Resistance to Self-direction in Learning Can Be Overcome

(Roger Hiemstra, Ralph G. Brockett)

Chapter Eleven in

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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NEW DIRECTIONS FOR ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION is part of the Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series and is published quarterly by Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 350 Sansome Street, San Francisco, California 94104-1342 (publication number USPS 493-930). Second-class postage paid at San Francisco, California, and at additional mailing offices.

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It is possible to overcome sources of resistance to self-direction in learning.

Resistance to Self-direction in Learning Can Be Overcome

Roger Hiemstra, Ralph G. Brockett

The strategies, applications, and illustrations portrayed in this volume represent the kinds of efforts educators and trainers of adults are making to foster self-direction in learning. Resistance to self-direction is often very real, and it can permeate the experiences of learners, instructors, and institutions. But the examples contained in this volume can provide a sense of optimism and demonstrate that self-direction is possible in virtually any teaching-learning setting.

Indeed, the "discovery" of empowerment and the perceived value in turning greater control of the learning process over to the learners is most encouraging. As a way of bringing this volume to closure, we would like to highlight three themes that run through the previous chapters. In addition, we will summarize some of the major strategies for overcoming resistance highlighted in this volume.

Interface Among Learner, Teacher, and Institutional Resistance

One of the most pervasive themes found throughout this volume is that resistance can emanate from learners, from facilitators, and from institutional policies, practices, and attitudes. This distinction is introduced by Long in Chapter Two. Each chapter in this volume looks at resistance from one or more of these vantage points. What is especially important is the way these sources of resistance can interface. For example, institutional policies that resist opportunities for self-direction can be adopted uncritically by instructors. In turn, learners who have never been encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning can remain unaware of the power they possess as learners.

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The "All-or-Nothing" Myth

A second theme that permeates the chapters of this volume can be tied directly to the first myth presented by Brockett in Chapter One. The idea that self-direction is an "all-or-nothing" phenomenon places virtually insurmountable barriers to the successful implementation of self-direction in learning strategies because it implies that one must essentially abandon previous ways of working with learners in order to implement self-direction. This is simply not so. The chapters by Jones, Confessore and Confessore, Guglielmino and Guglielmino, Blackwood, and Phelan present scenarios where self-direction can be successfully implemented in many but not all elements of the teaching-learning transaction. The microcomponents presented by Hiemstra in Chapter Ten offers a practical approach for implementing elements of self-direction in virtually any kind of setting.

Overcoming Resistance to Mandatory Continuing Education

The efficacy of mandatory continuing education (MCE) is beyond the scope of this volume. However, MCE is a reality in many organizations and professional fields. One of the criticisms leveled against MCE is that learners who enter such efforts do so with some degree of hostility or resentment at being required to participate in a program. By actively promoting self-direction in such settings, it may be possible to help learners feel some ownership for the program. In this way, self-direction might be helpful in breaking down resistance to participation. While this idea has some potentially important implications, it is also important to remember that this does not resolve questions about the value, appropriateness, or desirability of MCE. In fact, one could argue that self-direction can be used to sell MCE to resistant learners. This is not the position we are advocating, for we believe that there are important ethical questions here regarding the manipulation of learners. But we do recognize that MCE is a reality in many situations and that educators who are charged with developing and delivering such programs have a responsibility to serve learners to the best of their ability: Self-direction holds promise for making this happen.

Some Strategies for Overcoming Resistance

In the previous chapters, each author has presented an array of strategies that learners, teachers, and institutions can use to break down resistance to self-direction. This section highlights some of these approaches.

Learners. For learners, there are at least two factors that can be linked with resistance: self-concept and self-awareness. Many adults enter a teaching learning transaction with low confidence and poor self-concept, making it difficult to take a high degree of personal responsibility for learning. Other learners, perhaps because of previous experiences with education, are simply

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not aware of the power they possess as learners and thus make the assumption that a highly teacher-directed approach is the way education should happen. Some of the strategies featured in previous chapters to address this concern include self-reflection, peer reflection and judgments, interviewing techniques that allow individuals to learn from one another, generating lists of possible learning resources, portfolio review and assessment, journal writing, proactive reading, discussions and sharing information with colleagues and peers, learning contracts, and obtaining feedback from many different sources.

Teachers. It is easy to understand why some teachers are reluctant to promote self-direction. Those teachers who hold a more traditional teaching philosophy may see self-direction as a threat to their authority. When learners are viewed as partners in the teaching-learning transaction, they are in a position to suggest content and process different from what has been tried and true to the traditional instructor. Yet the research and practice literature, and indeed, the chapters in this volume, support the idea that the most successful adult learning will take place when learners have an increasing degree of control over and personal investment in the teaching-learning transaction. Strategies that can help to overcome instructor resistance to self-direction include the following:

Teach learners how to be self-reflective

Develop recognition of and rewards for self-directed learning

Provide guidelines for organizing and conducting self-directed learning projects

Help learners develop skill in using technology

Use technology for advisement and learner feedback

Help learners learn how to investigate options, opportunities, and resources

Help learners learn how to match individual strengths with interests

Help learners develop education plans

Help learners develop good technical learning skills

Help learners feel comfortable with new content

Help learners enhance their sense of personal learning competence

Help learners develop confidence and skill in taking control of elements of the teaching-learning transaction (for example, needs assessment, goal setting, selection of content and process, and self-evaluation)

Help learners create and control effective learning environments.

Institutions. Institutional change is often difficult and, when it does happen, is very slow. Yet institutions often present some of the most formidable barriers to self-direction. Those who have responsibility for developing institutional policies need to be willing to think about new and different ways of viewing organizations. An example that quickly comes to mind is Senge's notion of the "learning organization" (1991), which places high value in the human resources of the organization.

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A Closing Comment

Self-direction in learning has long ago passed the stage of being a trend or a fad. It is a very real way to think about adult learning and it is here to stay. Elsewhere, we have discussed possible directions for the future of theory, research, and practice related to self-direction (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991). At the top of those directions, we would encourage future educators to look closely at the issue of resistance. How might theories of resistance contribute to better understanding the full potential of self-direction? How might adult and continuing educators systematically study this area of self-direction? What current and future practices in adult and continuing education and training can help to better understand and overcome resistance to self-direction? If this volume has challenged readers to think about new questions or about old questions from a new angle, then it has served its purpose.


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

Senge, P. M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday, 1991.


Roger Hiemstra is past professor of adult education and chair of the adult education graduate program at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, and currently is professor and chair of adult education at Elmira College, Elmira, New York.

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 One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, Chapter Eleven or The Index.