Friday, May 1, 2015

Adult Learners Self-Concept and Self-Direction: Helping Adults Become Independent Learners

 Fiddishun, deals specifically with the attributes of adult learners and technology.  She points out, "It is also important that self-directedness not be confused with self-motivation[Italics mine]. Although a student may be motivated to take a course, they may not be self-directed enough to feel comfortable choosing instructional modules in an online course or creating their own structured environment to learn in a web-based course." (Fiddishun, pp. 4-5)
Some adults, for various reasons, may need a little help in their self-concept.
Fiddishun goes on to suggest how instructors can help the adults who may need encouragement learning to learn:  "Encouraging self-directedness may also take the form of additional instructor contact in the beginning stages of the class or could be facilitated by having students do technology-based modules within a traditional class before they move to a complete course based in technology."  I think we've all seen this in either our teaching or classes where some adults may not be comfortable with technology or research and may need encouragement to catch up on certain skills, or to be more intrepid learners.

Above is the powerpoint slide of Giuliana L. and Monica V., some classmates who expand upon the ideas surrounding self-concept as it pertains to adult learners.  As we get more and more into Knowles's attributes, I can't help thinking that in some ways he is talking about an ideal.  Toward the end of his career Knowles acknowledged that the differences between child and adult learners are not as hard and fast as he had originally thought, and I think self-concept is a good illustration of this.

  For example, if we think of confidence, there are always a few children in any group who have precocious amounts of confidence and independence; and it is not unusual to find adults who lack confidence, cannot accept criticism or feel hurt by it, or who are not self-starters.  While some of this may be personality traits, I think experiences in school and in the family of origin have a lot to do with the range of self-concepts we see in both children and adults.

I have to admit I am a little preoccupied with psychological barriers to learning, including the effects of chronic stress, after my experience teaching youth and young adults ages 14-23 in North Camden in 2013-2014.  Conditions there - both the life circumstances and the educational experiences of the youth and young adults -  were so extreme that I sometimes find myself wondering if I really saw some of the things I did.  In any case, the self-concept of these young people played a very important role in how easily they were able to complete their training, and even whether they could complete it at all.

Would Kids Learn Like Adults if They Weren't in School? Self-Concept, Orientation, and Andragogy (Attribute 2)

According to influential theorist of adult learning Malcolm Knowles, in childhood people's orientation is toward subject-based learning, wheres adults are oriented toward  problem-based learning that seeks a specific, immediate goal.  He also says that their self-concept is different:  children are dependent learners, more easily led to study this or that subject at the behest of adults in their lives, whereas adults are self-directed.  While this is not the case for every child or every adult (adults can be quite dependent in certain learning situations, and some children can be quite driven and self-directed), it is important for instructors to take adults' independent self-conception into account.

However, I wonder if children's supposed attribute of a dependent, subject-driven orientation toward learning is structural - that is, could it be due more to the imposition of compulsory classroom-based schooling than to any natural tendency of children?   After all, what choice do most children have?  What kind of learners would they be if they had more freedom to learn in an organic way?  We've all seen kids on the weekends and in the summer, running around teaching themselves to play games, ride a bike, make things. 

Adults' inquisitiveness and problem-based learning might be more a function of their relative freedom and choice about learning.  Perhaps children do not have the opportunity to pick and choose their learning so much, and that's why they appear to be subject-oriented.

This is precisely the argument that the unschooling movement makes (Unschooling is a term coined by educator John Holt, who published books and the influential periodical Growing Without Schooling.  The point to societies in which children learn informally by imitating adults or by helping them as they go about their activities; children also had considerable free time to explore the world around them, and were given considerable responsibility.  This learning pattern was common in the pre-industrial world, including in the United States until schooling became mandatory in most places in the nineteenth century. 

Unschooling is a branch of the homeschooling movement that eschews classroom-like setups in the home in favor of more organic models of learning.  As many unschoolers would tell you, "We are just living our lives."  While adults provide guidance, children have a lot of say in how and what they will learn and whether or not they are successful.  Under these conditions, unschooled child learners look a lot like the self-directed, problem-oriented adult learners described by Knowles.