Self-direction in learning

Knowledge is power. Uploaded by Tobias Higbie. Image from title page of "You and Your Union," ILGWU Education Department, 1935. Reproduced from Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

Self-direction in learning. Many books and articles about lifelong learning talk glibly about self direction. Too often this idea is seen as unproblematic – an obvious good. But things are not quite as they seem.

Contents: Tough – self education and learning projects · product and process ·  Knowles – process and the rationale for self-directed learning · Tough – self education and learning projects · some problems · further reading

‘The most important attitude that can be formed’, wrote John Dewey, ‘is that of the desire to go on learning’. Here we explore some of the key issues around the idea of self-direction in learning. We also look at the contribution of Alan Tough and Malcolm Knowles – two of the key North American promoters of self directed learning and associated notions.

Tough: self education and learning projects

Various studies indicate that learning projects are undertaken by individuals outside of formal education provision on a substantial scale. For example a survey of adult learning undertaken by Sargant in the UK revealed that one in six people are trying to learn about or teach themselves something informally – at home, at work, or elsewhere (1991: 15) (see participation in learning). In other words , what we have here is a substantial body of people engaged in the process of what might be described as self-directed learning.

One of the key points of reference concerning such learning has been the work of Alan Tough. In a famous American study (1967) he initially described this process as ‘self-teaching’. In such circumstances, learners assumed responsibility for planning and directing the course of study. As he developed his approach Tough tended to conceptualise his approach in terms of learning projects. Having established the existence of self-learning projects to his own satisfaction, Tough then went on to describe what he saw as the 13 key stepped, decision points about choosing what, where and how to learn. He assumed that adults have a sound range of abilities for planning and guiding their learning. (See lifelong learning).

More recently writers like Charles Hayes have returned to self teaching and sought to champion the idea that people should take control of their own learning and adopt self-directed inquiry as a lifelong priority. ‘When we fail to take control of our education, we fail to take control of our lives. Self-directed inquiry, the process of taking control of your own educarion… is the lifeblood of democracy’ (1998:xiv).

Product and process

So far we have been approaching self direction as a process. As a process, ‘self directed learning is a form of study in which learners have the primary responsibility for planning, carrying out and evaluating their own learning experiences’ (Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 41). As a product, as Robbie Kidd once put it, the aim ‘is to make the subject a continuing “inner-directed”, self-operating learner’ (quoted in Brookfield 1985: 18). So we have two contrasting foci here. They can be further sub-divided. Candy (1991), in an influential review and exploration of self-direction, suggests that there are four main ways of approaching the literature. The four distinct but related phenomenon are as follows. Self-direction as:

  • a personal attribute (personal autonomy)
  • the willingness and capacity to conduct one’s own education (self management).
  • a mode of organizing instruction in formal settings (learner control)
  • the individual, non-institutional pursuit of learning opportunities in the ‘natural social setting’ (autodidaxy).

In the first of Candy’s categories, the focus is on the personal orientation of the learner. In other words, what we are looking at here concerns the importance of understanding the characteristics of successful self-directed learners. In this sense, Brockett and Hiemstra argue that learner self-direction refers to ‘characteristics of an individual that predispose one toward taking primary responsibility for personal learning endeavours (1991: 29). This particular strain of thinking owes much to the work of people such as Carl Rogers and Maslow (see, also <href=”#humanistic”>humanistic psychology and learning. Interest in developing what Candy describes as self-managing learners may be linked to a broader concern to further adulthood or personal autonomy.

However, at this point we begin to run into problems – there are narrow, technical, definitions of adulthood and autonomy and broader ideas about what may make for human well-being. From a narrow view it may be possible to be ‘a superb technician of self-directed learning in terms of one’s command of goal setting, instructional design or evaluative procedures, and yet to exercise no critical questioning of the validity or worth of one’s intellectual pursuit as compared with competing, alternative possibilities’ (Brookfield 1985: 29). In other words, gaining a technical ability to manage may not address basic questions concerning social, moral and political dimensions of learning. As Candy again puts it (1991: 22), from the practitioner’s point of view it is important to decide whether the interest lies in fostering self-managing learners or self-determining people. This is a theme we need to bear in mind when examining the highly influential work of Malcolm Knowles.

Knowles, process and the rationale for self-directed learning

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).

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 have already said about 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. 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.

Some further problems

Brookfield provides some key elements of a critique of this area. In some respects his arguments have been addressed by Brockett and Hiemestra – but fundamental questions do remain with regard to the dominant ways of thinking about self-directedness.

Brookfield is an interesting example, because he started out by embracing the notion and undertaking substantial research into self-directed learning. Over the first half of the 1980s he began to pull back from the term, or rather use in a very specific way. A good account of this can be found in Brookfield (1986) and it is discussed by Brockett and Hiemstra (1991). Here I will outline what he says – but will put it in a slightly different framework.

Problems with the ‘humanistic psychology’ framework

There is, I think, a particular problem associated with the concept of the self and of reflection used within dominant approaches to adult education and <href=”#humanistic”> humanistic psychology more generally. It is culturally bound – it refers to a particular set of debates and concerns that characterised North American discourse.

First there is the extent to which people understand the self that is involved in conducting learning is culturally formed and bound. As Brookfield (1994) put it:

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 Brockett and Hiemstra (1991: 32) argue, 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’. They call for more attention to the way in which global and cross-cultural factors frame this activity.

Second, it is important to recognize just how individualistic and the appreciation of the self is that runs through a great deal of the literature of adult education. Usher (1994) brings this out well.

Within the literature of adult learning there is a tendency to be more concerned with the nature of this process and with how it can make be made more effective than with the nature of the ‘selves’ who are undergoing it. In other words, whilst the process of adult learning is considered problematic, ‘selves’ are not. However, the very notion of adult learning as a process where desirable changes are brought about is itself dependent upon particular, yet taken-for-granted conceptions of the self. Who is being changed cannot be left at that.

The individual and the group and the nature of autonomy

A further run on, and linked with the above, is the extent to which an emphasis is placed on the individual at the expense of the group. The problem here is that individuals can exist only so long as there are groups. In this sense no project can be wholly self-directed – it always has to take account of the wishes of others, and the dynamics of the context in which it takes place. This is how Eduard Lindeman put it.

Freedom can never be absolute. None of us is self-determined. Self is relative to other selves and to the inclusive environment. We live in freedom when we are conscious of a degree of self-direction proportionate to our capacities. (Lindeman 1926: 50)

To be autonomous requires that people have a developed self, to which their actions can be ascribed. ‘In turn this requires a consciousness of oneself as a being who acts for reasons, whose behaviour can be explained by reference to one’s own goals and purposes’ (Lindley 1986: 6). A second dimension of autonomy requires freedom from external constraints. That is to say, an autonomous person is someone who is not manipulated by others. Such a person is able to act in pursuit of self-chosen goals. However, autonomy on its own is not enough to get around the problems of reconciling self and society within education.

One way round this is to argue that the well-being that educators should help individuals to pursue, involves leading a life of moral virtue. In this life, the individual’s own needs should not automatically be given preferential treatment but be weighed in relation to the needs of others (White 1982: 98).

This is a crucial point because a good deal of the discussion about self-directed learning tends to float free of the content. Self-directed learning is approached as a range of techniques that can be utilised by anyone. However, as we can see here, there are within it important social, moral and political dimensions. Education, as Dewey puts it, is a moral craft. In this respect then, discussion of self-directed learning has to consider well being – not just of the individual but of the group as a whole.

It is this theme that Boucouvalas (1988) has picked up on. She uses the idea of homonomy (in conjunction with autonomy) as complementary dimensions of the growth of the self (Merriam and Carrafella 1991: 218). While autonomy is said to express independence and separateness, homonomy is ‘the experience of being part of meaningful wholes and in harmony with superindividual units such as family, social group, culture and cosmic order’ (see discusion of selfhood).

The problem of goals and linear forms

In the Knowles’ model something of an emphasis is put on formulating goals. In other words it involves knowing what the desired outcomes are before setting out on the project. This does not fit with the reality of many people’s self-teaching projects or what we know of informal education. While much of the learning may initially appear to be incidental, it is not necessarily accidental. We are concerned here with purposeful and conscious actions. The specific goals may not be clear at any one time either to the educator or to the learner. Yet the process is deliberate in that the people concerned are seeking to acquire some knowledge, skills and/or attitudes. However, such purpose and intent may not always be marked by closely specified goals (Brookfield 1983: 15). What educators do is contribute to the development of the context and conditions which allow the desired ‘internal’ change we know as learning to occur.

Here we might go back to the work of Cyril Houle. He argued that there are three main groupings of adults who continue to learn. These orientations are:

  • goal-orientated – those who use education as a means of accomplishing fairly clear cut objectives.
  • activity-orientated – those who take part in such activities because of an attraction in the circumstances of learning rather than in the content or announced purpose.
  • learning-orientated – those that seem to seek knowledge for its own sake (Houle 1961: 15-16).

Beyond the question of goals lies a deep problem with the linear form. We saw something of this in relation to experiential learning and reflection. People do not think in neat stages, they do not move sequentially through a series of steps. Earlier I commented on the work of Spear and Mocker – and the significance of circumstance and chance in such learning projects. Here I want to ask why this concern with the linear form?

Part of the problem is the dominance, according to Candy, Usher and others, of positivist paradigms. As you know what this involves is the application of methods derived supposedly from the ‘natural sciences’. There is some dispute about the characterization of science in this way, but the picture painted is of knowledge derived from following systematic procedures and experiment. The linear, stepped, form is seen as an expression of this. Candy argues that such forms need to be abandoned in favour of more interpretitive approaches; Usher in favour of the postmodern. However, Merriam and Cafferella argue that to look to both; that self-directed learning probably occurs both by design and by chance – ‘depending on the interests experiences, and actions of individuals and the circumstances in which they find themselves’ (op cit: 49-50).

The question of research

This last point brings to the surface an issue that has run through much that I have said here. The empirical base for the various claims made about self-direction is thin. Studies have been small and there are questions concerning their applicability across cultures.

In conclusion

We are left with some problems around the notion of self-direction. This is not to say that there it has some use in exploring education and learning – but it does need treating with care. In a very real sense all learning is, by definition self-directed – it is, as Collins has said, purposeful. The problem we have with the notion becomes most strong when it is reduced to technique.

Further reading

Brockett, R. G. and Hiemstra, R. (1991) Self-Direction in Adult Learning. Perspectives on theory, research and practice, London: Routledge. 276 pages. Useful review of the material on self-direction in learning. Includes a critique of Brookfield. The opening section sets up a conceptual framework for understanding self-direction; part two looks to the underlying knowledge base; part three to process and personal orientations; part four to fostering opportunities for self-direction in adult learning; and part five looks forward.

Brookfield, S. (ed.) (1985) Self-Directed Learning. From theory to practice, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 229 pages. Uses a number of case studies to examine how self-directed learning can be approached in different settings.

Candy, P. C. (1991) Self-direction for Lifelong Learning. A comprehensive guide to theory and practice, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 567 pages. Now pretty much the standard survey of the literature of self-direction in adult education. Part one deals with the scope and meaning of self-directed learning; part two look to four dimensions of self-direction (personal autonomy, self-management, the independent pursuit of learning, learner control); part three examines new theoretical insights on self-directed learning; part four looks to promoting self-direction; and part five is concerned with realizing the potential of self-direction.

Hayes, C. (1998) Beyond the American Dream. Lifelong learning and the search for meaning in a postmodern world, Wasilla: Autodidactic Press. 365 + xvii pages. Fascinating and distinctive exploration of self-education as the lifeblood of (American) democracy and critique of education as a means to an economic end. Seeks to break through the perceptual barriers of popular culture and new-age doctrines in search of meaning itself. Argues that we affirm the quality of our existence through ideas. Real poverty comes from settling for dreams defined by others while remaining bereft of our own.

Jarvis, P. (1992) Paradoxes of Learning. On becoming an individual in society, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 272 + xv pages. Concerned with the role of adult education in the formation of the self.

Knowles, M. (1975) Self-Directed Learning. A guide for learners and teachers, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge. 135 pages. Programmatic guide that is rather objective oriented. Sections on the learner, the teacher and learning resources.


Burkitt, I. (1990) Social Selves. Theories of the social formation of personality, London: Sage. 225 pages. Interdisciplinary overview of theories of the social formation of personality.

Burr, V. (1995) An Introduction to Social Constructionism, London: Routledge. 194 + ix pages. Clear introduction to debates around socially constructed notions of the person.

Sampson, E. E. (1993) Celebrating the Other. A dialogic account of human nature, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester/Wheatsheaf. 207 + x pages. Very clear introduction to some of the debates around notions of the self.

Taylor, C. (1989) Sources of the Self. The making of the modern identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 601 + xii pages. Important inquiry into the sources of modern selfhood. Sections deal with identity and the good; inwardness; the affirmation of ordinary life; the voice of nature; and subtler languages.

Also referenced

Brookfield, S. D. (1983) Adult Learning, Adult Education and the Community, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Brookfield, S. D. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. A comprehensive analysis of principles and effective practices, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Brookfield, S. B. (1994) ‘Self directed learning’ in YMCA George Williams College ICE301 Adult and Community Education Unit 2: Approaching adult education, London: YMCA George Williams College.

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

Houle, C. O. (1961) The Inquiring Mind. A study of the adult who continues to learn, Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

Lindeman, E. (1926) The Meaning of Adult Education (1989 edn), Norman: Oklahoma Research Centre for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Lindley, R. (1986) Autonomy, London: Macmillan.

Merriam, S. B. and Caffarella, R. S. (1991) Learning in Adulthood. A comprehensive guide, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sargant, N. (1991) Learning and ‘Leisure’. A study of adult participation in learning and its policy implications, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

Sargant, N. with Field, J., Francis, H., Schuller, T. and Tuckett, A. (1997) The Learning Divide. A study of participation in adult learning in the United Kingdom, Leicester: National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.

Tough, A. M. (1967) Learning Without a Teacher. A study of tasks and assistance during adult self-teaching projects, Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Tough, A. M. (1979) The Adult’s Learning Projects. A fresh approach to theory and practice in adult learning, Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Usher, R. (1994) ‘Contrasting notions of the self and the literature of adult education’ in YMCA George Williams College ICE301 Adult and Community Education Unit 1: Approaching adult learning, London: YMCA George Williams College.

Tough, A. M. (1989) ‘Self-directed learning: concepts and practice’ in C. J. Titmus (ed.) Lifelong Education for Adults. An international handbook, Oxford: Pergamon Press.

White, J. (1982) The Aims of Education Restated, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Acknowledgement: Knowledge is power. Uploaded by Tobias Higbie. Image from title page of “You and Your Union,” ILGWU Education Department, 1935.  Reproduced from Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)  licence.

© Mark K. Smith 1996