Adult Learning and Development

Adults as self-directed learners

Article Index

Self-directed learning is a process by which individuals take initiative for planning and implementing their own learning (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007; Brookfield, 1995). While generally applied in adult learning environments, adults are hardly unique in their ability to be self-directed (Piaget & Inhelder, 2000). Anyone who has seen a child devour books on dinosaurs, explore the biology of a backyard, or scour the Internet for cheat codes on the latest video game has seen the powerful potential of self-directed learning in a child’s life.

Goals through philosophical perspectives

Merriam, et al (2007) identified three classifications of goals based on the philosophy of the practitioner: growth facilitation, transformation, and emancipation.

Growth facilitation goal

The growth facilitation goal is to assist learners toward self-direction. This goal is rooted in humanistic psychology, which assumes that the goal of adult learning is personal growth toward autonomy. The progressive and radical perspective tends to reject a strict focus on individual development when it does not consider collective interests of the institution or educator.

Transformation goal

The transformation goal is to transform the individual to collective interests through critical self-reflection. This goal has its roots in progressive education philosophy that sees the purpose of learning to be driving social change. Transformation serves as a foundation for the third goal category, which is emancipatory learning.

Emanciptatory learning goal

The emancipatory learning goal is social action for change. The roots of emancipatory learning goal are deep in radical education philosophies that reject humanist-oriented strategies for individual improvement, while arguing that the purpose of learning is to essentially convert the learner to act as a change agent for the political or social interests of the practitioner or institution (Thompson, 2000).

In short, growth facilitation enables individual autonomy, transformation assimilates the individual into a collective, and emancipation converts the individual to actively advocate for the collective. A potential problem with the transformation and emancipation goals is that they seem to consider individual interests irrelevant to those of the institution or collective. Using tactics like those used by cults, the purpose of critical thinking and individual education under these goals is to enlist the individual for a greater good envisioned by the organizational leaders, which may not be in the best interests of the individual, regardless of how just the cause envisioned by the true believers.