Self-directed learning

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Stephen D. Brookfield explores the notion of self-directed learning. He takes Knowles’ (1975) influential definition as a starting point and then explores some of the problems surrounding the idea. Brookfield highlights two particular characteristics that move the discussion from a technical to a critical realm: authentic control, and access to resources. He argues that it is possible to rescue the term from the individualistic and atomistic narrow uses to which it has sometimes been put.

contents: introduction · Knowles and self-direction · understanding self-directed learning · a critique of self-directed learning · the characteristics of self-direction · conclusion · further reading and references · Stephen D. Brookfield · acknowledgements · how to cite this piece

In the three decades since the Canadian adult educator, Allen Tough, published a study claiming that the bulk of adult learning occurred without the help of formally certified educators (Brookfield, 1981), the idea of self-directed learning (as it has come to be known) has captured the hearts and minds of many adult educators on both sides of the Atlantic. There is now sufficient research and theoretical analysis in existence to justify the publication of substantial literature reviews devoted solely to this topic (Caffarrella and O’ Donnell, 1990). Conceptually, however, the idea is still very much contested territory (Brookfield, 1985) with self-direction cited approvingly by radical as well as liberal educators.

Knowles and self-direction

Despite efforts to reframe self-direction in a critical way, the prevailing definition is that offered by Malcolm Knowles. As the educator most identified with the idea, his definition merits quoting in full:

In its broadest meaning, self-directed learning describes 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, 1975, p. 18)

It is hard to imagine that when these words were written, they were viewed by some as a vaguely anarchistic, Illichian inspired, a threat to the adult education establishment.

For me, four reasons suggest themselves. First, the chief proponent of the concept, Malcolm Knowles, has argued for its usefulness to adult educators in language and terms that are highly practical and accessible. His popular primer on the concept (Knowles, 1975) is concerned chiefly with presenting techniques, methods and approaches rather than with conceptual or theoretical analysis. The abundance of checklists, instruments and specimen exercises Knowles offers in this and other works fits nicely with the pragmatic tenor of many adult educators suspicious of ‘high’ theory as the product of ivory tower academics who don’t have to deal with janitors who turn off the lights in the building at 9.00pm. sharp. If we contrast Knowles’ work with attempts to translate critical theory into classroom practice (Young, 1992) the appeal of his writing quickly becomes clear.

Second, self-directed learning connects directly to a certain strain of progressive humanism (in North America) and liberalism (in the U.K.) that places primary emphasis on the absolute necessity valuing adults’ experiences and working to help them take control of their own learning. I will say more about this in a moment.

Thirdly, self-direction promises to ease the uncertainties of those who seek desperately for evidence of adult education’s uniqueness. If we can discover what appear to be empirically verifiable differences between how adults and children learn, then this underscores the argument that facilitating this form of learning is the distinctive task of adult educators. At a stroke the revelation that self-directedness is a uniquely adult capacity grants adult educators a professional raison d’être.

Finally, the concept can be interpreted as the ultimate educational expression of capitalist ideology. The mythologies of the self-made man (sic) or the entrepreneurial culture have at their centre the image of the lone risk taker building a business empire by fiscal derring-do and iron self-control. When political leaders tell us that society or community are outmoded concepts the worship of individualism knows no bounds. Since many think of self-directed learners as intellectual Robinson Crusoe’s the link between the self-motivated, self-contained entrepreneur, and the equally self-contained, isolated learner becomes clear. The image of isolated, atomistic individuals striving to carve their lonely path to truth is appealing to those who value self-will, whether economic or educational, above all else. In fact, most studies of self-directed learning counter the simple minded equation of self-directedness with isolation, stress instead how adults speak of their learning as being firmly embedded in social networks (Brookfield, 1981). As Knowles has made clear from the outset ‘self-directed learning usually takes place in association with various kinds of helpers, such as teachers, tutors, mentors, resource people, and peers. There is a lot of mutuality among a group of self-directed learners’ (Knowles, 1975, p. 18).

Understanding self-directed learning

If self-directed learning is not the same as isolated study, how then should it be understood? To me acts of self-directed learning are those in which learners feel, and exercise, authentic control over the content, form and purpose of their own learning. They are also acts in which the ultimate judgments regarding the significance and meaning of experience lie with learners. For authentic control to be in place, learners must act on the basis of knowledge of the alternative possibilities open to them that is as fully informed as possible. They must also be able to choose among possibilities that can be realised. I also believe that self-directed learning is concerned as much with an internal change of consciousness as with the kinds of technical activities described in Knowles’ definition. It involves becoming aware of the contextuality of ideas and actions and of the culturally constructed nature of beliefs and moral codes. When defining self-directed learning I still affirm what I wrote a decade ago:

When the techniques of self-directed learning are allied to the adult’s quest for critical reflection and the creation of personal meaning after due consideration of a full range of alternative value frameworks and action possibilities, then the most complete form of self-directed learning is exemplified. This most fully adult form of self-directed learning is one in which critical reflection on the contingent aspects of reality, the exploration of alternative perspectives and meaning systems, and the alteration of personal and social circumstances, are all present. The external technical and the internal reflective dimensions are fused when adults come to appreciate the culturally constructed nature of knowledge and values and when they act on the basis of that appreciation to reinterpret and recreate their personal and social worlds. In such a praxis of thought and action is manifested a fully adult form of autonomous, self-directed learning (Brookfield, 1985: 30-31)

In emphasizing how self-directed learning is a process of sorting through our experiences, and understanding how they have been shaped by external influences, I am building on one of the most hallowed elements in the adult educational tradition. This is the belief that what makes the field unique is its emphasis on helping adults come to understand meaning of their own experiences in their own terms, rather than in terms and categories imposed from without. Of all the ideas that can be identified as quintessentially adult educational, the emphasis on honouring and analysing people’s experience has the clearest intellectual lineage. Common to the contrasting and contradictory radical and humanistic strains of thought that we find in the field is the idea that adult education’s unique purpose is to help people learn through an accurate analysis of their life experience. This emphasis is found in early published writings of Eduard Lindeman (Brookfield, 1988) who viewed the purpose of adult education as being to discover the meaning of experience. Malcolm Knowles (who acknowledges Lindeman as a mentor) has argued forcibly that ‘to adults, their experience is who they are’ (1991: 58). Hence, ‘in any situation in which adults’ experience is ignored or devalued, they perceive this as not rejecting just their experience, but rejecting them as persons’ (ibid). Myles Horton, whose radical stance is often contrasted with Knowles’ progressive humanism, made exactly the same point: “you can’t you respect people and not respect their experiences” (Horton and Freire 1990: 178). Getting people to take experiences seriously enough so that they look to this, rather than to experts, when dealing with problems was a primary purpose of adult education according to Horton.

A critique of self-directed learning

To critical theorists such as Griffin (1983, 1987) and Collins (1991), however, the predominance of the concept of self-directed learning illustrates a disturbing tendency in a field that elevates practical competence above theoretical sophistication and political understanding. They believe that the acceptance and application of this idea by many adult educators has been uncritical. In particular, they have ignored the political issues of power and control that pervade activities described as self-directed, focusing instead solely on questions of technique. Usher (1993: 235) writes that ‘it could be argued that the discourse of self-directed learning is fast becoming a power-knowledge discourse which, in constituting adults in a particular way, provides a more effective means of regulation and control’. Collins, too, argues that ‘far from empowering adult students, self-directed learning strategies steer them to a negotiated compromise with predominant interests which support social conformity’ (1988: 63). He dismisses adult educators who subscribe to self-directed learning techniques, such as learning contracts, as willing collaborators in a sublimation of individual needs to institutional interests. In rejecting the technicist interpretation of self-directed learning, however, he also seems to reject the possibility that this concept can be re-framed as part of an emancipatory interpretation of adult education. As the title of an Adult Education Research Conference paper he delivered implies, the choice for Collins is between Self-directed learning or an emancipatory practice of adult education (Collins 1988), with these two posed as mutually exclusive options.

My view is that dismissing all adult educators who subscribe to ideas and practices of self-directed learning as uncritical dupes, or as pedagogic lackeys of oppressive interests, demeans a great many committed practitioners working towards goals they would view as emancipatory. Certainly, it is quite possible to advocate self-directed approaches in good conscience, only to discover later that our efforts have served to bolster the oppressive structures that we thought we were opposing. It is possible, too, to have a good heart, boundless energy and a deep well of compassion, but to lack political clarity. Most of us find it difficult to discern the wider political forces and structures shaping our practice. But most adult educators who stand behind the concept of self-direction do so because they sense that there is something about this form of practice that dignifies and respects people and their experience, and that tries to break with authoritarian forms of education. They sense that if self-direction means anything it means that control over definitions, processes and evaluations of learning rests with the people who are struggling to learn and not with external authorities. There are strains of libertarian and communitarian thought here, a recognition that learning should spring from, honour, and critique the experiences of those engaged in this activity. when asked to articulate a rationale for self-direction adult educators use terms like ’empowerment’ or ‘transformation, and they argue that through self-directed methods adults gain an increasing sense (however naive this might subsequently be shown to be) that they are in control of their own lives.

Through focusing on the political dimensions of self-directed learning, these same adult educators could become more aware of the social construction of adult educational knowledge and practice. I believe that it is well worth the effort to try to the idea in a way that emphasises the individual’s standing against repressive interests. In this effort I build on Gelpi’s (1979: 2) view that ‘self-directed learning by individuals and of groups is a danger for every repressive force, and it is upon this self-direction that we must insist …. radical change in social, moral, aesthetic and political affairs is often the outcome of a process of self-directed learning in opposition to the educational message imposed from without’.

The characteristics of self-direction

What are the essential characteristics of a critical, rather than technical, interpretation of self-directed learning ? Two suggest themselves:

(1) self-direction as the continuous exercise by the learner of authentic control over all decisions having to do with learning, and

(2) self-direction as the ability to gain access to, and choose from, a full range of available and appropriate resources.

Both these conditions are, I believe, 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. Let me take each of these characteristics in turn.

Authentic control

The one consistent element in the majority of definitions of self-direction is the importance of the learners’ exercising control over all educational decisions. What should be the goals of a learning effort, what resources should be used, what methods will work best for the learner and by what criteria the success of any learning effort should be judged are all decisions that are said to rest in the learner’s hands. This emphasis on control – on who decides what is right and good and how these things should be pursued – is also central to notions of emancipatory adult education. When talking about his work at Highlander, Horton (1990: 152) stressed that ‘decision making was at the centre of our students’ experiences’, and he pointed out that ‘if you want to have the students control the whole process, as far as you can get them to control it, then you can never, at any point, take it out of their hands’ (ibid). Who controls the decisions concerning the ways and directions in which adults learn is a political issue highlighting the distribution of educational and political power. Who has the final say in framing the range and type of decisions that are to be taken, and in establishing the pace and mechanisms for decision making, indicates where control really resides.

Self-direction as an organizing concept for adult education therefore calls to mind some powerful political associations. It implies a democratic commitment to shifting to learners as much control as possible for conceptualizing, designing, conducting and evaluating their learning and for deciding how resources are to be used to further these processes. Candy (1991) notes that this commitment sometimes leads to forms of spurious democracy in which adult educators feel they have no right to stand for any agendas they feel are important. He writes that ‘there is nothing inherently undemocratic about knowing more than a novice’ and that ‘inappropriate use of self-direction only belittles the educator and confuses the learner’ (op. cit.: 71). Horton makes the same point: ‘There’s no such thing as just being a co-ordinator or facilitator, as if you don’t know anything. What the hell are you around for, if you don’t know anything. Just get out of the way and lot somebody have the space that knows something, believes something’ (Horton and Freire, 1990, p. 154).

Honouring people’s self-direction is not the same as abandoning one’s convictions and purposes as an educator in a mistaken act of pedagogic abnegation. Thought of politically, self-direction can more accurately seen as part of a populist democratic tradition which holds that people’s definitions of what is important to them should frame and instruct governments’ actions, and not the other way round. This is why the idea of self-direction is such anathema to advocates of a core or national curriculum, and why it is opposed so vehemently by those who see education as a process of induction into cultural literacy. As Gelpi (1979) points out, self-directed learning is institutionally and politically inconvenient to those who promote educational blueprints to control the learning of others ‘because it means individual control of the ends, contents, and methods of education’ (op cit: 2). Emphasizing people’s right to self-direction also invests a certain trust in their wisdom, in their capacity to make wise choices and take wise actions. To quote Horton (1990: 131) again ‘you have to posit trust in the learner in spite of the fact that the people you’re dealing with may not, on the surface, seem to merit that trust’. ‘What we do involves trusting people and believing in their ability to think for themselves” (op cit: 157). Advocating that people should be in control of their own learning is based on the belief that if people had a chance to give voice to what most moves and hurts them, they would soon show that they were only too well aware of the real nature of their problems and of ways to deal with these.

If we place the self-conscious, self-aware exertion of control over learning at the heart of what it means to be self-directed, we raise a host of questions about how control can be exercised authentically in a culture which is itself highly controlling. For example, it is easy to imagine an inauthentic form of control where adults feel that they are framing and taking key decisions about their learning, all the while being unaware that this is happening within a framework which excludes as subversive, unpatriotic or immoral, certain ideas or activities. Controlled self-direction is, from a political perspective, a contradiction in terms, a self-negating concept as erroneous as the concept of limited empowerment. On the surface we may be said to be controlling our learning when we make decisions about pacing, resources and evaluative criteria. But if the range of acceptable content has been pre-ordained so that we deliberately or unwittingly steer clear of things that we sense are deviant or controversial, then we are controlled rather than in control. We are victims, in effect, of self-censorship, willing partners in hegemony. Hegemony describes the process whereby ideas, structures and actions come to be seen by people as both natural and axiomatic – as so obvious as to be beyond question or challenge – when in fact they are constructed and transmitted by powerful minority interests to protect the status quo that serves these interests so well. A fully developed self-directed learning project would have at its centre an alertness to the possibility of hegemony. Those engaged in this fully realised form of self-directed learning would understand how easily external control can unwittingly be internalised in the form of an automatic self-censorship – an instinctive reaction that ‘I can’t learn this because it’s out of bounds’ (that is, unpatriotic, deviant or subversive). A fully adult form of self-direction exists only when we examine our definitions of what we think it is important for us to learn for the extent to which these end up serving repressive interests.

The nature of the self – learning as a social activity

As we examine the issue of control in self-direction it is also important to recognise that the ‘self’ that is involved in conducting learning is culturally formed and bound. Who we are and how we decide what it is important for us to be able to know or do are questions that are questions of culture. The self in a self-directed learning project is not an autonomous, innocent self, contentedly floating free from cultural influences. It has not sprung fully formed out of a political vacuum. It is, rather, an embedded self, a self whose instincts, values, needs and beliefs have been shaped by the surrounding culture. As such, it is a self that reflects the constraints and contradictions, as well as the liberatory possibilities, of that culture. The most critically sophisticated and reflective adults cannot escape their own autobiographies. only with a great deal of effort and a lot of assistance from others can we become aware of how what we think are our own wholly altruistic impulses, free from any bias of race, gender or class, actually end up reinforcing repressive structures. Hence, an important aspect of a fully adult self-directed learning project should be a reflective awareness of how one’s desires and needs have been culturally formed and of how cultural factors can convince one to pursue learning projects that are against one’s own best interests.

Candy (1989, 1991) is one of the few who has consistently argued for this kind of constructivist interpretation of self-directed learning. As he writes, ‘learning in its fullest context is a social activity, and the attainment of full personal autonomy – both in learning and outside it must recognize this interdependence’ (1991: 22). Candy warns us to remember that ‘adults are powerfully affected by aspects of their backgrounds – including family and prior education in ways that limit and constrain their ability to be self-directing in certain learning situations’ (op cit: 311). Brockett and Hiemstra (1991: 32) also believe that self-directed learning activities ‘cannot be divorced from the social context in which they occur’ because ‘the social context provides the arena in which the activity of self-direction is played out’ (op cit: 33) and they call for more attention to the way in which global and cross-cultural factors frame this activity.

I have argued that being in control of our learning means that we make informed choices. Making informed choices means, in turn, that we act reflectively in ways that further our interests. But, as Chene (1983) points out, informed choices can only be made on the basis of as full a knowledge as possible about the different options open to us and the consequences of each of these. Control that is exercised on the basis of limited information and unexamined alternatives is a distorted, mindless and illusory form of control. It may lead us to devote enormous amounts of energy to making individual incremental adjustments to our daily existence without realising that these tinker with symptoms while leaving unaddressed the structural changes necessary if our efforts are to have anything other than fleeting significance. With regard to the importance of having full access to all relevant information, and of being aware of how one’s projects have been culturally framed, it is important to acknowledge that these are tentative ideals. We will never be in a position of total omniscience where we have constant access to every piece of relevant information about all the problems that face us, and where we possess such a pure and undistorted insight into our own motivations and impulses that it enables us to distinguish between real and artificial needs, and between constraining short term and empowering long term interests. However, it is just as important that we act as if these ideals could be realised. For control to mean anything it is crucial that we have access to significant information. What we define as significant information, however, may be regarded by someone else as privileged or confidential. Consequently, taking control of our learning is likely to bring us into direct conflict with powerful entrenched interests. This leads me to the second political condition for self-directed learning, that concerning the unconstrained access to resources necessary for the completion of learning projects.

Access to resources

How much control can really be said to exist when the dreams we dream have no hope of being realised because we are struggling simply to survive ? The full meaning of control in a self-directed learning project cannot be realised simply by wishing it into existence. Any number of supposedly self-directed initiatives have foundered because those attempting to assume control over their learning found themselves in the invidious position of being denied the resources to exercise that control properly. Being self-directed is a meaningless idea if you are too weary at the end of the day to think clearly about what form of learning would be of most use to you, or if you are closed off from access to the resources necessary for you to be able to realise your self-designed projects. Being the arbiter of our own decisions about learning requires that we have enough energy to make reflectively informed choices. Decisions about learning made under the pressure of external circumstances when we are tired, hungry and distracted, cannot be said to be fully self-directed. The process of making reflectively informed decisions is lengthy, tiring and often contentious. For learners to exercise control in any meaningful sense they must not be so buried under the demands of their daily work that they have neither the time, energy nor inclination left over to engage in shaping and making decisions about their own development. As Freire (1972) points out, action springing from an immediate and uninformed desire to do something, anything, to improve one’s day to day circumstances can be much less effective than action springing from a careful analysis of the wider structural changes that must be in place for individual lives to improve over the long term. If the decisions we make for ourselves are borne out of a desperate immediate need that causes us to focus only on what is right in front of us rather than on the periphery or in the future, if we choose from among options that are irrelevant to the real nature of the problem at hand, or if our range of choices has been framed by someone else, then our control is illusory. In this regard, decision framing is as important as decision making in a self-directed learning project. Understood thus, we can see that central to a self-directed learning effort is a measure of unconstrained time and space necessary for us to make decisions that are carefully and critically examined and that are in our own best long term interests.

An inauthentic, limited form of self-direction is evident when our efforts to develop ourselves as learners remain at the level of philosophical preferences because the resources needed for action are unavailable or denied to us.

Exercising control over learning is meaningless if control comprises only an intellectual analysis of one’s problems and solutions. As learners we may believe we have a beautifully accurate reading of our condition, and we may secure all kinds of promises from those in power to do something about it when resources are more plentiful, but if this is the extent of our control then we are doing little more than playing an intellectual game. Hence, as well as the resources of adequate time and energy needed to make reflectively informed decisions, self-directed learning also implies that learners have access to the resources needed to act on these decisions. As a learner, I may come to a very clear analysis of the skills I need to develop in order to do learn something but be told repeatedly by those I approach for the necessary resources to do this that while my plans are good ones the budget cuts that have just been forced on my organization and community mean that priorities have changed and my plans are now rendered useless. If this is the case then, sooner or later, I am bound to realise that the problem of blocked access to resources is not one of individual personalities (the myopic, anal retentive, bureaucratic administrator constantly cheating me) but one of structural constraints. I will come to see that learning something I want to learn is a project that is intimately connected to changing not only the political culture whereby the posting of yearly profits is extolled as the zenith of cultural and community achievement, but also the structures through which wealth, power and resources remain the preserve of an unrepresentative minority. Taking control over our development as learners and requesting resources to act on the development efforts we envisage will bring many of us to a realisation of the connections between personal learning efforts and changes in the wider political structures.

It may also be the case in a self-directed project that I decide that I want to learn something that I consider essential for my own development, only to be told that the knowledge or skills involved are undesirable, inappropriate or subversive. A desire to explore an alternative political ideology is meaningless if books exploring that ideology have been removed from the public library because of their ‘unsuitability’, or, perhaps more likely, if they have never been ordered in the first place. In a blaze of admirable masochism I may choose to undertake a self-directed learning project geared towards widening my understanding of how my practice as an educator is unwittingly repressive and culturally distorted. In doing this I may have to rely primarily on books because my colleagues are convinced of the self-evident correctness of their own unexamined practice. Yet I may well find that the materials I need for this project are so expensive that neither I, nor my local libraries, can afford to purchase them. In this regard it as ironic – an example of how ideas can concurrently be disseminated and marginalized – that critical analyses of adult education are often priced well beyond the pockets of

many who could benefit from reading them. Again, I may need physical equipment for a self-directed effort I have planned and be told by those controlling such equipment that it is unavailable to me for reasons of cost or others’ prior claims. If I decide to initiate a self-directed learning project that involves challenging the informational hegemony of a professional group, I may find that medical and legal experts place insurmountable barriers in my path in an effort to retain their position of authority. So being self-directed can be inherently politicising as learners come to a critical awareness of the differential distribution of resources necessary to conduct their self-directed learning efforts.


There is a certain irony in the fact that a concept seemingly so bound up with ideals of liberty and freedom as is self-direction can end up serving repressive interests. Yet this is precisely what happens when the images of self-direction in most people’s minds are of self-contained, internally driven, capable adults working in splendid, though atomistic, isolation. As a representation of how learning occurs this idea is very much in harmony with the individualistic tenor of American culture. It underscores the folk lore of the self-made person that elevates to mythical status heroic tales of people succeeding against the odds by the sheer force of their own individual efforts. The video produced by the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign – The Man From Home – is a good example of this. That anyone can be President is a prized tenet of American culture. That this takes enormous amounts of money and, therefore, years of courting, and being co-opted by, big business interests, remains obscured. If the cultural formation of the self is ignored, it is all too easy to equate self-direction with separateness and even selfishness, with the narcissistic pursuit of private ends without regard to the consequences of this pursuit for others. Self-direction that honours only the efforts of the individual self is the educational equivalent of an Ivan Boesky-like belief that one’s needs and desires exist sui generis and have an inalienable right to be satisfied. In adult education programmes that purport to embody the spirit of self-direction it is not unusual for learners to argue that they must have whatever they say they want – and that adult educators’ efforts must be focused on providing these wants – or the spirit of self-direction is somehow being compromised.

A view of learning which regards human beings as self-contained, volitional beings scurrying around in individual projects, is one that works against co-operative and collective impulses. Citing self-direction, people can deny the importance of collective action, common interests and their basic human interdependence in favour of an obsessive focus on the self. This view of self-direction encourages a dissatisfying emphasis on a self that is sustained by its own internal emotional resources and that needs no external supports or momentum. It erects as the ideal of psychological development the independent, fully functioning person. Fortunately, this view of adult development as a movement toward the separate and autonomous self has been challenged in recent years by work on issues of gender and on critical approaches to psychological development. This work questions the patriarchal notion of atomistic self-determination as an educational ideal and as the natural end point of a person’s psychological development. In its place it advances a feminist valuing of interdependence and a socially constructed interpretation of the self as equally viable educational ideals and as legitimate foci for conceptualizing psychological development. Building on these foci has been a body of work on feminist pedagogy (Lather 1991; Luke and Gore 1992) that emphasises interdependence, connectedness and the politics of nurturance (Culley and Portuges 1985).

Politically, the prevailing interpretation of self-direction which emphasizes atomistic isolation makes an engagement in common cause much harder for people to contemplate. It severs the necessary connection between private troubles and public issues (Mills, 1959) and makes it harder for learners to realise that apparently private learning projects are culturally framed. Ironically, policy makers can also use the concept of self-direction to reduce public spending on adult education. After all, they can argue, if adult educators tell us that adults are naturally self-directed learners (in contrast to authority-dependent children) then why bother making provision for their education ? Won’t they self-directedly take their own initiatives in learning anyway ? But atomistic, divisive interpretations of self-directed learning need not be end of the story concerning the contributions of this concept to adult education theory and practice. If we can demonstrate convincingly the political dimensions to an idea that is now enshrined in so many programmatic mission statements and in the espoused theory of the field as a whole, and if we can prise the concept out of the slough of narcissistic, unproblematic self-actualization in which it is currently mired, then we have a real chance to use this idea as one important element in rebuilding a critical practice of adult education. Self-directed learning could become one of the most politically charged Trojan Horses the field of adult education has ever known.

Further reading and references

Brockett, R. G., and Hiemstra, R. (1991) Self-direction in adult learning: Perspectives on theory, research, and practice, London: Routledge.

Brookfield, S. D. (1981) ‘The Adult Learning Iceberg: A Critical review of the Work of Allen Tough’, Adult Education, 54/2, pp. 110-118.

Brookfield, S. D. (1981) ‘Independent Adult Learning’. Studies in Adult Education, 13/1, pp. 15-27.

Brookfield, S. D. (1985) ‘Self-Directed Learning: A Conceptual and Methodological Exploration’, Studies in the Education of Adults, 17/1, pp. 19-32.

Brookfield, S. D. (Ed.). (1988) Learning Democracy: Eduard Lindeman on Adult Education and Social Change, London: Routledge.

Caffarella, R. S. and O’Donnell, J. M. (1990) Self-directed learning. Adults: Psychological and Educational Perspectives, No. 1. Nottingham: Department of Adult Education, University of Nottingham.

Candy, P. C. (1989) Constructivism and the study of self-direction in adult learning. Studies in the Education of Adults, 21, 95-116.

Candy, P. C. (1991) Self-direction for lifelong learning: A comprehensive guide to theory and practice, Oxford, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Collins, M. (1988) Self-directed learning or an emancipatory practice of adult education: Re-thinking the role of the adult educator. Proceedings of the 29th Annual Adult Education Research Conference, Calgary: Faculty of Continuing Education, university of Calgary.

Collins, M. (1991) Adult education as vocation: A critical role for the adult educator, London: Routledge.

Culley, M., and Portuges, C. (eds.). (1985) Gendered subjects: The dynamics of feminist teaching, London: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gelpi, E. (1979) A future for lifelong education: Volume 1, Lifelong education: Principles, policies and practices. Manchester Monographs, No. 13. Department of Adult and Higher Education, University of Manchester.

Griffin, C. (1983) Curriculum theory in adult and lifelong education, London: Croom Helm.

Griffin, C. (1987) Adult education and social policy, London: Croom Helm.

Hammond, M., and Collins, R. (1991) Self-directed learning: Critical practice, London: Kogan Page.

Horton, M. (1990) The long haul, London, New York: Doubleday.

Horton, M. and Freire, P. (1990) We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Knowles, M. (1975) Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers, New York: Cambridge Books.

Knowles, M. (1991) The adult learner: A neglected species. (4th. edn.), Houston: Gulf Publishing.

Lather, P. (1991) Getting smart: Feminist research and pedagogy within the post-modern, London: Routledge.

Luke, C., and Gore, J. (eds.). (1992) Feminisms and critical pedagogy, London: Routledge.

Mills, C. Wright (1959) The sociological imagination, New York: Oxford University Press.

Usher, R. (1993) Book review of Self-Directed Learning: Application and Research (H. B. Long and Associates), International Journal of Lifelong Education, 12/3, pp. 233-235.

Young, R. (1992) Critical theory and classroom talk, Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Writer: Stephen D. Brookfield is a professor in the Graduate School of Education, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota. His publications include Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning (1986), Developing Critical Thinkers (1987), and The Skillful Teacher (1990)

© 1994 Stephen D. Brookfield.

Acknowledgements: ‘Teaching is listening, learning is talking’ by  Darren Kuropatwa. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons  Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.
This article was produced as part of the YMCA George Williams College BA/BA(Hons) Informal and Community Education programme. Reproduced here with permission (2014).

How to cite this piece: Brookfield, S. D. (1994). ‘Self-directed learning’, in YMCA George Williams College ICE301 Lifelong learning, Unit 1 Approaching lifelong learning. London: YMCA George Williams College. Available in the informal education archives. [ Retrieved: insert date].

Added to the informal education archives August 2014

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