Critical Issue: Terms of Engagement—Rethinking Teachers' Independent Learning Traits

This Critical Issue was researched and written by Beth Buchler, M.A., educational consultant and director of New-Learning Educational Services. She consults for schools, districts, educational agencies, and organizations as well as software companies. She also is on special teaching assignment with Argonne National Labs.

ISSUE: This Critical Issue focuses on teachers as students. It looks at their own independent learning traits in light of today's imperative that they both foster lifelong learners in their classrooms as well as become lifelong learners themselves (Bernard-Powers et al., 2000).

Independent learners are students who are responsible for their own learning: They take charge and are self-regulated. Such students are one of the critical indicators of any engaged learning environment (Jones, Valdez, Nowakowski, & Rasmussen, 1995).

As the learning community changes, rethinking the traditional traits within this evolving community is important. Teachers need time and support to re-examine, redefine, and reabsorb what it means today to be a student who is responsible, who takes charge, and who self-regulates in the context of today's changing learning environment. This rethinking process may help teachers both foster lifelong learning in their students as well as realize the goal themselves.

This Critical Issue begins with a look at the trend toward creating new learning organizations. It then identifies three learner challenges to realizing such an engaged learning community populated by independent learners. These challenges include:

  1. Overcoming learned behaviors
  2. Fostering motivation
  3. Aligning pedagogy

Finally, it outlines the relevance of two learning mechanisms—professional development and technology—meeting those learning challenges.

Overview | Goals | Action Options | Pitfalls | Points of View | Cases | References

OVERVIEW: Just as independent learners inspire an engaged and effective classroom, teachers who are themselves independent learners inspire vital and engaged learning communities. Classroom teachers have both an easier and enjoyable time teaching when their students are responsible: when students take charge and are self-regulating. But are teachers mirroring the behavior that they try to foster in their students? Are teachers becoming the independent learners they try to develop in their classrooms? If not, how will they address the challenge of lifelong learning for their students and for themselves?

Growing emphasis on lifelong learning is supported by research and evidenced by several current factors. Research has effectively documented the connection between high quality teachers and improved student performance. Research continues to expand the definition of what that means. What makes a quality teacher? For instance, the Teacher Quality Collaborative's "Principles of High Quality Teacher Development" attempts to "…re-establish the role of the teacher as a professional who is central to the teaching/learning process" (Bernard-Powers, et al., p. 2). Bernard-Powers et al. state, "Fundamental…is the idea that adults are learners just as are children, and that everyone learns best when there are ongoing opportunities to develop questions, investigate, reflect, apply and share knowledge in real-life contexts" (p. 4).

Also, more time and money are being spent on professional development. (For a detailed appendix of selected major state funding programs for teacher professional development, compiled in 1999, see "Selected Major State Funding Programs for Teacher Professional Development".) In addition, an increase in the number of online courses offers teachers flexibility of time and place to pursue learning. (For an in-depth look at the scope of research emerging on this topic, see NCREL's E-Learning Knowledge Base.) Further, district and state learning plans mandate that teachers continue learning. However, despite such support and mandates, there are indications that teachers are not taking full advantage of learning opportunities.

This raises a dilemma: On one hand, few would disagree that the vast majority of teachers are responsible, that they take charge and that they are self-regulated. Most possess those traits inherent to all independent learners. However, perhaps some rethinking of these traditional traits is required, in light of a trend toward expanded communities of learning in which teachers find themselves members. What does it mean to be responsible, to take charge, and to be self-regulated in today's learning environment?

The New Learning Organization

Independent or self-directed learning can be defined as "a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others" (Knowles, 1975, p. 11), to diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select and implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes. Ideally, citizens of a learning community are such individuals.

Before we can fully examine this element of teachers as independent learners, some groundwork must be established about learning. In a 1995 interview, Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organization Learning at MIT's Sloan School of Management, was asked the following question: "Schools are considered to be institutions of learning, but are most of them learning organizations?" He answered, "Definitely not." He also expressed his concern that "there's very little sense of collective learning going on in most schools" (O'Neil, 1995, p. 20). (See "On Schools as Learning Organizations: A Conversation with Peter Senge".)

If the ideal is a school in which collective learning takes place, how do schools move toward this goal, and how does the individual teacher add to this community?

The classroom setting offers context. Teachers know that the classroom learning environment changes for better or worse depending on the group of students in any given year. Years when there are more challenging students and less motivated learners in a classroom make for greater frustration for the teacher. Years when a majority of the students are enthusiastic and responsible are remembered as good years. Teachers report getting more done in the curriculum, more hands-on activities occur, and more learning takes place during years with self-directed learners in a classroom. During these school years, a classroom learning community is created. Extend that dynamic to the outer walls of the building and beyond, into the community. Imagine teachers as enthusiastic, responsible, take-charge, and self-regulated members.

Creating a learning organization mirrors creating one in a classroom and it requires teachers reading professional material, attending classes, enrolling in online courses, reflecting on what they need to understand to become better teachers. Money for professional development is not always available, and mandates for professional development are not always sufficient motivators. Each teacher must become an independent learner and thinker. This is the vital first step toward growing a learning organization in every school.

Marsick and Watkins' (1999) Model of the Learning Organization outlines three levels of interrelated learning: individual learning, team learning, and organization learning. This Critical Issue supports the idea of individual learning as the first step toward building well-rounded learning organizations.

The authors constructed their model around the following seven action imperatives that are needed to implement learning organizations:

The first two of these action imperatives are crucial for individual learning to occur. There must be continuous learning opportunities, and inquiry and dialogue must be promoted (Watkins and Marsick, 1999, p.85).

Many teachers do indeed have continuous learning opportunities. For instance, they can take an online course. They can learn a new computer software program that will benefit their students or themselves. They can take a workshop, then practice and reflect upon results. Both Educational Service and Teacher Learning centers distribute comprehensive catalogs of educational choices.

Once teachers choose independent learning, they want to share the excitement with others. Typically learners want to discuss what they have learned, give opinions, and debate. Through discussion, they begin to promote inquiry and dialogue—the authors' second imperative is crucial for individual learning.

As teachers assume responsibility for their own learning, they want to share this knowledge with colleagues. The need for dialogue introduces the third imperative of encouraging collaboration and team learning. The Team Level of learning sets the stage for the Organizational Level of the Learning Organization. The connectivity is clear: A powerful learning organization begins when a single teacher becomes an independent learner. But the goal is not without challenges.

The Independent Learner Triple Challenge: Overcoming Learned Behavior, Fostering Motivation, and Aligning Pedagogy

Learned Behavior

A 1994 survey (Race, 1994) of adult students examined how they learned. When adults were asked about where and when they learn, results indicated they learn best as follows:

If this is true, teachers, like adults in the study, would learn best as independent learners. However, this may require overcoming some learned behaviors.

Not only do we teach the way we were taught but we usually learn the way we were taught to learn. Many current teachers didn't have the opportunity to learn in an independent environment during their preservice education. In kindergarten, they might have been encouraged to freely explore at the sand table and in graduate school they likely were encouraged to freely explore a potential thesis; but the majority of their education was teacher-directed. Many simply weren't taught the teaching and modeling skills needed for independent learning.

Herber and Nelson-Herber (1987) offer the following five teaching principles for creating students who are independent lifelong learners:

Perhaps the greatest challenge of independent learning for many teachers is overcoming their teacher-directed learning and replacing it with a dedication to self-learning.

It is especially challenging for adult learners who have not been give the responsibility and the expectations for their own transformation and professional development. It is especially challenging for adult learners who have been taught to rivet their focus squarely on student learning. Teachers require opportunities to examine their own learning experiences and reflect on them. They require support to model independent learning skills in order to incorporate such practice into their own learning as well as their teaching methods.


Educators, like the rest of the population, are motivated to better themselves for various reasons. In common, however, educators are motivated to better their students. According to The National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE) report Teachers Take Charge of Their Learning: Transforming Professional Development for Student Success (Renyi, 1996), 73 percent of 800 teachers surveyed engaged in professional growth to improve student achievement. Improving teaching skills was a motive for 55 percent of teachers, and increasing their own knowledge was the motive fueling 34 percent of teachers' professional growth. Clearly, most teachers want to improve their practice to improve their students' learning.

Teachers have greater sense of purpose and motivation when encouraging administrators and enthusiastic colleagues surround them. And, research indicates, they are more highly motivated by the chance to improve student achievement than any other consideration.

The importance of teacher learning can't be overemphasized, and teachers can incorporate this connection into their rethinking of their own motivation as independent learners. The connection between ongoing teacher learning and school quality has been significantly researched. Findings indicate that teacher learning is essential to quality schools and there is a strong connection between student results and staff from learning communities (Hord, 1997). If teacher learning is essential to quality of schools, it becomes essential for the individual teacher to independently learn for their own professional practice. Although many teachers have assumed this responsibility, more schools would be true learning communities if the number were higher. As Fullan (1993) states, "Every person is a change agent" in quality education (p. 24).

Linking independent learning to student achievement is, indeed, a motivating factor.

In addition, the future learning organization suggests benefit to teachers who rethink other motivations. Traditionally, self-motivation focused on attainable goals within classroom, school, and community, such as improving student performance, acquiring tenure, and achieving professional recognition. The learning organization of the future also will involve the teacher in discussion and learning about changing perceptions of what it means to be a teacher: What innate strengths might they leverage in new ways? What factors perhaps no longer fuel their motivation? This rethinking is personal. It is individual. It requires a commitment to independent learning.


If teachers see learners as the "empty vessel" to be filled with knowledge, how does this affect both their teaching and their professional learning? Teachers who believe the teacher must impart knowledge would find it difficult to independently learn without the direction of authority. Such a stance makes it difficult to transfer responsibility from teacher to learner. In contrast, teachers who believe in a constuctivist approach to learning are more comfortable with self-direction and independent learning.

In Constructivism, the learner creates understanding from experiences with peers and resources and reflects upon those experiences. Learning occurs because the learner actively engages in finding solutions to relevant questions or problems. Students are viewed as thinkers and are given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning.

(The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Reading Room provides an in-depth examination of this approach in In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (revised edition).)

The Learning Mechanisms: Effective Professional Development, Technology Tools

Professional Development

In the online journal From Now On, editor Jamieson McKenzie (1991) captures a number of current research-based ideas on staff development in the learning organization of the future. He posits the following "must haves" for effective staff development during the next decade:

Few would argue against expanding and funding professional development. However, teachers also need to take the initiative for their own learning by creating individual learning plans and goals. This will require some rethinking about their traditional responsibilities.

Traditionally, a teacher's responsibility was based in large measure on ownership of a body of knowledge. It was one basic element on which professional development was directed. In the future learning organization, a teacher's responsibility will be based on knowledge, as well as sharing and building knowledge among groups of stakeholders in and outside the classroom walls. Rather than dispensing knowledge, teachers will guide, facilitate, and mentor learners—calling into play the elements of independent learning.

Traditionally, a teacher's take-charge approach was very much a necessity based on the need of solo governance in the classroom. While that trait continues, a teacher's ability to take charge also will be based on expanding learning beyond classroom walls, interacting cooperatively, even globally.

The National Education Association (NEA) Foundation for the Improvement of Education found the most effective schools are those in which educators have input into decisions about their teaching and the school (Renyi, 1996). In its introduction to the report Teachers Take Charge of Their Learning: Transforming Professional Development for Student Success, NEA suggests the following four necessary actions for effective teacher learning:

In order for teachers to take responsibility for their learning, they need effective professional development that allows them to reflect, re-examine, redefine, and renew their innate responsibility, their self-reliance and self-motivation as independent learners, and as productive citizens of engaged learning communities.

Technology Tools

Technology has introduced a new dimension to self-learning and independent study via online learning. Some teachers have embraced the opportunities. Others have shown reluctance. (To learn more about engaging technology in professional development plans, see Using Technology in PD.)

Enthusiastic teachers Lynn Nakashima and Sandy Winter are two who recently embraced the online opportunity to learn at their own pace and time. Both teachers from Glenside Middle School in Hanover Park, Illinois, participated in an online Internet Information Literacy course from the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois. Completion of the class earned the participants three hours of university credit. In an interview with Pathways, both teachers reported they received much more than credits from the experience.

They collaborated to create an Internet Information unit they will use with their students. Both teachers corresponded with the course teacher and participants via e-mail, while collaborating as a learning team in their own school.

"The online class allowed us to construct our own learning. We researched, experimented, and created a useful product," Nakashima said, adding, "One must be extremely self-disciplined to complete an online course. We had specific assignments and a general time frame of how long each assignment should take. It allowed students [ourselves] to work at our own pace, though there were specific assignments due at specific dates" (L. Nakashima, personal communication, September, 2001).

In addition, some adults, while capable of engaging in self-directed learning, choose not to, due to time constraints (see Pathways to School Improvement's Critical Issue: "Finding Time for Professional Development"). Educators generally agree that the greatest challenge to implementing effective professional development is lack of time (Abdal-Haqq, 1995). The time-saving benefits online learning offers are considerable and hold promise for delivering professional development, provided other relevant supports for independent learning are in place.

Among those relevant supports is a sense of control and a sense of community. While it is important to emphasize the importance of independent learning for teachers, it is also important to emphasize that they must never go it alone. Teachers also need to have input into staff development throughout the school year and build on that learning through self-directed study.

Teachers need to be somewhat comfortable with technology before they will risk taking a course online. It is helpful if professional development for technology has been provided (see Pathways to School Improvement's Critical Issue: "Providing Professional Development for Effective Technology Use").

And, while technology has created opportunity for adults to learn anytime and anyplace, this is sometimes an opportunity not taken. In 1998, the DuPage Regional Office of Education (ROE) initiated a Link to Learn CD-ROM and offered it to all schools in the Chicago suburban region. This was a CD-ROM based on the Pennsylvania State University and State of Pennsylvania's initiative to provide teachers in their state a resource for learning technology. The CD-ROM contained technology tutorials, case studies of teachers at different stages of implementing technology into their curriculum, and lesson plans using technology.

Schools in DuPage County contacted ROE to not only receive a CD-ROM for each individual teacher in the school but to also have two ROE consultants present the CD-ROM to the staff and answer any questions. A half-hour overview of the material was presented along with suggestions on using the CD-ROM. Teachers left the training with an individual copy for their own exploration and use.

When consultants contacted schools for feedback on usage, they learned that 87 percent of middle school teachers surveyed from one sample school did not explore the CD-ROM. Lack of time and need for guided instruction were the reasons given for not exploring the resource (Buchler & Buller, 1998).

Conversely, however, technology is one area where teachers are often self-taught or take a course to learn new skills. Linda Hart, an early childhood special education teacher in the Manitowoc Public School District, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, recently completed her first instructional technology class. She reported, "In the past, I have not used much technology with the children in the classroom, as I always struggle with what is appropriate with preschoolers and their special needs. This class has opened a whole new world for me of exciting possibilities to enhance instruction in the classroom" (L. Hart, personal communication, August, 2001).

Learning should be about "exciting possibilities" for both the teacher and the students. For example, Linda plans to use her new understanding of technology to track childrens' goals on a handheld (PDA—personal digital assistant), plan better ways to use software programs, and seek out what her district currently uses in older grades. She has indeed become an independent learner.

It is essential that teachers provide opportunities to students. It is also essential that we make opportunities for our own learning. Individual educators make the choice each time they read a professional book, take a course to benefit our teaching, and dialogue with colleagues on education topics. Following are several action options in which administrators, teachers, parents, and students can engage to fuel lifelong learning and grow independent learning organizations.



Administrators, teachers, and community members can follow the action options listed below to build a learning community in their school.



Parents and Community Members:


In some schools, sharing of knowledge is viewed as a threat. Teachers remain in their classrooms, isolated from collegial sharing. Teachers can only share their professional knowledge in an open and trusting environment. They need to feel they can enthusiastically say "Look what I learned on the computer!" or "Listen to what I read in this journal" and feel open to sharing the information with other teachers.

Sharing takes time. Time needs to be devoted to professional sharing or books, courses, and resources. This sharing time needs to be honored time at staff meetings or grade-level meetings. When administrators do not encourage and honor this time, sharing is viewed as unimportant.

Some educators believe they spend enough time in the classroom and aren't interested in taking courses or reading professional literature. Some school districts discourage professional conferences and school visits, thinking it will take time out of the classroom and away from their teaching. However, teachers need to be treated as professionals and encouraged to learn and reflect to benefit learning in their classroom. Just as a learner contributes to the learning environment in the classroom, each learner contributes to the environment of the learning community.

Additionally, research indicates that some adults are incapable of engaging in time-saving approaches to professional development, such as online courses, because they lack independence, confidence, or resources (Lowry, 1989). Although Internet access makes resources more available, independence, confidence, and discipline remain a challenge to creating vital learning communities of independent learners.


In every profession, there are some who feel they will do the minimum required; however, teaching is a unique profession. Most teachers have chosen the profession to make a difference and add value to society, and few dispute the need for ongoing independent learning. However, a minority of teachers believe they should be compensated for any and all learning connected with their practice. Indeed, teachers should be compensated for workshops, courses, and time invested outside the classroom; however, they also need to make a professional commitment to individual learning goals.


Study Groups
Cheryl Meredith Lowry's (1989) article "Supporting and Facilitating Self-Directed Learning" summarizes points made by several writers concerning best facilitation of self-directed learning for educators and institutions. Recurrent among suggestions is the implementation of study groups. Some principals have successfully involved their staffs with book groups to begin such dialogue on professional topics.

For instance, St. Charles, Illinois, District 303 initially used book groups as part of a professional portfolio. The groups are open to tenure and nontenure teachers and they meet for approximately 10 hours a session. Robin Horberg, currently principal at Ferson Creek Elementary in St. Charles, uses study groups here following the success of similar initiatives at her previous tenure at Puffer School in Downers Grove, Illinois. There she initiated two different types of study groups. One was a directed situation for teacher learning, during which the entire staff was given a book to read to increase common language and understanding. Robin selected In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classroom (Brooks & Brooks, 1993). The second group selected a topic and found other teachers who were interested in the same study topic. The groups varied in their dedication and commitment to the topic study. However, after reading and studying a shared topic, Horberg reported the following benefits to study groups in both schools:

National Board of Professional Teaching Standards
An increasing number of teachers are dedicated to their own independent learning. According to the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, the number of teachers taking the National Board Certification test has increased 35 percent from November 30, 2000, to November 30, 2001. Candidates going through the national certification process spend approximately 200–400 hours developing their professional portfolio.

First-grade teacher Debbie Sauer, Congdon Park School, Duluth, Minnesota, is one who believes National Board Certification is a natural step for her professional development. Her school district has a contract step called "master's equivalent," in which teachers substitute the appropriate number of college and district inservices for a Master's degree, and receive the same pay. Teachers are encouraged to take courses that add value to their classroom and professional practice. Debbie was the first person in her district to attempt the challenging process of national certification.

In an interview with Pathways (personal communication, October, 2001) following her experience, she said, "I made new efforts at building a classroom community, in order to meet portfolio requirements, and found my children and I knowing each other more deeply, connecting more easily, and having fewer behavior problems than ever.

"Even if financial incentives had been part of my motivation, this process would have soon established its own value for me. Many teachers in states with high financial rewards report that money alone does not sustain motivation through this process. Reflection, improvement, and self-growth become the most important rewards."

When asked whether she believed teachers are taking responsibility for their own learning, she mirrored that attitude of many members of evolving learning communities. She said, "At least 16,000 National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) and that many new candidates are [taking responsibility for their own learning]. And the number of NBCTs willing to mentor new candidates, both online and in local groups, indicates that as a group we continue to learn and encourage others—this process never seems to end."


Posted: 2003
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