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SDL Philosophical Foundations

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Theoretical approaches to SDL



  • The predominating theoretical orientation underlying self-directed learning is humanism (Cafferella, 1993).
  • Humanist believe that learners are impelled toward self-actualization (Owen, 2002).
  • Humanistic environment- primary function is to facilitate with the intent of expediting individual learning needs (Owen, 2002).
  • Humanistic perspective- Learner development and responsibility are of the utmost importance (Owen, 2002).
  • The Personal Responsibility Orientation (PRO) model (see Trends) illustrates the link between humanism and self-direction in adult learning (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991). 


Behaviorism and Neobehaviorism

  • Behaviorism is based on premise of learning occurring from the reinforcement of desired responses and shaped by environmental influences (Ross, 2002).
  • Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) presented three practices rooted in behaviorism that are key to understanding self-direction
    • Learning contracts
    • Skill-based instruction techniques
    • Self-modification
  • Penland (1981) suggested that self-directed learning can be understood in a neobehaviorist perspective (Owen, 2002, p.15).
  • Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) explain that "where classical behaviorism is only concerned with the environment as a determinant of behavior, neobehaviorism stresses the interaction of the individual and environment" (p.128).
  • Piskurick (1993) looks at how self-directed learning and neobehavioral learning works
    • Especially skills and technical training where intitally there has to be more structure and less learner (trainee) choice-centered approach
    • After the organizational training needs are met, then the trainee can choose to learn more about a topic they desire to learn more about
  • Self-directed learning as a technical training design used by organizations in the development of human resource contracts with the choice-centered definitions espoused by Knowles, Guglielmno, Brookfield, Brockett and Hiemstra, and Candy (Owen, 2002, 16).


Critical Perspectives

  • Critical perspectives of self-directed learning include those espoused by Paulo Freire, Jack Mezirow, and Stephen D. Brookfield (Owen, 2002, 16).
  • Freire's (1970) characteristic of adulthood called conscientization "is the process in which men, not as recipients, but as knowing subjects, achieve a deepening awareness both of the sociocultural reality which shapes their lives and of their capacity to transform that reality" (p.27).
  • Mezirow's (1991) critical view called perspective transformation "is the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our presuppositions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world; of reformulating these assumptions to permit a more inclusive, discriminating, permeable, and integrative perspective; and of making decisions or otherwise acting upon these new understandings" (p. 14).
  • Brookfield's (1990) critical perspectives of self-directed learning centers on critical incidents that involve one recording significant life events after critical thinking that involves identifying assumptions, analyzing accuracy, and reconstructing them. Brookfield (1991) explains that assumptions involve the "taken-for-granted ideas, commonsense beliefs, and self-evident rules of thumb that informs our thoughts and actions" and that they "are the interpretive glue that binds the various meaning schemes comprising out structures of understanding" (p. 177).



  • Constructivist maintain that from birth, people embark on a voyage of inquiry and exploration and thus learning is an active process of constructing meaning and transforming understandings. Therefore, no two people have identical experiences and each person constructs his or her understanding of reality (Owen, 2002, p. 20).
  • Candy's (1991) looks at three domains that are of great relevance to self-directed learning
    • Assumptions about human nature
    • The nature of knowledge
    • The meaning of learning
  • If one accepts the constructivist paradigm, then one must embrace that people have unique perspectives of how they view their world (Owen, 2002)
  • Candy (1991) believes that ideals of constructivism are central to understanding learning and "is a vital starting point to considering the nature of self-directed learning" (p. 257).

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