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A Way of Life

Mary's interest in genealogy grew slowly out of the enjoyment of hearing her grandparents talk about the "old country" and all the interesting characters on the family tree. However, high school, college, first job, more college, and marriage all took considerable energy. Then, soon after moving with her family for a college teaching position, she read about a course in genealogy offered through the local community college. Wanting some variety in her otherwise heavy schedule of juggling home and work responsibilities, Mary enrolled in the eight-week course.

Taking the course revealed to Mary a whole world of ideas, resources, and other people interested in tracing their family backgrounds. However, it was after the course ended that Mary's real learning about genealogy began. She started reading everything she could get her hands on about how to gather genealogical information. Her university library had an excellent genealogy section with experienced librarians eager to show people how to use the resources. Mary also filled out many forms requesting archival information and sent them to the Genealogical Society in Salt Lake City for their computer searches.

As her family information began to accumulate, she had the bonus of communicating with relatives not only in the United States, but in other countries as well. In addition, Mary had an opportunity to visit with a second cousin who was gathering genealogy information on one portion of the family tree. She also began to communicate with people she did not know but who happened to share her family name about possible connections with other families. Each exchange of information led to more clues. She believed, too, that she helped her second cousin gain some new searching skills.

Over the past 15 years Mary has continued gathering information about the family and about how to do genealogical work. She wrote a 40-page summary for her relatives, visited two of the countries where ancestors had lived, and even taught a non-credit genealogy class twice. Her visit to one of the countries was especially educational, resulting in some new and valuable

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information. She even stimulated a third newly met cousin to begin genealogy work on the family name. In short, her independent genealogical research has become a way of life.

Neal's approach to life and learning was quite different from Mary's and it has changed dramatically in the past 15 years. When he retired at age 62 from an engineering position, Neal didn't really have a hobby, unless one counted the occasional golf game he played with colleagues. He had always worked very hard, and his wife's sudden death two years before he retired had only intensified his need to stay very busy with work. However, his son John often voiced concern about Neal's working too hard, and a growing disenchantment with the firm's emphasis on weapons development prompted him to jump at an offer for early retirement.

For the first few weeks Neal enjoyed rising late, working in the garden, cleaning out the long-neglected attic, and visiting his grandchildren. He woke one morning, though, and realized that he wanted something a little more challenging out of life. He visited a senior citizen center twice, but tired of the card playing so popular with many of the men there. Then one morning he drove to the local library hoping to find an interesting book. By accident he stopped in the magazine room and picked up a recent issue of a science periodical. His life suddenly took a large turn in direction.

The magazine featured several articles on alternative power development in the United States and throughout the world. As he read about various experiments, his mind wandered to the ranch house that his son and family occupied. They had a ranch house on a small hill in the country. There were about ten acres of mostly weeds, scrub trees, and large rocks surrounding the house; a small trout stream draining from the nearby hills wound through the property. Musing to himself that some of the experiments might work at that site, he called his son that afternoon to talk about starting an alternative power project. John agreed enthusiastically as he had complained for years about the high price of electricity that seemed a part of living in the country.

Neal then began reading everything he could find on alternative power. With his engineering background, he soon discovered the need for more technical information than the popular press could provide. He attended two conferences devoted to alternative power, toured some experimental homes, and began to correspond by letter with people in other states and countries about what they were doing.

The first project he tackled involved wind as an energy source. He had read about a new type of windmill design developed in The Netherlands that showed promise. There was a flat, open field behind the house, so Neal designed and installed a windmill there similar to The Netherlands' prototype. After Neal conquered some design and regulation problems, the

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windmill began generating enough electricity at peak wind conditions to meet about 20% of John's needs.

Neal then spent several months clearing brush around a portion of the stream where he installed a miniature water-driven turbine patterned after a Colorado experiment. The turbine generated enough electricity to pump water to the garden area, meeting another 10% of John's power requirements. Neal's next task was to install a solar panel on John's roof that now meets most of the family's hot water needs. Meanwhile, throughout these activities Neal has continued to read as much as he can about alternative power. He has actually become somewhat of an expert and a local celebrity. He has been interviewed on local television, taught a course on alternative energy sources, and now is writing a book about the topic.

Alice's independence as a learner was slow to develop as compared with Neal. Alice had been a home economics field worker for a family planning organization in her native country, Nigeria, for eight years. Her college education in home economics education had consisted of a four-year program with grades that placed her in the top one-third of the class. Alice had earned the respect of her teachers as a hard working student who would make an excellent professional in the home economics field.

However, Alice was quite ambitious and by the end of 10 years, she wished to leave field work and serve in some administrative capacity with the national headquarters in Lagos. She applied for federal support and was granted a fellowship for advanced education. She then applied to several universities in the United States and was accepted into a masters degree program in adult education in one of them.

Upon arriving at the university she began to experience several frustrations. Finding an affordable place to live within walking distance of the campus was confusing and difficult. The International Student Office eventually helped her find a place, but those first three days were nerve-racking. Then she met with her graduate advisor and had a difficult time understanding the program's philosophy: students were expected to take major responsibility in designing their graduate programs by choosing their own courses, final advisors, and even intensive examination questions. Although Alice comprehended the words of her advisor and the written materials, her past experience in a traditional academic program had not prepared her very well for what was being described.

Her biggest shock came when she met with the instructors for the three courses she was to take that semester. They also described a self-directed teaching and learning approach where she was expected to assess her own needs and complete a learning contract for each course. She had decided to come to the United States to study adult education because she believed that

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she would find the best professors there and now they were asking her to select her own learning path. It simply did not make sense.

Alice was confused for the first two weeks of the semester and after discussions with two of the instructors, she met with her advisor who was also the instructor of the third course. Alice described how other students seemed comfortable with the teaching approach and were even working together on learning activities, but that she was concerned she would not get from the courses what she had come to learn. After talking about the courses and the teaching approach, the advisor suggested that she go a little slower the first semester than she had originally planned and that the two of them should meet frequently during the first semester. Alice agreed to drop one of the courses and her advisor agreed to work with her on needs assessment and to help her complete her learning contracts for the other course.

The concept of learning contracts proved to be perhaps the most confusing aspect of the courses for Alice. However, discussion with her advisor and with the other course instructor helped her develop a plan for learning that followed quite closely some the specific options described by the instructors in their course materials. By the time the courses were finished, and after Alice had heard other students describe their own initial frustrations with the teaching and learning process used by the adult education program faculty, she had begun to understand how she could carry out learning activities by herself. She realized that she actually had learned a great deal in both courses and that those learnings had taken her well beyond her initial skill and knowledge levels.

During the two adult education courses she took in the second semester, Alice felt much more comfortable filling out the learning contracts, although she still asked several questions of other students and her instructors. In fact, the third course she took that semester was not in adult education and the teaching and learning philosophy was quite similar to what she had experienced in her previous formal education in Nigeria. To her surprise, she found herself feeling frustrated at having to fulfill many requirements with little relevance to what she would need professionally. This helped her to understand the value of a teaching approach that encourages learners to take more responsibility for decision making.

During the last year of her degree program, she became quite comfortable with self-directed learning. She began to develop learning plans in adult education courses that deviated markedly from the more structured options suggested by the instructors. She also began to assert herself more in courses outside of the adult education program by talking with instructors about altering course requirements to better meet her professional needs. By the end of her graduate program Alice had become a successful self-directed

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learner. During her final intensive exams she described how she was going to take her new learning skills and apply them in her future job.

While the situations of Mary, Neal, and Alice are very different, they share some common threads. Each of them made a conscious choice to take responsibility for their own learning. For each of these individuals, self-direction in learning has become a way of life.

The field of adult education has long embraced such ideas as autonomy, independence, and personal development of adult learners. These ideas are implicit in such terms as lifelong learning, self-directed learning, self-planned learning, independent study, distance education, learning projects, andragogy, and self-directed learning readiness. All of these in some way stress the role of individual learners in the learning process.

Thus, the three examples chosen to begin this book illustrate some of the possible ways in which an individual comes to use self-directed learning approaches. There are in reality many possible routes. In fact, we have observed that no two learners approach self-directed learning in the same way. Perhaps this is why the concept of self-directed learning has become so popular in recent years among adult education scholars. This also is why the concept has existed in some form for hundreds of years. The purpose of this chapter will be to describe the phenomenon of self-direction in learning, which has become a way of life for a great many people.


In North America, many adult education scholars trace the current interest in such topics as learning projects, andragogy, and self-directed learning to Houle's (1961) typology of goal, activity, and learning orientations among adult learners, or to Johnstone and Rivera's (1965) seminal work on adult education participation. However, the idea of self-direction, under the guise of numerous names, has existed from classical antiquity to the present. In fact, Kulich (1970) noted that, prior to the widespread development of schools, self-education was the primary way for individuals to deal with happenings going on about them.

Self-education, according to Kulich, played an important part in the lives of the Greek philosophers. Socrates described himself as a self-learner who capitalized on opportunities to learn from those around him. Plato believed that the ultimate goal of education for the young should be the development of an ability to function as a self-learner in adulthood. Aristotle emphasized the importance of self-realization, a potential wisdom that can be developed either with or without the guidance of a teacher.

Kulich (1970) illustrates numerous other examples of self-education

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throughout history. Alexander the Great was said to have carried the works of Homer with him when he traveled. Caesar set time aside daily for writing and study. Erasmus of Rotterdam's Study of Christian Philosophy, published in 1516, offered guidelines for self-education. In the 17th century, Rene Descartes, in his Discourse on Mind, described how he abandoned formal study at an early age and gained his education by experiencing and observing the world around him and by reflecting on these experiences. Newsom (1977) examined the role of "self-directed lifelong learning" in London between the years 1558-1640. He concluded that there were many opportunities for self-directed learning during this period through private tutors, lectures, books and libraries, and schools, for those persons who had the time and money to take advantage of these opportunities.

Self-direction is also clearly reflected throughout the history of the United States. Long (1976) addressed the history of adult education prior to the American Revolution. According to Long, the social conditions that existed in Colonial America, combined with a lack of formal educational institutions, led many persons to learn on their own during this period.

Self-directed learners in Colonial America had a wide range of learning resources from which to choose. They relied heavily on the "oral tradition," which was supplemented by the use of letters, diaries, and written records of the times that could be passed on orally to others. Societies and associations also provided a wide range of opportunities to self-directed adult learners. However, Long puts the main emphasis on available printed materials. Personal libraries were common among persons wealthy enough to afford a collection of books. Subscription libraries, whereby patrons paid a specified amount for the use of its services, made libraries accessible to a greater number of people. Almanacs offered the self-directed learner in Colonial America a plethora of information, much as they do today. Newspapers helped mobilize political activities leading to the Revolution. Magazines also proved to be a valuable resource for the self-directed learner in Colonial America.

In the U.S., Benjamin Franklin was an important example of a self-directed learner. Some consider him to be the "patron saint" of adult education in the United States. He was involved in discussion clubs, library activities, and helping others with learning efforts. The Junto, a discussion club organized in Philadelphia in 1727 (Grattan, 1955), utilized reading and discussion as a means for intellectual development. Franklin's numerous contributions are, to a great extent, a result of various self-education efforts.

Serious thinking about self-directed learning took place some 150 years ago. For example, Craik's Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties (1840) describes the self-directed learning behaviors of many people. As Six (1987) notes, through a variety of examples Craik demonstrates

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"(a) the practicability of self-directed learning, (b) the most effective methods for self-instruction, and (c) the potency of a determined self-directed learner in overcoming barriers to learning. Moreover, he [Craik] asserts that success or failure in an act of learning depends more upon the learner than upon any set of circumstances in which the learner may be placed" (p. 26).

Another early author was Hosmer, whose 1847 work entitled Self-Education makes a distinction between what he referred to as self-initiated learning acts and other educational forms. His definition of self-education is offered in Chapter Two.

More recently, Gibbons and his colleagues (Gibbons, Bailey, Comeau, Schmuck, Seymour, & Wallace, 1980) demonstrated that self-directed education was foundational to the success of several past notables who had completed less formal education than the norm for their time. Using a content analysis of their biographies, Gibbons, et al. studied 20 people, including such individuals as Amelia Earhart, Harry Truman, Frank Lloyd Wright, Malcolm X, and Walt Disney. Each of these individuals made important contributions to their field of expertise despite a lack of formal training beyond the high school level.

Clearly, self-direction in learning has played an important, though sometimes easy to overlook, role in history. Today, the term and, more important, the basic ideals underlying the notion, have been embraced by educators and learners throughout the world. What are some of the reasons for this?

As we emphasize in the definition and conceptual framework that will be presented in the next chapter, we believe that self-direction in learning is a combination of forces both within and outside the individual that stress the learner accepting ever-increasing responsibility for decisions associated with the learning process. Rogers (1983) saw this as the personal process of learning how to learn, how to change, and how to adapt. Smith (1982) applied this concept of learning how to learn to the adult education field. Bruner's (1966) perspective was similar to Rogers and to the point we are making in this book. He goes so far as to define teaching as "the provisional state that has as its object to make the learner . . . self-sufficient" (p. 53). Kidd (1973) suggested that "the purpose of adult education, or any kind of education, is to make the subject a continuing 'inner-directed,' self-operating learner" (p. 47).

Tough (1979) is another North American scholar associated with self-directed learning because of his seminal work on adults' learning projects. He found that learners prefer to assume considerable responsibility for planning and directing their learning activities if given the choice. This has since been substantiated by many researchers. Chapter Three will provide much

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more detail about learning projects research and its foundational importance to our current understanding of self-direction in learning.

Knowles (1975) describes several reasons for advocating this development of 'self-directed' skill. These include the following: (a) individuals who take initiative in learning are more likely to retain what is learned than the passive learner; (b) taking initiative in learning is more in tune with our natural processes of psychological development; and (c) many recent educational developments actually place the responsibility for learning right on the shoulders of learners. Knowles provides a long-term reason that cuts across various cultural boundaries and provides a rationale for why self-direction in learning applies to a wide variety of educational situations:

To sum up: the 'why' of self-directed learning is survival--your own survival as an individual, and also the survival of the human race. Clearly, we are not talking here about something that would be nice or desirable; neither are we talking about some new educational fad. We are talking about a basic human competence--the ability to learn on one's own--that has suddenly become a prerequisite for living in this new world. (1975, p. 16-17)

We believe it is important to add that individuals will vary in their readiness for self-direction thereby requiring varying degrees of assistance by facilitators, especially as self-directed learning skills are developing. Another point is that self-directed learning will not always be the best way to learn for certain people. As we have noted elsewhere, "perhaps it is more appropriate to think of self-directed learning as an ideal mode of learning for certain individuals and for certain situations" (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1985, p. 33).


As one looks at the literature of adult education that has accumulated over the past two decades, a number of what we believe are myths or misconceptions regarding self-direction in learning have emerged. These myths have often added to the confusion over the meaning of self-direction and its implications for adult education practice. At least ten such myths can readily be identified. The purpose of this section is to discuss these myths and to set the scene for dispelling them throughout the remainder of the book.

Myth 1: Self-directedness is an all or nothing concept

Some educators and some learners have come rushing to embrace self-directedness as though it were finally the answer to finding fulfillment in life.

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It should be obvious that learning styles and approaches will vary with particular individuals and learning situations. In addition, as people face new learning challenges, they will find differing needs for outside assistance, personal initiative, and individual reflection in terms of their learning activities. Thus, as we have noted elsewhere (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1985), self-directedness is best viewed as a continuum rather than as some dichotomous model. Here, self-direction is viewed as a characteristic that exists, to a greater or lesser degree, in all persons and in all learning situations.

The complexity of this continuum view, however, can be illustrated when looking at some of the research on cognitive styles. Even (1982), for example, notes that people who exhibit field-independent learning styles are likely to benefit from a self-directed emphasis, since field-dependent learners who typically require a more social orientation, are not as likely to be successful with self-initiated learning activities. Yet, field-dependent learners also tend to prefer more structured, formal learning environments, which is inconsistent with much of what is typically associated with self-direction. Thus, the distinction is not as clear cut as it may appear at first.

The fact that learners will be at different places on the continuum has implications for facilitators and for learners, especially as learners plan and carry out their educational efforts or move toward higher levels of personal self-direction. In Chapters Six and Seven we explore these implications.

Myth 2: Self-direction implies learning in isolation

For purposes of this book, and especially in light of the teaching and learning process detailed in Chapter Six, we are referring to learning based on a preference for taking individual responsibility. However, we do not necessarily equate self-direction with learning that is independent of a facilitator or of some outside resource. In other words, we believe it is a mistake to automatically associate self-directed learning with learning in isolation or learning on an independent basis (Hiemstra, 1985c). Moore (1973) also argues that a self-directed learner is not "an intellectual Robinson Crusoe, castaway and shut off in self-sufficiency" (p. 669). Brookfield (1985) believes this, too, noting "it is evident that no act of learning can be self-directed if we understand self-direction as meaning the absence or external sources of assistance" (p. 7).

An assumption often made by those looking at the concept of self-directedness for the first time is that learning takes place primarily in isolation or only through limited contact with others. Some instructors believe that this would mean sending a student away from a group or formal setting to do independent study. Another example is the stereotype of a person cloistered

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in the corner of a library reading a book or at home using a package of individualized learning materials.

However, self-direction in learning does not necessarily mean learning in isolation. What it does mean is that the learner assumes primary responsibility for and control over decisions about planning, implementing, and evaluating the learning experience. This may happen in isolation--or in a large group, or when two or more learners share responsibilities for their learning. Hiemstra (1975) and Baghi (1979), for example, found that learners often go to others as resources for their self-directed efforts. Brookfield (1980) also found that learners working part of the time in isolation often come together in what he calls a "fellowship of learning" where competition among learners is balanced with a degree of cooperation and sharing.

Myth 3: Self-direction is just another adult education fad

The seventies and eighties in the United States, and to some extent throughout the world, have produced what some refer to as the "me" generation, known for hedonism and self-centeredness. Self-direction in learning may be tied to such notions in some people's minds. In addition, the adult education field has not been immune from fads or from short-lived movements. Competency-based adult learning efforts, group process methods, and even the "Great Books" movement are examples of the ebb and flow of adult learner involvement.

However, the notion of individuals taking personal responsibility for their learning and the ideal of a facilitator providing guidance for self-directed efforts have been around for some time. As we noted earlier in this chapter, the history of self-direction in learning is long and enduring. These notions have been strengthened by research during the past two decades and it is our contention that such research will continue for some time. While terms such as "self-direction in learning" or "self-directed learning" may be replaced at some point in the future, the emphasis on personal responsibility and the belief in the never-ending potential of humans will survive and, indeed, thrive, because they lie at the heart of adult education as a field of practice and study.

Myth 4: Self-direction is not worth the time required to make it work

One myth frequently bandied about reflects beliefs that there are no special benefits to promoting self-directedness or individualization of the teaching and learning process, so why go to all the time and bother necessary for success. In fact, as is described in subsequent chapters, considerable "up-front" time is required by instructors and learners in organizing the learning

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activities. However, we believe that the benefits far outweigh the effort required by learners and facilitators.

For example, from our experience there appears to be a greater transfer of learning from one situation or course to another of both knowledge obtained and, of course, self-direction skills. These skills enable learners to diagnose needs, secure resources, and carry out learning activities. Knowles (1975) believed this, too, and Skager (1979) noted that an essential feature of self-directed learners appears to be "a willingness to initiate and maintain systematic learning on their own initiative" (p. 519). We also believe other positive educational results come from self-direction in learning, such as increased retention, greater interest in continued learning, greater interest in the subject, and more positive attitudes toward the instructor, and we hope that this can be verified by future research.

Another benefit is enhanced self-concept (Brockett, 1983c; Sabbaghian, 1980). For example, some students who are not as strong or vocal as others because of shyness or a lower self-concept, in the self-directed setting can progress at their own rate and surpass what they might do when following the same path as everyone else or a path set by an instructor. Thus, learning to develop personal patterns for approaching and solving problems will enhance one's confidence and concept of self as a learner.

Myth 5: Self-directed learning activities are limited primarily to reading and writing

We have actually found quite the opposite to be true. A wide variety of learning activities and approaches generally are used to encourage learners to take personal responsibility for their own learning. Following are only some of activities used by those learners with whom we have associated that go beyond just readings, discussions, and writings related to a subject matter: (a) personal investigation of a topic using interviews as a basic information source; (b) self-guided reading, where the instructor or some other person in a mentoring role provides some guidance and evaluative support as needed or as required; (c) participation in a study group, where three or more people cooperate in finding information and compiling a report on a topic through reading, research, and discussion; (d) involvement in an agency visitation or study tour of some organization; (e) completion of a practicum or internship in an agency or with some expert; (f) studying a topic through correspondence with an instructor or some expert; and (g) engaging in a debate via on-line computer conferencing software. In addition, the literature contains descriptions of several other individualized study methods, such as learning packages/kits, programmed instruction, and computer or electronic assisted materials.

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Myth 6: Facilitating self-direction is an easy way out for teachers

For some, self-direction implies that the facilitator sits back and takes a passive approach to teaching. The image of the instructor who says "go ahead and do whatever you want to do" comes to mind. Taken to an extreme, this means that self-direction can be a "cop-out" for instructors who, either deliberately or out of ignorance, misuse the concept for their own benefit or to manipulate learners, rather than as a way to better serve them. In reality, however, the successful facilitator of self-directed learning assumes a very active role that involves negotiation, exchange of views, securing needed resources, and validation of outcomes.

Effective facilitators establish a special relationship with learners that, while sometimes painful and frustrating (Brookfield, 1986), is most often rewarding for both learner and facilitator. Hiemstra (1988a) refers to this as a "learning partnership" that must develop between participants in the teaching-learning transaction. In order for this to happen, though, it is necessary to move beyond the view of the facilitator as a passive observer to one who actively works to ensure a high quality learning experience and, as Brookfield (1987) notes, even the promotion of critical thinking by learners.

Myth 7. Self-directed learning is limited primarily to those settings where freedom and democracy prevail

In some circumstances learners experience external pressures to learn. Incarcerated people, Adult Basic Education students, and those involved in mandatory continuing education programs, for example, typically will think much differently, at least initially, about their involvement than a person voluntarily taking an evening course or participating in a graduate program of adult education. Those who are studying under some sort of duress or who have been used to a teacher directed and controlled experience may need much more time than others in accepting that they can take personal responsibility for much of their learning. In addition, as we demonstrate in Chapter Ten, self-direction in learning takes place in a variety of societal settings throughout the world.

There also are times in any person's life when the desire to be self-directed will be low or difficult to maintain. These are times when the learner wants an instructor or some expert to tell the information directly or present it in a well-written booklet. However, we believe that the value of self-directed approaches in freeing learners far outweighs any problems from slower starts or heavier loads on instructors. In fact, we have observed that authority-based approaches frequently force individuals into learning modes that may not be conducive to maximum learning. Thus, we hope that one of the results of this

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book will be the inspiration of learners and facilitators to utilize self-directed approaches.

Myth 8: Self-direction in learning is limited primarily to white, middle-class adults

Brookfield (1984c, 1985, 1988) contends that self-directed learning is limited primarily to white, middle-class adults. Although much of the research noted in Chapters Three, Four, and Five focuses on white adults with considerable education and economic means, other research has demonstrated that various groups are capable of self-direction in learning. For example, Baghi (1979), Denys (1975), Field (1979), Guglielmino and Guglielmino (1983, 1988), Hassan (1982), Heisel (1985), Long and Agyekum (1983, 1984, 1988), Penland (1978), Ralston (1979, 1981), Shackelford (1983), and Umoren (1978) are only some of the researchers reporting results or conclusions based on self-directed learning research with black adults.

Brockett (1985c) also responds to Brookfield's criticism and suggests that most of the considerable research on hard-to-reach adults was not included in the evidence cited by Brookfield. Caffarella and O'Donnell (1988), as well, point out that the evidence goes well beyond white adults. They note that various studies confirmed "that the majority of adults, from all walks of life, are actively involved in self-directed learning projects, though the number of projects involved and the amount of time spent on those projects were quite diverse" (p. 45). Chapter Ten provides some illustrations of self-directed activity in various locations around the world and with a variety of people.

Myth 9: Self-directed learning will erode the quality of institutional programs

It is true that many institutions do not support self-directed learning. In some instances this is a result of a lack of understanding about the potential of self-direction in learning. In other instances, this is because they embrace the traditional notion that teachers are experts and learners should be willing receivers of that expert knowledge. However, as Brockett (1988a) notes, that traditional outlook is safe, but also static. Such a circumstance may make it difficult for teachers and learners to obtain full support for self-directed approaches, thereby potentially affecting quality.

Some learners will take advantage of a self-directed learning process and not work to their maximum. In addition, it will be difficult for some instructors to place full trust in the ability of learners to take responsibility for their own learning. Obviously, much of the responsibility for quality must reside with the learner in situations where individual initiative is expected.

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Fortunately, our experience has been that when the trust is given, the vast majority of learners will work to their maximum and seek out high quality learning experience. Knowles and Associates (1984) are among the growing numbers demonstrating how excellent learning experiences are possible when self-directed attitudes prevail.

Myth 10: Self-directed learning is the best approach for adults

This myth may appear to support the book's main thrust. However, we believe it important to acknowledge potential problems in never questioning when to use self-directed learning approaches. Certainly we support the value of promoting self-direction in adult learning, but we recognize that there will be times when utilizing an individualized teaching approach (we describe how to individualize instruction in Chapter Six) may not be appropriate or expedient.

Collins (1988) also is concerned that the facilitation of self-directed learning, especially for individuals with restricted freedom (i.e., prison inmates), can become a vehicle for promoting accommodation, rather than promoting individual autonomy: "Thus, attention is diverted away from the need for a genuine emancipatory practice of adult education on behalf of those whose interests are most poorly served within existing power relations" (p. 107).

While Collins' philosophy regarding the expected or suspected use of self-directed approaches or management tools is different than ours, we believe it important to always ask both practical and ethical questions regarding when it may not be prudent to utilize an individualizing approach. Chapter Eleven provides more discussion on some of the ethical considerations that we believe should be made.


Self-direction in learning is a way of life. It is not merely a fad that fits with the emphasis on self-development and self-help that have been popular over the last decade or so. Nor is it the latest in a series of current trends in adult education that will likely pass within a few years. The idea of self-education or taking responsibility for one's own learning is clearly rooted in history and, in our view, the current popularity of self-directed learning reflects the adult education field's deliberate effort to embrace these values and incorporate them into the mainstream of practice.

In this chapter, we have identified and attempted to dispel several myths relative to self-direction in learning. These myths have grown largely out of a misunderstanding of what self-direction in adult learning is about. The

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remainder of the book is intended to replace misconceptions with information and to raise questions that can guide us toward a future wherein self- direction is, in fact, clearly in the mainstream of adult education theory, research, and practice.


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