SSDL Defining Self-Direction

The Problem of Defining Self-Direction

by Gerald Grow

Part of “Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed” at

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called “learning,” and what “education” has to do with all this (see Gerstner, especially)– no other concept has superseded self-directed learning as a working idea.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.

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