Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning: Myths and Misunderstandings

(Ralph G. Brockett)

Chapter One


Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning

Roger Hiemstra and Ralph G. Brockett (Editors)

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Number 64, Winter 1994

Jossey-Bass Publishers

Ralph B. Brockett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Alan B. Knox, University of Wisconsin, Madison, CONSULTING EDITOR


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Resistance often results from a lack of understanding about self-direction in learning.

Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning: Myths and Misunderstandings

Ralph G. Brockett

For more than a quarter of a century, the notion of self-direction in learning has been at the center of discussions about the study and practice of adult and continuing education. Regardless of whether one chooses to trace the origins of this emphasis to Houle's (1961) The Inquiring Mind, Johnstone and Rivera's (1965) Volunteers for Learning, Knowles's (1968, 1970) early discussions of andragogy, or Tough's (1979) study of adults' learning projects (originally published in 1971), it should be clear by now that self-direction is no longer a "new idea," "current trend," "passing fad," or "hot topic." Instead, it is an idea that has helped to transform the way a great many educators of adults approach their practice. Elsewhere, Hiemstra and I have attempted to outline major developments in theory, research, and practice relative to self-direction (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991).

However, as most educators recognize, change rarely comes easily. Over more than a decade and a half, I have had the opportunity to study the concept of self-direction and to implement principles of self-direction in a great many practice settings, ranging from graduate and undergraduate classrooms to continuing professional education workshops and training programs. While the vast majority of my experiences with self-direction have been positive and enriching both for the learners and for me, I frequently find myself responding to questions and challenges about the relevance or desirability of turning over responsibility to learners.

Frequently, resistance to self-direction can be traced to misinformation about the nature and practice of self-direction. One way in which this has often happened is with regard to the link between self-direction and humanism. The purpose of this chapter, therefore, is to focus on some of the myths and

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misunderstandings that can promote resistance to self-direction in adult learning. Specifically, I will review ten common myths about self-direction, with special attention to the way each myth can lead to resistance. I will then focus on some common misunderstandings about humanism and self-direction and how these can also contribute to resistance.

Revisiting Some Common Myths About Self-Direction in Adult Learning

Previously, Hiemstra and I identified ten myths frequently associated with self-direction (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991). Our original intent was to discuss some of the misconceptions that have led to confusion over the meaning of self-direction and its implementation in practice. In reviewing these myths, it is clear that each has implications for promoting resistance from learners, facilitators, and institutions. Therefore, it makes sense to reexamine these myths with specific emphasis on how each can contribute to increased resistance to self-direction.

Myth 1: Self-directedness is an all-or-nothing concept. It is not uncommon to hear educators speak of self-direction as a dichotomous or either/or concept. In this view, a learning situation is viewed as either self-directed or instructor directed and the learner is seen is being either self-directed or not self-directed. By breaking down self-direction into either/or terms, it is easy to identify a major source of resistance. Such a view ignores that (1) learners vary greatly in learning style and, thus, will likely possess different degrees of self-directedness, and (2) educators or trainers vary greatly in teaching style and, thus, will promote different degrees of self-direction in their instructional settings. When self-direction is viewed as an all-or-nothing concept, it can become easy to place labels on learners who are not self-directed and instructors who do not promote self-directed learning. A different approach is to think about self-direction as a continuum where it "is viewed as a characteristic that exists, to a greater or lesser degree, in all persons and in all learning situations" (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991, p. 11). The advantage of this view is that it recognizes a vast range where learners in learning situations are found to be more or less self-directed.

In terms of overcoming resistance, this approach makes it possible for instructors, particularly those who prefer or are required to use a highly prescriptive approach, to incorporate elements of self-direction into the teaching-learning process. It also means that self-direction can be a goal toward which learners can strive rather than a label that can erroneously be used to rate the success as learners. In Chapter Ten of this volume, Hiemstra identifies seventy-eight "microcomponents" that allow instructors or learners to incorporate elements of self-direction into their practice. Thus, a trainer in a nuclear power facility might be required to teach highly prescribed content and to use a standard evaluation form in a safety training workshop, but there may be aspects of the program, such as pacing the learning or controlling the learning envi-

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ronment, where the trainer may be able to turn over varying degrees of control. When viewed in this way, self-direction can be seen as a process rather than an outcome.

Myth 2: Self-direction implies learning in isolation. A frequent stereotype of the self-directed learner is of a person who works in isolation and does not share the fruits of the learning with others. It is not surprising to realize that such a myth could easily lead educators and trainers in institutional settings to resist promoting such an approach. Most of us recognize the joy and synergy that results from interacting with others in our learning efforts; learning in isolation clearly conflicts with this approach.

However, the idea that most self-directed learning situations isolate the students is a myth. It is true that such situations are often characterized by times of intense, focused individual inquiry: Yet, at some point, interaction is what makes new insights and growth possible. Take writing, for example. As I write these words, it is early morning and I am working alone in my study. I am able to turn inward and gain insights that I can share on these pages. But for me, the real potential for growth from this experience will come in interactions with my coeditor and with colleagues in the field who read and respond to the ideas presented. It is these interactions that will give life to the somewhat abstract ideas that appear in print. While success in self-directed learning often requires that learners have ample time to be alone for personal reflection, reading, and writing, this is only one aspect of the learning process. Educators who seek to break down resistance to self-direction can do so by finding an appropriate balance between individual and group learning activities.

Myth 3: Self-direction is just another adult education fad. As was mentioned above, self-direction in learning has been a major topic in the literature of the adult and continuing education field for about three decades. This is hardly indicative of a fad. Yet it is true that because self-direction has gained widespread use throughout the field, there is the potential for misunderstanding and misappropriation of the term.

In a recent book entitled Self-Directed Learning: A Practical Guide to Design, Development, and Implementation, Piskurich (1993) defines self-directed learning as "a training design in which trainees master packages of predetermined material, at their own pace, without the aid of an instructor" (p. 4). He then goes on to describe a systematic instructional design process that resembles a traditional systems analysis procedure. While this book contains many useful strategies, particularly with regard to learning in the workplace, it can be argued that "self-directed learning" is not what Piskurich is addressing because his approach really does little more than give learners control over the pace of their learning. To be sure, learning pace is one component of self-direction, but I contend that the above definition has very little to do with the concept of self-directed learning (or self-direction in learning) that has been the object of three decades of theory, research, and practice. The problem then is that it is possible for educators to adopt this view in an uncritical fashion, without

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considering the extensive body of knowledge in this area, and be led to think that they are promoting self-direction. This is when self-direction has the potential to be viewed as a fad.

Myth 4: Self-direction is not worth the time required to make it work. This is largely a question of cost-benefit analysis. It is true that most self-directed learning situations require a certain amount of standup time in order to introduce the process and help learners diagnose their needs, assess possible options for the learning process, negotiate decisions about content and outcomes, and determine how learning will be evaluated. At the same time, because such process activities are directly tied to the learning endeavor, they serve as a way of helping learners move into the learning activity in a smooth manner. Educators and trainers who express resistance to self-direction on the grounds that time spent on process activities detracts from content time are missing the point that the payoff for process activities is likely to be greater communication between learners and facilitator, and ultimately, more efficiency in learning.

Myth 5: Self-directed learning activities are limited primarily to reading and writing. So much of what has been studied and written about self-direction has focused upon learning in formal institutional settings that this myth is not at all surprising. However, such a view fails to recognize the wide array of situations where learning is linked to skill development and performance. Learning how to play a musical instrument, how to make a wood table, how to play tennis, and how to fly an airplane are only four examples where successful learning cannot be achieved solely or primarily from reading and writing. Self-direction holds much promise for skill and performance-based learning because it stresses an experiential approach to learning, where the learner is an active participant rather than a passive recipient of information.

Myth 6: Facilitating self-direction is an easy way out for teachers. Perhaps one of the most pervasive myths regarding self-direction is that it provides an "easy way out" for instructors who are either unprepared or uninterested in working actively with their learners. Those who subscribe to this myth are likely to equate self-direction with a learning environment characterized by a lazy instructor or an anarchic classroom. However, those who work with principles and practices of self-directed learning clearly understand that they need to take a very active approach to working with learners. In fact, self-direction typically involves a deeper commitment from instructors because they need to focus their energy on each learner, as well as on the group as a whole. Hiemstra (1988) has described this teaching-learning transaction in self-directed learning situations as a "learning partnership."

Myth 7: Self-directed learning is limited primarily to those settings where freedom and democracy prevail. Most discussions of self-direction focus on situations where the learner consciously chooses to engage in a learning project, and to do so in a self-directed way. But what about those situations where decisions about participation, content, and process lie outside of the individual? There are many situations where adults are required to participate in a learning activ-

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ity for a variety of reasons. Examples include the registered nurse who must attend a certain number of continuing education programs in order to maintain certification, the nuclear power plant employee who must attend workshops on nuclear safety, and the adult who is required by the state to attend adult basic education classes in order to continue receiving public assistance.

While the circumstances that bring such learners to the learning activity are antithetical to the spirit of self-direction, it is inaccurate to suggest that there is no place for principles and practices of self-direction in such situations. As Hiemstra discusses in Chapter Ten, the advantage of using the microcomponents approach is that it allows facilitators to incorporate elements of self-direction into situations where many key decisions, including specific content, are predetermined. The point here is that it is possible, even in highly structured learning situations, to move toward self-direction by making sure that the learners have control over as many elements of the process as possible. From this viewpoint, it can be argued that self-direction can, in and of itself, be viewed as a potential strategy for helping facilitators work with learners who may be resistant because of resentment toward the circumstances that led them to the learning activity.

Myth 8: Self-direction in learning is limited primarily to white, middle-class adults. A criticism that is sometimes leveled at self-direction in learning is that it is merely a reflection of mainstream values in our society, and thus has little to offer learners have traditionally been marginalized or disempowered, such as women and minorities. However, there is an extensive body of research showing that self-direction in learning is a phenomenon that can be found in all strata of our society as well as in many societies outside of North America and western Europe. Indeed, I have been convinced for more than a decade that self-direction holds tremendous potential for reaching those have been traditionally labeled "hard-to-reach" adults. Its great advantage is that it provides a different approach for working with learners who have rejected more traditional approaches to education due to such factors as rejection, frustration, or boredom (see, for example, Brockett, 1983).

Myth 9: Self-directed teaming will erode the quality of institutional programs. According to this view, turning greater responsibility for the learning process over to learners is analogous to letting go of control over quality of programs. To be sure, self-direction principles can be misused in a way that will in fact compromise program quality. However, it is not self-direction itself that raises quality issues; quality declines only when self-direction is improperly implemented. Again, there is an ample body of research and practice literature that addresses ways to successfully incorporate self-direction into various learning settings. Institutions that view their involvement with learners as a partnership should find it quite manageable to incorporate principles and practices of self-directed learning and learner self-direction into their mission and actual practice.

Myth 10: Self-directed teaming is the best approach for adults. A final myth that can lead to resistance toward self-direction is one that can actually be promoted by those who actively advocate self-direction, but do so in an uncritical

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way. In their enthusiasm to embrace an approach that clearly holds much promise, some educators may take the extreme position that self-direction is the best, indeed, the only effective way for adults to learn. This is simply not so! As educators of adults, we need to recognize the vast array of approaches and philosophies available to work successfully with adult learners and to recognize the inherent limitations of any approach. To advocate self-direction as the single best theory, method, or approach to adult learning is to ignore differences in learning styles, teaching styles, and institutional policies. Presenting self-direction as a panacea is clearly a way to promote resistance among those who might otherwise be open to incorporating elements of the approach into their practice.

Misunderstandings About Self-Direction and Humanism

It is important to recognize that there is no single "correct" way to think about self-direction. As an example, three recent books on self-direction in adult learning are written from different points of view: Candy (1991) discusses self-direction from the framework of constructivist sociology. Piskurich (1993) has used behaviorism and instructional systems design to frame his discussion. And Hiemstra and I have drawn largely from the perspective of humanism in our work on self-direction (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991).

As with any set of principles or practices, educators who wish to promote self-direction in adult learning need to have a basic set of assumptions to guide how they view the concept. My purpose in this chapter is not especially aimed at comparing the relative merits of constructivism, behaviorism, and humanism. Rather, I would like to focus on humanism in terms of the way it can help us to understand self-direction and the way misunderstandings of humanism can contribute to resistance to self-direction.

Humanism has been defined as "a philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity" (Lamont, 1965, p. 12). According to Elias and Merriam (1980), humanism is rooted in the idea that "human beings are capable of making significant personal choices within the constraints imposed by heredity; personal history, and environment" (p. 118). The basic tenets of humanism hold that human nature is inherently good and that human potential for growth and development is virtually unlimited. In addition, humanism maintains that individuals are free and autonomous, but also have responsibility both to themselves and to others.

It is not difficult to see the compatibility of these ideas with the notion of self-direction. Yet the humanist framework is often subject to challenge. These challenges, which come from both the far right and the far left, can serve to create resistance to self-direction because they aim to discredit key elements of humanism. I would like to address three such criticisms.

First, because humanism stresses the "here and now" and denies existence of the supernatural, it runs contrary to many tenets of Christian and other theological orientations. Indeed, this view is supported by Lamont (1965), who

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noted that individuals "have but one life to lead and should make the most of it in terms of creative work and happiness" (p. 14). In my fifteen years of experience with self-direction, I have worked successfully with learners from many different religious backgrounds. Bearing in mind that self-direction is not an all-or-nothing concept, I emphasize to learners that one does not have to abandon one's religious beliefs in order to celebrate the good of humanity and to promote self-direction in learning.

Second, some critics have argued that humanism is overly self-centered and excludes concern for the social context of learning and issues of social justice. This is perhaps one of the greatest misunderstandings about humanism. While individual growth is typically the starting point in humanism, there is a clear concern for serving the good of all humanity, as reflected above in our definition of humanism. As an example, O'Hara (1989) has presented a comparison of the ideas of humanist psychologist Carl Rogers and "radical" educator Paulo Freire. According to O'Hara, while the backgrounds and practice of Rogers and Freire differ greatly, the basic values held by the two men are very similar in that both "unabashedly celebrate human existence and our evolutionary potential" and that neither man "gives up on people" (p. 13). Still another example can be found in. the following statement by Eduard Lindeman in The Meaning of Adult Education: "adult education will become an agency of progress if its short-time goal of self-improvement can be made compatible with a long-time, experimental but resolute policy of changing the social order" (1926, p. 105). Self-direction, from a humanistic framework, is a clear example of the basic idea shared nearly seven decades ago by Lindeman.

Third, resistance to self-direction can sometimes be found in those educators who are strongly committed to a behaviorist foundation. One source of this criticism is that humanism does not easily lend itself to the measurement of observable performance. Humanism is concerned with the whole person, and this includes the affective domain (for example, attitudes and values) as well as performance. Reducing self-directed learning to a series of measurable objectives defeats the spirit of understanding the person and the unlimited potential that the person brings to the learning activity. Elsewhere, Hiemstra and I have made the case that because humanism and behaviorism share many common elements (such as emphasis on practical problem solving, the importance of previous experience, and the need to recognize that individuals enter a teaching-learning transaction with a wide range of knowledge and skills), there are ways to bridge the two paradigms in order to promote self-direction (Hiemstra and Brockett, 1994).


This chapter has been an attempt to clarify some of the myths and misunderstandings that can contribute to resistance among learners, instructors, and administrators toward principles and practices related to self-direction in adult learning. Unlike so many areas in the field of adult and continuing education,

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self-direction benefits from an extensive body of research and practice literature. While this literature is not without controversy and debate, it does fulfill an important function in that there is ample information to help limit the spread of myths that can give self-direction a bad name among educators of adults, regardless of the specific settings in which they practice.


Brockett, R. G. "Self-Directed Learning and the Hard-to-Reach Adult." Lifelong Learning: The Adult Years, 1983, 6(8), 1-18.

Brockett, R. G., and Hiemstra, R. Self-Direction in Adult Learning: Perspectives on Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Routledge &: Kegan Paul, 1991.

Candy, P. C. Self-Direction for Lifelong Learning: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Elias, J. L., and Merriam, S. Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1980.

Hiemstra, R. "Self-Directed Learning: Individualizing Instruction." In H. B. Long and Associates, Self-Directed Learning: Application and Theory. Athens: Lifelong Learning Research/ Publication Project, Department of Adult Education, University of Georgia, 1988.

Hiemstra, R., and Brockett, R. G. "From Behaviorism to Humanism: Incorporating Self-Direction in Learning Concepts into the Instructional Design Process." In H. B. Long and Associates, New Ideas About Self-Directed Learning. Norman: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1994.

Houle, C. O. The Inquiring Mind: A Study of the Adult Who Continues to Learn. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.

Johnstone, J. W. C., and Rivera, R. J. Volunteers for Learning. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine, 1965.

Knowles, M. S. "Andragogy, Not Pedagogy!" Adult Leadership, 1968, 16, 350-352.

Knowles, M. S. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy vs. Pedagogy. New York: Association Press, 1970.

Lamont, C. The Philosophy of Humanism. (5th ed.) New York: Unger, 1965.

Lindeman, E. C. The Meaning of Adult Education. New York: Harvest House, 1926.

O'Hara, M. "Person-Centered Approach as Conscientizacao: The Works of Carl Rogers and Paulo Freire." Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 1989, 29(1), 11-36.

Piskurich, G. M. Self-Directed Learning: A Practical Guide to Design, Development, and Implementation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Tough, A. M. The Adult's Learning Projects. (2nd ed.) Austin, Tex.: Learning Concepts, 1979.


Ralph G. Brockett is professor and chair of adult education, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He has been involved with self-direction in learning scholarship for twenty-five years and is editor of Adult Learning.

June, 2001

-- Return to Roger Hiemstra's opening page

-- Return to the Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning Contents page

-- Go to Editor's Notes, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, Chapter Eleven or The Index.