Self-directed Learning - Part 1: Why it is the most important skill of the 21st century

What's happening when tech giants report increased revenue and profits in Q4/2023 but continue to cut tens of thousands of jobs in early 2024? Alongside this, they keep pouring billions into artificial intelligence. Is this downsizing or a shift of investment towards an "invisible AI workforce"?

The chart below compiled by the New York Times shows a trend of downsizing, with Meta (Facebook) being the most aggressive, cutting over 20% of its workforce since late 2022. Q4 business results indicate Facebook is on the right track with a 25% revenue increase and tripled profits.

During an interview with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on November 2nd 2023, Elon Musk stated that AI could lead humanity to a future where no jobs are needed.

The story of my profession

This capital shift reminds me of my own accounting career. If my parents only needed to learn one accounting profession and work in it for a lifetime at 1 or 2 companies, things changed in my time.

When I graduated with a degree in Finance and worked in the Finance department for a German bank in Vietnam in 2008, I thought my job would involve traditional accounting tasks as taught in school. But no, by 2008, those tasks were outsourced to Manila (Philippines), and they trimmed manual accounting personnel. Now, everything is automated instantly upon transaction.

About a year ago, when ChatGPT emerged, it was said that many professions would disappear as AI could perform tasks like writing, designing, programming. And a new, highly sought-after profession emerged, known as a Prompt engineer, a role responsible for creating commands for AI to execute tasks that replace human involvement. However, in mid-year 2023, Harvard published an article analyzing why even this prompt engineer job could be replaced by AI.

Society is rapidly changing, so how will you adapt? If you're a student, are you worried that what you're learning will become obsolete and your profession will be replaced by AI? So, what's the most important thing you need to avoid being replaced?

The most important knowledge

In a video interview, renowned historian Yuval Harari analyzed how a farmer accustomed to field work had to learn new skills to work in factories when fields disappeared. When those factories were fully automated by robots, where would those workers go? They had to transition to another profession.

Not only is the pace of job displacement increasing, but the complexity of new jobs is also rising. Transitioning from farming to factory work might only take a few weeks or months to learn new skills. But today's new jobs are becoming more complex. Think about how long it would take a farmer to learn software programming. "To adapt, humans must always be ready to learn new knowledge," Harari concluded.

Futurist Alvin Toffler from the US in 1970 shockingly predicted,

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

We're in an era where nearly 90% of the world's population can read and write, but not everyone knows how to self-learn. So what is self-learning, and has our schooling taught us this skill?

What is self-directed learning?

You might have heard of independent learning as the ability to explore and grasp knowledge without guidance or supervision. However, I believe this explanation falls short of the needs of our time.

In the 21st century, learners need more than just autonomous learning and self exploration; they also need the ability to self-plan study schedules and self-assess the effectiveness of their learning.


In the past, acquiring new knowledge was challenging; you had to find a teacher and be lucky to find study materials. But in the age of information technology, a simple internet search yields countless courses and resources on any topic, even AI models can provide answers. Faced with so many options, people become confused about what to choose.

The challenge for now is that learners need to know what they want, what their learning goals are. Learners must filter necessary information that aligns with their goals, plan their implementation, and finally evaluate whether their learning goals have been achieved. The learning in this sense is understood as self-directed learning.

Have you been trained to learn in either the sense of independent learning or self-directed learning, or both? When I learned about these concepts, I realized I hadn't learned them in school. I seemed to only know about self-learning in the sense of "learning without supervision."

Does school teach you self-directed learning skills?

Currently, the curriculum of some universities in Vietnam teaches and encourages critical thinking – a self-directed learning skill. However, at the secondary level, fostering the qualities of self-directed learning is still challenging, not only in Vietnam but even in powerhouse countries like the US, Japan, and the UK.

To teach you a specific knowledge, patience is required to explain until you understand. But to train you in self-directed learning skills, it's much more challenging and requires many more resources.

When asked, "If you were the education minister, what would you do?" Harari said, "I need money." Harari wasn't concerned about students in California because he believed there were enough resources there to help them if the government saw fit. He worried about children in poor countries where even if they wanted to implement an education program to develop self-directed learning capabilities, there would be no resources to do so.

In 1965, the sovereign nation of Singapore was established in a context where there were limited resources available for developing the country. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew believed that people were Singapore's asset, so he prioritized education and applied the most advanced educational achievements of developed countries to Singapore.

In an interview with Time magazine in 1983, Lee Kuan Yew said:

We are only a small country with little or no natural resources. Our only asset is our people. We must educate them to the best of our ability, so that they can compete in the world.

Vietnam regained independence in 1975 following the withdrawal of the US military, and then faced 20 years of US embargo. It wasn't until the late 20th and early 21st centuries that the embargo was lifted, Vietnam joined the WTO, and we began to learn from developed countries. By 2018, we had the 2018 education reform program with many advancements, particularly the viewpoint: The program doesn't just focus on teaching knowledge to obtain a profession as before but also cultivates skills, qualities, and knowledge to enable students to become lifelong learners, to master knowledge, and contribute to society.

Thus, the Vietnamese generation born after 2015 will inherit a renewed, advanced education system, aligned with global trends. As for us, who were born before 2015, we respect history and are grateful for the peace that our predecessors have brought us. We must courageously leave our comfort zones, train our self to be lifelong learners, and contribute to our country. This way, future generations can inherit a peaceful, stable society, a top-notch education system, and a strong economy like that of leading nations.

So, will you wait to be trained, or will you actively cultivate self-directed learning skills for yourself? In the next article, I'll delve deeper into how self-directed learning occurs, hoping to provide insights for you to plan your own journey.