Are adults naturally self-directed learners?

This is an intriguing question that I have been pondering for years.

Stephen Brookfield in this paper on self-directed learning concludes:

A view of learning which regards human beings as self-contained, volitional beings scurrying around in individual projects, is one that works against cooperative and collective impulses. Citing self-direction, people can deny the importance of collective action, common interests and their basic human interdependence in favor of an obsessive focus on the self.

The notion of self-direction is to a great extent related to autonomy for learners, where autonomy is posited as one of the essential elements in fostering the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities under self determination theory (SDT), a theory of motivation.

Stephen says:

“Ironically, as Boshier (1983) has pointed out, 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. “

I could understand that self-directed learning have been a major concern for distance education in the 80s – 90s, where a lot of learners might drop out of the course due to the isolated feelings of learning.   It would likely be true that only those who were more “capable” and motivated would succeed in learning in the distance education mode.  Besides, adult educators had been under the pressure to provide better education with limited resources at the time of 80s and 90s.

In my self-directed learning post:

Could we use social networks for informal education and learning?

How web 2.0 will transform learning in higher education

Is access to learning resources still a problem?

I think more adult learners could access open education resources and information more readily via the internet at this digital age as compared to the 90s.  Although there are still many articles and artifacts locked inside the library or publishers website, where fee for service or reading is required, however, adult learners could still exercise their learning options with the aid of various information web sites, social media and networks.

Are adults naturally self-directed learners?  I don’t know the answer to this important question.  I think many adults would prefer to be self-directed, when they are self-motivated, and are given an option to learn, with when, where, how and what they like, especially at this digital era with the affordance of technology (mobile and computer technology), abundant information and ubiquitous networks and social media.   Confidence, motivation, information technology and communication skills, and experience would likely determine whether learners would take their own initiatives in learning, especially in social media and networked learning.

As I have argued here in my previous post: “I still believe that learning is a personal and private “business”, especially in blogging.  Autonomy is most important, for those self-paced, self-organised learners.  I am one of them, as I did “distance education” all by myself, in the past, even in the pre-internet era, and I still enjoyed it.”  It is through blogging where I could fully reflect personally on what is and what is not relevant to my life and work experience.  It also provides plenty of opportunities for others to provide critical comments to my open and public posts, which serves as sounding board for me to engage into more in-depth conversations and reflection.  This is also where I could form part of the blogosphere, and be connected to the networks and communities at large.   Would this also add to the social capital, when collective inquiry through blogging is achieved?

In conclusion, self-directed learning has become a way of learning for lots of adults at this era, especially in the developed world where technology is readily available.  Should we still provide education if adult learners are self-directed?  The answers to this question would be dependent on the context and the type of adult learners that we are dealing with.  As illustrated in the above case study of MOOC (Kop & Fournier, 2011), adult learners would need additional critical literacies when learning through the web and internet.  Adult learners who are highly motivated and confident in the use of new and emergent technology would more likely become independent, autonomous and self-directed learners.

13 thoughts on “Are adults naturally self-directed learners?

  1. I enjoyed learning about your perspectives on self-directed learning in this post. You are asking some critical questions here, John. What does it mean to be a self-directed learner? Under what conditions do adults self-direct their learning? Is there a relationship between self-direction and autonomy? Can a self-directed, autonomous learner also be a social learner? You have some hypotheses…how might you test them out?

  2. Sure, adults (and children) are self-directed learners. It is only when a social organization (e.g. Education) decides upon a specific goal/curriculum that humans need direction. So your question might better be expressed as: “Is it possible for adults to be self-directed in a didactic learning environment?”

  3. Pingback: ¿Los adultos son por naturaleza estudiantes autodirigidos? | Experiencias de aprendizaje |

  4. Your blog entry had me think on learner autonomy and the role of motivation. Actually, I have a lot of concerns about autonomous learning and student centered learning since I have been working as an English language instructor for 9 years. “Autonomy”, as it is defined in the dictionary is “the quality or state of being self-governing; especially : the right of self-government”. It is a buzz word for language teaching. Fostering students to have them become autonomous learners in university is one of our goals because learners must be aware of the reality of “lifelong learning.” As teachers we generally do the thinking for our learners in order to make the learning process more beneficial. However, as long as catering the desired knowledge detailly for the learners is no different from spoonfeeding them. My concern is if “autonomy” or “being autonomous” is something teachable or innate. Here comes the question of motivation. Constructivists put a lot of emphasis on autonomy, which I totally appreciate.They emphasise learning and not teaching, encourages learner autonomy and personal involvement in learning, looks to learners as incumbents of significant roles and as agents exercising will and purpose, foster learners’ natural curiosity, and also takes account of learners’ affect, in terms of their beliefs, attitudes, and motivation. It is the learner who interacts with his or her environment and thus gains an understanding of its features and characteristics. What about the role of motivation in learning? I think, the type of motivation has a great contribution to being an autonomous-life long learners. I want to explore my ideas on autonomy and motivation in terms of my own field of profession, which is English teaching. We know that first language acquisition is developed unconsciously while we have variety of handicaps while learning a new language. In his work, Gardner (1985) presents four aspects
    which make a difference in the success of individuals learning a second language. These different aspects are language aptitude, personality, attitude and motivation. As teachers, we know that some students learn more and better than the others. The students who learn more and better are generally the ones who are autonomous and self-motivated. Besides, the learners who do not consider learning as a classroom behavior but carry learning and practicing outside the class are high achievers in terms of language learners. According to Gardner (1985), being motivated means having something to look forward to and having a related purpose. I think intrinsic motivation makes a difference in learning. As long as people have intrinsic motivation, they evaluate every piece of knowledge or environment as a learning tool. Being aware of the fact that “we do not learn for school but for life” helps such people with intrinsic motivation use the real world as a learning resource as well. Your question “Is access to learning resources still a problem?” has led me to think about all of these concepts on learning and I came to a conclusion that the only thing that we need to access information is to really want it. Nothing can block the way through learning and improving people’s skills as long as they do not put a barrier in front of their own learning journey.

    Gardner, R.C. (1985) Social Psychology and Second Language Learning, The role of attitudes and motivation. Edward Arnold.

    Thanasoulas, D. Constructivist Learning. Retrieved (May 26, 2012) from

  5. In a paper on Autonomy: “learner autonomy is a perennial dynamic process amenable to ‘educational interventions’ (Candy, 1991), rather than a static product, a state, which is reached once and for all. Besides, what permeates this study is the belief that ‘in order to help learners to assume greater control over their own learning it is important to help them to become aware of and identify the strategies that they already use or could potentially use’ (Holmes & Ramos, 1991, cited in James & Garrett, 1991: 198). At any rate, individual learners differ in their learning habits, interests, needs, and motivation, and develop varying degrees of independence throughout their lives (Tumposky, 1982).” With these in mind, adult learners are “self-directed” and autonomous when they assume certain responsibilities in their learning, and are aware of and identify strategies they already use or could potentially use in different learning scenarios, in order to achieve their learning goals.

    “Positivism premised upon the assumption that knowledge reflects objective reality…. It takes little perspicacity to realise that positivism is incongruent with, and even runs counter to, the development of learner autonomy, as the latter refers to a gradual but radical divorce from conventions and restrictions and is inextricably related to self-direction and self-evaluation.”

    @Ken Would this mean that under instructivism, there would be no or little place for the development of learner autonomy, or self-directed learning, especially in a traditional didactic education system or learning environment?

    @Mary Hypothesis testing is more useful under Positivism, and so when it comes to the “testing and validation” of the relationship between self-directed learning and autonomy, a grounded learning approach may be needed instead. Would this require a narrative approach in research? We had included several survey questions in our research in CCK08 and I have also explored that in PLENK2010. As shared in the research in Kop and Fournier, learner autonomy relates more with learners’ experiences, rather than a simple – linear casual relationship. It seems to be more complex than what is originally defined, especially when learners are immersed in a complex learning environment other than a traditional classroom.
    One way of capturing the diversity of factors influencing learner autonomy would include:
    - how are autonomous or self-directed learners characterised? (For instance in connectivist MOOC or constructivist MOOC, or instructivist MOOC) (e.g. Web2.0 & Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) skills, confidence, technology and social media background, motivation, critical literacies – critical thinking, metacognitive skills; social and emotional intelligence etc.)
    - what beliefs and intentions do these learners display? (e.g. understanding of teaching and learning process and their role within that, pedagogy, understanding of knowledge and theory of knowledge (epistemology) and learning)
    - what strategies do effective learners and other learners (e.g legitimate peripheral learners or lurkers) display? (e.g. managing their learning, fitting life around learning, creation or posting of artifacts, participation and engagement of blogs/forums/social media etc.) (Adapted from Sharpe 2005)

    Reference: Sharpe, R., Benfield, G., Lessner, E., DeCicco E., (2005). Scoping Study for the Pedagogy strand of the JISC e-Learning Programme

  6. These are somewhat large issues. I think one should differentiate between learning and Learning, where the latter is thought of as institutional-based learning, and the former is what the human creature (of all ages) does naturally. So I would start from the observation that people learn naturally, and continuously. Use your preferred metaphor for what you think learning is – connecting nodes, pattern-seeking, memorizing, actionable knowledge etc. – all of this human activity is the natural state of the beast.

    A problem with (E)ducators is in their ceaseless attempts to capture this natural activity within socially-constructed environments. Hence the (seemingly) never-ending debate over topics such as learning theory, autonomy, self-directed etc. My thinking is that within such a socially-constructed environment, there is only as much self-direction in learners as there exists the will of the (E)ducator to locate it – in other words, yes, to answer your question. I think all socially-constructed Learning environments are didactic in nature. Learning is still under the thumb of teaching; learning happens elsewhere.

  7. Interesting and reflective thoughts. I used to think teaching and learning being two sides of the same coin (the Yin and Yang), with media and technology (or the coin as the tool) being periphery joining them together. Yes in a socially-constructed Learning environment, most if not all are didactic in nature. The conversation, engagement, interaction, which may be part of the cooperation and collaboration may be embedded in a convoluted way (or rhizomatic manner, if we like to describe it organically). If we are to describe learning and Learning in a way that may co-exist, then learning as an natural growth of networks in our brain, and that of the growth of the forests, plants, trees, grass etc. are natural parts of the ecology. On the other hand, the development of social media, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), road and transport system, buildings, logistics systems, organizations, education systems, groups and networks of people are all artificial parts of the ecology. So, you need both in order to develop the whole ecology, and what learning and Learning is situated might be viewed from a “microscopic” or “macroscopic” lens of learning, and interpreted accordingly. I have also conceived that learning (individually) could be the most satisfying for human (as an individuals), as that could be revealed from the reports of gurus, thinkers, philosophers, and scientists etc. Learning could however be the corner-stone for nurturing learning, and may lead to group collaborative performance and thus the basis of civilization and socialization and enculturation. Without self-motivation and direction in both learning and Learning, I reckon human’s creativity would be stalled, leading to stagnation in human progress. So, I agree that learning happens elsewhere, especially if Learning is still under the thumb of teaching only. Is self-directed learning significant in learning and Learning? What and how would education be developed given that human are all natural learners?

    We also need disruptive discovery to overcome the crisis and to develop a better future.


  8. Pingback: Are adults naturally self-directed learners? Part 2 | Learner Weblog

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