This morning I read a paper on this subject by Sanneke Bolhuis (Bolhuis, S. (2003) Towards process-oriented teaching for self-directed lifelong learning: A multidimensional perspective. Learning and Instruction, 13, 327-347. )
Recently I have been reading and thinking quite a lot about self-directed learning in relation to a research proposal on charting my Caledonian Academy colleagues and I are developing with our partners in a European consortium, and also in relation to our project with Shell Learning.
As evident from the title, the main focus on the paper is self-directed learning within formal instructional settings where learning is the aim (schools, higher education). Our interest in contrast is primarily in self-direction in the workplace, where learning is only a by-product of carrying out work tasks (thus not formal learning in the workplace, eg in-house training, various forms of formalised coaching and mentoring and so on). The paper, however, raises a number of issues that are important regardless of the context.
Bolhuis grounds self-directed learning in the lifelong learning agenda, and outlines four groups arguments in support of teaching for self-directed learning (quoted almost verbatim from pp 328-329):
1. Argument from education – learners in lower educational levels (school) should be prepared for the next educational level (higher or vocational education), where they are required to study more independently. So the focus is on acquiring skills in self-direction in order to be able to succeed in higher levels of education.
2. Argument from economy – knowledge productivity as a key economic motor. Here skills in self-direction are seen critical in ensuring that enough people are able to create new knowledge and others are at least able to catch up with the changes that are brought about by changes in knowledge.
3. Argument from society – effects of globalisation (multiculturalism, mobility, media), which bring about situations where people are increasingly confronted with others who have a different view of the world, different knowledge, different beliefs, and different habits. Self-direction here is linked to learning how to deal with these other “truths”. Self-directed learning in this context is also linked to elimination of inequalities in socio-economic position, ethnicity and gender and cultural struggles against the negative effects of globalisation.
4. Argument from democracy – teaching individuals to become self-directed learners contributes to a truly democratic society. Democracy can only function if people have equal possibilities to inform themselves, solve problems, make well-considered choices, and take part in society.
Bolhuis then discusses how recent theories of learning broaden the concept of learning as an aspect of all activity (thus also work activity, which is my primary interest). In discussing the experiential and social context of learning, Bolhuis suggests that school activity (arguably also education), in contrast with practice, is mainly concerned with manipulation of symbolic information. Some other authors have argued that this is one of the main differences between the world of education and the world of work (eg Candy and Crebert, 1996). However, I am wondering if this is entirely true in the context of knowledge work, where a large part work is concerned with manipulation of symbolic information, albeit at higher levels of analysis and synthesis than is the case in education.
Bolhuis emphasises the domain-specific nature and socio-material contextuality of the capacity for self-directed learning and that a lot of knowledge is encoded within “networks of meaning” – problem statements, concepts, rules, expressed in a partly domain specific language. Bolhuis argues that the access to this knowledge is the main difference between experts and novices in a knowledge domain.
An individual’s learning potential depends on expertise in the learning domain (but Bolhuis doesn’t mention any productive action in work domain):
knowing what and how to learn in the domain
having access to a relevant knowledge base to build on
being motivated to learn in the domain (motivation is domain specific)
Bolhuis argues that the development from novice to expert includes the development of these three interacting aspects. Experts are expected not only to possess vast knowledge, but to contribute knowledge to the domain. Moreover, Bolhuis seems to imply that, the sources of novices’ and experts’ motivation-formation are different – experts’ motivation comes from strong internal goals. In our work on charting where we are trying to develop tools and approaches to increase productivity and decrease time to competence during transition from education to workplace, we are trying to understand the different factors impacting formation of goals in these different contexts.
Bolhuis suggests that learning in a social context refers to model-learning, whereby individuals internalise the interpretations of “significant others”. I try to avoid the word “internalise” because of the connotations of passivity in taking something in, however overall this notion of significant others is especially important in the workplace, where so many aspect of productivity and performance are interrelated with others, and where even expertise (recognition of) depends on and takes place in relation to others.
Bolhuis also responds to those who criticise self-directed learning as an individual learning process and emphasises that it cannot be free from socio-economic and political context. “Self-direction refers to being in command of oneself, moving towards one’s own goals” (p. 335). I think that while self-directed learning doesn’t imply individual learning, self-direction is a largely individual action, albeit shaped by the socio-cultural, organisational, economic and political context.
Emotional aspects of self-directed learning are discussed. Motivation in educational settings, argues Bolhuis, is often problematic, because students are not involved in goal setting. Rewards in educational settings are extrinsic, which leads students away from goal-oriented motivation. While in general I agree, I think that this happens in workplace setting as well (depending on organisational culture, management style, nature of job, indviduals’ position within an organisational hierarchy, etc), that’s why organisational dimension is important, ie that organisations and jobs allow self-direction.
Bolhuis proposes a conceptual model outlining the main components of learning in life. It consists of goal setting, orientation and mobilising prior knowledge, executing learning activities, and evaluating processes and results and each of these 4 components is related to social context. Each of these components are treated in detail (pp 335-338):
Setting goals – learning in life follows from life goals not from setting learning goals
Orientation – mobilising prior knowledge and investigating possible routes to move towards the goal (searching for information, social and material resources, action opportunities and planning).
Executing a variety of learning activities – learning is not separated from other life activities, it rather flows from a variety of activities. Mental activities by which we learn are 1)social interaction, 2) processing verbal and other symbolic information, 3) direct experience, and 4) reflection. [Beginnings of a typology for charting activities, actions and operations?]
Evaluating process and results – doesn’t take place in the end but is often diagnostic and leads to renewed orientation, other learning activities or a change in goal.
Regulating – monitoring progress and decision making
Kessles, J (1996). Het Corporate Curriculum. Leiden: University of Leiden.