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Ethical Dilemmas in Self-Direction

The late Harry Chapin once wrote a song telling the story of Mr. Tanner, a fictitious dry-cleaning store owner who found great pleasure in singing as he is worked. As the story goes, friends and customers were so impressed with Mr. Tanner's avocational abilities that they encouraged him to consider a professional singing career. Eventually he agreed and, after spending most of his life savings, made his public singing debut. The critics were less than kind, suggesting that "full-time consideration of another endeavor might be in order." Mr. Tanner returned home to his business, saying nothing about his demise. But he never sang again, except alone late at night after the shop had closed.

There is an important message in the story of Mr. Tanner for those of us committed to promoting self-direction in learning as a way of life. This message has to do with the potential consequences of our intervention with learners. We must be careful that in our zeal to promote opportunities for self-directed learning and to enhance learner self-direction, we do not inadvertently help set such learners up for failure. We need to recognize that ideals such as "efficiency" and "success" are value-laden and relative and, for many people, are much less important than the enjoyment of the learning process itself. In the case of Mr. Tanner, it was the urging, or intervention, of others that led him to seek wider recognition for his success. In turn, this intervention led Mr. Tanner to false expectations that helped set him up for failure. And while it can be argued that had Mr. Tanner not taken the risk, he never would have known what could have been, the point is that, without outside intervention, Mr. Tanner might have gone on deriving pleasure from his self-defined personal success as a singer.

The above illustration points out potential risks of jumping too quickly on to the self-direction "bandwagon," where the joys of self-direction are uncritically extolled. The previous chapters offered a look at numerous trends and issues relative to the importance of self-direction as a way of life for

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many adults. It is our belief that self-direction needs to be viewed as a major element of adult education practice. At the same time, however, we are not suggesting that self-direction is the purpose of adult education or that self-direction is ideal in all adult learning endeavors. The ten myths that were presented and discussed in Chapter One help to illustrate many of the junctures at which ethical dilemmas can arise in self-direction.

In this chapter, we will explore some of the potential ethical conflicts that can arise in promoting self-direction among adult learners. Included will be a brief overview of adult education ethics. From this, we will shift the focus toward an application of ethics to self-direction in adult learning. This will include a discussion based on ideas from a workshop on ethics in self-direction that helped to lay the groundwork for some of our current thinking. The chapter will conclude with a look at several ethical dilemmas relative to self-direction in learning.


Few would argue the relevance of ethics as an element of adult education practice. Yet, as has been the case with the area of self-direction, this topic has been largely ignored in the literature of adult education. A recent book, however, has offered perspectives from several writers in the adult education field who take a look at ethics in such areas as program planning, marketing, administration, evaluation, teaching, advising, and research (Brockett, 1988c). The book also addresses such issues as social responsibility and ethics, the code of ethics question, ethical development in adulthood, and development of a personal philosophy.

What do we mean by "ethics"? Ethics is an elusive term that can be discussed on at least two levels. First, ethics refers to a branch of inquiry within the discipline of philosophy. Here, emphasis is on the formal study of "right and wrong, of good and evil, in human conduct" (Fagothey, 1972: 2). This study is sometimes referred to as "metaethics" (e.g., Reamer, 1982).

On another level, ethics involves the application of values in order to determine the "rightness" or "wrongness" of specific behaviors in specific situations. It is this applied view of ethics, often referred to as "normative ethics" (e.g., Reamer, 1982), that is of particular relevance to professions or professionalizing fields, such as adult education. Bayles (1981: 3) has suggested that professional ethics "encompasses all issues involving ethics and values in the roles of the professions and the conduct of professionals in society".

Although there is considerable controversy over the question of whether adult education is, indeed, a profession, it is nonetheless clear that situations abound in the education of adults where the potential for inappropriate

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behavior exists. As a way of understanding the different kinds of ethical questions that can arise in adult education practice, a model has been proposed where three dimensions, or levels, of ethical practice can be identified and differentiated. The "Dimensions of Ethical Practice" model (Brockett, 1988b) suggests that ethical dilemmas can be identified along the following three dimensions:

  1. 1. The personal value system of the adult educator;
  2. A consideration of multiple audiences to whom the educator of adults is responsible; and
  3. The ways in which values are put into practice, or operationalized.

The starting point for ethical decision making, according to this model, can be found within the personal value system. This dimension stresses the importance of individual values and is reflected in ethical dilemmas that can arise due to conflicts that a person holds within his or her own value system. The importance of a given dilemma is compounded by the strength with which one holds such values. For example, an educator who believes that adult learning should be a voluntary activity will face conflict in a situation where learners are required to attend a particular activity. If this belief is a strong conviction, the degree of conflict will be much greater than if the person merely states a "preference" for voluntary learning.

The next dimension of ethical practice centers on the recognition that as educators, our responsibilities extend in many directions. In any given situation, we have responsibilities to the learners, the institution, our colleagues, the profession, society, and ourselves. Meeting one set of responsibilities often creates a conflict with another set of responsibilities. This is exemplified by the educator who feels he or she is "compromising" personal values through any number of activities, such as the following: Advising learners to enroll in a particular course in order to increase enrollments, regardless of whether the course will meet learner needs; attempting to discredit the programs of competing agencies; or not fully informing learners of what to expect from the learning experience. As another example, take the case of someone conducting an internal evaluation of an agency. In finding that the agency may be overstaffed, the evaluator is placed in an emotional tug-of -war between (a) creating a potential threat to the livelihood of colleagues and (b) failing to report findings that could lead to more effective resource utilization by the institution. At this level of ethical practice, it is crucial for the adult educator to strive toward a balance in meeting these multiple responsibilities. It is necessary to set priorities "based on the anticipated consequences of one's actions and accepting responsibility for those actions" (Brockett, 1988b: 12).

In the third dimension of ethical practice, which involves the operationization

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of values, the emphasis shifts to an identification of strategies that will help put values into practice. Taken to an extreme, this is where a code of ethics can become relevant. However, the real concern here is that educators should be able to reflect critically on their values relative to the education of adults. The development of a personal philosophy can be a valuable tool in helping educators become better able to identify potential ethical conflicts (Hiemstra, 1988b).

The Dimensions of Ethical Practice model is not a formal theory. Nor is it a prescriptive model offering solutions to specific situations. Rather, it is a process model designed to help educators of adults identify and recognize some of the points at which ethical conflict can arise in their practice. In this way, the model is viewed as a consciousness-raising tool. As Bayles (1981) has stated, the "study of professional ethics will hopefully sensitize one to the ethical dimensions of professional practice and help one think clearly about ethical problems." (p. 3) The Dimensions of Ethical Practice model can be viewed as a tool that adult educators can use in order to facilitate this study.


As the idea of self-direction came to take an increasingly greater hold on the adult education field, particularly during the late 1970s, a number of questions began to emerge relative to potential misuses or abuses of principles growing out of the self-direction notion. Yet, as of the early 1980s, there had been no serious effort to address what might be viewed as "ethical issues" in self-directed learning. In order to begin considering some of these concerns, the first author of this book conducted a workshop entitled "Ethical Issues in Self-Directed Learning" as a major element of a three-credit graduate course on self-directed learning held at Syracuse University during the Summer, 1983, term. Drawing in part from the process used by Hiemstra in his two workshops (policy and institutional issues), discussed in other chapters, each participant was asked to develop a position paper on a topic relative to ethics and self-directed learning. These papers were distributed to all participants and presented toward the end of the workshop. The names of workshop participants are listed in Appendix B. The six position papers were as follows:

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Upon presentation of these papers, each author was asked to glean two or more principles that could be included in a "manifesto/bill of rights" statement. More than twenty-five principles were presented. The entire list was discussed extensively among the group and a final list of sixteen principles was derived. These principles are presented in Table 11.1.

The recommendations listed in Table 11.1 were not intended to serve as a "code of ethics" for working with self-directed learners. Rather, they were viewed as principles or ideas deemed by workshop participants as being worthy of further consideration. We would suggest that there is a need for the field to move toward a greater awareness of ethical concerns if we are to help prevent future abuses or misuses. This may or may not eventually involve the development of a "formalized" set of standards or a "code of ethics." It would, however, serve to bring such concerns to the forefront of our consciousness as adult educators.

In reflecting on these points, it is clear that in many ways, we have begun to make progress relative to ethics in adult education and, more specifically, in self-direction. We hope this chapter, in conjunction with the book described above (Brockett, 1988c) and other periodical literature on the topic (e.g., Singarella and Sork, 1983) will stimulate even more thinking on ethical issues.


It should be apparent that the potential for ethical conflict clearly exists within the realm of self-direction in adult learning. The questions that follow represent four illustrations of how ethical conflict can arise. The first two questions relate to the learner-facilitator relationship while the latter two questions pertain to institutional issues.

Are There Situations Where Intervention Can Actually Be Detrimental To The Learning Process?

It is clear from previous research (e.g., Tough, 1979) that a key reason for the appeal of self-direction is that many adults feel it is the most efficient way for them to learn. By being able to select their own objectives, set schedules according to personal preferences, identify preferred strategies, and evaluate when objectives have been met, many adults believe that they are able to learn in a more efficient way. For such individuals, self-direction is viewed

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Table 11.1 Ethics Seminar Recommendations
1. Self-directedness exists in varying degrees within different individuals. It is not an .all or nothing" notion.
2 .Self-directedness is more appropriate for some adults than for others.
3. One's level of readiness for self-directed learning depends on development and cognitive growth.
4. It is possible to assess or determine an individual's degree of self-directedness.
5. Self-directed learning offers numerous emerging roles for the educator of adults.
6. An individual's level of self-directedness can be strengthened or weakened by love of learning and/or lived (i.e., life) experience.
7. Self-directed learning can be viewed as a method for supporting the voluntary nature of adult education.
8. Existing mandatory continuing education programs should recognize, respect, and accommodate the needs and learning styles of the self-directed learner.
9. Educators of adults need to be able to help learners realize their potential for self-directedness.
10. Institutions that wish to serve self-directed adult learners need to possess goals, objectives, and underlying values that are compatible with this approach. At the same time, institutions have a right to offer programs that are not necessarily in harmony with self-directedness.
11. Institutions need to provide a wide range of resources and services to assist the self-directed learner. These can include direct services such as facilitating the learning process as well as support services such as counseling and referral.
12. Learners have a right to services that will support their efforts as a self-directed learner.
13. Institutions that support self-directed learning need to provide a climate conducive to this kind of learning. This climate includes both the physical facilities and a positive emotional and intellectual atmosphere.
14. The self-directed learner must be willing to assume primary responsibility for personal learning.
15. The freedom to choose self-directed learning is a highly personal issue and involves a great degree of initiative, perseverance, and self-discipline.
16. The self-directed learner should possess a number of basic rights, but must also be willing to accept responsibility for utilizing these rights.

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as less costly, both in terms of time and money, than other approaches to learning. However, an ethical dilemma arises when we assume that efficiency and self-direction need necessarily be linked.

Consider the example of two friends who each have an interest in railroading. One of the friends pursues this interest by enrolling in courses on the history of railroading and by regular visits to the library to read books and articles on railroading. The other friend chooses to spend summers visiting old railroading sites and talking with local people who can share stories about railroading. When the two friends get together to "trade notes" on their endeavors, they find that they have uncovered much the same information. The main difference is that the friend who took courses and read about the topic spent considerably less time and money than the other friend. What might happen if the first person sought to intervene and "help" the other person become "more efficient" as a learner. From the viewpoint of an adult educator, it would be easy to conclude that since the formal approach was more efficient, it is likely to also be more successful. To take this view, however, would be very shortsighted, since it fails to take into consideration the different motives of each person for undertaking the learning project.

In looking at this situation from an "outside" perspective we may be inclined to conclude that the person who chose the more "formal" route was more "successful" than the individual who chose to visit sites and talk informally with people about railroading. And, indeed, if success is defined as efficiency, such an assessment would be accurate.

However, it is important to bear in mind that adults engage in learning for a variety of reasons. For some, success is measured in terms of outcomes derived from the experience. On the other hand, there are many individuals who find joy in the process of learning. The person who visited railroading sites built family vacations around such travel so that everyone could find some joy in the "process" being used. For these individuals, the joy comes not so much from what is learned as from how it is learned.

The dilemma for us as adult educators, in such cases, arises from our zeal to help learners become more effective in the learning process. By stressing the importance of efficiency to the exclusion of other possible motives for learning, we run the risk of turning off learners who were already doing quite well without our "assistance," regardless of how well intentioned that assistance was. Sometimes, we need to tread lightly when working with self -directed learners and recognize that, at times, we can do more harm than good in our educational intervention, despite our best intentions.

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Are There Situations Where Facilitators Can Compromise Quality of a Learning Experience Through Inappropriate Use of Self-Directed Learning Strategies?

With the increasing emphasis on self-direction in adult learning, it is crucial that practitioners understand what the concept means. We have tried to clarify some of the confusion surrounding the idea in previous chapters; yet this is only a beginning. Another ethical issue can arise when an educator who misunderstands the complexity of self-direction attempts to jump on the bandwagon without first reflecting on the consequences of such actions.

Among the myths presented in Chapter One is the idea that self-direction is an "easy way out" for instructors. This can be illustrated by the instructor who walks into class with little or no advanced planning and asks students "ok, now, what do you want to do in this class?" In our view, this is not a case of facilitating self-direction; in fact, we are inclined to call this approach "non-directed learning."

In reality, as was stressed in Chapter Six, facilitating self-directed learning is a very demanding and active role. We are convinced, in fact, that it is even more demanding than the more traditional adult teaching role. Why? Because, in addition to having an understanding of the content area, a facilitator of self-directed learning must get to know each learner and be able to help them to develop and explore personal interest areas. So instead of working with ten people who are all doing the same activities at the same pace, the facilitator of self-directed learning may end up working with ten people each with very different needs and interests and only a minimal level of common interest.

It should be clear that there is a very fine line between promoting self-direction and non-direction. We believe that the successful facilitator of self-directed learning needs to assume a proactive role in working with learners. There is, too, much to be lost if this is not done.

To What Extent Can Institutions Realistically Promote Self-Direction in Learning?

One of the most pervasive problems encountered when implementing opportunities for self-direction can arise when institutions are faced with the often delicate balance between encouraging individual autonomy and learner options while maintaining adherence to existing policies and procedures. For both of us, as faculty members in graduate programs of adult education, this dilemma has been particularly thorny. On the one hand, we are deeply committed to implementing the values and practices described throughout the previous chapters of this book. At the same time, however, we are fully

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aware of the roles and responsibilities we have undertaken by accepting positions within our particular institutions of higher education. Such policies as assigning grades for coursework, adhering to an academic calendar, and setting and maintaining requirements for admission to and completion of the graduate program would seem to run contrary to the more "free spirited" ideals that seem a part of self-direction in learning.

For us, the resolution of this dilemma comes through understanding the first myth presented in Chapter One. By viewing self direction as a continuum, one could argue that all learning activities and institutional settings more or less promote, encourage, or allow a certain degree of self-direction. In this view, the question is not, "Can self-direction in learning exist within an students institutional setting?" but, rather, "To what extent can self-direction exist is not a within the institution?"

The ethical dilemma arises when instructors/facilitators fail to acknowledge this question of degree. It is misleading to say that a course will be a "self-directed learning experience " and then spell out specific course requirements and grading policies. Indeed, we believe that much of the skepticism that exists about self-direction in adult learning is due more to the ways in which it is sometimes misused than to the underlying principles of self-direction themselves. Thus, the ethical concern arises when the learning experience is not what individuals were led to believe it would be.

One way to minimize this potential dilemma is for an instructor to be open with learners from the outset. We typically do this by telling learners in our classes that it is our goal to provide an environment that will foster "greater" opportunities for self-direction, and that we will support a wide range of options that will allow individuals to pursue personally identified goals and objectives. At the same time, we openly acknowledge the parameters within which we are operating (and, in fact, have agreed to operate within as employees and students of our particular institution). By taking this approach, we can ethically state that we are helping learners work toward greater self-direction while not misleading them by claiming the course to be entirely self-directed.

To What Extent is Self-Direction in Learning a Panacea?

The current wave of interest in the idea of self-direction in learning is an outgrowth of the 1970s, which carried over to the 1980s and promises to continue into the 1990s. The concept seems to coincide with notions associated with the "me generation" and to an obsession with "finding oneself" and "being all one can be." Thus, one might criticize the entire self-direction movement as merely away of popularizing hedonism. However, as we have stressed throughout the book, self -direction is not just another adult education

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fad; it is a way of life that fits very naturally with how people go about the task of learning new things in order to deal with the challenges of adult life, including the improvement of society as well as personal growth and enrichment.

Nonetheless, the idea of self-direction remains very seductive and marketable. Of course, there is nothing wrong with marketing the idea of self-direction in and of itself. Indeed, marketing can be viewed as responding to the identified needs of adult learners. At the same time, when self-direction is viewed as a "quick fix" or a "cure all" merely because it "sells," then we should become concerned. We need to bear in mind a very basic principle Our priority as educators of adults is to serve the learner. Where self-direction best serves the learner (and we would stress that this is the case more often than not), the approach should be utilized and promoted actively. But it should not be used merely because it sells.


Self-direction holds virtually unlimited potential as a strategy for enhancing the success of adult learners. As such, it also holds unlimited potential for expanding the growth of the adult education field. As will be discussed in Chapter Thirteen, it is up to us, as educators of adults, to create the kind of future we desire for our field. In working to promote self-directed learning and learner self-direction, the future can be bright indeed. But it is crucial that we make a deliberate effort to ask questions about the ways in which this enthusiasm has the potential to be displaced. To not address potential ethical issues relative to self-direction in adult learning would be short-sighted and, ultimately, could have serious consequences for our potential, as educators, for success with adult learners.


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