SSDL — In Defense of

In Defense of the Staged Self-Direction Model

by Gerald Grow

This article appeared in Adult Education Quarterly, 1993, Vol. 43. No. 3, in response to Mark Tennant’s AEQ article criticizing the Staged Self-Directed Learning Model. Material in [brackets] is new to the online version. Extra subheads have been added.

Abstract. The author welcome’s Tennant’s point that a mismatch between teacher and student styles may be at times more effective than a match. And his reminder that self-direction should not be considered a generic quality like psychological maturity.

The model, however, does not denigrate directive teaching methods. Also, it has found wide acceptance and has been recently re-invented by others at least twice. Teachers can detect a student’s degree of self-direction by observation (though Grow admits that this may be more difficult that it first appeared). The article restates the major claims of the model and identifies new research questions.

No Prejudice Against Teaching Styles 1 and 2

Mark Tennant’s critique of my article, “Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed,” misrepresents a crucial point, gives an unsympathetic reading of two others, and provides two useful correctives.

Tennant presents me as depicting certain teaching styles as “lower level” and describing them in a “stereotyped and damning fashion” (164). This is not what I believe or what I wrote. When I began developing the Staged Self-Directed Learning (SSDL) model, I did briefly consider some teaching methods “lower” and others “higher,” but I consciously abandoned that view more than two years before writing the article in question. In the published article, I tried various methods to avoid calling certain teaching styles “low” and others “high”-such as arranging Figures 1 and 2 so that the spatial relations were reversed among the teaching styles–giving directive teaching the “low” position in one, the “high” position in the other. I have searched the disk file of the published article and can confidently affirm that I never described any teaching or learning style as “lower” than another. Tennant used the term “lower level” in quotes (p. 164), implying that I said it; but those are his words, not mine. In a similar manner, Tennant uses the phrase “expert role” in quotes, and, although this quote accurately represents my view on the point, I never used those exact words. If you are going to argue with a quotation from my publications, Prof. Tennant, start by getting the quote right.

There is absolutely no truth to Tennant’s statement, “Grow, by his own admission, has an antipathy for highly structured, teacher-directed learning methods” (164). The passage Tennant quotes as proof of my “antipathy” comes from a description of the traps teachers of each style are susceptible to. It is not a description of what Stage 1 directive teachers are like — except when they fail in the manner described.

Contrary to Tennant, my article is a defense of a variety of appropriately-applied teaching styles–aimed at adult educators who have focused predominantly on facilitative methods at the expense of directive methods. The article justifies highly-directive, teacher-centered methods–and provides a model for deciding when such methods are appropriate. Indeed, the personal drama that frames the article tells of my own experience in discovering the value, even the necessity, of using highly directive teaching methods with certain students. It is possible that Tennant interpreted the term “authoritarian teacher” as a criticism; it is purely descriptive. I work around many authoritarian teachers, and that is the best word I know to describe their methods, which, with the right students, work well.

Changing Styles During a Course

In his “second problem” Tennant maintains that I have neglected to address “important questions,” such as: In a course that progresses through several teaching styles, “at what point should teachers change their style?” Should the teacher “follow or lead the readiness of students?” (165). While it is true that the article does not specify such changes in detail, I addressed this topic on pages 144-5, where this situation is described: “There will be times when other learning modes are necessary… When the group (or some of its members) are deficient in basic skills, they may need drill and practice, which is an S1 [dependent learner] mode… Sometimes the [facilitative] teacher may determine that coaching or confrontation are necessary to reach a student…. Sometimes the teacher will have to shift to the salesmanship mode of [the motivator].” And so on. As for how to change teaching styles, the example depicts the teacher changing styles both proactively to lead students toward the skills that enable them to be more self-directing, and reactively in response to needs that students present for skill, information, encouragement, or motivation. The question of when to change teaching style is not addressed, because the article does not include such level of detail in the short section on applying the model.

In that section, Tennant says something I find puzzling: “setting aside for the moment the unlikelihood of progression towards self-direction given Grow’s descriptive categories of teaching styles…” but he never develops the implication that the SSDL approach is inherently unlikely to lead students toward self-direction. Not setting anything aside, why exactly does a progression toward self-direction seem to Tennant to be unlikely under the SSDL approach? He doesn’t say, and I find it amazing that an unsupported allegation of such seriousness would be published in the form of an aside.

The SSDL’s Excellent Reception

Many individual teachers, several graduate students, and some college departments have let me know that they find the SSDL model helpful in teaching and curriculum. For example, it helped an engineering department revise its curriculum to include greater student involvement. It helped a directive teacher think through how she might need to change when assigned to teach graduate students. Minnesota used the model to help new teachers develop self-direction in students. [The SSDL model has been reprinted in course packets around the country, including at Harvard.] Since publishing the SSDL model in AEQ, I have found two other groups (Baker, Roueche, & Gillett, Karam, 1990; Ames & Ames, 1991) who have adapted Situational Leadership to teaching, inventing models closely similar to mine. [See Note 1, below]  If the SSDL model is a partial misconception (most concepts are), it is so far proving to be a fruitful one.

Note 1
Baker, et al., derive the situational model from their primary model, “Teaching as Leading,” which is based on Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory. In their situational model, they apply supportive teaching to a different group of students than I do. That difference could be used to frame a good question for a research project. Ames & Ames describe motivational methods appropriate for students with different degrees of self-direction.

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