning, choosing and implement appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes. (Knowles, 1975, p. 18)

 It is easy to see that there is a lot of similarity between how self-directed learning is described here and our current thinking about self-determined learning in the large number of articles and two books since 2000. I note this because some of the misunderstanding comes about from a heavy reliance on this first paper and not following the significant development of self-determined learning since that time.

Knowles added the provision that self-directedness was something that occurred as people entered adulthood, as they became more experienced in life. Hence, the notion of andragogy or adult learning as opposed to pedagogy, the teaching of children. He thought that self-directedness differentiated adults from children as learners. Hiemstra (1994) also describes self-directed learning as something that happens outside of formal education. It’s something that people can do at their own initiative, which is closer to the idea of self-determined learning.

In a more recent review, Brookfield (2009) points out that self-directedness is not, currently, thought of as an innate ability as suggested by Knowles. This is based on self-directedness being seen as dependent on individual characteristics such as personality, experience and preference, as well as context. Self-directed learning has also been confused with independent and autonomous learning. These ideas have been aligned with distance learning including the more recent phenomena of MOOCS. In these contexts the teacher is still firmly in control even though certain parts of the learning might be negotiated. So self-directedness seems to have a special meaning in distance education.

Heutagogy was an attempt to advance self-directed to become a more inclusive, more comprehensive idea. While we accepted some of the meanings of and practices associated with self-directed learning, some of our assumptions and evidence also challenged and extended it. Thus, we decided on the term self-determined learning as our definition of heutagogy.


Heutagogic Design

from Heutagogy: A Holistic Framework for Creating Twenty-First Century Self-Determined Learners

One core difference is that we are much more explicit in the assumption of human agency as a universal human characteristic. This is not made clear in self-determined learning We also see human agency and the capacity to express this through learning as occurring from birth. We are hard wired to learn and are very good at it right from the start of our existence. It is not assumed to be something that develops in adulthood. Rather, growing older in our current educational system is likely to reduce our ability to be effective self-determined or self-directed learners. Self-determined learning also sees a different role for the teacher (I have even suggested ridding ourselves of the title teacher and moving to the title of learning leader) as facilitator and guide within a highly flexible curriculum in all respects. Self-determined learning makes the learner a partner in the learning enterprise, no matter at what level. And there are examples of this working in junior schools described in the heutagogical literature, as well as the Steiner and Montessori models, which are largely using a self-determined learning approach.

We also had the advantage of the recent advances in neuroscience, which enabled heutagogy, over time, to be developed as an evidence based practice based on brain research. The rather disjointed theory development around self-directed learning was probably due to a less than focused research effort. Since the formalization of self-directed learning in the 70s we also have seen the rise and rise of the Internet. Information is now available to just about anyone with the right technology. The educational system becomes redundant as does the gowned guru, when it comes to accessing information. The teacher can now focus on higher order activities such as letting people learn and getting out of the way: a guiding hand in a Socratic walk in the park.

Self-directed learning is important and has a lot to offer how we think about learning. But it is a subset of self-determined learning. In our view it is a quality and a process of self-determined learners.

I hope this clears up any confusion about the difference between SDL and SDL (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), although I doubt that it matters much to the practitioner who is excitedly changing the face of education, as we speak using either one of the two.


Blaschke, L.M., Kenyon, C. & Hase, S. (2014). Experiences in self-determined learning, Amazon.

Brookfield, S. D. (2009). Self-directed learning in R. Maclean & D. Wilson (eds).International handbook of education for the changing world of work (pp. 2615-2627). Netherlands: Springer.

Candy, P C 1991 Self-direction for Lifelong Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hase, S & Kenyon, C. (2013). Self-determined learning: heutagogy in action, London: Bloomsbury.

Hiemstra, R. (1994). Self-directed learning. In T. Husen & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Education (second edition), Oxford: Pergamon Press. Reprinted here by permission

Merriam, S. B. (2001). Andragogy and self‐directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. New directions for adult and continuing education, 89, 3-14.


2 comments on “Self-directed learning and Self-determined Learning: An Exploration

  1. deghakimi
    January 5, 2016

    Great input.
    I had great difficulties in convincing my academic advisor on heutagogy as learning from multiple angles : from the side of teacher, learner and learning environment (facilities/technology/culture around us). She said that heautagogy only involves how the teacher teaches not how the students learn.
    Please enlighten. Thanks.

  2. stewarthase
    February 23, 2016

    Hi, sorry I have taken so long to reply. If your supervisor had a look at our recent articles and, particularly, the introductory chapters in our two books on heutagogy she would discover that heutagogy is all about how people learn with reference to the brain research. After that it is about teachers can then adopt practices that assist learning. Would be pleased to discuss further on stewart.hase@gmail.com.

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