Bases interaction with learners on a specific theoryKnowledge of the dynamics of individual learning processesSupport learners in identifying and meeting their learning needs and overcoming any barriersUnderstanding and facilitating individual and group learning process

Boyatzis’ Theory of Self-Directed Learning

The theory explains how individuals learn and contain questions about how they could be supported in this process. One of the theories of the individual learning process is the one developed by dr. R. Boyatzis. It is based on the fact that a person is capable to take charge of one’s own learning. The theory defines the stages that a person undertakes as a self-directed learner.

Why did I choose this tool? The theory of Self-Directed Learning by Boyatzis is an underused theory and should get more attention in the field of youth. I believe trainers should aim at making the learners independent rather than patronizing or providing them with all the answers. The tool is also great at supporting the personal and professional development of young people, youth leaders and youth workers.

How does this apply to being a trainer? It is important to know the theory of Self-directed learning in order to utilize it accordingly. Act as an educator when supporting the learner is needed or back-down when the trainers’ involvement is not necessary.

Main content:

The Boyatzis theory is comprised of a model of stages, which a learner or an educator should follow, in order to empower the person to learn and ensure that the learning is going towards the most wanted direction. The first step of the theory says that the learner (individually or with facilitation of an educator) should develop an idea of what he or she wants to become. Boyatzis calls it the Ideal self. In this stage the learner should be as specific as possible. Also what is important is to distance oneself from the expectations of others. The idea of the model is that the person knows him/her self the best and there is no need for someone from outside to imply anything that he/she “should be/become”. The second step is called the Real self. Simply put, it is self-reflection in the area in which the Ideal self was constructed. The educator here as in the previous stage could provide certain techniques of reflection, ask guiding questions, offer to seek for feedback from colleagues, friends or family, or provide it him/her-self if the learner is well known to the educator. The third step suggests matching the Ideal self and the Real self – to sort out where they are similar (strengths) and where they do not match (gaps). The fourth step is the establishment of a learning strategy – how to reduce gaps and still improve their strengths. A mature learner could be capable of doing that with some direction on how to plan one’s own learning, where to search for tools and information that could be useful. Here it is also useful to find suitable people who could help in the learning process by supporting or challenging. After developing the learning strategy follows the practice phase which, according to Boyatzis, is called the experimentation phase and has a lot to do with experiential learning (check the tool on experiential learning theory by David Kolb). According to the original theory by Boyatzis, the fifth step is developing trusting relationships that help on the way to reaching the ideal self. I think it can be useful to begin with developing a trusting relationship with an educator and proceed together not only through in the phase of experimentation, but also in finding the helpful techniques to imagine the Ideal self, reflect on the Real self and develop a learning plan.

Think of an educational strategy and what kind of activities could be useful to be involved in the training programme in order to support self-directed learning of participants.

I also recommend you to read the whole theory that is presented in a comprehensible way here

Reflection questions:

  • Which part of the theory speaks the most to me?
  • Which part do I disagree with / find unpractical, difficult to adapt?
  • Does this theory work for me as a learner?
  • How is the theory reflected in the training programmes that I plan and implement?


How to apply it in everyday life:

1) First try it yourself step by step and answer the questions:

  1. Who do I want to be? My Ideal self
  2. Who am I? My Real self
  3. At which part are my Ideal self and Real self similar? My strengths
  4. At which part are my Ideal and Real self different? My gaps
  5. How can I build my strengths while reducing my gaps? Learning strategy
  6. What are the new behaviours, thoughts and feelings while implementing the learning strategy? Experimentation
  7. Who are the people that could help, support and encourage me along the process?

2) try it with a group:

  1. work on creating trusting relationships within the group that help, support, and encourage each step of the self-directed learning process
  2. create space and time for the participants to reflect on their Ideal selves, Real selves, strengths and gaps
  3. make time to create learning strategies, support where needed
  4. make time and space in the programme to execute the learning strategies – experimentation
  5. make time and space for reflection in order for the learners to get a grip on their thoughts and feelings
  6. encourage yourself to keep practicing – ask questions on who can help, support and encourage you at home, how the learning strategy can be executed outside of the training programme

Author of the article: Justina Garbauskaitė-Jakimovska

Justina Garbauskaitė-Jakimovska is a freelance educator and researcher in the field of non-formal learning and youth who also works in the teacher training programmes at Vilnius University in Lithuania. Favourite topics are facilitation of learning, personal and professional development. Justina is also a member of the Pool European Youth Researchers, her research interests are non-formal learning process, how learners experience and make sense out of it, the professional development of youth workers and trainers in the youth field. All of this combined = evidence based practices + practice informed research.

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Editor: Donatas Petkauskas

is professional supervisor, coach and experiential learning trainer, having more than 15 years of experience in consulting various organizations and individuals, creating and conducting training course on national and international levels. Donatas has extensive experience in non-formal education, training of youth workers and trainers. He is working in the field of non-formal education since 2003, since 2004 he is a member of trainers pool of Lithuanian National Agency (currently an alumni).

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Boyatzis, R. E. (2001). Unleashing the Power of Self-Directed Learning.Photo by from Pexels

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