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Enhancing Learner Self-Direction

In the "Personal Responsibility Orientation" (PRO) model, self-directed learning as an instructional method is one of two key components in the broader concept of self-direction in learning. This component, which was addressed in the previous chapter, stresses the processes occurring outside the individual that can facilitate greater self-direction. The other key component of the PRO model is what we have referred to as "learner self-direction." Here, the focus is on what is going on within the person and is perhaps best understood in terms of personality. Another way of distinguishing between these two components is that the emphasis of self-directed learning is external to the individual while the focus of learner self-direction is internal to the individual. In this chapter, we will shift our focus from the external, process orientation to an examination of the internal, personal orientation.

It is our intent to explore some of what we believe are key influences on the phenomenon of learner self-direction. Further, we will address the interplay between influences on the individual learner and the social context in which self-direction develops. Finally, emphasis will shift to an examination of three strategies that can be used by facilitators to promote greater self-directedness among adult learners. A key assumption underlying the discussion in this chapter, as well as the PRO model in general, is our belief that there is an inseparable link between learner self-direction and the development of human potential. In other words, self-direction in learning can be seen as a means, or vehicle, by which individuals can more fully realize their greatest potential as human beings.

Why do we believe that personality is so vital to a clearer understanding of self-direction in learning? There are at least two reasons for this. First, as was pointed out in the chapters on research, one of the most convincing findings growing out of quantitative investigations on self-direction is the strong link between self-direction and self-concept. For purposes of this discussion, self-concept refers to how one is "seen, perceived, and experienced" by oneself (Fitts & Richard, 1971, p. 3). Essentially, what much of the

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research shows is that a relationship exists between a positive self-concept and the extent to which one subscribes to principles of self-direction.

A second reason for stressing the importance of personality can be found in clues emanating from research on participation in more formal adult and continuing education activities. For instance, Houle (1961) in his classic study The Inquiring Mind, developed a typology consisting of three groups of learners: goal-oriented, activity-oriented, and learning-oriented. The latter group, learning-oriented individuals, were those who chose to pursue learning for its own sake, believing that such activity would help them to grow as individuals. More recently, Houle (1988) has stated that at the time he conducted his study, there was tacit acceptance of "the idea that men and women should assume responsibility for their own learning" (p. 89). However, the major thrust of the literature during this period was not on individuals, but rather, on "social actions and responses" (p. 89). In another study, Morstain and Smart (1974) derived six major reasons for adult education participation from a factor analysis of Boshier's (1971) Educational Participation Scale. Among the six factors identified was "cognitive interest," which closely parallels Houle's learning-oriented individual. Indeed, as was noted in Chapter Four, Reynolds (1986) found a strong link between cognitive interest and self-directed learning readiness.

Looking at the issue of participation from another angle, it is possible to gain insights based on studies of why adults do not participate in adult and continuing education activities. Cross (1981) has identified three major categories of barriers to participation: situational, institutional, and dispositional. The last of these categories is particularly relevant to our discussion. According to Cross, dispositional barriers are "related to attitudes and self-perceptions about oneself as a learner" (1981, p.98). These can include such concerns as a belief that one is "too old" to learn, lack of confidence, previous negative experiences in school, and uncertainty/fear about what might result from participating in learning. What the various types of dispositional barriers share, though, is that they are based on beliefs that come from within the individual, based on personal perceptions and/or past experiences.

More recently, Darkenwald and Valentine (1985), using a modified version of the Deterrents to Participation Scale (DPS) (Scanlan & Darkenwald, 1984), identified six factors related to non-participation in organized adult education courses among a "general" adult population. These factors include: lack of confidence, lack of course relevance, time constraints, low personal priority, cost, and personal problems. Similarly, Hayes (1988) administered a modified version of the DPS (DPS-LL) to a group of adult basic education students and found five factors identified as deterrents: low self-confidence, social disapproval, situational barriers, negative attitude to

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classes, and low personal priority. While these more recent studies utilized methodology and instrumentation different from the earlier work, there seems be a degree of overlap between the major sets of factors that appear to impact upon participation in formal adult education.

We believe that the research on participation and barriers to participation provide important insights relative to learner self-direction. Even though this work has largely been drawn from institutionally-based adult education programs, the emphasis on attitudinal factors reinforces the importance of personality as a determinant of or deterrent to participation. By addressing these considerations, it might be possible to increase participation in adult learning. So, too, we believe will be the case when one chooses to engage in learning through a self-directed method. Let's shift now to a look at some of the ideas that have influenced the concept of learner self-direction.


In Chapter Two, we pointed out that the idea of personal responsibility, which we view as central to the idea of self-direction in learning, is derived largely from principles of humanistic philosophy. Similarly, we believe that an understanding of learner self-direction can best be gained from the humanist perspective. At the same time, other theories--namely behaviorist/neobehaviorist thought and perspective transformation/transformation theory--can help to provide greater understanding of this personal orientation. Each of these directions is considered below.

Humanist Influences

Humanistic philosophy has deep roots that can be found in the ideas of Confucius, Greco-Roman philosophers such as Aristotle, and many of those involved in the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century (Elias & Merriam, 1980). In the 20th century, the humanistic viewpoint has been further developed by existentialist philosophers such as Sartre.

Elias and Merriam (1980) have discussed what they see as seven basic assumptions underlying humanistic philosophy. These can be summarized as follows:

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It should be clear that each of these principles is very much consistent with the values underlying the PRO model.

Within the field of psychology, humanistic ideas have been stressed through what is sometimes referred to as the "third force" in psychology (Goble, 1970). This third force, or humanistic psychology, grew out of discontentment with the psychoanalytic and behavioristic emphases that have been predominant in 20th century psychological thought. Perhaps the two individuals whose ideas have been most seminal to the development of humanistic psychology are Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

Maslow (1970) is perhaps best known for his theory that human motivation occurs according to a "hierarchy of needs." In this hierarchy, needs are arranged in the following order: physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization. The point that Maslow stresses is that since these needs are arranged hierarchically, one must be able to fulfill the needs at a given level in order to work effectively toward the fulfillment of needs at the next highest level. For example, it will be necessary for a person seeking to fulfill belongingness and love needs to first have met needs at the two previous levels.

What is crucial about Maslow's work to our discussion of learner self-direction is the concept of "self-actualization." This, according to Maslow (1970), "may be loosely described as the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc." (p. 150). In other words, self-actualization refers to the highest level of human growth, where one has reached one's fullest potential. As with self-direction, though, it is important to think of self-actualization as an extreme on a continuum, an ideal state toward which one is continuously striving.

Maslow has also identified a number of characteristics shared by self-actualizing people. According to Maslow, self-actualizers tend to, among other things: possess a more efficient view of reality and a corresponding tolerance of ambiguity; be accepting of themselves and others; demonstrate spontaneous behavior that is in tune with their own values and not necessarily tied to the common beliefs and practices of the culture; focus on problems that lie outside of themselves, thus demonstrating a highly ethical concern; maintain a few extremely close interpersonal relationships rather than seek

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out a large number of less intense friendships; and possess high levels of creativity. Another characteristic, one that is especially important in terms of learning, is what Maslow (1970) has referred to as the "mystic or peak experience." Peak experiences are extremely intense episodes where the individual is transformed through new insights. In describing persons who had reported peak experiences, Maslow noted the following observation: "There were the same feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placing in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject is to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences. "(1970, p. 164)

While most learning activities are not of such an intense and insightful nature, peak experience is an important notion for educators to grasp and, in our view, is potentially a key to understanding learner self-direction.

Self-actualizers, then, are people who have a great deal of self-understanding and insight. They are creative individuals who are not afraid to deal with unstructured situations or to march to the beat of the proverbial different drummer. Self-actualized individuals are consistently working toward higher levels of personal growth and, in doing so, are able to utilize existing resources to their greatest potential. In essence, self-actualization, and the people who demonstrate high levels of this characteristic, epitomize personal responsibility as we have used the term within the context of the PRO model.

Rogers, through the approach that has been referred to as "client-centered therapy" (e.g., 1951), has stressed the importance of the client-therapist relationship and the need to shift responsibility for growth in a therapeutic relationship away from the therapist toward the client. Through such an approach, Rogers expresses his belief in the potential of clients and his trust in their ability to assume responsibility for their own lives.

According to Rogers (1961), a major goal of therapy is to help clients foster greater self-direction. He notes that to be self-directing "means that one chooses--and then learns from the consequences" (p. 171). This is the essence of what we mean by the term personal responsibility throughout this book: that learners retain control over their learning processes, and are subsequently responsible for the consequences of their learning. To expand further on this point, Rogers (1983) offers the following observation:

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"The individual who sees himself and his situation clearly and who freely takes responsibility for that self and for that situation is a very different person from the one who is simply in the grip of outside circumstances. This difference shows up clearly in important aspects of his behavior." (p. 278)

Rogers (1969, 1983) has applied the principles of his therapeutic approach to educational practice and, as such, has helped build a foundation for the development of theory relative to self-direction in adult learning.

How might concepts from humanistic psychology translate into concepts of learner self-direction? The study by Gibbons, et al. (1980), which was discussed in earlier chapters, includes a list of 14 principles, derived from research, that contribute to a tentative theory of self-education. These principles, are as follows:

  1. Locus of control lies within the self-educator rather than in institutions;
  2. The focus of self-education is on a very specific area rather than a broad one;
  3. Self-education is undertaken for immediate application;
  4. The self-educator is motivated by the desire to achieve in a given field;
  5. Recognition and rewards--a general sense of accomplishment--are important to the self-educator;
  6. Previous experience, interests, and abilities contribute to the selection of one's chosen field of endeavor;
  7. Self-educators draw from a wide variety of methods and techniques most compatible with their own style of learning;
  8. "Self-education involves the development of attributes traditionally associated with people of character: integrity, self-discipline, perseverance, industriousness, altruism, sensitivity to others, and strong guiding principles" (1980, p. 54);
  9. Such individuals tend to develop independent, nonconformist, and creative attributes;
  10. Reading and "other process skills" are important to self-educators;
  11. Experiences that occur in youth contribute to an eventual conscious choice of what one focuses upon as a self-educator;
  12. The optimal environment for self- education is one that is warm and supportive, where there is a close relationship with at least one other individual;
  13. Self-educators tend to possess good interpersonal relating skills and are often well-liked by others;
  14. The above characteristics correspond closely with those that comprise a "mature personality" and are associated with self-actualization.

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To summarize, our view of self-direction is largely framed within the context of humanistic thought. Notions relative to belief in a positive view of human nature and the belief that human potential is virtually unlimited serve as cornerstones to the concept of personal responsibility, as we have used it throughout this book. Nonetheless, current thinking about self-direction has, indeed, been influenced and informed by other perspectives. Two such perspectives are behaviorism and neobehaviorism, and transformation theory.

Behaviorist and Neobehaviorist Influences

Classic behaviorism suggests that human nature is neither inherently positive or negative but, rather, is shaped by influences from the person's environment. Learning, in this view, emphasizes the attainment of measurable objectives, which are ideally achieved through a systematic instructional design process. While the assumptions underlying behaviorism depart from the basic humanistic thought from which the PRO model is derived, we nonetheless believe that behaviorism provides some insights relative to self-direction in adult learning. Two practices rooted in behaviorism that we find particularly valuable to self-direction are (a) learning contracts and (b) a systematic instructional planning process. These are discussed elsewhere in the book, particularly in the previous chapter.

One example of this behaviorist perspective on self-direction is presented by Watson and Tharp (1985). In this view, self-direction is discussed as a set of skills related to the process of self-modification. According to Watson and Tharp, self-modification is a change closely linked to "adjustment." Here, adjustment refers to harmony, both within the thoughts, actions, and feelings of the individual and between the self and the environment. Watson and Tharp go on to describe a process that individuals can utilize in modifying their behaviors toward the end of greater adjustment.

A variation on the theme of behaviorism has been presented by Penland (1981), who suggests that self-direction can be understood from a "neobehaviorist" perspective. Neobehaviorism departs from classic behaviorism in that while the latter is concerned exclusively with observable behaviors, the former acknowledges the importance of also understanding elements that are internal to the individual. Thus, whereas classical behaviorism is only concerned with the environment as a determinant of behavior, neobehaviorism stresses the interaction of the individual and environment. This is not unlike the aspect of adjustment discussed by Watson and Tharp as harmony between the self and the environment.

In our view, it is this link between the self and the environment that provides the strongest support for a behaviorist influence on self-direction. A purely humanistic view of self-direction looks only at factors internal to

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the individual. Yet, it is clear that environment does play a role in self-direction. Certain teaching-learning transactions can be seen to support or frustrate self-direction. Similarly, there are certain sociocultural contexts where self-direction is probably more desirable than others. The social context, which is a vital aspect of the PRO model, can be further understood in terms of the next category of theoretical influence.

Transformation Theory Influences

In the late 1970s, Mezirow (1978) presented his notion of "perspective transformation" to the literature of adult education. This concept, which had come out of several years of conceptual work (e.g., Mezirow, 1975) is based on the idea that in adult development an essential kind of learning involves "how we are caught up in our own history and are reliving it" (1978, p. 101). Mezirow goes on to suggest that adults "learn to become critically aware of the cultural and psychological assumptions that have influenced the way we see ourselves and our relationships and the way we pattern our lives" (p. 101). Influenced by such writers as Habermas (1970, 1971), Freire (1970), and Gould (1978), perspective transformation holds that learning is not merely the accumulation of new knowledge, which is added on to existing knowledge; rather, it is a process whereby many of the basic values and assumptions under which a person operates are changed through the process of learning. Perspective transformation is an emancipatory process (Mezirow, 1981) and is very much similar to "consciousness-raising." And while it is a very personal process, it can clearly be linked to social action. Mezirow uses such examples as the women's movement and the civil rights movement, where the goal of learning is the empowerment of individuals, to illustrate how the transformation of individuals can subsequently be translated into social action.

How is perspective transformation related to self-direction in adult learning? First, Mezirow suggests that self-directed learning underlies the process of perspective transformation: "Enhancing the learner's ability for self direction in learning as a foundation for a distinctive philosophy of adult education has breadth and power. It represents the mode of learning characteristic of adulthood." (Mezirow, 1981, p. 21)

In order to enhance the ability of adults to function as self-directed learners, Mezirow offers the following guidelines:

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A second way in which perspective transformation and self-direction might be linked is that transformation theory attempts to bridge the personal and social dimensions of learning. Thus, it can offer some insights into the "social context" dimension of the PRO model presented in Chapter Two. The following section offers a further look at the linkage between individual and social emphases in self-direction.

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Historically, one of the controversial issues that has pervaded the field of adult education is the question of whether the primary emphasis of adult education activity should be on individual learners or on the larger society (e.g., Cotton, 1964; Elias & Merriam, 1980; McGinnis, 1981; Stubblefield, 1981b). One school of thought holds that the emphasis should be on the growth and development of individuals while another school argues that social change should be the primary function of adult education. As was noted in Chapter Two, this issue has been relevant to discussions of self-direction in adult learning. Indeed, some of the strongest criticisms of work in this area to date have centered on the belief that such efforts have failed to consider the social context of self-direction.

We believe that the notion of individual vs. social emphasis is a false dichotomy. Instead, we share the view that both the individual and the social dimension are important and that one cannot exist without the other. At the same time, given that we are working largely from the assumptions of humanistic thought, it is our view that the individual is the starting point for adult education practice. Indeed, this point serves as a foundation underlying the PRO model, and the extent to which one agrees with this view will likely influence the extent to which he or she is likely to support the model.

On what do we base this belief? A general basis for this view can be found in Maslow's (1970) characteristics of self-actualizing people. One such characteristic is found in the notion of gemeinschaftsgefuhl, which was coined by Alfred Adler (1939), and describes self-actualizing people in the following way: "They have for human beings in general a deep feeling of identification, sympathy, and affection in spite of the occasional anger, impatience, or disgust described below. Because of this, they have a genuine desire to help the human race. It is as if they were all members of a single family. One's feelings toward his brothers would be on the whole affectionate, even if these brothers were foolish, weak, or even if they were sometimes nasty. They would still be more easily forgiven than strangers." (p. 165)

While there is a certain condescending tone in this quote that, taken out of context, does not seem entirely consistent with basic tenets of humanism, the concern for humanity nonetheless is expressed.

Another characteristic of self-actualizing persons described by Maslow that may have relevance for our discussion is that such persons reflect a "democratic character structure." That is, they can relate well with people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs and, in fact, may seem oblivious to differences

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such as race or class. Further, such persons often express a sense of humility that allows them to "learn from anybody who has something to teach them" regardless of differences between the individuals (Maslow, 1970, p. 168).

While Maslow has addressed issues of social responsibility and oppression in a very general, indirect way, Rogers (1977) has written directly on the theme. Rogers has stated that his "person-centered approach," of which self-direction is a key characteristic, is very much parallel to the thinking of Freire (1970). While the contexts in which Rogers and Freire operate are very different, Rogers found himself "open-mouthed with astonishment" at the similarities around which their works were built (1977, p. 106).

In the years since Rogers first published his comparison with Freire's ideas, these similarities have been debated extensively, often with Rogerians and those with a North American perspective supporting the similarities and Freirians and those with a Third World orientation disagreeing with the similarities. O'Hara (1989) has offered a synthesis of these arguments. For example, many Freirians are skeptical about psychology and psychotherapy that stress the individual to the exclusion of the social context. However, O'Hara suggests that the basic differences that do exist between Freire and Rogers can be resolved by understanding a single thread that runs throughout the work of both men: "Both unabashedly celebrate human existence and our evolutionary potential. They write of their fascination with human capacity for self-regulation, self-understanding, and transcendence. Neither begs the intervention of a God, magic, manipulative technology, or supernatural forces. They are both radical humanists (emphasis added). "(O'Hara, 1989, p. 13)

She goes on to state that neither Rogers nor Freire "gives up on people," and offers the following conclusion: "What both Freire and Rogers offer us, separately and together, is the faith that truth both heals and emancipates, the uncompromisable position that we are all capable of becoming conscious, the conviction that we achieve only through dialogue with each other, and the hope that through such dialogue, whenever, wherever, and however we have the opportunity, we can create a world where every one of us may live in dignity and may exercise our natural vocation to become ever more fully human. "(O'Hara, 1989, p. 33)

Finally, returning to the notion of transformation theory for just a moment, it seems clear that this approach offers insights relative to the interplay between individual and social dimensions. As we interpret perspective

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transformation, we see it as a very personal process, which ultimately can lead to action in the social arena. Yet the approach is not without its critics. Collard and Law (1989) suggest that Mezirow's work has been valuable in that by drawing from a German intellectual tradition, it attempts to address the atheoretical nature of

North American adult education research. At the same time, they argue that the approach lacks the socio-political critique central to critical theory and does not address radical ideology. They conclude that "the essentially liberal democratic character of Mezirow's ideas suppress the concept of a radical praxis" (p. 106). Mezirow (1989) responds by stating that social action is only one goal of adult education and that it, like other adult education goals such as intellectual development, self-actualization, and human rights, is instrumental to the end of fostering "the conditions and abilities necessary for an adult to understand his or her experience through free, full participation in critical discourse" (p. 174).

The comparison between the ideas of Rogers and Freire and the critique of transformation theory illustrate the inevitable dilemma that arises in attempting to reconcile individual growth and social change as goals for adult education. Clearly, this is not an either/or dichotomy. Nor can it adequately be resolved by simply concluding that "both are important." Based on evidence such as that presented throughout this section, it is our belief that the individual should be viewed as the starting point for adult education efforts and that an individual who is able to strive toward greater realization of potential (i.e., relative to self-direction in learning) will also be increasingly able to contribute to the creation of a more just society, where each person has the opportunity to maximize their potential.


The personal orientation of self-direction in learning, which we are referring to as "learner self-direction," involves a process of growth that takes place within the individual. Can the adult educator contribute to furthering this growth process? Our response is a resounding "yes!" Just as the educator of adults can serve as a facilitator of the process described in the previous chapter, it is possible to help learners expand their potential by helping them discover that which is as yet untapped. This section will introduce three sets of strategies that educators can use in their efforts to help learners more fully realize their potential for self-direction. The strategies to be considered include: facilitating critical reflection, promoting rational thinking, and using helping skills in the facilitation process. Each of these strategies fit within

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the framework of the PRO model because they are aimed at helping learners strive toward assuming greater personal responsibility.

Before considering these strategies, though, it is necessary to set forth two important points that facilitators need to bear in mind. First, the extent to which educators can help enhance learner self-direction is clearly linked with the degree of trust placed in the learners. Whether it is due to fear of losing control or the belief that the experiences learners bring with them are of little relevance, the person who is unable or unwilling to place trust in the learners or in the facilitation process is likely to have trouble fostering greater self-direction among the learners. On the other hand, the facilitator who views learners more as partners in the process, with valuable insights and ideas to share, will go much further toward demonstrating a basic sense of trust. This, in turn, should prove valuable in the facilitation process.

A second point is that by modeling such behaviors, a facilitator can help learners maximize their personal levels of self-direction. Just as we can be inspired by leaders from various walks of life who model values and behaviors we see as desirable, the facilitator who can provide a positive model of what it means to be self-directed serves as a first-hand example of unlocked potential. Such a person can thus serve as a most important resource for learners. The old adage "actions speak louder than words" clearly holds true in this instance.

Facilitating Critical Reflection

One strategy for enhancing self-directedness involves helping learners develop an ability to critically reflect on their experiences to help them use the knowledge that has been gained in future actions. Critical reflection, as used here, is similar to Mezirow's (1978) notion of not being trapped by one's past. More recently, Mezirow (1985) has used the term self-reflective learning to describe a process of "gaining a clearer understanding of oneself by identifying dependency-producing psychological assumptions acquired earlier in life that have become dysfunctional in adulthood" (p. 20).

Closely linked to critical reflection is the idea of "critical thinking," which Brookfield (1987, p. 4) describes as occurring "whenever we question why we, or our partners, behave in certain ways within relationships." Thus, when people question existing ideas or behaviors, or information that has been presented to them, they are engaging in critical thinking. Four components of critical thinking identified by Brookfield include: identifying and challenging assumptions; recognizing the influence of context on thoughts and actions; considering "alternatives to existing ways of thinking and living" (1987, p. 8), and developing "reflective skepticism," an unwillingness

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to accept a behavior or an idea merely on the basis of having "always been done that way" or "because an expert says its so."

Taken together, critical reflection and critical thinking are important elements of learner self-direction because they involve analysis and judgment of a problem or situation. In other words, by being critical, one is demonstrating an unwillingness to accept "what is" as inevitable. By being critical, one is thus able to assume personal responsibility for one's beliefs or actions rather than pass off such responsibility to a source outside of oneself.

Educators of adults can play a role in helping learners to develop critical reflection and thinking skills. Brookfield (1987) has suggested the following strategies for facilitating critical thinking:

  1. Affirm critical thinkers' self-worth;
  2. Listen attentively to critical thinkers;
  3. Show that you support critical thinkers' efforts;
  4. Reflect and mirror critical thinkers' ideas and actions;
  5. Motivate people to think critically;
  6. Regularly evaluate progress;
  7. Help critical thinkers create networks;
  8. Be critical teachers;
  9. Make people aware of how they learn critical thinking;
  10. Model critical thinking. (pp. 71-88)

While readers may find many of these strategies to be self-explanatory and self-evident, the strategies are worth noting here because they are the kinds of ideas that can be easily taken for granted or overlooked in efforts to work with learners. Yet so much of what goes on in traditional education runs contrary to the development of critical thought.

What are some ways through which critical reflection and thinking skills can be nurtured? In discussing ways through which continuing education practitioners can systematically analyze their practice, Apps (1985) suggests the following activities: reading, participating in the arts, thinking, writing, discussing, and acting. This same list could easily be applied in response to the above question. For purposes of this discussion, we would like to focus on two of these activities (which also happen to frequently incorporate the other types of activities).


As Apps (1985) suggests, reading is an obvious way in which one can gain new perspectives and, thus, be in a stronger position to reflect critically; yet, reading is often overlooked because time pressures frequently keep many

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people from reading beyond what seems essential just to stay on top of the activities of daily living. Some types of reading materials that can be particularly relevant to the development of learner self-direction include general fiction and nonfiction, self-help materials, and biography.

General fiction and nonfiction (and we are including poetry and plays within this category) can help a person to gain a broader perspective on the world. The person who is "well-read" has gained a vast array of insights and ideas through reading, which should be helpful in allowing the person to identify alternative perspectives to a given situation. For example, a person who has read widely on political and social issues is likely to be in a position to understand why different sides have emerged with respect to a given controversy, such as abortion or capital punishment. One who has had an opportunity to look at an issue from various perspectives should be able to advocate a particular position with even greater strength. Here, the value of general reading is similar to the goal of traditional liberal education: development of persons who are educated in the "broadest" sense of the word (Elias & Merriam, 1980).

In recent years, perhaps no aspect of the nonfiction market has grown more rapidly than self-help writing. One need only look in virtually any bookstore to see a major section devoted to such writings. The assumption in most self-help writing is that readers will be able to come away with new tools for improving their lives, whether by changing careers, losing weight, dealing with a difficult relationship, overcoming substance abuse, performing better in a sport or hobby, or understanding oneself in a new way. It is important to bear in mind that self-help materials are not limited to the printed word: media such as audio and video tape are growing sources of self-help material. While the quality of self-help materials certainly covers a vast range, and while motives behind the development of such works will also vary considerably, the self-help market would never have reached its current heights were it not for the belief that many people do believe themselves capable of making changes in their own lives.

Finally, biography can be a tool for critical reflection and thinking because it provides insights into the lives of other individuals. The study by Gibbons, et al. (1980), which was mentioned earlier, shows how it was possible to identify and understand factors that helped a select group of experts to develop self-direction within their area of expertise. Through biography and autobiography, we can learn lessons and gain insights from those who have gone before us. Biography can both inform and inspire.

To illustrate this point about how biography can be inspirational, let us share an example from our own experience. During the development of the first draft of this chapter, the first author found himself faced with a fairly strong case of "writers' block." This block occurred about the same time as

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several other factors, such as new job responsibilities and professional commitments, the process of buying a house, minor but distracting health problems, and periodic self-doubt were going on. During this period, a journal that had been kept by John Steinbeck during the writing of The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck, 1939) was published (DeMott, 1989). In this journal, Steinbeck reveals the process and many struggles he went through in producing this most important work. The various entries revealed a writer facing numerous issues of daily living (including the process of buying a new house) and expressions of personal anguish about his ability to complete a worthwhile piece of writing. Indeed, as he neared the end of the book, the tone of Steinbeck's entries were characterized by sheer determination and perseverance on the one hand, and physical and emotional exhaustion on the other. While there is no presumption to compare Steinbeck with Brockett, reading the journal nonetheless was inspiring and comforting, knowing that despite the hurdles, both externally and internally imposed, Steinbeck was able to persevere and make it through a difficult process. Through the words he shared in this journal, Steinbeck thus served as facilitator and role model, providing an excellent stimulus for personal reflection.


The written word is an invaluable tool for critical reflection and thinking. The potential of reading has been addressed above; however, writing can be at least as valuable a tool as reading. For some people, this writing takes the form of publishing. However, some of the most valuable writing for personal insight comes through such activities as keeping a personal journal. Steinbeck's journal revealed a man who was able to use the personal journal as a means of critical reflection. Certainly, many of the insights gained by Steinbeck through his journal contributed, either directly or indirectly, to the final product as well as to his further development as a writer.

An approach that may have potential for enhancing learner self-direction is the "Intensive Journal" process created by Progoff (1975). According to Progoff, this process "plays an active role in reconstructing a life, but it does so without imposing external categories or interpretations or theories on the individual's experience" (p. 9). Thus, the process is therapeutic "not by striving toward therapy but by providing active techniques that enable an individual to draw upon his inherent resources for becoming a whole person" (p. 9).

In the "Interactive Journal" process, one engages in a dialectical movement that involves continuous shifting between externally- and internally-oriented reflections. For instance, on one occasion, a person may begin the journal entry by describing an external event, then move into an

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analysis of what that experience has meant personally. At other times, internal reflection may be the point of departure, with subsequent discussion emphasizing how insights gained from this reflection might be applied in specific external situations.

Like the first author using reading, the second author has used the interactive journal as a personal means for moving his own thinking and critical reflection on various topics. For example, a long-term attempt to more clearly understand the learning activities of older adults was aided by a personal journal kept during an initial research project and subsequent data analysis effort (Hiemstra, 1975, 1976b). The reflection that took place via this journal activity resulted in a case study of 30 older adults that has been ongoing since 1976 (Hiemstra, 1982a). Both of us also encourage students to use the work of Christensen (1981) and Progoff (1975) as models for recording personal reflection and understanding within our courses in adult education.

To summarize, critical reflection and thinking are relevant strategies for enhancing learner self-direction because a) they can lead to greater self-awareness and b) they can help a person recognize alternative ways of thinking and acting that may not have been apparent prior to engaging in the process. In either case, the end result is a person who is better able to take personal responsibility in life, and indeed, in learning.

Promoting Rational Thinking

The notion of personal responsibility means that one assumes the primary decision-making role for one's life. It also means accepting responsibility for those decisions. Perhaps one of the greatest barriers to learner self-direction, then, is the tendency among many of us to seek out external explanations for why the world is not going the way we would like it to be going. The wife who attributes unhappiness in her marriage to her husband's unwillingness to act more as she would like him to act, the man who claims that his inability to read is due to an extremely negative second grade teacher, and the manager who is unwilling to change a seemingly outmoded policy because "we've always done it that way" exemplify three situations where individuals have not taken personal responsibility.

Personal responsibility is a choice: in any given situation, including the process of learning, individuals can choose how they wish to respond. At the other extreme, they can "cast their fate to the wind." That is, they can allow themselves to be controlled by the situation. A model that we believe holds much potential for enhancing learner self-direction can be found in the ideas underlying a therapeutic process known as "rational-emotive therapy."

Rational-emotive therapy (RET) is an approach, first developed by Ellis

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(1962, 1973), that "places great emphasis on rational thinking and has as its primary goal emotional change" (Wexler & Wexler, 1980, p. 1). In RET, humans are viewed as being in the center of their "own emotional fate" and, thus, are almost fully responsible for choosing or choosing not to make themselves "disturbed" (Ellis, 1973, p. 4). Further, this "choice" is due in large part to the extent to which the person holds rational or irrational beliefs about events that have taken place. Ellis discusses his model as "the ABC's of RET," where: A = An activating event about which a person becomes disturbed; B = The belief that the person holds about the event; C = The emotional consequence of the beliefs (Ellis, 1973; Wexler & Wexler, 1980).

Essentially, what Ellis argues is that emotional consequences (C), either positive or negative, result not from an event that has taken place (A), but rather, from the beliefs (B) that the person holds about the event. In other words, it is not the action itself that is responsible for "causing" the disturbed feelings. Instead, it is a series of irrational beliefs that the person has constructed about the event. These irrational beliefs are expressed in the messages that people tell themselves. These messages are liberally sprinkled with words such as "should" and "must," and a host of self-condemning statements.

To illustrate, take the case of a man who sought a promotion and was denied by his supervisor. According to RET, the real distress that the person feels is not so much from the event itself as it is from the beliefs the person holds about the event. If the man responds, for instance, with such statements as: "Its not fair;" "I should have been given the promotion;" "Because I did not get the promotion, I'm a failure in life," he is responding with what Ellis would describe as irrational beliefs. By contrast, responses such as "I am disappointed by the decision" and "It would have been nice had I received the promotion" are considered appropriate or rational. The point is that while we cannot always control the events around us, we can control our responses to those events. And by doing so, we can choose to retain control of our lives. RET is an approach designed to help people replace irrational belief systems with more rational approaches to dealing with their lives.

Rational thinking, as addressed within the principles of RET, can be an important tool in enhancing learner self-direction, because it supports the link between self-direction and personal responsibility. In discussing self-direction as a goal of the RET process, Ellis (1973) offers the following comment: "The healthy individual assumes responsibility for his own life, is able independently to work out most of his problems, and while at times wanting or preferring the cooperation and help of others, he does not need their support for his effectiveness or well-being. "(p. 159)

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Ellis (1982) offers further insights on his view of self-direction: "most people--and especially those who aim for outstanding achievements--highly prefer to be self directed rather than strongly controlled either by others or by external situations." (p. 27)

And with regard to personal responsibility, Wexler and Wexler (1980) point out that choices and decisions are a given of daily living and that what really matters "is taking personal responsibility for the decisions we make."

To our knowledge, the principles of RET have not to date been discussed within the context of self-direction in adult learning. We have introduced the possible linkage here with the hope that this can be an area worthy of further exploration. For those readers seeking a concise resource providing further information about rational thinking, a good source is A New Guide to Rational Living (Ellis & Harper, 1975).

Using Helping Skills to Enhance Learner Self-Direction

A final strategy to be considered in this section is of particular relevance to those who seek to facilitate the development of increased learner self-direction. This strategy involves the application of basic helping skills to the learner-facilitator relationship. In a previous article (Brockett, 1983a), it was suggested that in order to maximize the learning process, "it is important that the facilitator establish an effective helping relationship with the learner" (p. 7). The assumption here is that the facilitator of self-directed learning is in fact engaged in a helping process, in some ways not unlike that of a counselor, social worker, or clergy member. The point is that there are certain core skills that such helpers can use to enhance their effectiveness.

Using the helping model proposed by Egan (1975) as the basis for this discussion, several helping skills were divided according to three categories: attending, responding, and understanding. More recently, however, Egan (1986) has revised his model. In this section, we will look briefly at the skills essential to the application of Egan's revised process model for systematic helping.

Core Values: Respect and Genuineness

Egan's model is based on the premise that respect and genuineness must be present for there to be an effective helping relationship. Respect, according to Egan (1986, p. 59) "means prizing others simply because they are human beings." In other words, respect is a nonjudgmental attitude where a facilitator

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accepts the learner as a unique individual. Respect does not necessarily mean that the facilitator must agree with the learner; it does mean that the facilitator accept the learner despite these kinds of differences. This is what Rogers (1961) has termed "unconditional positive regard." According to Egan (1986), respect can be communicated through a number of actions. The following list has been adapted from Egan (1986, pp. 60-63) and has been translated into the facilitator-learner process:

  1. Being "for" the learner;
  2. Regard for the learner as a unique individual;
  3. Regard for the self-determination of the learner;
  4. Assuming the good will of the learners to want to learn;
  5. Maintenance of confidentiality;
  6. Attentive physical presence;
  7. Suspending critical judgment of the learner;
  8. Communication of understanding;
  9. Helping learners more effectively draw from their own resources;
  10. Expressing a reasonable degree of warmth; and
  11. Being genuine in the learning relationship.

Genuineness, the second core value, is simply "the quality of being oneself. The genuine helper does not need to hide behind a facade" in order to feel acceptable to others (Brockett,

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1983a, p. 8). By being genuine, a facilitator can communicate a sense of self-confidence and comfort to the learner, and thus, is modeling behaviors beneficial to learner self-direction. According to Egan (1986), genuineness has both positive and negative implications, as can be deduced from the following list of actions: refusing to overemphasize one's professional role; being spontaneous, but not haphazard, in relationships; being assertive without being aggressive; remaining open and avoiding defensiveness, even when feeling threatened; being consistent between values and actions; and being willing to engage in self-disclosure when doing so is likely to be beneficial.

Respect and genuineness, according to Egan, form the core of a facilitative helping relationship. In helping to promote greater self-direction among the learners with whom we work, these values can help to set a positive tone for greater growth.

Basic communication skills

Egan (1986) discusses four basic communication skills essential to the helping process. These are attending, listening, empathizing, and probing. Attending "involves the development of both physical and psychological presence or, in other words, a sense of 'being with' another person (Brockett, 1983b, p. 8). At the most basic level, attending means paying attention to the person and demonstrating this to the person. Physical attending involves such behaviors as facing the individual squarely, adopting an open posture (arms and legs not crossed, for example), maintaining good eye contact, and being relaxed with these behaviors. Psychological attending involves being aware of both the learner's verbal and nonverbal behavior.

Closely related to attending is active listening, the second skill identified by Egan. In the context of the helping relationship, individuals are likely to share their experiences (i.e., what has happened to them), their behaviors (i.e., what they do or do not do), and their affect (i.e., the feelings and emotions that grow out of these experiences and behaviors). In understanding the self-directed learning process as outlined in the previous chapter, each of these perspectives are clearly relevant to the success of such efforts. Listening, in this context, involves understanding the person's verbal communication.

As with listening, the purpose of empathy in communication is to gain greater understanding. Empathy "involves getting a feel for the world of the other while maintaining a sense of objectivity" (Brockett, 1983a, p. 8). In other words, being empathic means that one is able to view the world from another person's point of view without feeling so "sympathetic" that this understanding becomes distorted.

A fourth communication skill discussed by Egan is probing. By probing, a facilitator can help one to explore oneself and one's situation even further. Such probes can include statements intended to encourage a person to talk further and clarify what one is saying, questions that can help one to either elaborate or become more specific about something, "accents" that highlight a key word or two of a person's statement about which the helper is attempting to gain a greater focus, and "minimal" prompts (such as "uh-huh," or nonverbal cues such as a nod of the head) that serve to reinforce the speaker or encourage further exploration.

The value of the basic communication skills mentioned above may be self-evident; yet, these skills are so often absent from our day to day interactions. For the person who is hoping to promote greater learner self-direction, these skills can help to foster a positive, growth-oriented relationship. Further, if used appropriately, the skills should be able to help learners more clearly and confidently explore their roles as learners and, hence, to take increasingly greater personal responsibility for their learning.


Essential to an understanding of self-direction in adult learning is a recognition of those forces internal to the individual that can help to foster a greater

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sense of personal responsibility for one's life. In this chapter, we have suggested that while self-direction is probably most consistent with the basic tenets of humanistic thought, other systems of thinking about human behavior enter into a more comprehensive understanding of self-direction. Also, we stressed the importance of recognizing how social context impacts upon the way in which one operates. To look at the individual independent of this context would severely limit our understanding of self-direction. At the same time, we believe that the notion of learner self-direction is vital, for it views the individual as the starting point for understanding actions and beliefs. Finally, while learner self-direction is an internal process that ultimately must be chosen and acted upon by the individual, we believe that there are strategies that facilitators can use to enhance an individual's ability to maximize self-directedness.


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