Saturday, May 11, 2013
Self-Directed Learning Theory Literature Review
This is a second excerpt from my longer paper. The references will be given separately. This should help someone trying to get a handle on the basics of Self-Directed Learning theory.
It is interesting to read the primary works of theorists after reading their interpretations in secondary works. To understand self-directed learning theory, I consulted Malcolm Knowles’ The Adult Learner (1998), Tough’s qualitative study of Adult Learning Projects (1979), and Candy’s (1991) exhaustive treatment of the subject. I also read several of Hiemstra’s and Brockett’s collaborations on self-direction as well as some empirical studies. A concept that would seem self-defining is far from being so. The works on self-directed learning can, in my thinking, be divided into three groups: those that seek to define the parameters of self-directed learning (as in Knowles’ and Candy’s writings); those that seek to understand the origins of self-directed learning (motivations, character traits), as do Brockett and Hiemstra; and those that study the nature of the phenomenon in situ (Tough). Although it is a popular topic in adult learning theory literature, these five names, along with Brookfield’s, come up repeatedly. (Note: I read the Fifth Edition of Knowles’ 1973 work, which has been revised and edited by Holton and Swanson. I will cite the book as Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 1998, from this point on.)
In Knowles’ writing, self-direction in learning is almost synonymous with adult learning. He used the term “andragogy” to distinguish childhood learning and teaching from adult learning. The following statement (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 1998) summarizes the literature on self-directed learning:
Perhaps no aspect of andragogy has received so much attention and debate as the premise that adults are self-directed learners. That adults can and do engage in self-directed learning is now a foregone conclusion in adult learning research. Questions remain as to whether self-directed learning is a characteristic of adult learners, and whether it should be a goal of adult educators to help all adult learners become self-directed. (p. 135).
The acceptance of self-directed learning as part of andragogy is the logical outgrowth of andragogy’s six characteristics of the adult learner: the need to know “why” before taking on learning; the learners’ concepts of self as responsible for their own lives and choices; the wealth, depth, and breadth (and therefore diversity) of experience; a readiness to learn in order to cope with life; a life-centered orientation to learning (i.e., practical orientation) as opposed to a subject orientation; and intrinsic or personal value-based motivation.
Candy (1991) refers to self-directed learning as a “versatile concept” (p. 6). He discusses it at great length in terms of whether it is an outcome of learning or a process of learning, and whether self-direction “as an outcome further breaks down into a psychological and philosophical characteristic of people, and that self-direction as a process needs to distinguish learning in formal instructional settings from learning in natural or everyday contexts” (p. 6).
Further, he coined the term “autodidaxy” (or autodidacts) to describe self-directed learning outside of formal institutional settings, the same phenomenon that Tough studied. Candy states, “In the autodidactic domain. . . the learner is frequently not conscious of being a learner, much less a student, and hence the image of an instructor is not present to begin with. Both ownership and control are vested in the learner from the outset . . .” (p. 18).
Therefore, self-directed learning comes down to two key elements: autonomy—choosing what one wants to “learn,” study, or pursue, and control—choosing how to do so. This was the emphasis in Tough’s work, where he documents the learning projects of 70 people. Tough’s methodology is interesting; he wanted to know how much time was spent, how long the “episodes” of learning lasted (several episodes make up a learning project), why the learners embarked on these projects (what benefits they hoped to achieve), their methods of planning their learning, their satisfaction levels, and the benefits gained. Tough seems to prefer self-directed leaning: “Often, when another teaches the individual, the individual has only a vague idea of what he is supposed to learn” (p. 46).
Tough boils down the three benefits of self-directed learning to pleasure, self-esteem, and satisfaction related to others (getting praise or avoiding others’ displeasure, or even to teach others). He agrees with Knowles, Holton, and Swanson: “The adult learns because he expects to use or apply the knowledge and skill directly in order to achieve something” (p. 52), and concludes from his research that adult learners will keep learning even after a skill is attained at the bare minimum level. I found it interesting the Tough’s examples tended to be instrumental (learning a sport, language, craft) rather than adaptive, almost entirely.
If self-direction is a characteristic, how does the facilitator of adult learner utilize it? If it is an outcome, how does the facilitator encourage growth toward it? These questions relate to Brockett and Hiemstra’s (1985; 1994; 2003; 2012) work. In general, they see self-directedness as a trait, related to the concepts of field dependence vs. field independence. Additionally, self-directedness is connected, by some, to locus of control. Both of these psychological constructs relate to autonomy of thought, responsibility, and learning. An early test of self-directedness was Guglielmino’s (1977) Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale, an instrument that has been the basis of many studies. Stockdale and Brockett (2011) developed the PRO-SDLS (Personal Responsibility Orientation to Self-Direction in Learning Scale which has been “found to be a highly reliable instrument in the selected sample of graduate and undergraduate education students” (p. 1).
Lounsbury et al (2009) studied over 2100 middle, high school, and undergraduate students to understand the validity of self-directed learning as a personality trait. They state, “Although many types of evidence can inform construct validity, our particular interest was in the empirical relationships between self-directed learning and other logically related constructs and criteria” (p. 411). Essentially, they administered a battery of tests (such as the Myers-Briggs and the NEO-Big Five inventory, among others) and the Gugielmino instrument, and they looked at grade point average and ACT scores. They conclude, from this mass of data, “the richness of the self-directed learning construct and its broad nomothetic span [Messick, 1989] can be seen in its multiple, significant correlations with so many different personality, interest, and ability measures” (p. 417). What does not rise from these studies of self-directed learning as a trait is that self-directed learners are introverts, hiding away and teaching themselves because they dislike other people and formal educational settings. They are a diverse bunch, if they are a discernible bunch at all.
Another concept related to self-directedness is self-regulation in learning, which has a different nuance in meaning (Wolters, 2003). A student in a typical classroom can be self-regulating, that is, she can be conscious of her learning behaviors, study habits, time management, and also able to evaluate the quality of these actions. However, a person can be self-regulating and not necessarily engaged in self-directed learning, because she is following the lead of another in what is being learned and how the learning is structured. Self-directedness goes back to personal autonomy in what is chosen to learn and control in how it is learned, which may involve self-regulation. Also, Candy (1991) insists that a self-directed learner may utilize formal, teacher-directed learning as much as self-directed.
However, it is time for a detour into the literature that casts doubt on self-direction in learning as it is portrayed. Brookfield (1985) argues against the conception of self-direction on two fronts. First, he counters the assumption prevalent then in the mid ‘80s, after Gugielmino’s, Tough’s, and Knowles’ rise to prominence in the literature, that adult learners are of necessity self-directed and that the adult educator’s role is to facilitate these adults “to conduct self-directed learning projects within their own, often narrowly defined, frameworks of thought and action” (p. 6). He does not believe that adult educators should be limited to helping self-directed learners to refine their own learning techniques but not be engaging them in considering other value systems, ideologies, or views of the future of society or of themselves. His view is that adult educators have grasped onto self-directed learning theory because it distinguishes adults’ from children’s learning as a framework and this gives them adult educators a professional identity and reason for being. Brookfield asserts that self-directed learning is really a misnomer, since self-directed learners do not construct their knowledge on their own, are not purely self-sufficient, and are dependent on writers, websites, or lecturers that they choose to attend to. He cites his own dissertation, where he found that working class adult learners with little formal education relied on networks and oral transmission to become experts in their avocations.
Brookfield argues against self-directed learning in a second way. Along with noting the middle-class, white, Anglo-bias of the research, he asks whether there are clear goals in the beginning and whether researchers distinguish between the value in what is learned. Is playing the guitar on the same level as dealing with divorce, using new software the same as growth in political understanding? Do learners say they learned more than they did? How can we really know if they learned, and if they learned anything of value?
In the same context, Mezirow (1984) weighs in. He alludes to Habermas’ three levels of learning: instrumental, dialogic/communicative (understanding what others mean) and self-reflective, “gaining a clear understanding of oneself” (p. 20).
Knowledge gained through self-reflective learning is appraisive rather than prescriptive or designative. The learner is presented with an alternative way of interpreting feeling and patterns of action . . . We come to see our reality more inclusively, to understand it more clearly, and to integrate experience better.” (p. 21)
Clearly, while Tough, Brockett and Hiemstra and associates, and Lounsbury et al are concerned about the technical aspects of self-direction and take an empirical approach, Mezirow and Brookfield, as others, are concerned with the ethical and philosophical issues. Both Mezirow and Brookfield doubt that self-directed learners have autonomy unless they can have a grasp of all the alternatives open to them, and that is rarely possible if self-directed learners are “on their own” and their individuality is prized above community. Candy (1991) also questions the pro-Western bias toward individuality in much self-directed learning theory.
Returning to an earlier question, how does a facilitator of adult education utilize self-directedness, if at all? “Most teaching of adults is teacher-directed rather than learner-directed” (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1984, p. 33). In their thinking, self-directed learners do not eschew instructors per se—they just have different expectations of them. College teachers like me espouse a theory that we want our students to be self-directed learners, but do we choose, or find ourselves unable, to facilitate this transformation, if such a transformation can be made at all? We are back to the original question of meanings and definitions for the concept: is it a trait (as Lounsbury et al seem to prove) or an outcome, and if a trait, can we make it an outcome?
As mentioned previously, there is scant literature on the intersection of self-directed learning and faculty development. If all adults are self-directed learners to some extent by nature, then would college faculty, who hold advanced degrees in their disciplines, be more or less self-directed? I have not found any studies on that question, either. I do know that faculty development as I have experienced it does not recognize the self-directed nature of faculty learning. Faculty development’s default is what I term “the guru approach.” A speaker from another institution who has either written a book, developed a resume of speaking engagements, or chaired a teaching and learning center visits and presents a workshop on a specific topic. The most recent one I attended was on retaining students. Fees for these engagements run from free to $5,000 or even $10,000. The presenter has the requisite PowerPoint slides, handouts, bibliography, some exercises, some time for “reflection,” and then goes home. In my experience, some of these have been phenomenal, and some have left me scratching my head in puzzlement as to how the speaker could justify the fees.
As some have noted (e.g., Cranton, 1994), faculty development is weak in its theoretical framework, whether one leans toward transformational theory, self-directed learning theory, andragogy, or another. She states, in regard to self-directed theory, “For as we know in faculty development, one may be self-directed in one area, and not in another; . . .being self-directed requires its own set of skills” (p. 729). In a statement of the ideal rather than the actual she says
Self-directed faculty development would have as underlying assumptions that faculty are personally autonomous; would seek to foster faculty self-management of their learning about teaching; would turn over responsibility for decision-making to faculty; and would encourage and act as a resource for noninstitutional learning pursuits. . . . For most adult learners, becoming self-directed involves a change in basic assumptions about themselves as learners, the role of the teacher, even the goal of education. (p. 729)
What seems to be missing in faculty development is a recognition of the autonomy of faculty and of the depth of experience the faculty already have, which leads me to depend upon Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning theory in regard to this study, discussed below. Another study by Minott (2010) essentially chronicles his own self-directed learning in regard to teaching a particular group of students at his institution; the self-direction takes the form of reflection, primarily, on how to approach a new and diverse group of students without adequate background. However, as Kolb shows, what we reflect upon is prior experience, something that most professors have a great deal of, whether they recognize it or not.