Applying Self-directed Learning Principles in the Technical Training of a High-Risk Industry

(Constance C. Blackwood)

Chapter Six 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


© 1994 by Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers. All rights reserved.

No part of this issue may be reproduced in any form--except for a brief quotation (not to exceed 500 words) in a review or professional work--without permission in writing from the publishers.

Microfilm copies of issues and articles are available in 16mm and 35mm, as well as microfiche in 105 mm, through University Microfilms Inc., 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106-1346.

LC 85-644750 ISSN 0195-2242 ISBN 0-7879-9981-4

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.

Subscriptions for 1994 cost $47.00 for individuals and $62.00 for institutions, agencies, and libraries.

Editorial Correspondence should be sent to the Editor-in-Chief, Ralph G. Brockett, Dept. of Educational Leadership, University of Tennessee, 239 Claxton Addition, Knoxville, Tennessee 37996-3400.

Cover photograph by Wernher Krutein/PHOTOVAULT ©1990.

As this book is now out of print, permission to reproduce this sourcebook on this web site for use by Elmira College graduate students was granted via a letter dated April 27, 2001, reference #: 4809 ee. This material is used by permission of Jossey-Bass, Inc., a subsidiary of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


Page 47 (page numbers as shown in the hard copy version of the book)

The technical training context offers a broad range of potential barriers to self-directed learning. A new way to incorporate self-directed learning concepts into the technical training process at a national laboratory is presented.

Applying Self-directed Learning Principles in the Technical Training of a High-Risk Industry

Constance C. Blackwood

Often, mandated continuing education (MCE) is interpreted as the opposite of voluntary education. MCE is described by Cross (1981) as a state or professional requirement that members of certain professions must meet to retain their licenses to practice. Voluntary or self-directed learning experiences as described by Ash (1985) and others are those where adults are involved in the planning, conduct, and evaluation of their own learning. In industry today, especially in high-risk industries that require specific education and training, there is a type of learning that is neither exclusively mandatory nor voluntary in nature. In the nuclear, medical, and airline industries, for example, there is public demand for assurance of expertise. Therefore, regulations and requirements demand training in specific areas. Workers involved in these industries also recognize the need for such assurances and to a certain extent voluntarily pursue education; however, most of the learning experiences provided by the employer are still met with resistance and detachment from learners.


The purpose of this chapter is to explore the apparent dilemma that adults prefer to learn in an independent, self-directed fashion but must often learn by a mandated set of requirements. The chapter will explore conflicts between self-directed learning and mandatory education as well as look at the potential for compatibility. If the assumption is that adult learners want to have some degree of control over their learning experience but industry guidelines

Page 48

demand specific criteria for that same experience, how are the two opposing forces reconciled? The issue is how much control is placed in self-directed methods. If the instructor provides objectives, resources, and an exam, and allows the learners to use their own style to fill in the blanks, that is transferring control to the learner. Some learners lack the skill and motivation to be successful so instructors become more prescriptive.

With the end of the cold war the nuclear research industry is struggling for declining and increasingly competitive government funding. However, research and development for safer reactors, protection of the environment, and management of waste are still major missions of the Department of Energy. In the process of prioritizing effort and money, the training function, though critical, is extremely vulnerable. Management must reform training to become more responsive, cost effective, and efficient. They must show a valid return on the training investment. There is value in looking at the role self-directed learning philosophy and practice can play in the mandatory technical training that is found in high-risk industry.

In the earliest studies that defined self-directed learning, as the adult education community now understands it, methodologies primarily targeted voluntary learning episodes. In fact, the recognized seminal study in self-directed learning by Johnstone and Rivera (1965) was titled Volunteers for Learning. The population discussed in this chapter, however, is often involuntarily drafted into learning. From a mandated education perspective, it is helpful to look at self-directed learning from a less limiting definition than that of a voluntary learning experience. Some broader definitions include those of Schuttenberg and Tracy (1987), who divided self-directed learning into three conceptual categories: skills, processes, and philosophies. The category of skills includes the notion that self-directed learning is a method of instruction (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1985, 1991), and a set of skills to be mastered (Knowles, 1975). Self-directed learning as a form of instruction, such as Brookfield's (1986) model of the teaching-learning transaction, is categorized as a process. Philosophies are reflected in works describing self-direction as a variable in the definition of adulthood (Knowles, 1973), a personality construct (Oddi, 1984), and as an active change in consciousness and motivation (Brookfield, 1985; Mezirow, 1981). In the context of mandatory training for workers, it seems to make the most sense to discuss self-directed learning as an instructional method.

The Worker

The description of the nuclear worker under discussion in this chapter is primarily the same as the one used by Hellyer and Schulman (1991). The worker is usually in production, blue collar, traditionally educated, and middle class. Although given much responsibility, the worker perceives himself or herself to be powerless and controlled. In terms of learning experiences, if the worker chooses to learn something, the learning is most often individualized and not focused on collective or group learning. A self-directed learning experience on

Page 49

the job is likely to be chosen as a way to influence life circumstances. The worker population observed is in the nuclear industry. Coupling these worker characteristics with Guglielmino's observation (cited in Zemke, 1980) that a traditional education decreases the desire to learn and leads people to overvalue authority and undervalue self-directed learning gives a clue about the receptivity of workers to required education and self-directedness.

This population has a unique set of barriers to successful learning experiences. Worker training needs are too often determined by "whatever is essential to formulate and fulfill a successful corporate strategy" (Rosow and Zager, 1988). In industry, a clear return on investment that includes improved performance measures demands efficiency in the education of employees. Especially in high-risk industry, required learning comes in the form of certain skill and knowledge requirements defined by statutory regulatory provisions, licensure and certification standards, and safety and risk management requirements. All of these categories are very prescribed in a contextual nature. For example, Federal regulating agencies often require that information be delivered by a certified instructor; they prescribe who must attend, how long and how often they must attend, the content they must receive, and the type of evaluation used to determine their success. This formula leaves little to work with in the area of self-direction. Not all adult learning experiences must be self-directed. However, if adults learn most effectively when they retain a certain amount of control over their learning, it is to the benefit of the educator to incorporate self-directed learning techniques whenever possible.

The Industry

The nuclear industry has a strong Navy history: Beginning in the 1950s, Admiral Hyman Rickover, architect of the nuclear navy, stressed rigorous training and developed a behaviorist training regimen that carried over into both the commercial nuclear power industry and the public research and development nuclear industry: Delivery of training was in a command and control mode and the rigor matched the consequence of error on the job. By the mid 1980s, with distancing of the naval influence, and fueled by public accountability cries following the Three Mile Island incident, performance-based training became the standard in the nuclear industry. Models of training methodology became objective based and results oriented. Training programs began to infuse some adult learning principles into their products, taking into account the workers' experience and need for relevance. However, both management and workers continued to discount learning that was self-directed. Although more humanistic in approach, the prescriptive nature of technical education remained, and was generally more teacher centered than learner centered.

In an attempt to more clearly define mandatory training, the Department of Energy {DOE) issued an order in 1989. The Training Accreditation Order (DOE 5480.18A) was established by DOE to assist in achieving excellence in the development and implementation of performance-based nuclear facility

Page 50

training programs. The training manuals clearly defined how training for the DOE nuclear community should be conducted. One of the major components of the development of training was the incorporation of adult learning principles into the training programs. The order and the accompanying manuals are now regarded as the industry standard for training. The notion of improving the conduct of training was also supported by the demand for efficiency from management, based on the assumption that training based on adult learning principles is more effective than traditional training. Nuclear industry technical training began to move out of the classroom and into new formats like required reading, preshift briefings, computer-based training, interactive video, and self-paced methodologies. Self-directed learning still played essentially no role in the industry: Resistance occurred primarily at the managerial levels, due to fears that loss of control would lead to noncompliance to regulation.

Resistance to Self-Directed Learning

Designers and developers of performance-based training methods in the nuclear industry build a section into their course design package called "the motivator" (U.S. Department of Energy, 1991). This section is designed to impress upon the learner the importance and relevance of the material about to be studied. The motivator is often designed around a "consequence of error" scenario and, as implied earlier, is based on company goals, not on the workers' goals. Unfortunately, no major studies have concluded that consequence of error or poor job performance has been identified as a primary motivator of adult learners. However, in most of the literature discussing self-directed learning, the motivation of the learner is key to choosing a self-directed learning format. Tough (1979) suggested that learners are not singularly motivated; rather they are motivated to learn because they anticipate multiple benefits. For example, consider these excerpts from my interview with a highly successful reactor operator regarding his motivation for mandated training:

As an operator, I strongly preferred to learn reactor systems and theory on my own. I wanted control, I wanted to set my own pace and use my own methods. I was very motivated and did very well at it for the following reasons: I had a contract with a checklist to finish, pass an exam and oral board before I could obtain qualification. Qualification meant more money, responsibility, and the opportunity to advance. I did well because I knew how to study, I had good research skills and memorization techniques. I was disciplined and kept a steady pace. I was mechanically/systems oriented, I knew how machinery basically worked. I wasn't afraid to ask questions and seek help when needed. Mandatory training wasn't by itself demotivating, it was expected as part of the job. Motivation for me was clear directions, a checklist, books, and the freedom to use the available materials as I wanted. As long as there were goals and objectives, I was motivated.

Although I have not found this to be typical, it is an excellent example of the self-directed learner operating quite successfully in a highly structured and

Page 51

singularly focused environment with multiple expectations and motivations. In mandatory training and required education, motivations and outcomes are typically singular and focused in nature.

Other types of resistance occur when there is no model to follow. Most adult educators recognize that self-directed learning does not take place in isolation (for example, Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991). However, the singular implications of self-directed learning projects are contraindicated by the shift or team nature of the work and training in a high-risk nuclear environment. Individual achievement is often the measure of a successful education experience, but training a team requires a different way of measuring success both for the team and for the individuals in it. Ways to adapt self-directed learning to training teams can be found, but are limited. Group consensus can be reached to define purpose, pace, and method of training, but like other high-risk training, the objectives, content, and evaluation remain prescribed by management or regulation, and not by the consensus of the group.

Incorporating Self-Directed Learning into Mandated Training

There are several ways in which self-directed learning principles and practices can be encouraged and facilitated in high-risk industries. It has been my experience in years of working with adults that they initially flounder when confronted with self-directed learning possibilities. Many workers in my experience have suggested that they are not interested in defining their own education. For example, the traditional way to teach basic physics at most National Laboratories is the classic classroom method with an instructor imparting wisdom and a group of learners (who are required to be there) taking notes. Success is measured by a test with a score of 80 percent or better. A self-directed alternative can be pictured, where plant management would wait for each reactor operator to realize that a better understanding of basic physics might improve performance. At this point in the operator's career, a "teachable moment" (Havinghurst, 1952) has arrived, and as a result the operator begins to seek out information about physics. The first example creates an artificial rigidity that prevents optimal learning from taking place. The second example is not acceptable because the high risk and regulatory nature of the job cannot wait for each individual to arrive at the teachable moment. Both are extremes, but there lies some middle ground that can satisfy both needs.

I have had success when the academic infrastructure and expectations are prepared for the learners in a way that allows them to make choices from within a set of parameters. The microcomponents discussed by Hiemstra elsewhere in this volume offer one approach to facilitating this process. The following ten steps are offered as a strategy for successfully incorporating self-directed learning techniques into mandated education and training:

Educate management. Help managers interpret mandates liberally so that the need is met in the most cost-effective way. Ensure support by helping managers find out about the theory and advantages of self-directed learning.

Page 52

Emphasize the optimization of learning and the efficiency of using self-directed learning principles.

Involve workers. Consider strategies that include the workers from the beginning by placing them on the curriculum committee, having them review regulations and requirements and help define the training plan for each individual job classification.

Know the audience. Survey the workforce with pointed questions like, What does it take to get this job done? How should a course be designed to help teach this skill or knowledge?

Incorporate audience feedback into the training plan. If the workers lack learning skills or are not ready to learn by self-direction, the first step is to help them acquire these skills.

Obtain learner support. Review the training plan with the workers and the supervisors. Answer any questions and negotiate changes. Job incumbents should be responsible for their own training and learning.

Be a consistent facilitator: Be honest and available. Once the parameters are set do not waver from them. Conti (1989) found that learners responded well academically to teachers who were consistent in their application irrespective of their teaching style.

Use contracts or plans. Use a learning contract at the very beginning of each class. Union workers especially understand and appreciate contract negotiations and they realize they are playing an important planning role. As demonstrated earlier, learners are motivated by learning plans that include checklists, procedures, end goals or objectives, and adequate materials.

Motivate workers. Because of the mandatory nature of some education, learners do not always see what the benefit is to them. Therefore, spend as much time as possible on motivating the learner. Make sure the learner is aware of benefits, which can include things like improved pay and chances for promotion or mobility, as well as increased self-esteem, resulting from mastery of the class material.

Incorporate alternative methods. Mandated learning experiences often take place in the classroom, which is extremely costly and has a low return on investment. Prepare alternative means of delivery such as reading, video, classroom, one-on-one mentoring, resource centers, study guides, modified on-the-job training, university classes, or test-out, and then give learners choices and options. To optimize self-directed learning, workers need to have materials available when they want them. Keep the training and resource centers open and staffed. Allow materials to leave the facility: Make the material so readily accessible that a learner might look something up simply because it is in easy reach.

Build the infrastructure. Know what is mandated, that is, what must be included in training by requirement or regulation, and set parameters. Arrange for a place that is a safe and appropriate environment. Build a basic outline of different topics. Gather resource materials and alternate teaching methods and materials. Train yourself; take train-the-trainer courses and learn as much as possible, not only about the topics but about what to expect from adult learn-

Page 53

ers. Be sure to include plenty of independent practice options for learners to learn at their own pace.

Evaluate. If there is a mandated or standard test at the end, teach to the test. Interpret mandatory evaluation criteria as liberally as possible. Allow learners to choose how they would like to be evaluated whenever possible.

In a self-directed approach to individualizing instruction, Hiemstra and Sisco (1990) give a guide to practical application of several learning activity resources and approaches. These resources are the kinds of materials that should be included in any well-stocked adult learning center, along with written or human guides to their use, or both.


Even in the most highly structured learning environments, there are opportunities to practice self-directed learning. Overcoming barriers and dealing with resistance to self-directed learning can be accomplished by applying specific SDL techniques to the training program. Understanding the learner as well as your own teaching style are two profitable pieces of knowledge to begin the process. Wanting to learn and having to learn are compatible; the key lies in learner motivation and teacher understanding.


Ash, C. R. "Applying Principles of Self-Directed Learning in the Health Professions." In S. Brookfield (ed.), Self-Directed Learning: From Theory to Practice. New Directions for Continuing Education, no. 25. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985.

Brockett, R. G., and Hiemstra, R. "Bridging the Theory-Practice Gap in Self-Directed Learning." In S. Brookfield (ed.), Self-Directed Learning: From Theory to Practice. New Directions for Continuing Education, no. 25. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985.

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

Brookfield, S. D. "A Critical Definition of Adult Education." Adult Education Quarterly, 1985, 36, 44-49.

Brookfield, S. D. Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.

Conti, G. J. "Assessing Teaching Styles in Continuing Education." In E. Hayes (ed.), Effective Teaching Styles. New Directions for Continuing Education, no. 43. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Cross, K. P. Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1981.

Havinghurst, R. J. Developmental Tasks and Education. (3rd ed.) New York: McKay, 1952.

Hellyer, M. R., and Schulman, B. "Worker's Education." In S. B. Merriam and P. M. Cunningham (eds.), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Hiemstra, R., and Sisco, B. Individualizing Instruction: Making Learning Personal, Empowering, and Successful. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

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

Knowles, M. S. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston, Tex.: Gulf, 1973.

Knowles, M. S. Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. Chicago: AP/Follett, 1975.

Page 54

Mezirow, J. "A Critical Theory of Adult Learning and Education." Adult Education, 1981, 32, 142-151.

Oddi, L. F. "Development of an Instrument to Measure Self-Directed Continuing Learning." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Education, Northern Illinois University, 1984.

Rosow, J. M., and Lager, R. Training the Competitive Edge: Introducing New Technology into the Workplace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988.

Schuttenberg, E. M., and Tracy, S. J. "The Role of the Adult Educator in Fostering Self-directed Learning." Lifelong Learning: An Omnibus of Practice and Research, 1987, 10(5), 4-6, 9.

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

U.S. Department of Energy, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy. Training Accreditation Program Manuals. DOE/NE-0102T, July 1991.

Zemke, R. "Learning to Learn: Survival Skill for the '80s Manager." Training, Nov. 1980, pp. 6-8.


Constance C. Blackwood is director of academic programs at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. She has been involved in technical training at the Advanced Test Reactor and in DOE reactor training accreditation for over five years.

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.