SDL Timeline

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Historical Timeline for Self-Directed Learning in Adult Education


From the beginning of time...



  • 1840- in the United States, Craik documented and celebrated the self-education efforts of several people showing that early scholarly efforts to understand self-directed learning took place some 150 years ago (Hiemstra, 1994).
  • 1895- in Great Britain, Smiles published a book entitled Self-Help, that applauded the value of personal development (Hiemstra, 1994).


Early 1900s





  • 1971- Allen Tough's (1971) The Adult Learning Projects publication is thought be some to be the point of SDL becoming a vital part of education literature (Brockett et al., 2000, p. 4).
  • 1975- Knowles published Self-directed Learning, provided foundational definitions and assumptions that guided much subsequent research: (a) self-directed learning assumes that humans grow in capacity and need to be self-directing; (b) learners' experiences are rich resources for learning; (c) individuals learn what is required to perform their evolving life tasks; (d) an adult's natural orientation is task or problem-centered learning; (e) self-directed learners are motivated by various internal incentives, such as need for self-esteem, curiosity, desire to achieve, and satisfaction of accomplishment (Hiemstra, 1994).
  • 1979- The first attempt to better understand learning-oriented individuals was made by Tough, A Canadian researcher and one of Houle's doctoral students. His dissertation effort to analyze self-directed teaching activities and subsequent research with additional subjects resulted in a book, The Adult's Learning Projects. This work has stimulated many similar studies with various populations in various locations (Hiemstra, 1994).



  • 1980- Gibbons, Bailey, Cameau, Schmuck, Symour, and Wallace conducted a content analysis of the biographies of 22 individuals who obtained expertise in their field without formal training. The biographies included Walt Disney, Virginia Wolff, and Malcom X. They concluded that assumptions underlying formal  schooling and self-directed learning are different (Owen, 2002).
  • 1984- Spear and Mocker's work on organizing circumstances showed how important it is to understand a learner's environmental circumstances in promoting self-directed learning (Hiemstra, 1994).
  • 1984 & 1985- The Oddi Continuing Learning Inventory (OCLI), a 24-item Likert scale, grew out of Oddi's concern over the lack of a theoretical foundation for understanding personality characteristics of self-directed continuing learners (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991).
  • 1987- Long and his colleagues established an annual International Symposium on Self-Directed Learning. The Symposia have spawned many publications, research projects, and theory building efforts by researchers throughout the world (Hiemstra, 1994).
  • 1988- Houle acknowledged that his research (1961) The Inquiring Mind stimulated new topics for investigation in adult education (Owen, 2002).