From the article, "Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed"
available at: http://www.longleaf.net/ggrow
Brookfield, (1986), Candy (1987), and Gerstner (1987) have devoted more than a thousand pages to analyzing the meaning(s) of self-directed learning.3 Yet, in spite of its complexities, self-directed learning remains the North Pole of adult education and nearly everyone manages to set their compasses by it. Few people have ever defined self-directed learning with precision; and even when they do, its meaning unexpectedly shifts to a new location. Nonetheless, self-directed learning is an immensely useful concept for orienting oneself to education at all levels -- and any school kid can point in its direction.
Some features of self-direction are distinctly situational: few learners are equally motivated toward all subjects. Some features appear to be deep, familial, perhaps even genetic, traits of individual personalities--such as persistence. Self-directed learning is a good candidate for what the great cognitive psychologist Vygotsky called a "higher mental function" or "tool of thought" (1978, p. 126)--a mental "organ" developed over time through a particular history of social interaction, which can operate in any situation. Parts of SDL develop before the whole, yet the components do not necessarily combine--to paraphrase Vygotsky--into a constellated unity made of separately-developed parts. Some aspects of self-direction develop best in nurturing environments; others are nearly impossible to suppress. Some develop as the peak of Maslow's pyramid of needs; others are so essential to survival that they emerge almost before the self.
Faced with a concept like self-directed learning, one can either conclude that it appears messy merely because it has been inadequately defined, or one can realize that beneath all of our indispensable labels for basic human activities (e.g., "behavior," "perception," "thought," "experience," "communication") lie the roots of a similar complexity. The idea of self-directed learning continues to fascinate partly because it embraces so many credible inconsistencies. It sounds like people we know. And even though the fundamental terms have widely come into question -- whether there is a "self" that "directs" an "activity" called "learning," and what "education" has to do with all this (see Gerstner, especially)-- no other concept has superseded self-directed learning as a working idea.
Candy (1987) usefully distinguished three meanings of the term "self-directed learning:" autonomy as a personal quality; autodidaxy as learning outside formal instruction; and learner-control as (along with teacher-control) an essential consideration of formal instruction. In those terms, this article uses "self-directed learning" to refer to the degree of choice that learners have within an instructional situation. I would almost be happy to adopt the term "learner control," except that highly self-directed learners sometimes choose highly directive teachers. In this paper, "self-direction" retains some of its aura of undefined possibilities and appears as the open-ended opposite of "dependent" learning. Besides, this article is not about self-directed learning theory; it is about teaching. Specifically, it proposes a way teachers can be vigorously influential while empowering students toward greater autonomy.
Is self-direction a personal attribute that develops in stages, or is it a situational response? --It is both. Even though one's abilty to be a self-directed learner is ultimately (and sometimes strikingly) situational (depending, for example, on self-motivation in the specific learning situation), it is possible to learn how to learn, to learn how to see, to learn how to be, in ways that make one more self-directing in many areas of life. This conclusion goes against a widely-accepted position in the literature today, namely that self-direction is only "a situational attribute, an impermanent state of being dependent on the learner's competence, commitment, and confidence at a given moment in time" (Pratt, 1988, p. 162). Whether the difference in these two positions is one of substance or one of emphasis remains to be seen.
|See the cartoons!|
The SSDL model does not contain any method for reliably ascertaining a student's degree of self-direction. This is a major weakness, but not a debilitating one.
Teachers using the model have confirmed to me that they, too, find it possible to make workable estimates of students' stages. From them, and from my experience, I've gathered some clues to look for when estimating a student's degree of self-direction:
More to come....
For the past two years (as of early 1996), my son and I have taken a martial arts class together. Usually highly self-directed and independent, in this instance I have been a highly dependent learner--and the experience has given me some lessons in good Stage 1 teaching:
Hersey and Blanchard handle Stage 1 learners (low self-direction) in a detached, objective, efficient manner, with little personal interaction. It is almost a behaviorist mode.
When Ames and Ames adapted the Situational Leadership model, they advocated treating Stage 1 learners differently--with warmth, encouragement, and support. Ames and Ames seem to be saying that students at the bottom of this ladder need the most encouragement, the most motivating, the most enthusiasm from their teachers.
I don't know if one approach is best. Teaching at a historically Black university has exposed me to many teachers, and students, who agree more with Ames than with Hersey and Blanchard. It seems natural for many of my African American colleagues to teach with great personal warmth. And many of my least-independent students seem to expect that kind of warmth. Some are so accustomed to being encouraged that they actually seem to suffer, in a manner of speaking, from too much self-esteem--or at least from a self-esteem that is unconnected with personal achievement. I have had students who showed no shame at failing to perform, but took this cheerfully as if it was just another minor intrusion of an irrelevant world.
At this point, I can only identify one problem that arises when you try to replace the strict, objective Stage 1 teaching style with a warm and encouraging tone: Many students who have been accustomed to warmth, encouragement, and support appear to have become rather addicted to it. They expect it. They demand it. They demand that teachers bend over backwards for them, meet them 90% of the way, do work for them, forgive their slackness, and promote them whether they passed or not.
It is in this situation that a Stage 1 teacher can be effective, requiring immediate, definite performance by the student and evaluating it frequently. Awarding grades strictly on the basis of objective, measurable progress. Requiring that students accomplish clearly defined tasks that are within their ability, and holding them to the timeline and the standards of performance. Letting students know exactly where they stand at all times, in terms of what they have done and what they need to do.
Now this strictness can be combined with encouragement and motivation, but in Stage 1, everything depends upon the student actually doing the work. That is why so much Stage 1 learning takes place in the classroom, on the spot, under close supervision, step by step by step, until students are ready to move to material that demands greater self-direction.
There is a delicate balance between encouraging and requiring, motivating and demanding performance. The Stage 1 teacher must always stay on her side of the line and insist that students perform. Real achievement is essential to self-esteem.
Naturally, this can lead to problems of student resistance and subversion mentioned in the article. The best antidote I know to this is to give Stage 1 students things to do that are clearly meaningful, and which enable them to make a clear chart of their progress.