By Rui Manuel Moura (February, 1997)
Self-directed learning is an important field inside the adult education research. I have been always interested on this subject, and thats why I chose this area for my Master's thesis on Sciences Education. This article pretends to be a little help to a more comprehensive view of this theme, and this is not an exhaustive review of the past research on self-directed learning (soon I will write a more extensive research review). Contributions, and critics, are always welcome.
Research into Self-Directed Learning has increased since The Allen Tough's (1967) work. Since then, this field has become central in the Adult Education Research. Tough observed that many adults develop, by themselves, learning projects. Therefore, the formal learning was the visible part of the iceberg, because the great majority of those learning projects were out of any educational institution. This author focused on the individual learner carrying self-planed learning projects.
The humanistic view, especially with Knowles (1975, 1984), has helped on the increment of research quality, and quantity. Knowles (1975) provided the first definition of this concept:
In its broadest meaning "self-directed learning" describes a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes. (p. 18)
The focus of this conception is on the pedagogical procedures: 1) diagnosing learning needs; 2) formulating learning goals; 3) identifying human and material resources; 3) choosing and implementing strategies; and 4) evaluating outcomes. This author (1986) views the adult with a deep need to be self-directed. Knowles is influenced by the Roger and Maslow conceptions of the human being: the self has a naturally tendency towards growth. Therefore, the person has the need and the motivation for self-direction, in order to become a fully functioning person (Gestner, 1990, p. 74). Knowles conceives this tendency to self-direction the mark that defines the adult:
Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, for their own lives. Once they have arrived at that self-concept they develop a deep psychological need to be seen by others and treated by others as being capable of self-direction. (p. 56)
Knowles conceives Self-Directed Learning inside the formal education. For him, Self-Directed Learning is not synonymous of isolation. This author (1984) presents adults involved on self-directed learning projects involved on learning groups.
The work of Guglielmino (1977) provided the greatest boost to the study of self-directed learning. The Self-Directed Readiness Scale (SDRLS) was developed, by this author, as a means to examine and explore the phenomenon of self-direction in learning. Guglielmino suggested that there are some characteristics that 'gives' to the self the propensity to be self-directed: 1) initiative; 2) independence; 3) persistence; 4) sense of responsibility for learning; 5) curiosity; 6) ability to view problems as challenges; 7) desire to learn or change; and, 8) enjoyment from learning. Thus, there are some individuals that are more self-directed than others are which ones desire, by nature, to assume over their own learning. This scale gave the greatest boost to the study of self-directed learning. Numerous dissertations and articles used this scale. Cheren (1983) and Skager (1984) also consider the self-direction as a personality characteristic. In this line, Bonham (1989) suggests that self -directed learning is a learning style.
Long (1987, 1989, 1991b) observes that SDL research as been marked with two conceptions: 1) the sociological, and 2) pedagogical views. The sociological dimension emphasizes the social isolation of the learner, i.e.; the self-directed learner is the intellectual Robison Crusoé. The pedagogical dimension stresses the procedures carried out by the learner (diagnosing learning needs, identifying resources, implementing strategies, and evaluating outcomes). Long suggests that the research must look to another, and more important, dimension: the psychological control of the learning. "Self-learning or self-directed learning if you prefer, occurs only when the learner primarily controls the learning (cognitive) processes." (1989, p.5). The learner autonomy is, at first place, be on psychological control of the learning process.
Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) also observe that the research presents two views of self-directed learning: 1) as instructional method, 2) as a personality characteristic. The first perspective involves a process in which the learners assume primary responsibility for planning, implementing, and evaluating their learning. The second dimension "centers on a learner desire or preference for assuming responsibility for learning (Hiemstra, 1992, p. 324). Therefore, the conceptualization of the self-directed learning must integrate these external and internal elements:
Self -direction in learning refers to both the external characteristics of an instructional process and the internal characteristics of the learner, where the individual assumes primary responsibility for a learning experience. (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991, p. 24)
Brookfield (1985, 1986) presents another important view of self-directed learning. For this author, SDL cannot be view as a matter of doing some pedagogical procedures. By doing some pedagogical techniques, the person will be enrolled in several pedagogical phases, but will not do significant learning:
Learning to be a good disciple, to be an efficient bureaucratic functionary, or to be an exemplary political party member are all examples of projects in which the techniques of self-directed learning may be evident. In none of these projects, however is there exhibited critical though concerning other alternatives, options, or possibilities. (1986, p. 57-58)
Therefore, is essential to be capable of analyzing alternative views, and perspectives to be self-directed learner. If the learner is aware that the knowledge is contextual, then he is apt to identifying and challenging assumptions, and explore and imagining alternatives (Brookfield, 1987). Only with this predisposition, the self will be open to learn new things, and more deeply. But the exploration of new alternatives does not mean isolation. Is on the shared world that the learner be aware of new perspectives, other visions, or new ideas (Garrison, 1992; Brookfield, 1986). Those new perspectives are not only important to engage new learning process, but to give a better quality to that learning. For this reason, Brookfield (1993) observes that the self-directed learning does not occur on the vacuum. The interdependence is very important because is on the shared world that the self discovers new ideas:
Citing, self-direction, people can deny the importance of collective action, common interests, and human interdependence in favor of an obsessive focus on the self. This view of self-direction encourages a dissatisfying emphasis on a self that is sustained by its own internal emotional resources and that needs no external supports or momentum. (Brookfield, 1993, p.239)
We cannot think self-direction as an all or nothing condition (Long, 1992; Kerka, 1994). Of course, there are some individuals who prefer assume the control over their own learning. But there are, also, another individuals who assume control in one learning situation, but are totally dependent in another learning situation. Kerka (1994) observes:
Preference for self-direction may be a matter of degree - a continuum on which a learner's position depends on a number of factors: learning style, exposure to self-direction, familiarity with subject matter, expectations of schooling and learning, motivation, length of time away from formal schooling and learning, social and political context. (p. 3)
Also, the accessibility of learning resources is crucial for assuming the control over the own learning. Brookfield (1993) notes that self-direction is affected by the degree of control have over their lives as well as the amount of access they have to learning resources. Long (1991a) considers that at the beginning of the learning project the learner may have a vague idea of what he or she wants to learn. "As the learner obtains more information the specifics become clearer. (p. 5). Then, we must see self-direction as a continuum and not an all or nothing condition. Candy (1991) notes that self-direction is not context-free. Many times, the contextual forces (accessibility of resources, unexpected events, etc.) may influence the individual self-direction. Cavaliere (1990) express, on a study about the learning project developed by the Wright brothers, the importance of the feedback received as crucial for the progress of the learning project. I share this position, and soon I will present here my thesis research, where I confirm this reality.
Self-directed learning is a central theme on adult education. But we cannot view SDL as an all or nothing concept, or a isolated learning. The works of Long, Brockett e Hiemstra, Brookfield, and Candy are very important to think SDL in a more complete way. Self-directed learning is not synonymous of isolated learning. The inter-relation whit the others is crucial to be aware of alternative views, and to the quality of the learning. "Without deny the richness of the autodidactic practices, it would be restrict or reduce the self-directed learning to a only individual initiative in way to the solitary acquisition of information." (Couceiro, 1995, p.7). Even when the learner is using physical resources, he is interacting with the authors of those resources:
In the pursuit of skills, knowledge, and insight adults will come into contact with books, magazines, computer programs, and so forth; all of these are devised by humans for the purpose of facilitating skill development or knowledge acquisition. Although the writers of these books, magazines, and programs are not physically present to the learner, they nonetheless partly control his or her cognitive operations. (Brookfield, 1986, p.48)
Thus, many authors observe that the self-directed learning can occur in the formal education (Knowles, 1984; Candy, 1991; Kasworm, 1992). The conceptualization of SDL must be aware of the various dimensions of this concept, and forget this reality is an error that we must avoid. I think that the words of Candy (1991) are a good conclusion, and summarize the ideas of this article:
Self-direction is at once a social and psychological construct, a philosophical ideal, and a literal impossibility; an external manifestation and an internal tendency; both the beginning and the end of lifelong learning; the foundation stone and the keystone of the learning society; a supplement to and a substitute for the formal education system; simultaneously a process and a product, a precondition and a purpose (p. 424).
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Contributions are always welcome: Rui Manuel Catarina de Moura