10 May, 2009

Self-Directed Learning

By C. Radhakrishnan

“The only learning which significantly influences behaviour is self-discovered, self- appropriated learning.” Carl Rogers

Self-directed learning is often considered the ultimate goal of education. The human race needs self-directed learning for survival. This basic human potential, knowing how to learn, is a necessity for living today. Probably the most important skill for today’s fast changing workplace is skill in reflection. The highly motivated, self-directed learner with skills in self reflection can approach the workplace as a continual classroom from which to learn and succeed in all chosen profession. This article is devoted to illuminate these principles as they apply to schools and to life.

During childhood we are naturally inquisitive and self directed in learning. For instance children ask parents many questions and try to learn new things. But, what happens to this inquisitiveness after they join the school? Do we discourage/encourage self-directed learning? Do we train our teaching community for teaching children how to be a self-learner? Do our schools and education boards promote a curriculum that fosters this kind of learning? Whenever we talk about self directed learning these are some questions that crop up in our mind. However, for most of these questions we have to answer in the negative. One fact we all can agree, our schools should be more self-directing in learning. All educators must understand, what is important is not the age, but the learner’s situation. In fact, the learner’s “need to know” and self-directing capacity increases steadily during childhood and rapidly during adolescence. Schools can foster the development of learners’ skills of self-directed learning through enquiry-based learning. Encouraging self-direction does not mean giving learners total control and responsibility but rather providing incremental opportunities to facilitate independence for lifelong learning.

What is Self-Directed Learning?

In this, the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. Individuals select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, which can be pursued at any time, in any place, through any means, at any age. There are many different definitions of self-directed learning. Ideas such as personal responsibility, autonomy, independence, and lifelong learning are all part of self-directed learning. In self-directed learning, the focus is on the learner taking the initiative in the learning process. Ultimately, the learners decide what needs to be learned; sets the learning goals; determines what resources, both human and material, are required; applies pertinent learning strategies; and evaluates the final results. Through self-management (how learners manage the resources, their actions and the social context) and self-monitoring (the process of monitoring, regulating and evaluating learning strategies), learners become responsible for their own learning (Bolhuis, 1996; Garrison, 1997). Now it’s very clear that self-directed learning refers to the willingness or ability of the learners to take control, make choices, and take responsibility for their learning.

Why is it necessary to help students take responsibility and initiative for their learning?
Advances in technology and learning demands of the information age are changing the nature of learning. The 21st century is marked with an ever increasing need to learn new skills and develop new perspectives and understandings. In this age where change is constant, the teacher’s role cannot simply be to fill students with information. Although basic content knowledge is important, there also needs to be a focus on process. As knowledge and skills change from day to day, what is important is to teach students how to learn. By teaching students to reflect on how they learn and by developing their skills to pursue their learning goals, students will be empowered to change from passive recipients of information to active controllers of their learning.

What factors influence Self-directed learning?

1. Self-concept: The learners’ self-concept or belief about themselves as learners develops on a continuum with learners possessing various degrees of self-direction. Previous success in learning improves learners’ general self-concept and capacity for self-direction. Learners have a psychological need to be self-directing but may consciously choose to be more dependent in areas where they lack previous experience or knowledge.

2. Experience: Learners accumulate life experiences that are a rich foundation and resource for new learning for themselves and others. Experience must be valued as it is related to personal identity.

3. Readiness to learn:
Learners are ready to learn as they accept and learn to adapt to new roles, such as a team captain, school leader, class prefect, or wish to escape from present roles.

4. Orientation of learning: As learners mature, they prefer problem-centred learning that they can immediately apply to relevant situations to increase their competency and help them live more effectively.

5. Motivation: People are motivated to a greater extent by internal factors such as self-esteem, satisfaction in the work, and quality of life than by external motivators such as good jobs, promotions and higher salaries.

Ten Myths of Self-Directed Learning:
1. One is either self-directed or not.

2. Self-direction means learning alone.

3. Self-direction is a fashion.

4. Self-direction takes more time than it’s worth.

5. Self-directed learning mainly involves writing and reading.

6. The facilitator is passive.

7. Self-directed learning is aimed at those who voluntarily choose to learn.

8. Self-directed learning is aimed at middle class adults.

9. Self-directed learning will destroy traditional and institutional programs.

10. Self-directed learning is the best method only for adults.

How educators and institutions can best facilitate self-directed learning?
The following list summarises points made by several writers (Ash 1985; Bauer 1985; Brockett and Hiemstra 1985; Brookfield 1985; Cross 1978; Hiemstra 1982, 1985; and Reisser 1973) regarding how adult educators can best facilitate self-directed learning:

• Help the learner identify the starting point for a learning project and discern relevant modes of examination and reporting.
• Encourage adult learners to view knowledge and truth as contextual, to see value frameworks as cultural constructs, and to appreciate that they can act on their world individually or collectively to transform it.
• Create a partnership with the learner by negotiating a learning contract for goals, strategies, and evaluation criteria.
• Be a manager of the learning experience rather than an information provider.
• Help learners acquire the needs assessment techniques necessary to discover what objectives they should set.
• Encourage the setting of objectives that can be met in several ways and offer a variety of options for evidence of successful performance.
• Provide examples of previously acceptable work.
• Make sure that learners are aware of the objectives, learning strategies, resources, and evaluation criteria once they are decided upon.
• Teach inquiry skills, decision making, personal development, and self-evaluation of work.
• Act as advocates for educationally underserved populations to facilitate their access to resources.
• Help match resources to the needs of learners.
• Help learners locate resources.
• Help learners develop positive attitudes and feelings of independence relative to learning.
• Recognize learner personality types and learning styles.
• Use techniques such as field experience and problem solving that take advantage of adults' rich experience base.
• Develop high-quality learning guides, including programmed learning kits.
• Encourage critical thinking skills by incorporating such activities as seminars.
• Create an atmosphere of openness and trust to promote better performance.
• Help protect learners against manipulation by promoting a code of ethics.
• Behave ethically, which includes not recommending a self-directed learning approach if it is not congruent with the learners' needs.

For educational institutions and employers engaged in providing self-directed learning experiences, Hiemstra (1982, 1985) and Brockett and Hiemstra (1985) recommend the following:
• Have the faculty meet regularly with panels of experts who can suggest curricula and evaluation criteria.
• Conduct research on trends and learners' interests.
• Obtain the necessary tools to assess learners' current performance and to evaluate their expected performance.
• Provide opportunities for self-directed learners to reflect on what they are learning.
• Recognize and reward learners when they have met their learning objectives.
• Promote learning networks, study circles, and learning exchanges.
• Provide staff training on self-directed learning and broaden the opportunities for its implementation.

What can teachers do to encourage self-directed learning in schools?

1. In schools, teachers can work towards self-directed learning a stage at a time. Teaching must emphasis self-directed learning skills, processes, and systems rather than content coverage and tests. The teacher’s role, as facilitator, is to empower learners by promoting student involvement in learning, helping learners to develop skills that support learning throughout life, and helping learners to assume personal responsibility for learning. For the individual, self-directed learning involves initiating personal challenge activities and developing the personal qualities to pursue them successfully.

2. Self-direction exists on a continuum that increases with maturity, the learner’s motivation, and his/her ability to identify needs and access information. The learning environment determines if inquiry and self-initiative are encouraged and supported. Thus such an environment should be created by teachers in schools. Then the students use many strategies to achieve the learning outcomes, including seeking interaction and support from others yet maintaining primary responsibility for the learning.

3. Schools should cultivate a self-directed learning culture to inspire students. This involves many learning situations such as discussions, interviews, experiments, auditing, role-plays, field visits and a variety of social settings. The facilitator/teacher is very active, supporting the learner, negotiating meaning, promoting critical thinking, providing resources, and modelling meta-cognitive thinking in a nurturing learning environment. Although self-directed learning causes a shift in the teacher’s role as the “source of knowledge”, this change is also necessitated by the needs in an information society.

4. Teachers can encourage self-directed learning skills and learner responsibility through a collaborative learning environment. For that the teacher can assume an interactive role, to help learners participate in planning learning activities, locating resources, and assessing needs and progress in achieving goals, and generally guide them from dependence to better stages of learner control and independence. In order to provide opportunities for responsibility and self-direction in learners, the teacher must accept a change in educational role to facilitator, manager, resource supporter, motivator, and modeller of learning strategies. At the same time the teacher must make educational decisions regarding learner and curricular needs. In collaboration, learner and facilitator analyse issues to help gain new perspectives and understanding. Collaboration becomes a fine balance as the facilitator, while still ensuring the foundation knowledge is covered, and gives the learner more choices and control within the learning framework (Garrison, 1997; Morrow, Sharkey, & Firestone, 1993).

5. In converting facilitator-centred schools into learner-centred schools, motivation plays a key role in goal completion and is a determining factor in self-directed learning. Research indicates that the collaborating role of the teacher and learner control is a motivating factor that promotes positive attitudes in learners. Students are intrinsically motivated when they are able to choose their own topics of interest and are actively involved in sharing understanding. Through learner-centred activities, interaction, and choice, students can be empowered to develop self-directed learning skills and take more responsibility for learning.

6. A proper system of feedback also plays a significant role in self-directed learning. As interaction among students and between teacher and learner increases, closeness and understanding increases. For the success of teaching self-directed learning, teacher feedback must be prompt and frequent. External and internal feedback is necessary for the learner to self-monitor learning strategies as he/she accepts more responsibility for the learning. By encouraging students to reflect on the process of learning, including the trials and tribulations, they will begin to understand their own learning styles and thinking. By using meta-cognitive strategies, students learn how they learn and develop a range of thinking processes for problem-solving and lifelong learning. When teachers model learning strategies such as questioning, summarizing, predicting, and clarifying, students can transfer these strategies to other learning situations.

The teacher can empower students to accept responsibility for learning and facilitate self-direction skills. Students have varying degrees of self-direction, depending on the situation and subject matter, but this does not mean that the learner must make all decisions or learn alone, nor does it mean that the learners require no instructional support. Learners require library-search skills, data collection and analysing skills and information literacy skills in order to access vast resources including the Internet. The teacher’s task is to find a balance between the tendency to control the learning and the desire to provide the learner with autonomy. The reality is that the teacher needs to abandon traditional control in his/her shift to shared collaborative responsibility with the learner for learning activities. As teacher and student share control, the teacher is ready to provide instructional and motivational support while the student assumes more responsibility. Collaborative control facilitates motivation and responsibility and self-direction in learners. In order to persist in the learning goals, the learner needs to perceive value and anticipate success in the activity (Garrison, 1997). Therefore, the teacher must motivate the learner through encouragement and relevant meaningful activities.

Self-directed learning has existed throughout the ages as a means for people to meet life’s challenges and for survival. Scholars throughout Western civilization, such as Aristotle and Socrates, used the tools of self-directed learning. Ancient Indian ‘Gurukul’ system also emphasised the same principle of Self-directed learning. Gradually, our educational systems degenerated into a system that emphasises rote learning and memorisation. However, recently, many educationists, scholars and policy makers in different countries of the world started deliberating on ways to bring back self-learning culture into our educational systems. Surely, this positive trend will help us to restructure current educational practices that make learning a nightmare for many school goers.

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