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There seem to be countless philosophies and methods regarding the best way for students to learn. It is hard to keep up with and understand all of them. Two such learning methods that have been around for decades are Self-Directed Learning and Progressive Learning. While the two methods have a lot in common in terms of believing that an individual should have ownership over their education, there are some distinct differences between the two. Here is a breakdown of Self-Directed Learning versus Progressive Learning.


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Self-Directed Learning

Self-Directed Learning is based on the idea that an individual takes responsibility for their own learning by choosing, managing, and evaluating their own learning activities. Proponents of Self-Directed Learning believe that learning goes far beyond academics. They believe education is all encompassing. It is everything someone knows in order to live a satisfying life. It can be done anywhere and at any age. Essential elements of Self-Directed Learning include the following:

  • Student control over as much of the learning experience as possible;
  • Development of skills that lead to productive activity;
  • Self management; and
  • Self motivation.

Informally, Self-Directed Learning is happening constantly in people’s everyday lives as they pursue personal interests. The motivation behind this learning is usually due to things like curiosity, social interests, personal betterment, or simply an internal motivation to learn more about a specific topic or even the world as a whole.

This type of learning obviously leads different individuals down different paths – two people each pursuing the same topic will not learn about it in the same way or necessarily end up having participated in the same experiences in order to learn. That fact is what motivates proponents of Self-Directed Learning – individuals should learn with their individuality driving the experience.  

Self-Directed Learning is the opposite of what learning in most traditional schools looks like today. Much of today’s traditional school-based learning can be considered imposed schooling, which is forced upon individuals regardless of their desire for it, and is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than an individual’s internal, self-motivating desire to learn. It actually often does the opposite and suppresses an individual’s natural curiosity.


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Progressive Learning

Progressive Learning values experience over learning facts. The philosophy behind Progressive Learning is that educators should teach children how to think rather than relying on the memorization of facts and information. Progressive Learning is all about the process of learning by doing and relies on hands-on experiences that allow students to learn by actively engaging in activities that put their knowledge to use.

With Progressive Learning, the student still directs their own learning, but they are assisted by a teacher who is knowledgeable about the subjects. In this model, the teacher is a facilitator rather than a classroom leader. Montessori schools, which most people are either familiar with or have at least heard of, employ Progressive Learning. In a Montessori classroom the teacher guides learning rather than directing learning, as is done in a traditional classroom.

Proponents of Progressive Learning would argue that it is the best way for students to experience real-world situations and helps them develop the skills they need to better prepare them for college and life as productive members of society. They argue that a student who only sits at a desk and learns about a topic is less knowledgeable than someone who has actually put knowledge into practice. They would say that a student who learns about computer coding through creating an app with the help of a teacher who understands coding, would better understand the computer coding process than a student who simply studied coding in a book.


daily mom parent portal Self-directed Learning

Self Directed Learning vs. Progressive Learning

Self-Directed and Progressive Learning have a number of things in common. They are both in direct contrast to, and in many ways in reaction to, the way traditional schooling is implemented today. They both center on the student as the driver of learning experiences – they both put the learner in charge of what they learn. Both Self-Directed Learning and Progressive Learning empower the student to take control of their learning, which creates lifelong learners out of students.

The fundamental elements of each method are slightly different. With Self-Directed Learning, the essential element is developing skills in order for a person to self manage and self motivate their own learning. With Progressive Learning, everything centers around learning by doing as the basis of the learning experience. Progressive Learning relies on a teacher to act as a facilitator in this process, while Self-Directed Learning does not have a formal role for a teacher.

These learning methods are not right for every student, at least for their formal education. While your child (or you) may be able to self motivate and manage learning about a personal interest like cooking or karate, you may have a harder time being able to extend that self motivation to other areas like math or computers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

These methods are a major shift in the way most people have been taught how to learn. Deciding for yourself what and how to learn seems like a foreign concept. It is important to understand your child’s or your own limitations and needs when considering the type of learning environment and method that is the best fit.


Even if Self-Directed and Progressive Learning are not the right educational fit for your child on an everyday basis, most people informally (not as part of their formal schooling) learn things in their everyday lives through at least some of the elements in both of these methods. Whether it is a purely personal interest in a topic or something pursued for professional development, people generally either find information and learn about it on their own or find someone to help guide them through learning about the topic.  

WANT TO READ MORE?
Check out this article on Finding the Best Learning Environment for Your Child.

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daily mom parent portal Self-directed Learning

Sources: The Major Principles of an SDL Program, What Is Self-Directed Education?, Progressive Education: How Children Learn