From the article, "Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed"

by Gerald Grow, Ph.D.
School of Journalism, Media & Graphic Arts
Florida A&M University
Tallahassee, FL 32307 USA

available at:

Referencing this publication

III. Implications for Teaching

Mismatches between Teaching Styles and Learning Stages

Problems arise when the teaching style is not matched to the learner's degree of self-direction. Figure 2 represents one of the most important outcomes of the SSDL model. Out of the grid of 16 possible pairings between teaching styles and learning stages, six pairings are mismatches, and two of those are severe.


Figure 2. Match and Mismatch between
Learner Stages and Teacher Styles

In this model, teachers adapt their teaching styles to match the student's degree of self direction, and in order to increase that self-direction. Problems occur when dependent learners are mismatched with non-directive teachers and when self-directed learners are mismatched with highly directive teachers.

Self-Directed Learner


Students resent authoritarian teacher
Mismatch Near Match Match


Mismatch Near Match Match Near Match


Near Match Match Near Match Mismatch

Dependent Learner

Match Near Match Mismatch Severe

Students resent freedom they are not ready for


Contents Figure 1 Figure 3 Cartoons
I disagree with Verner's view that teaching methods are subject-dependent.

The T1/S4 Mismatch.

Some problems in education arise when the learner and teacher are not matched. When self-directed students (S4) are paired with an authoritarian teacher (T1), problems may arise--although some S4 learners develop the ability to function well and retain overall control of their learning, even under directive teachers (Long, 1989). Other S4 learners, however, will resent the authoritarian teacher and rebel against the barrage of low-level demands. This mismatch may cause the learner to rebel or retreat into boredom.

To make things worse, the S1 teacher will probably not interpret such a rebellion as the result of a mismatch; that teacher is likely to see the student as "surly, uncooperative and unprepared to get down to the hard graft of learning basic facts" (Fox, 160). Hersey (1983) describes the result of this mismatch as "havoc," in which "extreme over control by the leader can result in stress and conflict where the follower engages in behavior designed to get the leader out or to get out from under the leader."

The T1/S3-S4 Mismatch.

The T1/S3-S4 mismatch is one of the fundamental difficulties with the public school system. Students who are capable of more individual involvement in learning are often relegated to passive roles in authoritarian classrooms.

Adults who return to college may find themselves faced with a similar mismatch. Their life experiences and learning skills enable them to learn at the S3 or S4 level in many subjects, but at many colleges they find faculty accustomed to using S1 and S2 methods on adolescents. Furthermore, after many years of responsibility, adults may experience difficulty learning in from S1 teachers. Adults may be unused to blindly doing what they are told without understanding why and consenting in the task. Many of them are accustomed to having authority. They don't jump through hoops just because somebody says to--even though younger students are ordinarily expected to do so without question.

Older adults returning for graduate study, in particular, may run aground on courses like statistics, which are often taught by briskly directive faculty using the S1 mode. The S3 mode is sometimes not used with older learners, even when it is possible and appropriate, simply because teachers lack experience in this type of teaching. Mature students may respond like the disgruntled dog in a recent New Yorker cartoon, who complained, "It's always 'Sit,' 'Stay,' 'Heel'--never 'Think,' 'Innovate,' 'Be yourself'" (Steiner, 1990). Qualification.

The T4/S1 Mismatch.

A different problem occurs when dependent learners are paired with a Stage 3 or Stage 4 teacher who delegates responsibility that the learner is not equipped to handle.

(I developed the entire SSDL model just to gain the insight reported in the following paragraph.)

With such students, humanistic methods may fail. Many will not be able to make use of the "freedom to learn," because they lack the skills such as goal-setting, self-evaluation, project management, critical thinking, group participation, learning strategies, information resources, and self-esteem, which make self-directed learning possible--skills such as those described by Guglielmino (1977), Oddi (1986), and Cafarella and O'Donnell (1987). In this mismatch, students may resent the teacher for forcing upon them a freedom they are not ready for. In Pratt's words, they may feel "frustration and anger when, in a misguided spirit of democracy, they are expected to make decisions without sufficient knowledge or expertise" (1988, p. 169). Wanting close supervision, immediate feedback, frequent interaction, constant motivation, and the reassuring presence of an authority-figure telling them what to do, such students are unlikely to respond well to the delegating style of a nice humanistic facilitator, hands-off delegator, or critical theorist who demands that they confront their own learning roles. They may even hate the teacher (as my student hated me), or, like the Chinese law students described by Nadler (1989), they may dutifully recite the words of authority figures and shy away from the kind of independent thinking Americans value.

Hersey (1983) describes the results of this mismatch a kind of "havoc" that occurs when the followers do not receive the guidance they need, and,

"lacking the ability to perform the task, tend to feel that the leader has little interest in their work and does not care about them personally [This form of leadership makes] it difficult for these followers to increase their ability and reinforces their lack of confidence If the leader waits too long but then provides high amounts of structure, the followers tend to see this action as punative rather than a helping relationship."

Several telling examples of this kind of mismatch can be found in the reports of innovative teaching in Carl Rogers' "Freedom to Learn in the '80s." One student, whose ability to respond with self-direction was less than that demanded by the course, wrote:

"I am the product of a system built around assignments, deadlines, and conventional examinations. Therefore, with this course graded by the flexible method and four other courses graded by the more conventional methods I tend to give less attention to this course than it merits due to lack of well-defined requirements." (Rogers, p. 91)

In another section, Rogers acknowledges "the shock and resentment that sometimes occur when students are faced with the necessity of making responsible choices" (p. 93). Other teachers in the book blame such students for not taking responsibility for their own learning, concluding that in dependent learners "old conditioning feels safe and operates well" (p. 66). The teachers quoted in this book want students to be more self-directing, but they have no pedagogical method for helping students move from dependency to self-direction.

That is what the Staged Self-Directed Learning Model proposes.

Discussion of Mismatches

The T4/S1 mismatch and "free schools." The T4/S1 mismatch (or the milder mismatch of T4/S2) points to a fundamental problem with the extreme "free school" approach to education (practiced by Neill [1960] and attempted by many). This approach trusts that, left alone, children will learn on their own. The literature on self-directed learning, however, suggests that "learning on your own" requires a complex collection of self-skills and learning skills which not all learners spontaneously acquire. Unless self-direction is explicitly encouraged, "free" schools and "open" programs may work only for those whose family background has already prepared them for self-direction (Tuman, 1988).

Teachers using critical pedagogy have also reported difficulties when the method does not match the learning stage of the student. Even though critical pedagogy is specifically designed to address the learning problems of students in their real situations (including the classroom), some students do not respond.

"Most of my mainstream college students...are waiting for the teacher to speak and do all the work and leave them alone to copy down what should be memorized," Ira Shor reported. "They generally begin passively alienated, and many stay that way until the end" (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 129).

For all its virtues, critical pedagogy alone may not be sufficient to move students from dependent to independent learning. The SSDL model suggests that problems may arise when the S3 approach of critical pedagogy conflicts with the need S1 students have for being taught.

Though adult educators recognize that adult learners are not necessarily self-directed learners, it is widely assumed that adults will become self-directed after a few sessions explaining the concept. (See, for example, Rutland & Guglielmino's [1987] well-designed program for teaching adults about self-directed learning before they begin a self-directed learning group.) But not all adults will become self-directed when told. Adult learners can be at any of the four learning stages, but the literature on adult education is dominated by advocates of what the SSDL model would call a Stage 3 method--a facilitative approach emphasizing group work (epitomized by the generous, gentle approach in Knowles, 1975). Even teachers of adults, however, may need to approach certain learners in a directive, even authoritarian style, then gradually equip those learners with the skills, self-concept, and motivation necessary to pursue learning in a more self-directed manner.

Freire, advocate of a classroom in which student and teacher receive equal respect, acknowledges the paradoxical need to be directive:

"On the one hand, I cannot manipulate. On the other hand, I cannot leave the students by themselves. The opposite of these two possibilities is being radically democratic. That means accepting the directive nature of education. There is a directiveness in education which never allows it to be neutral My role is not to be silent" (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 157).

Every stage requires balancing the teacher's power with the student's emerging self-direction. If I emphasize the need for directiveness, it is because, coming from a humanistic background, I had to learn to use directive methods wholeheartedly, without apology or shame, as part of the long-term cultivation of self-direction in certain learners. Pratt makes a similar case for practitioners of andragogy to "acknowledge states of dependency as potentially legitimate" and provide the needed direction" (1988, p. 170).

Good Teaching

The SSDL model suggests why "good teaching" is widely misunderstood. Most people seem to think that there is one way to teach well. Awards usually go to a teacher who is outstanding in one of the first two stages--the one who "pours it on" or the one who leads and motivates students--less often to the one who encourages students to develop on their own, or the one who engages the most advanced students with deep, open-ended problems.

What is "good teaching" for one student in one stage of development may not be "good teaching" for another student--or even for the same student at a different stage of development. Good teaching does two things. It matches the student's stage of self-direction, and it empowers the student to progress toward greater self-direction. Good teaching is situational, yet it promotes the long-term development of the student.

Conflicts among teachers with different styles.

In my experience, teachers of the S1-S2 types and teachers of the S3-S4 types often dislike one another's methods, even one another's personalities. Humanistic educators (for example, Fox) often ridicule or reject S1 and S2 methods. "Back-to-the-basics" teachers, conversely, often ridicule those they consider fuzzy and non-directive. In typical polarizing fashion, each group compares its virtues to the other's faults.

A similar point is made concerning the debate about andragogy in adult education.

I have listened for many years to colleagues who devalue their counterparts. Whatever its faults, the SSDL model provides a way to honor the strengths of a broad range of teaching styles.

Multi-Mode Teaching. Nearly any teacher can teach in more than one style. Hersey and Blanchard (1988, Ch. 12) give an interesting account of all possible pairs of management styles in the Situational Leadership Model, though I suspect that teachers lump into two large groups--those for whom the S1-S2 styles come naturally, and those for whom the S3-S4 styles come naturally. The S3-S4 group seems dominant among writers on adult education.

Toscanini as a multi-modal teacher. A study of 122 high school and college choral conductors found different ones favoring styles 1, 2, or 3, but many using a dominant style and one or more secondary styles (Friedman, 1988). I believe that some teachers use all four styles quite naturally.

In tapes of Toscanini's rehearsals, for example, the maestro's dominant style is what I would call S2 (the same style Friedman found dominant in choral directors)--leading by motivating. When mechanical difficulties arise--such as tuning, balancing sections of the orchestra, or mastering his interpretation, he does not hesitate to ask world-class musicians to follow blindly while he drills them in the S1 mode. When rehearsing with a soloist, however, Toscanini shifts to an S3 mode in which he uses the entire orchestra to facilitate the soloist's interpretation. Changes can be negotiated; but the maestro does not dictate them. And, in the S4 moments of transcendent magic, he (without ceasing to be dynamically present) virtually disappears, so that the music plays itself through him and through the orchestra. In those moments, each player is independently self-directed in one of the great communal experiences of human culture.

Such convergences underscore the difficulty in drawing clear lines between self-direction, other-direction, and teaching style.

Some Traps for Teachers

The temptations of each teaching style.
  • The temptation for the Stage 1 teacher is to be authoritarian in a punative, controlling way that stifles initiative and creates resistance and dependency.
  • The temptation for the Stage 2 teacher is to remain on center stage, inspiring all who will listen but leaving them with no more learning skills or self-motivation than when they began.
  • The Stage 3 teacher can disappear into the group and demoralize students by "accepting and valuing almost anything from anybody" (Fox, 1983, p. 162).
  • The Stage 4 teacher can withdraw too much from the learning experience, lose touch, fail to monitor progress, and let students hang themselves with rope they are not yet accustomed to handling. Alternately, a misguided Stage 4 mentor can insidiously infiltrate all aspects of an advanced student's life (Bishop, 1988).

In each instance, the teacher may falter in the immensely difficult juggling act of becoming vitally, vigorously, creatively, energetically, and inspiringly unnecessary. Don't underestimate how difficult it is for a teacher to move from being a requirement to being just one among many choices in how to learn.

The false Stage 4 learner.

A certain kind of student gives the appearance of being a Stage 4 self-directed learner but turns out to be a highly dependent student in a state of defiance. The one who shouts loudest, "NO! I'll do it MY way!" is likely to be a "false independent" student who may resist mastering the necessary details of the subject and try to "wing it" at an abstract level.

Such students may apply for early admission to graduate seminars, for example, before they have the background knowledge or learning strategies to handle Stage 3 and Stage 4 learning situations. False independents need to have their knowledge and skills brought up to the level of their self-concept. They may well need to learn how to learn productively from others. They may benefit from a strong-willed facilitator who challenges them to become not only autonomous but also effective.

Dependent, resistant learners as a product of the educational system.

Some learners get caught up in resisting direction. A group of highly resistant learners can coerce teachers into an authoritarian mode--and then frustrate them. This game is played out daily by millions of school kids, with the help of their teachers.

The resistant form of Stage 1 is probably not a natural condition. Most preschool children seem naturally to be Stage 3 or 4 learners when undirected. Even when taught in a directive manner, they are generally available, interested, excitable, and have a spontaneous creative energy that they are willing to direct into satisfying projects under the guidance of a capable teacher. Many of us wonder why that magnificent desire to learn cannot be cultivated continuously throughout schooling.

Resistant dependent learning may well be a product of culture, upbringing, and the public education system. Students do not naturally arrive at high school, college, or adult education programs at once dependent upon teachers and resentful of being taught. They become that way as a result of years of dependency training. And they continue resisting with the implicit cooperation of teachers. Quigley [1990] describes sources of resistance in adult basic learners, including threats to cultural identity. We need a better understanding of dependency in context, and we will have to face the possibility that certain forms of help only make the problem worse.