Learning is about developing our knowledge, skills and values and thereby improving our practice. The traditional model of learning revolves around the idea that there is someone in a position of authority who in some way oversees the learning. At school it was the teacher; at university it was the tutor; on placement the practice educator; and, in practice, it will generally be the trainer on an in-service training course. In each of these cases it is this person (or the organisation they represent) who decides what is to be learned, how it is to be learned, in what order and so on.

All this can be very effective and has a long history of bringing about positive results at a number of levels. However, it is not always successful, and even when it is, can we really say that it is the best way of learning, the best method of producing optimal results? The fact that it is the most common approach to learning does not mean, of course, that it is the best or most effective.

So, what’s the alternative? Increasingly we are now seeing a stronger emphasis on self-directed learning. But what exactly is self-directed learning? Basically it is learning where you decide what you need to learn and how you are going to learn it. This makes sure that the learning is suited as closely as possible to your needs, preferences, circumstances and aspirations.

I remember being told many years ago that courses are more like a bus than a taxi. That is, a trainer can’t take a whole group to exactly where they want or need to go. It can only take them to the nearest bus stop, as it were, and leave it to each participant to make their own way to their destination. Self-directed learning, then, is more like having your own car. The idea is that you decide where you need to get to for your learning and then arrange the transport to get you right to the door.

Now you might quite understandably be thinking: what if you don’t know what you need to learn and how to learn it? This is where those educators I mentioned before come in. Instead of deciding in advance what their learners need to learn and how they are going to learn it, they can play a mentoring and tutoring role – that is, helping people to decide for themselves what to learn and how best to learn it. The best educators have been doing this for a long time, switching from a purely didactic approach to a facilitative one. So, who is there in your network who could help you learn by acting as a mentor (formal or informal)? And, of course, there is also peer mentoring – that is, individuals helping each other learn. This is the idea of collaborative learning, based on the recognition that people can learn as much from each other (if not more so) than from a trainer or tutor.

For the past four years I have been running a subscription-based online learning community geared specifically towards self-directed collaborative learning (www.apdp.org.uk). Members are provided with a 12-part flexible framework of learning, but this is not a curriculum or syllabus. It is a framework to act as a guide and members can use it or adapt it as they see fit. The various facilities offered are all geared towards promoting self-directed collaborative learning. It is each member who is in charge of their own learning, with my guidance as online tutor and the support of other learners within the community.

Increasingly universities are going down this road of including a greater element of self-directed collaborative learning – for example, through the use of virtual learning environments like Blackboard or Moodle. But it’s not the technology that matters, it’s the philosophy that counts, the philosophy of taking ownership of your learning. This means putting yourself in the driving seat and taking control by plotting your own route. There will be others to support you and help you when you are stuck, but the key idea is that the person in charge of your learning is you.

So, if you take your professional development seriously, ask yourself: who owns your learning? Are you clear about what you need to learn to maximise your confidence and the quality of your practice? Are you clear about how you can learn it and who can help you? Who can you rely on to guide you through this process?

Of course, self-directed learning isn’t compulsory. You can, if you want, leave it to others to make the decisions for you, but is that going to give you the best results?

Dr Neil Thompson is an independent writer, educator and consultant. His website and blog are at www.NeilThompson.info.