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Self-directed learning and the mind-set of successful entrepreneurial learning.



Ronald D. Paige, PhD: Director, Instructional Technology. That is what Cleveland State Community College, the place where I work, knows about me. Those engaged in hiring me made an assumption regarding my potential value to the college based upon my formal education and its attending certifications. Although those doing the hiring felt comfortable with what I am, they had little knowledge of my true value as an employee; they did not know who I have been leaning to be.

For example, I was a baccalaureate pre-med student who disappointed his parents by becoming a high school English teacher. While my 5-foot 6-inch size may suggest otherwise, I was a very successful boys' basketball coach. Over a 15-year period I built a personal interest in photography into a 3-location, 21-employee retail and service business operating with a million dollar budget. And, while I came to southeastern Tennessee looking for a new house requiring no remodeling and little upkeep, I quickly fell in love with one that I am rebuilding from the outside in. So what? What does any of this have to do with workplace success?

It is important to understand, that with all my formal education, I was never formally trained. I never took a formal course in any of those areas of personal success: never took any teacher training courses or did student teaching, yet I am certified in six subject areas and have taught for over 20 years; never took a course on basketball coaching nor did I play high school or college basketball; never took a photography course, nor a single business, accounting, advertising, or marketing course; and never took a course in carpentry or landscaping. In fact, with only a bit of reflection, I'll bet you can come up with many skills, concepts, and bits of knowledge important to your own lives that were never acquired in a formal educational environment.


That's a pretty long title: Self-Directed Learning and the Mind-Set of Successful Entrepreneurial Learning. None of the terms is really all that new, but there is one term that I am using in a novel way; so I will provide some necessary context for the word "entrepreneur." I'll start that explanation on a cosmic note: I am a Sagittarian. As a Sagittarian (according to various Internet websites), I am an idealist. I am an optimistic, energetic, enterprising, and versatile risk-taker continually searching for new experiences. Of course, we know this to be astrological mumbo-jumbo! I am, also, according to the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, an ENTJ: an extroverted, intuitive, thinking, judging person (Reinhold, 2009). Additionally, according to the Inventory, I am logical, critical, and love a challenge. I prefer to find the most direct path between what is and what should be. And, this, as we know, is sound, empirically supported learning theory we should apply when teaching our students.

Now, let's pretend that I am a student in your class. Assuming Myers-Briggs is a more scientific description of my learner personality than is the astrological sign under which I was born, being the good educator you are, you would want to accommodate my personal learning needs. And, if you are also an ENTJ (you can take an abbreviated M-B personality assessment and learn more about M-B Personality Inventory at type_inventory.html), all should be rather rosy. If you are one of the other seven Extroverted (E) types, I still might have a chance to learn from your instruction. If, however, you are one of the eight Introverted (I) personality types, I might be better off looking for another instructor. As you can see, finding the right teacher-learner match for you and all your students can be a bit daunting. With 16 different Myers-Briggs main personality types underpinning a variety of teacher-student learning relationships, chances are statistically better returning to the mere 12 signs of the Zodiac!

David A. Kolb has provided some apparent relief (Kolb, 1981). According to Kolb's Learning Styles Inventory, I am also an Accommodator: I am an organizer who is attracted to tackling new challenges and experiences but in a goal-structured, hands-on, intuitive, team-oriented manner (All you might want to know about Kolb's learning styles, including a good diagram, is available at http://www.businessballs. com/kolblearningstyles.htm). Both Myers-Briggs and Kolb relied heavily on the foundational personality research done by Carl Jung, so it is disconcerting to me that I test out in Kolb's Inventory as a Doing/Feeling Accommodator instead of the Doing/Thinking Converger, which would be more in line with my ENTJ Myer-Briggs personality. Oh, well, these are theories after all--even if we do treat them as facts.

Still, I like a lot of what Kolb (and Honey-Mumford, if you want to look them up) has put together. Kolb has developed a model of how people might learn by merging Piaget's stages of human growth and development theory with the social learning theory of human cognition. Significantly, Kolb rightly attempts to emphasize the important role experience plays in the human learning process. As a result, according to Kolb's theory, a depiction of how people learn starts with learner participation in a new experience. Following participation in a concrete learning experience, the learner, through observation and reflection, will make generalizations or form concepts that he or she will ultimately test out in new learning situations.

In practice (see Figure 1.), we know that Kolb's model probably has a couple of short circuits in it: most students rarely reflect on educational observations because reflection does not generate a grade; and, with a one-hour class format, there is little opportunity to test concepts outside of the classroom. Why the Myers-Briggs and Kolb models have trouble representing actual learning situations is because they based their theories and models exclusively on enhancing the agency of the individual learner. In proper empirical, quantitative research manner, they have developed theories focused on the individual learner by holding all other factors in the learning process constant. Thereby, all learning situations can be assumed to be similar, and in this case, identical to each other--like the formal classroom: neat, linear, and repeatable.

While their theories support moving from a nineteenth century "teacher-centered" to the "student-centered" instructional paradigm (see Figure 2.) common today (Mentkowski, 2000), I think they still miss the true target of effective learning. Focusing exclusively on the learner, means instructional strategies remain bound to the present. How can we envision preparing students to use tools that have yet to be invented to solve problems yet to be imagined, by focusing exclusively upon the perceived needs of the learner right now?

By refocusing learning theory away from the learning agent and placing it on the learning situation, the Theory of Entrepreneurial Learning becomes a design for, not merely learner-centered, but learning-centered instruction (see Figure 3). As is often the case with polarized values migrated from a continuum, the matrix is not a tool for classifying people but rather a prototype for understanding how people tend to engage a learning situation--like those occurring in today's workplace. Most learners demonstrate a mix of these characteristics, but tend toward one quadrant or another for any given situation. I will use this theory of Entrepreneurial Learning to briefly discuss How people self-direct their own learning, and What we, as teachers, can do to make students better self-directed practitioners of entrepreneurial learning.


How People Learn in the Workplace

OK. Just a tiny bit more theory--really. By now we know that learning in the classroom is one thing and transferring that learning beyond the classroom is something else again (e.g., Levy and Murnane, 2004): doing a worksheet on polynomials does not automatically show up in workplace problem solving! I want to extend this differentiation by saying that learning how to self-direct the acquisition of new knowledge within daily learning situations offered up by the workplace is different yet (Moore, 1986; Wenger, 1998). While we commonly call this last event learning-to-learn--which I do not like because it focuses too much on the agency of the learner--I prefer to call it entrepreneurial learning, thereby placing the focus on the whole learning situation.



In general, people are pattern seekers (Christensen, Horn, and Johnson, 2008; Levy and Murnane, 2004; Roszak, 1994). The brain appears to be designed to change in response to patterned, repetitive stimulation. Also, we seek ways for organizing and managing the patterns of our experiences. That mental filing system is based upon grouping new patterns (that is, new learning) into conceptual categories called schema. Each schema is a symbolic or conceptual representation that helps our short and long term memories work more efficiently and effectively. In other words, schema is related to how we think. And, how we practice thinking, ultimately determines what we are capable of practicing--what operative patterns we are able to see. Formal schooling currently dominates how we learn to think. Unlike the structured classroom of set schedules, detailed syllabi, and multiple choice tests, productive practice in the workplace involves working in a messy, ill-defined environment. As a result, the patterns an individual observes as being related to a perceived workplace problem and patterns recalled from past formal educational experiences often fail to trigger schema selections that are related to useful strategies for action. Inexperience in how to learn in the workplace diminishes what the learner can readily learn (see Figure 4).

The WHO--WHAT learning dichotomy can become clearer when we depict the learning process of the workplace as a meaning-making self-narrative negotiated through the interaction of personal agency and the activities located within one's community of practice; between personal action and social legitimacy; or, in academic terms, between declarative maintenance knowledge and innovative procedural knowledge. Tying the internal discourse of personal agency to the external discourse of social negotiation is each individual's on-going self-narrative (see Figure 5). Now, if you think this idea of personal self-narrative is far-fetched, try to recall any significant learning experience that does not come back to you as a story! Think of your best teachers. Probably most were good storytellers! So, what we are dealing with is a complementary dynamic between personal performance and workplace environment integrated by reflective self-narrative.

By numerous accounts (Livingstone, 1998 and 2001; Sosniak, 2001), the self-directed learning that arises out of one's daily experiences represents as much as 90% of all we adults have come to know: 90% of schema used for new learning probably are not developed within a formal teaching environment! Certainly, this begs the question: As educators, what have we done to enhance successful self-directed learning in our students? What if how these neophyte learners are learning on their own is not particularly effective or useful in the workplace? "What if" is a reality!

My research on Entrepreneurial Learning has 100% of respondents identifying themselves as "better than average" self-directed informal learners in the workplace. However, some interesting caveats arose with further discussion. All participants: (1) perceived their knowledge gained from self-directed learning to be useful but inferior to knowledge associated with formal education; (2) demonstrated self-directed learning to be situational, not general; (3) employed learning strategies derived from formal education, however were unable or unwilling to employ those strategies beyond single resource selection and single task application; and (4) described their workplace role (what they are) as not being something (who they thought they should be): not being a Web designer, not being a musician. Finally, while all participants demonstrated some aspect of entrepreneurial learning, none demonstrated a command of self-directing their informal day-to-day learning.


Entrepreneurial Learning Theory

Understanding the learning situation, the learning agent engaged in a learning activity, is most easily visualized as a matrix (see Figure 3). The potential learner will engage an activity of his or her community of practice (i.e., the workplace) more or less agentively or passively. Similarly, the potential learner will address his or her learning associated with that activity more or less agentively or passively. The Agentive--Passive continuum overlaid upon the Activity--Learning continuum establishes a learning situation continuum bounded at one end by a Passive--Passive learner and at the other end by the Agentive--Agentive learner. This continuum depicts Entrepreneurial Learning Theory.


Before looking at teaching strategies, it will prove beneficial to take a closer (but very brief) look at each of the matrix quadrants. I'll start with the Passive--Passive (P2) Reactionary Learner. Certainly, I am not the only instructor who has had students enter class with expectations that I will tell them what they should do, what they should observe, what they should think, and what they should learn! "Learned passivity" does transfer to the workplace! Reactionary learners are so contextually bound and at the mercy of serendipitous events, that they are able to make sense only of singular uninterrupted tasks. Productivity is assessed as the "little successes" they savor personally, which may have nothing to do with the actual productivity of the workplace. With little sense of community, they do not know what a socially appropriate outcome looks like, resulting in little ability to learn through doing and little satisfaction arising out of shared practice.

Reactive Learners demonstrate agency, but it is precipitated by the setting not the individual. Disruption to the status quo is often the trigger to new learning. Typically, acquiring a skill is the means to restoring balance within one's environment. Reactive learners can and do set goals, believe that the goal can be achieved, but they lack ownership and, therefore, commitment to outcomes. Any learner reflection upon activity is prone to be norm-based and the learning that resulted is maintenance learning related to addressing a specific task. Reactive Learners are social; however, the use of one's peers is more to locate oneself within the community network than to acquire new knowledge. If you think this sounds a lot like a traditional classroom environment, you are not alone.

Social Learners tend to be patient learners, taking risks only when absolutely necessary. They depended largely on the negotiated input of others as the source for determining outcomes or driving activity. However, they remain agents in self-directing their learning by creating unique ways for negotiating learning within their community of practice, and by being self-reflective in evaluating the appropriateness of the actions they plan to take--actions often performed to serve the needs or others. Language is the main tool of the Social Learner: the language of community (e.g., jargon, idioms, and stories) and the language of relationships (including nonverbal communication). However, most Social Learners accept participation as some type of unconsciously acquired skill or condition, not unlike learning to talk. Because social roles are an important element of this type of learning situation, social learners are very articulate in describing what their role is. However, they are equally adept at describing who they are not, but rarely display the agency necessary for addressing their perceived shortcomings.

The Catalytic Learner is what some pundits of the learner-center educational paradigm contend is the ideal learner, the type of learner all students should aspire to be, the learner any workplace would relish. Nothing could be further from reality! Indeed, Catalytic Learners dare to take it upon themselves to try something different, reflect upon their actions, and use what they learn to make changes in a prior learning strategy. This comes at a price. In every observable instance for the Catalytic Learner, agency was an expression of action: no action, no agency, no learning. They are able to integrate themselves with a problem by becoming an interactive element of the problem situation. In framing, organizing, and managing the problem with themselves integrated into it, by assuming the risks associated with being the problem, they trigger new learning that can provoke both personal and task environment change--and there's the rub! They assume a socially legitimate autonomy that originates from their own perception of career competency. Moreover, Catalytic Learners rarely demonstrated a level of cognitive control associated with knowing when activity is sufficient to make knowledge productively useful.

Role of the Teacher

The goal of the instructor who wants to promote Entrepreneurial Learning is not to focus on one of the quadrants in the Learning matrix; but rather, on the useful interactions presented by any given quadrant. Thus, the role of the instructor is to foster each student's ability to productively engage new learning situations. We do that by starting with the dictionary definition of "entrepreneur." Summarizing Guralnik (1980), an "entrepreneur" is one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise. Applying that to the learning situation, we discover that the "entrepreneurial learner" is one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of the learning enterprise. So, how do we help Entrepreneurial Learning agents become self-directed learners willing to and capable of taking the risk and responsibility for directing their own learning endeavor?

In a nutshell, we must (1) model for and coach students through a broad range of conceptual thinking strategies--give them the conceptual tools for learning on their own; (2) model for and demand of students that they make their learning process explicit--if they can't "see" it, they can't critique it; if they can't critique it, they can't change it; and, (3) we must model for and provide to students copious opportunities to play with their emerging Entrepreneurial Learning strategies. What do these strategies look like in practice? Here is my top 10 list:

1. Discover articulate and group patterns. Teachers must model and students must articulate not only commonalities but anomalies associated with a learning experience. They must practice making connections to what they know and attempt to assess what they might need to know.

2. Identify and articulate problems in terms of tasks. Students have trouble problem-solving because they cannot find the problem. We must help them become problem finders. Teachers are good at usurping learning opportunities by making the key learning decisions for students. Entrepreneurial learning is, largely, a decision-making process, and students must learn how to become part of that process. Learning is also a dialogue--both internal and external--so, students must learn to verbalize an intentional, structured engagement with the problem. In surfacing their mental models, students reveal their working assumptions, which is the first step in self-reflection.

3. Acknowledge personal limitations for handling tasks. We must model for and encourage students to augment their ego-centric identity with a productive collaborative identity, starting with understanding one's own abilities and limitations. Caveat: How do you model this if you do not respect your students as partners in the learning process? Moreover, this is not a step in a pedagogical process; rather it is an ongoing realization that should be revisited with each of the strategies presented here.

4. Observe and critique multiple learning strategies. Students must be able to observe a variety of contexts--across multiple disciplines--and look at perspectives different from their own, verbalizing the merits of each without immediately having to choose among them. We must challenge students to demonstrate understanding for how things fit together by observing and breaking open concepts. This is not all that different from Kolb's experience-centered model, but the process is no longer linear and one-directional. Here, Kolb's Observe and Reflect stage is being made visible along with the multi-directional connections underpinning it.

5. State multiple learning outcomes associated with each task. It is incumbent upon educators to help students create an identity as a learner. Becoming collaborators in determining outcomes is a critical step in that process. Requiring that students reconfigure a problem in terms of alternative tasks and outcomes emphasizes process over simple task completion.

6. Verbalize strategies applied to tasks. We must model for then challenge students to explain the structure of their thinking process. Students must show their understanding of what they are doing by articulating what they aim to do. Teachers must show students how to diagram or summarize goals by logically connecting tasks, strategies, and outcomes. We must model for students, then demand from them, that they justify decisions with evidence. By preparing students to carefully observe how something works, we help them build the understanding of why it works. This is tantamount to modeling for students Kolb's Concepts and Generalizations stage but makes it openly reflective and conceptually dynamic.

7. Locate, access, and assess multiple resources. Yes, there is more to learning than Google! If students are not shown other resources, they will never know they exist! (And, your librarian will love you!) This includes recognizing and valuing others as resources. We have to train students how to draw out the opinions of others, and then how to listen with purpose. It also means enabling students to be better data gatherers: how to listen, how to see with purpose.

8. Seek out, paraphrase and evaluate feedback. What's the only feedback students care about? A grade! Feedback must be formative. Using a range of models, feedback must address not only performance but development and learning as well. The purpose of feedback is not to reward or punish but rather to enable students to envision the process of becoming a more productive self-assessor. Students must be unafraid to challenge their own assumptions; they must be willing to invite critical examination. We have to overtly model for students how to sift through feedback, make context-valuable decisions, negotiate a position, and use feedback to embellish or reconstruct performance. It is incumbent upon us to demand of students that they overtly compare their actions not against other students but against their own anticipated outcomes and--very importantly--against the accepted standards of the community of practice.

9. Embrace failure as an important part of learning. Being able to question and take responsibility for personal assumptions and actions is fundamental but difficult to achieve if we do not embrace failure as a key component of learning. Students must learn how to become objective about their role in activities of practice; how to separate personal worth from performance value; how to accept diversity in a meaningful way that might require being able to unlearn previously held ideas and assumptions. Important as well is learning to understand when to let go of a task or problem.

10. Play with concepts. Play makes the necessary repetition of practice tolerable. Play builds one's ability to concentrate and maintain engagement. It is during play that the learner can examine, compare, rearrange, edit, reconstruct, and increases complexity without penalty. Play forces one to learn in a nonlinear manner. Play is where imitation evolves into understanding, tacit knowledge, and skill. Play is where one develops autonomy and authority as a practitioner. Constructive play is typically social, an opportunity to resolve personal differences and achieve group goals.

Importantly, this model and these strategies are not intended to stand apart as a separate system for instructional design, but they can be incorporated into any content area. Also, I must point out that this is not a prioritized list. To the contrary, many of these strategies intertwine and require being addressed multiple times for a single learning situation. Additionally, the term "verbalize" must include multiple forms of communication, not just speech. Students must become proficient in putting their outcomes and strategies into print or making them visible as multi-media displays. Technology--the means to communicate effectively--must be put in the hands of the learner!


We are teachers. We constantly face the temptation to "teach," that is, to tell students what they should do, should know, should think! However, more schooling is not the answer to a more flexible and competitive workforce. The answer is showing students how to engage in Entrepreneurial Learning. How does this relate to using technology in education?

Before we can re-engineer the entrepreneurial mindset of the student, we must reconstruct the mindset of the instructor (and administration). This is more important than the technology itself because we too often employ 21st century tools using a 19th century mentality--using a computer as a word processor, a Smart Board as a chalkboard, Google as a card catalog. As educators, there is nothing more significant we can do than to build for ourselves these very Entrepreneurial Learning strategies, even as we develop the practice of modeling them for our students. If we want our students to possess an Entrepreneurial Learning mindset, we have to teach like we mean it!

Then, working from the perspective of an Entrepreneurial Learning mindset, the integration of technology, seen now as critical to how students learn, becomes a more obvious and more engaging component of the total learning process. The integration and application of technology drives the selection and use of technology, because it is through integration and application that technology use evolves as part of the learning-process. Technology becomes the means for engaging in an interactive, just-in-time, life-long learning environment.


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Kolb, D. A. (1981). Learning styles and disciplinary differences. In A. W. Chickering & Associates (Eds.). The Modern American College. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Levy, F. & Murnane, R. (2004). The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Livingstone, D. W. (1998). The education-jobs gap: Underemployment or economic democracy. Toronto, ON: Garamond Press.

Livingstone, D. W. (2001). Adults' informal learning: Definitions, findings, gaps and future research. Toronto, ON: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

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Moore, D. T. (1986). Learning at work: Case studies in non-school education. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 17, 166-184.

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Roszak, T. (1994). The cult of information: A neo-luddite treatise on high-tech, artificial intelligence, and the true art of thinking. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dr. Paige is Director, Instructional Technology and Media Services, Cleveland State Community College, Cleveland, Tenn.
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Author:Paige, Ronald D.
Publication:ATEA Journal
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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