Condorcet advocated in the eighteenth century already, “the art of building oneself.” Within the modern pedagogy, it was in the 1970s that self-training came into being, through psychology and sociology. Several theorists, mainly in France, the United States and Canada have contributed to the evolution of this concept, which we defined in this previous article. To measure its complexity and its richness, we present here a glimpse of some of the pivotal moments in its evolution, most of which Nicole Anne Tremblay describes in her book Self-training: for learning differently.


The timeless desire to learn for oneself. There have always been autonomous learners, individuals who have wanted to learn on their own.

Autodidacticism in ancient Greece. Socrates and Plato valued this effort, which they saw as a form of wisdom. Still in use, the term “autodidact” comes from the ancient Greek autodidaktos meaning, “who teaches himself,” and was first used to explain this approach to learning.

Before compulsory schools. For some, the use of autodidacticism has been the solution to inadequate schooling. If history has many famous autodidacts, it is important to mention that this mean of self-development, professional fulfillment or emancipation has emerged in all layers of society. The autodidact and autodidacticism have been key concepts in the research on self-training in the field of education.

The appearance of the term self-directed learning. In his book The Meaning of Adult Education, published in 1926, the American Eduard C. Lindeman uses the term self-directed learning, arguing that “adults have a deep need to be self-directing.”

1960s and 1970s

Canadian pioneer: from the term “self-directed learning” to the notion of project. In 1967, the Canadian Allen Tough published his thesis Learning without a teacher in which he presented the dimensions of “learning by oneself” and uses the term “self-directed learning.” In his flagship book, The Adult’s Learning Projects, published in 1971, Tough examines adult learning outside institutional settings and highlights the importance of the notion of project, which he defines as a major and intentional effort to gain knowledge or know-how.

The concept of autonomy in adult education in Quebec. While the first francophone andragogy program in the world was created in Quebec in 1969, Claude-René Touchette, one of Quebec’s pioneers in this discipline, placed the notion of autonomy at the heart of his definition of andragogy.

The free learner. In 1969, the American psychologist Carl Roger, founder of the “person-centered” approach, publishes his pedagogical conception in Freedom to learn. It emphasizes the capacity for autonomy, self-regulation, and actualization of every human being, arguing that the teacher should not be a “master of thought” but rather a “learning facilitator.”

Self-training in adult education. In the late 1960s, the idea that the adult is a distinct learner emerged, giving birth to the concept of andragogy (see The adult: a distinct learner). Malcolm Knowles, one of the founders of andragogy, published in 1975 Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, a self-directed learning guide by the method of a contract between a student, called “learner” and the teacher, now “facilitator.” Knowles defines self-directed learning as “an approach in which an individual takes the initiative, with or without the help of others, to establish learning needs, to formulate learning objectives, to identify resources (human and material) necessary for learning, to choose and implement appropriate learning strategies and to evaluate the learning outcomes.” Learning by oneself within open pedagogical strategies becomes a path of choice in andragogy.

American movement centered on the individual. In the United States, the term self-directed learning begins to refer to the line of studies and practices that emphasizes the responsibility of the individual (the self) in his learning. Influenced in particular by American values and individualism, the trend that is emerging to our southern neighbors is based on the idea that the individual occupies a “central place, necessary and sufficient” to his learning. The concept of “self-direction,” which lies at the heart of self-directed learning, can be summed up as the ability or willingness of the learner to take responsibility for learning. In North America in the late 1960s, the concept of self-directed learning is recognized by both science and pedagogy.

Founding works of the French vision. In France, Towards assisted self-study by Bertrand Schwartz, published in 1973, made him the founder of the educational (or pedagogical) movement of self-study.

The concept of lifelong education is becoming known in the West thanks to Paul Lengrand’s book An Introduction to Lifelong Education (1975), which will be translated into 18 languages.

In addition to being the French pioneer of the sociology of leisure, Joffre Dumazedier was a great forerunner of self-training in France; he who saw education as a global social function will become more precisely the initiator of so-called “social” self-training. In 1978, he made a marked contribution to the first collective issue of the magazine Éducation permanente.

A French vision of self-training is emerging little by little. This movement will examine the concept from a sociological point of view as well as psychological and work methodology.


Two terms are getting momentum. While little used in the previous two decades, the terms “self-training” and “self-directed learning” take the lead, the first in Canada and France, and the second in the United States.

Self-development tool. In 1983, Gaston Pineau published Produire sa vie : autoformation et autobiographie, a thesis that will leave its mark both in France and in Quebec. As he explains in this flagship book, for him: “self-training is not a hobby, it’s a job, a struggle to conquer oneself, to liberate oneself, to take one’s life in hand, to exist in its own right, make sense of what is versatile and ambivalent.” Pineau is at the origin of the current called “existential” of self-training, where this approach is seen as a tool of self-construction, or even a tool with a psychotherapeutic potential.

Self-training recognized in France. With the publication in 1985 of a special issue of the journal Éducation permanente : L’autoformation, under the direction of Joffre Dumazedier, self-training is gaining recognition as a new field of research in the sciences of education.

A definition for the school context. In the late 1980s, Huey Long proposed a model of self-directed learning with the goal of clarifying the theoretical framework previously proposed in the United States and reconciling divergent visions. Like the American trend, its model—which combines the pedagogical and psychological dimension of learning—emphasizes the individual by asserting that his/her “psychological control [is] the necessary and sufficient cause of self-directed learning.” Let’s mention that Long’s theory will make it possible to define self-directed learning in a school context.


Two terms stand out. The terms “self-training” and “self-directed learning” are specified either by their function or context of use. In particular, we speak of “self-training method” or “professional self-training.”

The galaxy of theories. The Frenchman Philippe Carré puts order into the theories proposed until now to explain self-training by identifying its five main lines in a proposal he calls The galaxy of self-training. The currents that he distinguishes are:

  1. Integral self-training (or autodidacticism): learning outside the established education systems
  2. Existential self-training: learning to be
  3. Social self-learning: learning in and by the social group
  4. Educational self-training: learning in open training devices—including online training—in educational institutions
  5. Cognitive self-training: “learning to “

By revisiting work on key notions of self-training—project, proactivity, control, metacognition (“learn to learn”)—Carré tries to understand the issues related to self-training motivation. He concludes in 2000 that self-direction in training requires more than just intentionality: “From a psychological point of view, self-directed learning requires, beyond the intention to learn, the exercise of proactive and metacognitive control of the learning process. The mere presence of intent is a necessary condition for self-directed learning, but it is far from sufficient.”

Self-training in the learning organization. In North America as in France, we try to see how the world of work can benefit from self-training. Quebecers Rolland Foucher, founder of GIRAT (Interdisciplinary Research Group on Self-Study and Work), and psycho-pedagogue and andragogue Nicole Anne Tremblay develop an analytical framework for self-directed learning in the workplace. On the French side, André Moisan proposes—in his doctoral dissertation—a model of a self-learning learning organization that focuses on the group rather than the individual, while Carré takes up Dumazedier’s notion of contract to apply it to the company. With Carré, the contract serves to seal a partnership between three actors: the company, the employee and the training manager. Focusing on the path of autodidacts becoming executives, Georges Le Meur shows for his part the existence of close links between autodidacticism and praxeology, the creation of new knowledge through action.

Not a concept yet. Despite the dynamism of research on self-training in America as in France, it did not, according to Carré, reached the concept stage at the end of the 1990s. The field has obviously become more complex, but its ambiguous contours on the conceptual level and terminology lead the French academia to conclude that self-training is for the moment a “heuristic and federative pre-concept, necessary, but not sufficient.”


Sociodidact: the self-taught in the digital age. “We always learn alone, but never without others. This quote by Philippe Carré is well suited to the updated conception of the autodidact that some have called “the sociodidact.” Although the idea that one never learns without the others is timeless, it becomes undoubtedly more evident in this era of digital and social networks. As described by Denis Cristol in his Dictionnaire de la formation : apprendre à l’ère du numérique (2018), this contemporary autodidact addresses his/her relationship with the other as both a resource and a recipient of the information that he/she develops, even more so in a social context. We speak a lot about our individualistic era, but many see a return to collaboration – particularly in the field of education and the workplace – and believe that this trend should increase in the future (see Digital Revolution : 4 challenges for education).

8 directions. After revisiting the different theories proposed over the years on self-training, Nicole Anne Tremblay has come to distinguish the following 8 directions:

  1. Extracurricular
  2. Sociocultural
  3. Developmental
  4. Psychometric
  5. Epistemological
  6. Organizational
  7. Didactic
  8. Cognitive

A new notion. Carré in 2005 defines a new notion, called in French apprenance (no exact term has been yet defined in English) as “a durable set of dispositions favorable to the action of learning in all formal or informal situations, experiential or didactic, self-directed or not, intentional or fortuitous.” This set of dispositions that favor the act of learning includes a cognitive dimension (representations of learning), affective (pleasure to learn) and conative (intentions to learn). Carré conceives the concept of team learning as a potential vector of cultural change in adult education.

“Informal” and “self” training for the worker of the future. The notions of informal training (see Informal Learning 101) and self-learning both have significant potential for the worker and the enterprise of the future. In many respects, though still moving, these two notions seem particularly adapted to our hypermodernity, in particular to our increased need for autonomy, control, and personal satisfaction. One can think that the more an individual has developed his/her ability to self-train, the more he/she will be able to take advantage of informal learning situations.

Towards a self-training organization. From the “learning organization” (see Do your employees know how to learn?) to the “self-training organization,” there is only one-step. Any organization that wants to be innovative, who knows the value of its human capital and who wants to improve it would be well advised to explore new approaches to workforce training, of which self-training is a part. In his thesis, Vers un modèle d’organisation autoformatrice, Jérôme Eneau concludes: “The self-training thus responds to new managerial practices requiring more autonomy of the actors, a greater decentralization of power and responsibilities, qualities of adaptability, flexibility or tolerance to uncertainty. Organizations would, therefore, seem to have every interest in formalizing the use of self-training […].”


Much more than a solitary learning

By reviewing some of the most memorable moments in the history of self-training, one quickly realizes that the concept goes beyond the usual idea of self-study, at the same time embracing it. Because at the base, there is this desire to learn by oneself who has lived in humans for a long time and can give rise to a highly rewarding approach.

The emergence of the concept of self-training is closely linked to the recognition of the adult as a distinct learner and the development of andragogy. Gradually, the notions of autonomy, accountability, and project were recognized as fundamental concepts of the self-training approach, which American, Canadian and French line of thoughts have integrated and deployed through their own vision.

Despite the terminological and conceptual cacophony that has resulted from the diversity of the theoretical movements of self-training, these different visions have made it possible to highlight its many potentialities. Thus, self-training has become not only a tool for self-development but also a learning process that can include and benefit from a relationship to the other or an approach that can find its relevance in a school context.

Although it remains a concept that needs some tuning, self-training has been the subject of reflections and theorizing efforts sufficiently rich and valid over the last 40 years to be pushed into practice in all its forms. It is without a doubt that our times seem designed to offer it the frame to reach its full potential, while lifelong learning has become a necessity. Adopting more flexible and personalized training approaches could easily bring benefits in our pursuit of autonomy and self-realization.

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.