Book Review by Peggy Arnesen and Roger Hiemstra

Straka, Gerald A. (Ed.). (1997). European Views of Self-Directed Learning: Historical, Conceptual, Empirical, Practical, Vocational. Munster, New York, Munchen and Berlin: Waxmann, 154 Pages.

Self-Directed Learning, for some time a major interest area in North America, has begun to resonate to varying degrees on the European continent and for much the same reason. As Straka states in his introduction, "it is our conviction and assumption that being interested and able to partake in self-directed learning will become the key qualification in order to survive global competition and to develop a humane information society." This book formulates a beginning to what Straka hopes will be stimulating European discussions and research on the topic.

The book contains the introduction and nine chapters by leading educators, representing nine European countries: Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Germany. With the exception of Switzerland, all of these countries belong to the European Union, a coalition resigned to the necessity of combining resources for the benefit of economic competition and European defense. Fiercely proud of their different roots, coalition countries doggedly guard their uniqueness and zealously retain their autonomy in all possible matters, including the field of education. However, on one educational issue they all seem united. They see self-directed learning, however defined, in the future of education and recognize a need to share their ideas and experiences.

There is no single consensus on self-directed learning in Europe. Because of their unique roots, each has taken a different route to understanding self-directed learning, and some have been embracing the concepts longer than others. Thus the book presents not one, but nine European views, hardly surprising given the subject complexity and the European mindset diversity. Whether shared economic goals will necessitate a future unified response on education remains to be seen.

Due to the complexity of self-directed learning, all authors were requested to structure their discourse around three parameters: (a) an individual learner’s dispositions and activities characterizing self-directed approaches; (b) relevant cultural goals or educational philosophy; and (c) the social, historical, and educative environmental conditions influencing self-directed learning.

After the introduction by Straka, Metzger presents Switzerland’s view that self-directed learning is "the current issue" in education. He defines self-directed learning in two ways: The learners’ ability to make autonomous decisions about learning goals and processes, and learners’ abilities to adapt to given teaching-learning environments and find ways of learning which best suit them. He states, "self-direction not only means self-determination, but also flexibility and adaptability" (p.8).

Two approaches to self-directed learning are being explored in Switzerland. The first provides optimal teaching-learning arrangements to challenge a learner to use better learning strategies; the second is to develop better learning strategies. A visual model of learning strategies is provided. The chapter also includes a five-step program for developing learning strategies, which can enhance self-directed learning. However, Metzger cautions that work in this field is underdeveloped and recommends this area for further research.

Carre’s chapter gives a useful overview of self-directed learning, making it clear that France intends to take a leading role in the field. The French have a strong historical basis for their interest. First they spawned Rousseau, Descartes, Sarte, and Montessori. Later they carried out studies of self-directed learning that paralleled studies in North American. While Tough and Knowles were beginning their efforts in Canada and the USA, Schwartz, Dumazedier, and Pineau were beginning a similar movement of "autoformation" in France. They hosted the first three European conferences on self-directed learning in Nantes (1994), in Lille (1996), and in Bordeaux (1996). Finally they have achieved what Carre terms an "exponential" explosion in research, with French scholars producing close to 250 published research articles and books on the subject. At least half a dozen Ph.D. dissertations currently are in progress.

The chapter gives a good overview of various reasons self-learning is so popular. It offers brief descriptions of the radical autodidaxy approach, existential approach, educational approach, social approach, and cognitive approach, the five most prevalent perspectives on self-directed learning in France today. For the reader who would like to delve into a more detailed study, many French research studies are cited.

Carre looks forward to what he terms cross-fertilization of research and ideas at the annual conferences, and hopes this will lead to formulation of a common paradigm that embraces all of the European perspectives. He believes that if a self-directed learning practice is to prosper, more empirical research must be encouraged to debunk the misinformed myths that threaten its existence. He worries that a misuse of the system leading to debatable practices like compulsory training programs or a downsized training staff, could cause a reversion to traditional other-directed learning. With commitment and patience he sees self-directed learning as eventually reaching a state of maturity that discovers the genuine, specific meaning of adult education.

The history of Belgian interest in self-directed learning dates from popular distance education programs begun around 1959. It appears that Denis used the opportunity of her chapter for an extensive survey of companies and university departments to determine the impact of self-directed learning in the French Belgium community. She does describe several meanings of self-directed learning and ways it is being employed or utilized. Denis admits that Belgium is involved in a limited amount of research related to self-directed learning and calls for more research.

A chapter on the Netherlands by van der Klink and Nijhof cites many American as well as Dutch sources. They see self-directed learning as a multi-dimensional concept involving individual, training, and organizational levels. In what is perhaps the most valuable part of the chapter, they present reflections and recommendations worthy of consideration.

First, they recommend that developmental research is needed on self-directed learning processes that will lead to more productive learning and the creation of new knowledge and skill. Second, they urge a greater understanding of how different cultures within the country value those qualities inherent to more self-directed learning expectations. They believe not all cultural groups will adapt to or find success with self-directed learning. Finally, they urge a better interpretation of various theoretical perspectives of potential relevance to self-directed learning.

The chapter by Percy describing the United Kingdom view on self-directed learning closely mirrors the North American view. There are small differences in terms and meanings, but the North American reader will quickly understand the concepts behind Open Learning and Experiential Learning. The rich sources of reference are all in English and easily acceptable to the reader who needs more information. He, too, urges more research and careful interpretation of any research findings, especially in light of how policy-makers and others may wish to make related educational decisions.

The chapter on self-directed learning in Portugal by Filgueiras stresses three factors: The definition, history, and practical application of self-directed learning. Filgueiras admits there has not been a broad national discussion on the topic in Portugal, although it has been extensively applied. Historically, distance learning and technology-supported learning were available. A more modern Portugal today is a living laboratory on how self-directed learning can modernize a country as employees cope with change prompted by technological innovations. There were some variations across the chapter on how self-directed learning was defined, perhaps speaking to the country's diversity of views about the topic.

Zucchermaglio describes what is taking place in Italy pertaining more to learning in the workplace that the topic of self-directed learning. Organizational learning, apprenticeships, and learning communities are among the approaches depicted. She does suggest a perspective within which research on self-directed learning could take place.

Iliadis developed a chapter pertaining to Greece. He offers a brutal, but necessary appraisal of the current educational system in words that are often confusing and filled with redundancy, contradictions, and lack of clarity. Education, as well as self-directed learning, appears as a very sad state of affairs in Greece at all levels. There is a perceived need that something must be done, and little or no national ability to formulate a way to proceed. Iliadis indicates those needs analyses that have been undertaken are more the result of intuition than research or carefully designed study. There is some indication that the training programs that do exist are there more to use subsidy money from the European Union, than to satisfy the economic needs for which the money was targeted. Several positive recommendations for the future are provided.

Straka takes on the role of describing self-directed learning in Germany. After a portrayal of various historical aspects of self-directed learning and related educational models, he describes various research efforts related to the topic. He provides, too, a picture of self-directed learning in Germany during the past decade, including some of the recent or ongoing research.

Straka does a good job of summarizing the chapters in his introduction to the book, making it possible for readers to select their choices in any order. However, the book is not easy to read at times. The chapters vary greatly in style and format; some are theoretical, others are more technical, all seem to look at self-directed learning from a different point of view, requiring great concentration on the reader's part. Other difficulties for the American reader include incorrect spellings or typos, grammatical errors, stylistic inconsistencies, and even duplicate pages in the copy we reviewed. Often the authors refer to companies, national organizations, and software that they assume are familiar to the reader. Many of the authors provide excellent references to support their chapters, but occasionally references cited in the text are not included in the bibliography.

The book is small and compact and gives a beginning overview of self-directed learning in Europe. The reader should remember that seven European nations did not choose to take part, and may have other ideas on the subject. What is noteworthy is that all of the contributing countries see self-directed learning as an important method for helping them survive in the new global economy and adapt to changes as we enter the 21st century. Many of the countries appear to be receptive to information, which could provide business opportunities to North Americas in terms of training programs, distance learning classes, and other learning approaches. There also is some potential for collaboration between North America and Europe in terms of research. The reader with a strong background in adult education and familiarity with self-directed learning concepts will benefit most from this book, as it provides a broader understanding of the topic in various settings. Hopefully, the book will start some useful cross-cultural dialogue among those interested in enhancing what self-directed learning can become.

Peggy Arnesen

Roger Hiemstra

Elmira College