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Critically evaluate the significance of ‘Self-directed learning’ as it relates to adult education/learningPossible Title:Self-directed Learning and Well-being among Older Adults Essay Example

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Self-directed Learning as it Pertains to Well-being among Older Adults

The Role of Self-Directed Learning in the

Well-Being of Older Adults

This essay seeks to discover the role that self directed learning plays in ensuring the well being of older adults. It will look at the concept of self directed learning as outlined by its proponents such as Malcolm Knowles as well as critiques of the same in order to find out if there is a link between these two concepts.

It is possible that self directed learning is the most thoroughly researched field in adult education according to Brockett and Hiemstra (1991). Although the rationale for this may be complicated, one compelling motivation could be the attraction of being able to control the decision-making on what and how to learn. Most adults also have an innate desire to keep learning and Knowles (1975) avers that this is not a trend rather a ‘basic human competence – the ability to learn on one’s own’.

Due to this tendency to want to learn on one’s own, the idea of self directed learning finds its beginnings in adult education (Tough, 1971). This has led to the focus shifting to outside control issues (Garrison, 1997) but eventually, the realisation was made that what it lacked was cognitive perspective (Mezirow, 1985).

The Concept

Due the informality of its nature, self-directed learning is a concept that is unlimited by location. When it is carried out within the framework of formal education, it implies that the learner who is self-directed is as much in charge of their own learning as the facilitator (Brookfield, 2005). This means that self directed learning is an extremely flexible approach to learning taking into account needs and circumstances.

The whole idea behind the adult learning was self-improvement founded upon the conviction that the power to change is inherent in humans fuelled by their capacity to be self-aware, self-questioning and able to grow (Tough, 1979). This amalgamates well with self-directed learning which Knowles (1980) describes as the process of taking initiative aided or unaided by others in order to diagnose the gaps in their education, compose goals of learning, identify the relevant resources, both human and material from which to learn, opting for and applying pertinent plans for learning and assessing the results.

This description of self-directed learning highlights the maturity of the adult learner and their ability to cognitively alter their reality in an independent way by the application of effort (Tough, 1979). What is to be noted is that self-directed learning stresses the ability of learning to facilitate quantifiable and particular results and is therefore an invaluable tool in promoting well being in others, including the elderly.


Malcolm Knowles has a theory of Andragogy from which five assumptions can be obtained; Andragogy being the art and science of educating adults (Knowles, Holton and Swanson, 1998). The five assumptions are: (i) an individual’s self-concept dictates that he should be able to self direct as maturity sets in (ii) as the individual accumulates experience, this becomes a source of information and resources for learning (iii) as the person matures, the focus of his learning shifts to accommodate his social situation (iv) the older a person gets, the more the orientation of learning shifts from the abstract to the concrete therefore it goes from subject-centeredness to problem oriented learning (v) the motivation to learn becomes internalised the older a person gets (Knowles, 1984).

How old age is experienced largely depends upon others’ reaction to the aged. That is, within the social context and cultural mores of the society within which the individual lives. Social context however is not only about the situations and interactions that occur but also whatever bottlenecks hinder structural interaction fuelled by their level of understanding which emphasises certain ways of doing things and restricts others (Estes, 1979). There are more elderly people alive in this age than any other in history. As the population age’s diversity increases because their self-concept has had ample time to develop. Furthermore, this is exacerbated by the fish bowl nature of the world today in which different cultural experiences are more available than any other time before. This has unfortunately also led to situations where the accumulated inequalities of a lifetime result in extreme circumstances in later life. These factors all contribute to an expanded range of life experiences amongst older adults Biggs and Daatland (2004).

As can be deduced from the characteristics above, the six assumptions that accompany andragogy are very much present in these populations. This does not mean that everyone has the characteristics to be a successful self-directed learner. Valentine (2002) makes the suggestion that the more mature a student is, the more likely they are to succeed at self directed learning. This is because they tend to display an acceptance of ambiguity, a tendency toward independence and flexibility (Threkeld and Brzoska, 1994). Researches previously done to test the ability of older adults vs. the youth under laboratory conditions found younger people to be better learners. This was disproved by Lorge (1944; 1947) who pointed out that the test scores were linked to prior learning and skill as opposed to age per se. the older adults had less access to formal education and therefore were disadvantaged in test-taking skills thus giving the appearance of being less proficient learners. Furthermore, shifting the focus from rate of learning to ability to learn resulted in adults up to the age of seventy doing as well as younger adults


Much debate and discussion has been undertaken to discover whether or not andragogy can be classified as a theory of adult learning, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. the different analogies given to andragogy were enumerated by Davenport and Davenport (1985) as theory of adult education, theory of adult learning, theory of technology of adult learning, method of adult education, technique of adult education and a set of assumptions. Knowles (1989) himself seemed to agree with this premise, conceding that andragogy may be more of a set of assumptions or a theoretical construction that may be the backbone of a developing theory.

Secondly, the question arises as to what extent andragogy can be attributed to adult learners only. The argument could be made that some adults are teacher-dependent for their learning needs while some children are excellent self-directed learners. Motivation for learning could originate as much from external forces for adults as it could be self-motivated in children. Brookfield (1986) asserts that although there is a myth that self-directed learning can be an isolated event, there is no learning event so fully self-directed that the learner has no need for external stimuli or resources. Even life experiences, far from being a spur to learning may actually be a hindrance according to Merriam, Mott and Lee (1996).

The characteristics of the self directed learner according to Knowles’s version of andragogy are thus: an independent, free and growth oriented individual. This is based on humanistic psychology. According to critics, this disregards the role that society and culture play in moulding the individual in terms of history and the extent to which social frameworks and institutions define the learning transaction. Tennant (1996) points out that there is a failure to place and cross-examine these concepts within an articulate and constant theoretical construct. Jarvis (1987b) adds that there is a tendency to enumerate features of a phenomenon sans interrogation of the narrative of the arena or peering through the lens of a rational conceptual system.

How This Relates to Well-Being of the Older Adult

It has been established that adults inherently wish to continue to acquire knowledge through learning according to Knowles (1975). The acquisition of knowledge and skills naturally increases their competence to interact within society which will influence the reactions of those around them in a positive way. The experience of all old age is dependent upon these interactions (Estes, 1979) and being able to deal competently with various issues would foster that positive experience.


Well-Being amongst older adults is largely influenced by how much or how little their lifestyle changes after retirement according to CAMH (2008). Changes in income, lifestyle, loneliness and boredom can cause mental health risks including suicide as well as exacerbate physical symptoms. Being able to participate in self-directed learning will help to enhance skills and therefore may be a way to improve income, loneliness and boredom can be avoided through working on the project at hand. The sense of achievement obtained from learning something through exertion of effort will raise the spirits and lead to a sense of well-being. Although much research remains to be done, and the concept is not without its pitfalls, this paradigm may be an option in improving the lifestyles of older persons.


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