Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed (SSDL)

Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed

(About SSDL: The Staged Self-Directed Learning Model)

by Gerald Grow

Copyright 1991, 1996.  Last updated March 20, 1996.Publication history: The print version of this article appeared in Adult Education Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 3, Spring 1991, pp. 125-149. This work has been widely quoted in dissertations and reprinted in course readings. Go here for permission to reprint  this article or download it.  About the online version.Download this article as a PDF.

Permission. Scholars, students, teachers, and researchers have permission to reprint copies of this article (either the print version or the slightly expanded online version) for use in their work, provided the source is credited. I have retired, and there is no need to contact me further for such permission.

Excerpts up to a total of around 500 words and figures from this article may be published in articles, dissertations, and the like, without further authorization, provided that the source is credited.  I am glad to see it shared.

After publishing this article, my career took me in a different direction, and I was not able to continue to develop this line of approach. I hope you will use, test, and go beyond the ideas expressed.

On a different note, you can make a humorous visual aid to help teach the concept of self-direction in learning here: the Self-Direction Spray.

Referencing this publication.

For a quick overview:

Abstract. Based on the Situational Leadership model of Hersey and Blanchard, the Staged Self-Directed Learning Model proposes that learners advance through stages of increasing self-direction and that teachers can help or hinder that development. Good teaching matches the learner’s stage of self-direction and helps the learner advance toward greater self-direction. Specific methods are proposed for teaching students at each stage, although many different teaching styles are good when appropriately applied. Several pedagogical difficulties are explained as mismatches between teacher style and learner stage, especially the mismatch between a student needing direction and a non-directive teacher. The model is applied to a course, a single class, and the overall curriculum.

Overview: To Figure 1. 

I. Introduction

When I began teaching college in the late ’60s, many of my students were teachers taking classes for re-certification. It never occurred to me that I was practicing adult education. But they learned so differently than younger students– so much more personally and willingly, and with so much independence–that they taught me new ways to teach. The first and hardest lesson took about a year: to shut up and listen. Inspired by the possibilities, I sought out educators in the San Francisco area with similar interests and joined them in workshops, retreats, and study groups to learn what we called “humanistic” teaching. Characteristic of the times, I wrote a manifesto on self-education, “Notes Toward an Ideal College,” which was published in a teacher education journal.I. Introduction

After fifteen years outside academia, I returned to the college classroom–teaching magazine journalism at a state university. Only now students responded differently. Many were passive and dependent upon being taught. Others resisted what I had thought were learner-centered methods of teaching. A few became defiant, or defiantly indifferent. The response of one student, though, drove me to rethink what I knew about teaching.

She hated me.

I had received the usual range of student responses, but no one had ever hated me. No matter how nice I was, no matter how much interest I showed in her own learning process, she simply hated me. I was too unnerved to find a constructive response. I couldn’t get her to talk to me. Colleagues could not help me understand what was happening or what to do. (Some thought I must be a bad teacher to be admitting such problems.) Since her hatred symbolized other lesser failures to reach other students, I knew then that I would have to learn to teach differently–or leave.

As a result of struggling with this problem, I found a concept around which to reorganize my understanding of teaching:

  • Different students have different abilities to be self-directed,
  • Teachers must adapt their methods in response
  • Self-direction can be taught.

This paper presents a model — the Staged Self-Directed Learning (SSDL) Model — that suggests how teachers can actively equip students to become more self-directed in their learning.

Additional details from the introduction

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.

Figure 1

Overview: To Figure 2.

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.

Note on Freire. Another learner-involvement approach, critical pedagogy, derives from the work of Paulo Freire (Freire, 1968; Shor, 1987; Shor & Freire, 1987). Teachers in this approach lead students to take responsibility for their own learning, especially by confronting the ways they are held back by society and by themselves. Although this and other “insight” methods may be used with Stage 1 learners, the SSDL model calls these Stage 3 approaches. Some Stage 1 learners are not good candidates for insight approaches, and they may resist sharing responsibility for learning. (More on this later.)

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.

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.

 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.


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.

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

Discussion of Stage 1 learners.

III. Implications for Teaching

Mismatches between Teaching Styles and Learning Stages

Problems arise when the teaching style is not matched to the learner’s degree of self-direction. Figure 2 represents one of the most important outcomes of the SSDL model. Out of the grid of 16 possible pairings between teaching styles and learning stages, six pairings are mismatches, and two of those are severe.

Figure 2. Match and Mismatch between
Learner Stages and Teacher Styles

In this model, teachers adapt their teaching styles to match the student’s degree of self direction, and in order to increase that self-direction. Problems occur when dependent learners are mismatched with non-directive teachers and when self-directed learners are mismatched with highly directive teachers.

The T1/S4 Mismatch

Overview: To Figure 3.

Some problems in education arise when the learner and teacher are not matched. When self-directed students (S4) are paired with an authoritarian teacher (T1), problems may arise–although some S4 learners develop the ability to function well and retain overall control of their learning, even under directive teachers (Long, 1989). Other S4 learners, however, will resent the authoritarian teacher and rebel against the barrage of low-level demands. This mismatch may cause the learner to rebel or retreat into boredom.

To make things worse, the S1 teacher will probably not interpret such a rebellion as the result of a mismatch; that teacher is likely to see the student as “surly, uncooperative and unprepared to get down to the hard graft of learning basic facts” (Fox, 160). Hersey (1983) describes the result of this mismatch as “havoc,” in which “extreme over control by the leader can result in stress and conflict where the follower engages in behavior designed to get the leader out or to get out from under the leader.”

Independent of Subject-Matter. Verner (1962) believed that teaching method must be matched to subject matter, and he mapped student “participation” (similar to the dependent-independent dimension in this theory) against subject matter (ranging from abstract to experiential). The present theory presses toward a different conclusion, and, while I have some doubts about this conclusion, here it is: The SSDL approach is independent of subject matter.

Teaching style should be governed not by subject matter but by the balance between teacher directiveness and student control, usually set by the student’s ability to participate as a self-directed, self-motivated, responsible learner–though sometimes negotiated between teacher and student (such as when students capable of self-direction choose a directive teacher).

The T1/S3-S4 Mismatch

The T1/S3-S4 mismatch is one of the fundamental difficulties with the public school system. Students who are capable of more individual involvement in learning are often relegated to passive roles in authoritarian classrooms.

Adults who return to college may find themselves faced with a similar mismatch. Their life experiences and learning skills enable them to learn at the S3 or S4 level in many subjects, but at many colleges they find faculty accustomed to using S1 and S2 methods on adolescents. Furthermore, after many years of responsibility, adults may experience difficulty learning in from S1 teachers. Adults may be unused to blindly doing what they are told without understanding why and consenting in the task. Many of them are accustomed to having authority. They don’t jump through hoops just because somebody says to–even though younger students are ordinarily expected to do so without question.

As you may suspect, I am guessing somewhat here, and the situation may not be as clear as I am telling it. (I just wanted you to know that I know.) Not everything is guesswork, though. Some of my thinking here comes from John Lewis’s dissertation study of adult learners in statistics courses.

The T4/S1 Mismatch

A different problem occurs when dependent learners are paired with a Stage 3 or Stage 4 teacher who delegates responsibility that the learner is not equipped to handle.

(I developed the entire SSDL model just to gain the insight reported in the following paragraph.)

With such students, humanistic methods may fail. Many will not be able to make use of the “freedom to learn,” because they lack the skills such as goal-setting, self-evaluation, project management, critical thinking, group participation, learning strategies, information resources, and self-esteem, which make self-directed learning possible–skills such as those described by Guglielmino (1977), Oddi (1986), and Cafarella and O’Donnell (1987). In this mismatch, students may resent the teacher for forcing upon them a freedom they are not ready for. In Pratt’s words, they may feel “frustration and anger when, in a misguided spirit of democracy, they are expected to make decisions without sufficient knowledge or expertise” (1988, p. 169). Wanting close supervision, immediate feedback, frequent interaction, constant motivation, and the reassuring presence of an authority-figure telling them what to do, such students are unlikely to respond well to the delegating style of a nice humanistic facilitator, hands-off delegator, or critical theorist who demands that they confront their own learning roles. They may even hate the teacher (as my student hated me), or, like the Chinese law students described by Nadler (1989), they may dutifully recite the words of authority figures and shy away from the kind of independent thinking Americans value.

Hersey (1983) describes the results of this mismatch a kind of “havoc” that occurs when the followers do not receive the guidance they need, and,

“lacking the ability to perform the task, tend to feel that the leader has little interest in their work and does not care about them personally [This form of leadership makes] it difficult for these followers to increase their ability and reinforces their lack of confidence If the leader waits too long but then provides high amounts of structure, the followers tend to see this action as punative rather than a helping relationship.”

Several telling examples of this kind of mismatch can be found in the reports of innovative teaching in Carl Rogers’ “Freedom to Learn in the ’80s.” One student, whose ability to respond with self-direction was less than that demanded by the course, wrote:

“I am the product of a system built around assignments, deadlines, and conventional examinations. Therefore, with this course graded by the flexible method and four other courses graded by the more conventional methods I tend to give less attention to this course than it merits due to lack of well-defined requirements.” (Rogers, p. 91)

In another section, Rogers acknowledges “the shock and resentment that sometimes occur when students are faced with the necessity of making responsible choices” (p. 93). Other teachers in the book blame such students for not taking responsibility for their own learning, concluding that in dependent learners “old conditioning feels safe and operates well” (p. 66). The teachers quoted in this book want students to be more self-directing, but they have no pedagogical method for helping students move from dependency to self-direction.

The Staged Self-Directed Learning Model proposes such a method.

Discussion of Mismatches

The T4/S1 mismatch and “free schools.” The T4/S1 mismatch (or the milder mismatch of T4/S2) points to a fundamental problem with the extreme “free school” approach to education (practiced by Neill [1960] and attempted by many). This approach trusts that, left alone, children will learn on their own. The literature on self-directed learning, however, suggests that “learning on your own” requires a complex collection of self-skills and learning skills which not all learners spontaneously acquire. Unless self-direction is explicitly encouraged, “free” schools and “open” programs may work only for those whose family background has already prepared them for self-direction (Tuman, 1988).

Teachers using critical pedagogy have also reported difficulties when the method does not match the learning stage of the student. Even though critical pedagogy is specifically designed to address the learning problems of students in their real situations (including the classroom), some students do not respond.

“Most of my mainstream college students…are waiting for the teacher to speak and do all the work and leave them alone to copy down what should be memorized,” Ira Shor reported. “They generally begin passively alienated, and many stay that way until the end” (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 129).

For all its virtues, critical pedagogy alone may not be sufficient to move students from dependent to independent learning. The SSDL model suggests that problems may arise when the S3 approach of critical pedagogy conflicts with the need S1 students have for being taught.

Though adult educators recognize that adult learners are not necessarily self-directed learners, it is widely assumed that adults will become self-directed after a few sessions explaining the concept. (See, for example, Rutland & Guglielmino’s [1987] well-designed program for teaching adults about self-directed learning before they begin a self-directed learning group.) But not all adults will become self-directed when told. Adult learners can be at any of the four learning stages, but the literature on adult education is dominated by advocates of what the SSDL model would call a Stage 3 method–a facilitative approach emphasizing group work (epitomized by the generous, gentle approach in Knowles, 1975). Even teachers of adults, however, may need to approach certain learners in a directive, even authoritarian style, then gradually equip those learners with the skills, self-concept, and motivation necessary to pursue learning in a more self-directed manner.

Freire, advocate of a classroom in which student and teacher receive equal respect, acknowledges the paradoxical need to be directive:

“On the one hand, I cannot manipulate. On the other hand, I cannot leave the students by themselves. The opposite of these two possibilities is being radically democratic. That means accepting the directive nature of education. There is a directiveness in education which never allows it to be neutral My role is not to be silent” (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 157).

Every stage requires balancing the teacher’s power with the student’s emerging self-direction. If I emphasize the need for directiveness, it is because, coming from a humanistic background, I had to learn to use directive methods wholeheartedly, without apology or shame, as part of the long-term cultivation of self-direction in certain learners. Pratt makes a similar case for practitioners of andragogy to “acknowledge states of dependency as potentially legitimate” and provide the needed direction” (1988, p. 170).

Good Teaching

The SSDL model suggests why “good teaching” is widely misunderstood. Most people seem to think that there is one way to teach well. Awards usually go to a teacher who is outstanding in one of the first two stages–the one who “pours it on” or the one who leads and motivates students–less often to the one who encourages students to develop on their own, or the one who engages the most advanced students with deep, open-ended problems.

What is “good teaching” for one student in one stage of development may not be “good teaching” for another student–or even for the same student at a different stage of development. Good teaching does two things. It matches the student’s stage of self-direction, and it empowers the student to progress toward greater self-direction. Good teaching is situational, yet it promotes the long-term development of the student.

Conflicts among teachers with different styles.

In my experience, teachers of the S1-S2 types and teachers of the S3-S4 types often dislike one another’s methods, even one another’s personalities. Humanistic educators (for example, Fox) often ridicule or reject S1 and S2 methods. “Back-to-the-basics” teachers, conversely, often ridicule those they consider fuzzy and non-directive. In typical polarizing fashion, each group compares its virtues to the other’s faults.

A similar point is made concerning the debate about andragogy in adult education.

I have listened for many years to colleagues who devalue their counterparts. Whatever its faults, the SSDL model provides a way to honor the strengths of a broad range of teaching styles.

Multi-Mode Teaching. Nearly any teacher can teach in more than one style. Hersey and Blanchard (1988, Ch. 12) give an interesting account of all possible pairs of management styles in the Situational Leadership Model, though I suspect that teachers lump into two large groups–those for whom the S1-S2 styles come naturally, and those for whom the S3-S4 styles come naturally. The S3-S4 group seems dominant among writers on adult education.

Toscanini as a multi-modal teacher. A study of 122 high school and college choral conductors found different ones favoring styles 1, 2, or 3, but many using a dominant style and one or more secondary styles (Friedman, 1988). I believe that some teachers use all four styles quite naturally.

In tapes of Toscanini’s rehearsals, for example, the maestro’s dominant style is what I would call S2 (the same style Friedman found dominant in choral directors)–leading by motivating. When mechanical difficulties arise–such as tuning, balancing sections of the orchestra, or mastering his interpretation, he does not hesitate to ask world-class musicians to follow blindly while he drills them in the S1 mode. When rehearsing with a soloist, however, Toscanini shifts to an S3 mode in which he uses the entire orchestra to facilitate the soloist’s interpretation. Changes can be negotiated; but the maestro does not dictate them. And, in the S4 moments of transcendent magic, he (without ceasing to be dynamically present) virtually disappears, so that the music plays itself through him and through the orchestra. In those moments, each player is independently self-directed in one of the great communal experiences of human culture.

Such convergences underscore the difficulty in drawing clear lines between self-direction, other-direction, and teaching style.

Some Traps for Teachers

The temptations of each teaching style

  • The temptation for the Stage 1 teacher is to be authoritarian in a punative, controlling way that stifles initiative and creates resistance and dependency.
  • The temptation for the Stage 2 teacher is to remain on center stage, inspiring all who will listen but leaving them with no more learning skills or self-motivation than when they began.
  • The Stage 3 teacher can disappear into the group and demoralize students by “accepting and valuing almost anything from anybody” (Fox, 1983, p. 162).
  • The Stage 4 teacher can withdraw too much from the learning experience, lose touch, fail to monitor progress, and let students hang themselves with rope they are not yet accustomed to handling. Alternately, a misguided Stage 4 mentor can insidiously infiltrate all aspects of an advanced student’s life (Bishop, 1988).

In each instance, the teacher may falter in the immensely difficult juggling act of becoming vitally, vigorously, creatively, energetically, and inspiringly unnecessary. Don’t underestimate how difficult it is for a teacher to move from being a requirement to being just one among many choices in how to learn.

The false Stage 4 learner

A certain kind of student gives the appearance of being a Stage 4 self-directed learner but turns out to be a highly dependent student in a state of defiance. The one who shouts loudest, “NO! I’ll do it MY way!” is likely to be a “false independent” student who may resist mastering the necessary details of the subject and try to “wing it” at an abstract level.

Such students may apply for early admission to graduate seminars, for example, before they have the background knowledge or learning strategies to handle Stage 3 and Stage 4 learning situations. False independents need to have their knowledge and skills brought up to the level of their self-concept. They may well need to learn how to learn productively from others. They may benefit from a strong-willed facilitator who challenges them to become not only autonomous but also effective.

Dependent, resistant learners as a product of the educational system

Some learners get caught up in resisting direction. A group of highly resistant learners can coerce teachers into an authoritarian mode–and then frustrate them. This game is played out daily by millions of school kids, with the help of their teachers.

The resistant form of Stage 1 is probably not a natural condition. Most preschool children seem naturally to be Stage 3 or 4 learners when undirected. Even when taught in a directive manner, they are generally available, interested, excitable, and have a spontaneous creative energy that they are willing to direct into satisfying projects under the guidance of a capable teacher. Many of us wonder why that magnificent desire to learn cannot be cultivated continuously throughout schooling.

Resistant dependent learning may well be a product of culture, upbringing, and the public education system. Students do not naturally arrive at high school, college, or adult education programs at once dependent upon teachers and resentful of being taught. They become that way as a result of years of dependency training. And they continue resisting with the implicit cooperation of teachers. Quigley [1990] describes sources of resistance in adult basic learners, including threats to cultural identity. We need a better understanding of dependency in context, and we will have to face the possibility that certain forms of help only make the problem worse.

IV. Applying the Model in Curriculum, Course, and Class

So far, this paper has presented the SSDL model and used it to provide insights into several common teaching situations. We will conclude by considering it as an overall guide to instruction.

The fundamental movement implicit in the SSDL model is the movement from dependent to self-directed learning. Teaching is matched to learners with the explicit purpose of helping them attain the knowledge, skills, motivation, and goal of becoming more autonomous in learning and (I add somewhat idealistically) in life.

Returning to Figure 2, we can see that there are six areas of significant mismatch between teaching style and learning stage. Blocking out the mismatches highlights the 10 areas in which teaching style and learner stage are matched (or nearly matched). Those 10 areas, moving in the diagram from lower left diagonally to upper right, constitute an area of workable match–a”learning field” (Hersey [1983] calls it the High Probability Match diagonal)–onto which several pedagogical activities can be usefully mapped.

Paul Hersey, co-author of the Situational Leadership Model, described an experimental course in which students were moved through more dependent roles into self-directed roles (Hersey & Blanchard, 1988, p. 192). The course began with lectures (delivered in a Stage 1 teaching style), moved to directed discussions (Stage 2), then to less-structured discussions (Stage 3), and finally to student-directed discussions (Stage 4). During the semester, the teacher gradually changed role from expert, to guide, to facilitating participant, to consultant for student-directed activities. (See Figure 3.)

Student roles changed during this time in response to the teacher’s role–from dependent to participant to student-led learning. Hersey (1988) reported student resistance to moving into Stage 3 and 4 learning (a resistance Millar et al. [1986] discuss in some depth), but found the course to be more successful than a control course taught in the regular way. (As far as I know, no one else has duplicated this basic experiment in staged self-direction–hint, hint.) Following this example, the SSDL model can be used to plan a course, so that students move from dependent to more self-directed learning over a semester.

Figure 3. Applying the Staged Self-Direction Model to a Course

As students gain the skills needed for self-direction, the teacher becomes less directive. A similar progression can be applied to the curriculum, with students learning in a more self-directed manner in upper-level courses.


Independent projects.
Student-directed discussions.
Discovery learning. Instructor as expert, consultant, and monitor.


Application of material.
Facilitated discussion.
Teams working closely with instructor on real problems. Critical thinking. Learning strategies.


Intermediate material. Lecture-discussion.
Applying the basics in a stimulating way.
Instructor as motivator.


Introductory material.
Lecture. Drill.
Immediate correction.

Overview: To Cartoons on Teaching Styles

In a similar way, the overall plan for a college curriculum can be mapped into the four diagonal boxes in Figure 3. Introductory college courses could match the S1 student with T1 and T2 teaching styles. Intermediate courses could match S2 students with T1/2/3 teaching styles. Advanced courses could match S3 students with T2/3/4 teaching styles. S4 students are matched to graduate courses, internships, independent study, and senior thesis, taught in the T3 and T4 teaching styles. In such a way, the SSDL model might be used as a planning tool for coordinating faculty efforts so that students do, in fact, progress toward greater self-direction as they move to upper-level college courses.

Even a single class meeting could be organized so that students move from dependency, through intermediate stages, to more self-directed learning. The teacher can demonstrate a skill, coach them through using the skill, facilitate their application of it, then have them work in groups to create new situations in which to practice the skill on each other. On a small scale, this progression takes students through the stages of increased self-direction and empowerment as the teacher moves from a directive role to one of facilitating and monitoring.

Recursive Teaching. The SSDL model describes a progression of stages, but the progress of a student or a class will rarely be linear, and most classes will contain students at different stages of self-direction. A more realistic version of the model would be non-linear and iterative.

Consider an upper-level college course designed in the S3 model. The teacher serves as group facilitator, with the job of empowering students to take greater charge of their learning and making certain that they master advanced levels of the subject matter. Most of the work of the class takes place in the S3 arena, where the teacher seeks ways to phase out external leadership and empower more student self-direction.

But there will be times when other learning modes are necessary. When the group (or some of its members) are deficient in basic skills, they may need drill and practice–an S1 mode. (Even advanced students sometimes choose S1 teachers who push them to achieve goals the students cannot achieve under their own motivation.) Sometimes the S3 teacher may determine that coaching or confrontation are necessary to reach a student. The class may loop back to the S1 mode for a while, then return to S3.

The need may also arise for continued motivation and encouragement. Sometimes members of the class will supply it. Sometimes the teacher will have shift to the salesmanship mode of S2.

There will also be times when the teacher’s knowledge matters more than anything else; lecturing may be the best possible response at that point. During the lecture, the class loops back to the S1 or S2 mode, then returns to the group interaction and subtle facilitation of the S3 mode.

At times, individuals or subgroups will become ready to exert self-direction and leadership. Those students can go into the S4 mode, carry out a project independently, then come back to the group and teach the results. In these ways, with the S3 mode of the facilitated group as a base, the class can loop out to the other three stages when they are appropriate.

In a similar way, a class focussed on another stage of learning, S1 through S4, can draw support from earlier stages and lean toward later stages. Many college courses center around a series of S1/S2 lectures but have a weekly discussion group more in the S3 mode. Looping may be a more effective way to use the SSDL concept than trying to follow a sequence of linear stages. Still, the map provided by the SSDL model identifies the educational terrain we are traversing. The rigid application of this model would, of course, lead to just another unfortunate orthodoxy. Yet, until a better way arrives, the SSDL model helps one stay focused on the task of developing self-direction.


V. Implications for Research

Limitations of the management model. Most teaching models imply a theory of education that sharply constrains their validity, and this one might as well. The goals of training (to perform known tasks well) and education (to develop people who can live in an unpredictable world) are sufficiently different to make one worry that the SSDL model may unwittingly carry the limits of a management model into the much wider arena of education. At what points do management models and education models clash, and how can their differences be reconciled?

Subjects with traditional teaching methods. The SSDL model represents teaching as independent of subject matter. Yet hatha yoga, karate, and some other subjects are always taught in the same mode, without regard for the self-direction of the learner. Why isn’t the learner’s ability to be self-directed an important variable in the teaching of such subjects?

The learner’s view. Nowhere does the SSDL model ask what learners think about all this. That’s a major omission. The model’s focus on teacher-facilitated learning further limits its usefulness by excluding teacherless learning. Teaching the already-resistant, chronically-dependent learner remains problematic in this model. In life, we often devote ourselves to solving with one hand the very problems we are creating with the other. Is there another way to construe teaching and learning so that some of the SSDL’s solutions become unnecessary?

Teacher expectation may play a greater role than this theory allows. Will students of all kinds act more self-directed merely because that is what the teacher expects? How well can self-direction be faked? Can self-direction be summoned into being by the power of expectation alone, or does it require the separate practice of separate skills?

The impression of directedness. What do teachers do that causes students to feel more directed or more autonomous? If two teachers deliver identical instructions for a learning exercise, will students perceive them as identically directive? What could make a difference? How much is directiveness a matter of instructional method and how much is it a matter of personal style? The very concept of “directiveness” needs to be examined closely.

Hidden directedness. This paper has discussed overt teacher directiveness. What about directiveness that is “hidden” in instructional materials, curricula, designed exercises, group procedures, cultural conventions, room design, hypertext links, the structures of computer-assisted instruction, etc.? What about the subtle directiveness of an expert facilitator or designer of educational environments?

Do learners relate to hidden directiveness the same way they relate to overt directiveness? Does hidden directiveness promote dependency more or less than overt directiveness? (Does either promote dependency?) Is there a difference in directiveness between a teacher telling the learner what to do and the learner reading a book (or a computer screen) that tells the same thing?

How real are the stages? Like any exploratory theory, this one is based alternately on seasoned observations and plausible guesses. Are there really stages of self-direction–or is the Tannenbaum-Schmidt continuum a better description of the relation between teacher and learner control? If there are stages (as I think), can teachers identify them accurately? Can learners? What marks a learner’s passage from one stage to another? To what extent are these stages developmental, and to what extent are they situational? Would it make sense for each learner to keep a “checklist” of the subskills of self-direction and the extent those are at work in each area of learning?

How adaptable are teachers? To what degree can teachers alter their natural teaching styles to accommodate students in different stages? When learner and teacher are mismatched, how do they currently handle the situation? What strategies, for example, do mature, self-directed adults use when suddenly faced with an S1 teacher? Do learners develop sequentially through the stages, or are the stages actually modes of learning that can occur in alternation, or even simultaneously, in the same learner?

Anyone interested in relating this model to other leading management models (Theory X and Theory Y, for example) should consult chapter 20 in Hersey and Blanchard (1988). But if stages of the SSDL model bear any relation to “learning styles” (clearly an important but tangled area of educational theory), Wittstruck (1986) did not find it.

A caveat. The SSDL model is a powerful concept, and like all powerful concepts, not to be trusted. Onto the many complexities of learning, it imposes a brisk, no-nonsense interpretation. It is valuable in the sense of a bright, single-minded colleague who keeps explaining everything so clearly that one is challenged to uncover what is missing and find a better explanation. I have lived my life in the presence of predatory theories that explain too much too easily; even before completing the thought behind this paper, I was arguing with it–and I argue with it still. Yet the SSDL model has a life of its own, it has a contribution to make, and it would not leave me in peace until I wrote it up. I present this model, not as a definitive thing, but as another statement in the ongoing conversation of those who encourage self-directed, lifelong learning.

End of main article. For more, see:

“In Defense of the Staged Self-Directed Learning Model”

Notes on “Motivating Students for Self-Direction”

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Referencing this publication

Please reference both the print and on-line sources for this publication, in a manner equivalent to this:

Grow, Gerald O. (1991/1996). “Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed.” Adult Education Quarterly, 41 (3), 125-149. Expanded version available online at: <http://www.longleaf.net>.

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