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The Global Context

Profound changes of various types throughout the world have caused profound thinking regarding the role education must play in helping people enhance the quality of their lives. Compton and Parish (1978) suggest that at least three concerns must be addressed in some way through educational efforts:

  1. The increasing gap between the rich and the poor; the gap between rich nations and developing nations.
  2. The disproportionate share of the world's resources now allotted to the dominant world.
  3. The increasing awareness of the Third World of the double standard of living. (p. 31)

Such concerns as these plus the constancy and rapidity of change suggest to us a need to help people make the most of available resources of their individual potential. Boucouvalas (1982) describes a standing regulation in Greece that captures this notion of promoting individual ability: "The view of . . . [each person] as a self-sufficient and independent personality and as the agent of . . . [personal] development" (p. 30). It seems that learner self-direction and self-directed learning skills are crucial to the achievement of this human potential.

The study of self-directed learning appears to be primarily western in orientation and interest with little relationship to many parts of the world. In fact, the majority of recent research, writings, and language related to self-direction in learning have emanated from North America. According to Brookfield (1986), "the majority of studies in this field have been conducted with samples of advantaged, white, middle-class Americans. . ." (p. 51). He was referring here primarily to research related to learning projects (Tough, 1979) or the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (Guglielmino, 1977); indeed, there does not yet exist a large volume of related literature outside of North America.

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We thus believe that it is important to our success with adults as learners to take a more global approach in our understandings about self-direction in learning. We realize that not all our assumptions about learners and their abilities to accept personal responsibility will translate entirely from one setting or culture to another. However, this chapter's purpose is to present some reflections and understandings regarding the universality of self-directed learning principles and approaches.


We will present some background information before launching into discussions about self-directed learning in selected countries. Both of us have had many international students in our courses. Observing the successes and difficulties involved with facilitating their independent learning have provided us with some understanding of requirements across cultures in applying self-directed learning principles. We also have examined some of the international literature related to self «directed learning and have interviewed and talked informally with several people from other countries to obtain their views regarding such topics as autonomy, learner control, and instructor roles. Thus, what will follow is a summary of the literature we have studied regarding self-direction in selected settings outside of North America. In addition, for two countries (Indonesia and Tanzania) we present a description of how indigenous adult educators believe self-direction in learning in their respective countries would be possible.

We also need to say something about the nature of self-direction in learning in various cultures. Based on our reading and conversations with people from various countries, there seem to be many different ideas about what it means to study or plan individually. One country will have as an avowed policy the promotion of individual learning ability, while at the same time advocating participation in governmental sponsored programs to achieve such a goal. Another country will talk about self-education as a primary means for adults to learn, but the nature of the programs described would indicate to a North American observer that few opportunities exist for individualized decision-making regarding the learning process.

Another problem stems from the structural design of certain approaches intended to promote independent study. For example, a correspondence course that requires strict adherence to a planned route of readings and testing procedures may offer little freedom to the learner other than pacing or sequencing of micro-learning components. Ljosa and Sandvold (1983), on the other hand, make a case for the various ways learners can

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exercise freedom of choice within the didactical structure of correspondence education.

Moore (1983) describes how he thought about learner freedom in designing an Open University course. The course was based on (a) a psychological climate that emphasized learner decision making and experience, (b) an emphasis on self-diagnosis, (c) a personally planned route of study, (d) a tutor seen as a resource person, (e) some learner-designed evaluation criteria, and (f) an emphasis on each student's personal learning experiences (pp. 24-25).

A wide range exists in interpreting and permitting freedoms such as these within the learning setting. As noted earlier in the chapter, some suggest that self-direction is primarily a middle-class, white phenomenon by its emphasis on the individual. Even though some research has demonstrated that certain self-directed learning concepts hold across racial, economic, and social groupings, the concepts may not always directly apply in other cultural contexts. However, we firmly believe that as long as cultural context is recognized and respected, it is possible to apply many of the instructional and learning tips described in this book in any setting.

There are many countries that should be examined in terms of their self-directed practices, activities, or philosophies. However, that needs to be the subject of another book as we work to better understand various implications for the way adults are facilitated in their efforts to maximize their potential. In this section, we touch on just a few countries in order to highlight interesting aspects of self-direction in different cultural contexts.


Scandinavian countries have a long history of adult education. Grundtvig's pioneering work in Denmark with the folk high school movement began in 1844 (Andresen, 1985; Engberg-Pedersen, 1970; Kulich, 1984). Grundtvig, in developing the folk high school (high school in Danish means a university-like setting) movement wanted an educational experience for adults that was residential in nature, but small in scope. He also wanted a mixture of practical and theoretical work, supported by lots of discussion (Himmelstrup, 1988). These institutions therefore stress work in the group setting, and are aimed at the individual development of each person. In fact, their methods and environment are designed to encourage individuals of all social classes to broaden their personal horizons (Andresen, 1985, p. 20). Folk schools have spread to many other countries in the past century and a half.

Sweden has made several efforts to promote education for adults that is self-directed in nature. One stated adult education aim of the Swedish

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government, for example, is to cater "to individual preferences and needs" (Hall, 1981, p. 7). A governmental ordinance called for learning opportunities to increase awareness of personal capacity, to develop independence, to promote creativity, and to foster critical reflectivity (Svensson, 1988).

One of the most innovative approaches to adult education has been the study circle. These have been used to provide many citizens in Sweden (and elsewhere) with an opportunity to develop self-study skills. As Kurland (1982) has stated: ". . . various religious and political groups found in the study circle a kind of self-help arrangement that enabled an essentially uneducated populace to understand the issues of the day and learn the practical skills necessary to improve their lot in life. Using their own homes as places of study, with no formally trained teachers and limited study materials, people had to rely on their own experience and their ability to share it with others. Studies had to be immediately practical, related to their own needs, or firmly rooted in the particular popular movement in whose cause they were enrolled." (Kurland, 1982, p. 24)

While the group emphasis of the study circle at first glance may seem inconsistent with notions of self-direction, Oliver (1987) states that historically in Sweden, "study circles encouraged self-directed learning and full participation, blending the intensive small group format with traditional Swedish culture--particularly small-town life and the face-to-face conversations of friends and neighbors" (p. 5). Svensson (1988) notes that more than 2.5 million people are involved in Swedish study circles each year, with 1.5 million of these women.

While not quite as popular, another important Swedish form of individualized learning is correspondence study. The country has three such organizations, "one that is authorized to hold examinations for formal educational institutions, one that provides study materials that do not lead to any formal qualifications, and one that provides agricultural correspondence materials" (Darkenwald & Merriam, 1982, p. 197). Nearly 20,000 people each year enroll in correspondence study (Svensson, 1988).

In Norway, correspondence schools have long played a very important role in educating adults (Pardoen, 1977). In fact, Norway's Adult Education Act of 1976 was intended to influence learning throughout life and "should give the core ingredient for . . . self-managed learning throughout the rest of life" (Pardoen, 1977, pp. 14-15). Finland, too, has several correspondence institutes that offer expert aid through study centers to assist individual students in their educational efforts (Royce, 1970).

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United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is perhaps most well-known in the area of self-directed education for its pioneering work with the open university concept described in Chapter Eight. There also are many other opportunities for the learner interested in independent study. For example, the number of adults studying by correspondence in the U.K. is estimated to "range from 500,000 to 750,000 a year" (Darkenwald & Merriam, 1982, p. 197).

Another imaginative attempt to foster independent learning took place at Malvern Hills College, the center for adult education in the rural English counties of Hereford and Worchester. Several adult students were having difficulty attending a regular college class. Thus, a Correspondence Tuition Service was established, to "provide individually oriented programmes [sic] of home study supported by personal tutorials" (Brookfield, 1978, p. 19). An initial diagnostic interview between a tutor and the student, tutorial assistance with learning projects, and home study correspondence courses are some of the available resources.

Brookfield (1981b) also describes his research, which examined the self-directed efforts of individuals not associated with any formal organization or institution. He chose 25 working class individuals whose formal education had ended at age 16. Their expertise stemmed from extensive study of or involvement with a hobby or personal interest area. His research helped to advance earlier work, primarily in North America, related to learning projects. It also demonstrated that independent efforts to obtain mastery over some area take place across a wide range of cultural and educational backgrounds. He concluded that many adult learners will look to other learners for information and support rather than to societies, organizations, and professional educators. He noted, "subjects would mention influential books and magazines but would preface these comments by declaring their 'real' source of information was their fellow enthusiasts" (1981, p. 21).


Japan's progress in industrialization since World War II and its more recent emergence as a world leader in various ways, has prompted a variety of changes within the country. These range from a growth of pizza parlors and fast food restaurants, to increasing disposable income for most people, and a constant contact with other nations. Such changes also have affected education in many ways, including the education of adults. As one example, open university-type programs reach adults throughout the society (Darkenwald & Merriam, 1982).

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The pressure to be part of a societal group remains, but subtle changes are taking place in education. A Japanese professor, Seiichiro Miura, who works with adult education activities, was interviewed about adult education in his country. He describes the change as follows: "One thing I might mention is the use of groups in adult education practice. I recognize the heavy emphasis in the United States on the self-directed learner. But from looking at human nature I suggest it is not easy for some to be self-directed. In Japan, we would organize a self-directed group, kind of a mixture between group study [sic]. Subtle group pressure and a Japanese sensitivity to groups promote a kind of invisible network forcing you to be there, to participate even when you may be reluctant to attend.Thus, you sacrifice your individual desire to the group. I call this interdependent learning rather than independent learning." (Hiemstra, 1981c, p. 30)

Professor Miura was also asked how he would introduce learning contracts, frequently used in self-directed learning efforts, into the Japanese culture: "I will introduce the idea of the learning contract but it will be utilized within a group setting. I will need to introduce it slowly and find the ways it can work" (p. 30).

Thus, Japan appears to be in a transitional state where the sanctity of the group is being reevaluated in terms of individual needs and wishes. This may be most clear in adult education efforts with older Japanese. Sekiguschi (1985) describes a 1981 Recommendation Paper by the Central Committee on Education. Among the Paper's recommendations is a call for the aged person's self-education. As a method of study, "learning in a large group or in a classroom will not be adequate since there is a great difference between individual learners. Instead, individual learning methods are recommended as a more suitable way" (p. 290). Facilities such as libraries, museums, and similar institutions are suggested as organizations needing to play a more active role in meeting older adults' needs. Study courses on radio and television and correspondence courses are recommended as effective methods for the older person.


The changes that have taken place in China during late 1989 and on into 1990 make it difficult to fully comprehend what the future holds. However, the last several years have been marked by some important changes relative to adult learning: "Since 1977, when the expansion and restructuring of adult education began after the Cultural Revolution, important changes have taken place in many sectors of adult education" (Sidel, 1982, p. 38). For example,

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current radio and television delivery methods are patterned after Great Britain's Open University. The Chinese Television University (TVU) opened in 1979 and provides several degree opportunities. In fact, TVU's operate at the national and municipal levels. Televised instruction is also used at factory colleges, spare-time colleges, and regular universities (Long, 1982). Municipal television universities and corresponding study centers in a variety of settings cooperate with centralized programming efforts. They serve some 800,000 registered students and many more casual viewers who do not enroll for credit.

There are other forms of adult education in China that offer some opportunities for individualized learning. Correspondence courses are available and individual tutoring is sometimes available. In 1980 factory universities set up correspondence courses that enrolled 240,000 students (Sidel, 1982). Zhou (1988) reports that there are some 32,000 people enrolled in independent correspondence colleges, and another 150,000 students enrolled in 148 evening college correspondence divisions.

The "visiting teacher" program also offers opportunities for a learner to work individually after the teacher provides some initial assistance: "In this program, literacy is taught by a teacher who visits the peasant's home and labels common household objects with the appropriate Chinese characters. The learner thus learns the characters as the items are used" (Long, 1982, p. 13).

Soviet Union

The concept of self-direction in learning is referred to in the Soviet Union as self-education. The country's beliefs regarding why a person should develop self-directed study skills sound very much like what an advocate in North America would say: "The role of self-education naturally increases in adults, for the potential possibilities of the personality are extremely great, and the formed world outlook, self-awareness [sic] and will make it possible to develop one's abilities more successfully, systematically and comprehensively. This is especially true since life does not stand still and society is developing scientifically and technically. Anyone who does not engage in self-education, voluntarily or not, lags behind the demands of the times." (Ruvinsky, 1986, p. 31)

Several examples of Soviets engaged in self-education illustrate how the concept is employed: "The well-known Soviet test-pilot Mikhail Gromov (1899-1984) said, for

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example, that, by means of self-education, a high degree of perfection may be achieved in one's personal qualities and the new habits and skills required for the chosen profession may be acquired" (Ruvinsky, 1986, p. 32). The Soviet scientist Aksel Berg's idea was that real character cannot be formed without effort: "moreover, constant self-observation and self-accountability are required, and there may even be temporary falls, trips and other fluctuations, which, in fact, reveals the dialectical character of the process of self-education" (p. 32). The examples are not confined just to the most famous people in the society: "workers . . . not only acquire professional knowledge in the process of self-teaching, but also develop their creative abilities and raise their cultural level." (p. 96)

Ruvinsky also suggests there are some techniques that can be used to facilitate independent study efforts: (a) Write what is being learned in a diary or special notebook; (b) organize and classify the information in terms of some goals; (c) learn to separate primary concepts from secondary concepts (pp. 94-95). Correspondence study also is a widely used adult learning method, and "evening and correspondence studies last a year longer than regular studies. Studies at evening and correspondence faculties are regarded as a matter of enormous social interest and significance" (Savicevic, 1981, p. 77).


Traditional beliefs and expectations in Indonesia regarding learning have placed the instructor in a role as authority figure. In fact, learners have not been given many opportunities to assess personal needs as a basis for learning. These learners also usually expect the teacher to be an authority on whatever subject matter is being discussed. Furthermore, they view experiential learning activities, such as using various community resources outside the classroom, as a waste of time. They would believe that such time could more appropriately be spent in the classroom listening to an instructor. However, increasing levels of education among the population and a better understanding of teaching approaches outside of Indonesia among educators are indicators that self-direction in learning is possible with appropriate modifications.

For example, one Indonesian educator studying adult education in the United States told one of the authors how he will apply various self-directed learning techniques in introducing family planning to community leaders when he returns home (M. M. Maudz, personal

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communication with R. Hiemstra, January 11, 1988). During his initial contact with the leaders he would discuss the importance for the country of the content to be covered. He also would discuss with them their learning needs, based on their roles, tasks, and functions as community leaders. Because he would be viewed as the authority, he would come well prepared and make the initial presentation with the use of various audio-visual aids.

The participants then would complete a pre-designed needs assessment form and come to some initial conclusions regarding personal needs. This educator would then lead a general discussion to determine needs, strengths, and weaknesses among the group. He would begin listing learning needs on a chalk board or on poster paper and ask participants to help him rank them. He would conclude with a summary of the needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Then a description sheet of the content areas that could be covered during subsequent sessions would be distributed and discussed. He would make every effort to accommodate the uncovered needs, but would be very specific in describing those content areas that he believed must be covered because of official requirements or his own personal convictions, even if they did not match well with the rankings.

After that initial session, he would spend time putting together the plans for remaining sessions. This would include determining who would be responsible for various content areas, what learning aids would be needed, what teaching and learning techniques would be used, and what arrangements were needed for outside resources or resource leaders. Passive learning activities would be expected, although small group discussion could be designed for occasional use. If any individualized or experiential learning activities were desired or necessary, special efforts would be needed to make clear the importance of such experiences. As evaluation in the form of testing would be the normal expectation, some efforts also would be needed to design the procedures and instruments.

Thus, some of the self-direction procedures described in this book would be possible, but the instructor or trainer would need to explain such procedures very carefully and help participants understand how they would enhance the learning. Cultural traditions and expectations regarding the role of the instructor do not rule out more individualized approaches, but adaptations based on an understanding of prior expectations of student and teacher roles would be required.


In Tanzania a general respect for elders and people in authority permeates the culture. Thus, most Tanzanian students have certain expectations regarding their roles and the roles of instructors. For example, frequently small

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group discussion will take place only after the teacher has spent considerable time lecturing about a subject. Even the small group discussion typically will center on questions posed by the instructor, although students feel they have some latitude in discussing areas beyond the instructor's questions.

Experiential learning activities will be looked at by most learners and instructors as a waste of time. They fear that such activities will take time away from instructor's lecturing. Although a few learners would thrive on experiential or self-directed learning approaches, many learners would likely believe that an instructor using such approaches did not know the subject matter and was employing them to cover up for inadequacies. One Tanzanian adult educator studying in the United States felt that back home his biggest hurdle would be the unwillingness of his university administrators and fellow teachers to accept teaching approaches that placed considerable responsibility back on the learner (A. C. Mgulambwa, personal communication with R. Hiemstra, January 11, 1988).

Another problem area revolves around evaluation and grading. Many of the current traditions of grading were inherited from the British, and the result is usually a highly structured process. For example, many teachers are expected or even required to give a certain number of lower grades. The Tanzanian adult educator mentioned above, who by the time of the interview had considerable experiences with self-directed learning in the classroom from his United States graduate training, felt that the use of a learning contract in his country would be problematic.

The above points suggest that the employment of self-directed learning principles in Tanzania would be difficult, at least initially, because of traditional expectations about education. However, one of the authors spent some time in Tanzania and observed some self-directed adult learning taking place at the village level (Hiemstra, 1987). In fact, the country supports a national policy of "self-reliance," in which elected village leaders take on primary responsibility for local development.

The policy has worked only moderately well in some parts of the nation and not well at all in others. However, it may have begun a process of self-determination in some parts of the country that is translatable to other villages: "I had the opportunity to visit three villages where male and female leaders had been trained at the regional sites and observed what appeared to be high levels of excitement by villagers at their ability to diagnose and work on their problems. My interviews with village chiefs, council members, and district officials substantiated such observations. I also had the opportunity to observe village leaders conduct training courses with villagers and viewed what I believe to be real (and I suspect newly learned) efforts

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to diagnose needs, involve villagers in planning, and encourage self-planned efforts." (Hiemstra, 1987a, pp. 8-9)

This special effort to promote personal responsibility can perhaps best be summarized with a statement from an evaluation report: "[the project] demonstrates the power of adult education methods centered on experiential, problem-solving techniques to evoke change. It shows that these methods are applicable to working with highly educated people as well as villagers. . . the trainee is actively involved in the learning process." (Training for Rural Development, 1984, p. 16)

Thus, in Tanzania (and in other countries as well), there is an apparent need to overcome some traditions and cultural expectations in using self-direction approaches to learning. However, appropriate adaptations are possible: "I believe that most adults appreciate the opportunity to explore their needs, especially if they can turn such needs into real programs . . . I was perhaps most surprised at the apparent willingness of village chiefs and other top leaders (almost always older males) to incorporate women and younger men in the various processes of diagnosing needs, collaborative planning, and even evaluation." (Hiemstra, 1987a, p. 13)

Eastern Europe

In most Eastern European countries, a variety of independent study opportunities exist. Correspondence study seems to be quite popular for the learner who out of preference or necessity selects individualized approaches. Albanian workers are encouraged to educate themselves through various forms of education, including correspondence study (Savicevic, 1981). Correspondence is also one of the favored delivery methods for adult learning in Bulgaria and Poland (Savicevic, 1981).

In the East Germany, correspondence education is recognized as equal in value to other forms of adult study: "Those who acquire education in this manner are offered special facilities and encouragement, such as leave from work amounting to seventy-seven days per year while retaining the right to a full income" (Savicevic, 1981, p. 59). In Hungary, combining both correspondence study and evening courses, according to Klement's 1975 study, "those who acquired a degree in this manner were 45.2% of the total number of people who received a university degree" (Savicevic, 1981, p. 63). In Rumania nearly 30%

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of all adult students study either at evening schools or through correspondence.

Yugoslavia is perhaps the most progressive of these countries. It has schools of self-guided learners, developed through federal legislation, and other institutions through which the individual learner uses various educational resources, such as cultural centers, museums, and libraries. The country also was among the first nations to provide special study on the conception of andragogy, including both graduate and undergraduate study (Savicevic, 1981).

Obviously, the events that have taken place throughout eastern Europe in the dawn of the 1990s will have an impact on the education of adults. While it is too early to speculate with any high degree of confidence, we believe that these changes signal potential for positive developments on the self-direction front. Only time will tell, though, what specific impact may take place.

Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia adult education has become a social imperative as the country attempts various modernization efforts: "Saudi Arabia needs the characteristics of modern man who is ready for new experiences, accepts change, and looks toward the future more than to the past or present. He should believe in education and technology and his own ability to improve himself." (Hamidi, 1979, p. 30) Many of the initial educational efforts in this modernization movement have been related to literacy. Much of the recent success can be attributed to the heavy use of television as an individualized means of reaching people at home, especially women (Hamidi, 1979).


Perhaps the most obvious conclusion that can be drawn is that considerable variance exists across various cultures and geographic settings. We believe that the promotion of self-directedness can be considered a phenomenon transferable to most cultural settings. For example, in a study of 1000 people in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, France, Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, United States, and Canada, nearly half used some form of self-instruction to acquire some basic information (Savicevic, 1985). It also was found that the higher the level of education, the more people are engaged in self-education.

How do we make sense out of such research? Is this finding something

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that can be applied universally across all cultures? It probably is not, but we simply do not yet have a clear enough understanding of differences and similarities. What then are some obvious needs and conclusions as we think about self-direction in learning from a global context?

In making comparisons across various countries we also need to ask if group processes can be used for individual or self-directed development. Himmelstrup (1988), for example, noted that Denmark has few opportunities for self-directed study because the emphasis has long been on the social aspect of organizations like the folk high school. This obviously can be said about many other countries. Thus, can self-direction in learning be successful within countries or cultural settings where group or social processes have been stressed?

We believe that many of the principles and practices associated with self-direction in learning can have relevance within the context of most cultures; however, we are quick to acknowledge that our perspective in primarily a North American one. Thus, we offer the following as needs for further work on gaining a more global perspective relative to self-direction.

  1. There is a need to carry out more cross-cultural research on the many implications for training adult educators, developing learning resources, and helping learners to make the best choices regarding their learning. Similarly, we need to begin developing research agendas that will consider self-direction more directly from specific cultural contexts.
  2. There are cultural differences that must be understood, in working with learners who may prefer to be self-directed. Expectations regarding the role of the teacher, the student, and the group will differ, so teaching techniques will need to be adjusted accordingly. Societal differences regarding the value of the group over individual also need to be better understood.
  3. The willingness and readiness to employ self-directed ‰ learning approaches within various countries is constantly changing and evolving. Thus, it is important that the exchange of ideas across geographic borders take place on a regular basis through cross-cultural research, international conferences, and visiting scholar programs.


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