In its broadest meaning, ‘self-directed learning‘ describes, according to Malcolm Knowles (1975: 18) a process:
… in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.
Knowles puts forward three immediate reasons for self-directed learning. First he argues that there is convincing evidence that people who take the initiative in learning (proactive learners) learn more things, and learn better, than do people who sit at the feet of teachers passively waiting to be taught (reactive learners). ‘They enter into learning more purposefully and with greater motivation. They also tend to retain and make use of what they learn better and longer than do the reactive learners.’ (Knowles 1975: 14)
A second immediate reason is that self-directed learning is more in tune with our natural processes of psychological development. ‘An essential aspect of maturing is developing the ability to take increasing responsibility for our own lives – to become increasingly self-directed’ (Knowles 1975: 15).
A third immediate reason is that many of the new developments in education put a heavy responsibility on the learners to take a good deal of initiative in their own learning. ‘Students entering into these programs without having learned the skills of self-directed inquiry will experience anxiety, frustration , and often failure, and so will their teachers (Knowles 1975: 15).
To this may be added a long-term reason – because of rapid changes in our understanding is no longer realistic to define the purpose of education as transmitting what is known. The main purpose of education must now to be to develop the skills of inquiry (op cit).
Malcolm Knowles’ skill was then to put the idea of self direction into packaged forms of activity that could be taken by educators and learners. He popularized these through various books and courses. His five step model involved:
1. diagnosing learning needs.
2. formulating learning needs.
3. identifying human material resources for learning.
4. choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies.
5. evaluating learning outcomes.
As Merriam and Cafferella (1991: 46) comment, this means of conceptualizing the way we learn on our own is very similar to much of the literature on planning and carrying out instruction for adults in formal institutional settings. It is represented as a linear process. From what we know of the process of reflection this is an assumption that needs treating with some care. Indeed, as we will see, there is research that indicates that adults do not necessarily follow a defined set of steps – but are far more in the hands of chance and circumstance. Like Dewey’s conception of reflection an event or phenomenon triggers a learning project. This is often associated with a change in life circumstances (such as retirement, child care, death of a close relative and so on). The changed circumstance provides the opportunity for learning, the way this is approached is dictated by the circumstances. Learning then progresses as ‘the circumstances created in one episode become the circumstances for the next logical step’ (op. cit.). Self-directed learning thus, in this view, becomes possible, when certain things cluster together to form the stimulus and the opportunity for reflection and exploration.
However, once we begin to take into account the environment in which this occurs then significant concerns arise with Malcolm Knowles’ formulation. Spear and Mocker, and Spear (1984, 1988 quoted in Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 46-8) found that ‘self-directed learners, rather than pre-planning their learning projects, tend to select a course from limited alternatives which happen to occur in their environment and which tend to structure their learning projects’. This is of fundamental importance. It is in this light that Brookfield’s (1994) question is pertinent: ‘What are the essential characteristics of a critical, rather than technical, interpretation of self-directed learning?’ Two suggest themselves:
- self-direction as the continuous exercise by the learner of authentic control over all decisions having to do with learning, and
- self-direction as the ability to gain access to, and choose from, a full range of available and appropriate resources.
Both these conditions are, he argues, as much political as they are pedagogical and they place educators who choose to use self-directed approaches in the centre of political issues and dilemma.