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Self-Directed Learning and the Importance of Critical Reflection

According to Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner (2007), the three main goals of self-directed learning are “(1) to enhance the ability of adult learners to be self-directed in their learning, (2) to foster transformational learning as central to self-directed learning, and (3) to promote emancipatory learning and social action as an integral part of self-directed learning” (p. 107). The first goal relates to helping learners develop the learning and meta-learning skills related to “learning how to learn.” The second goal adds consideration of the change that occurs internally for the learning as a result of critical reflection upon one’s learning. The third goal adopts a larger perspective on self-directed learning, with inclusion of critical analysis of the context in which the learning takes place as well as its impact.

The most important part of the second goal of self-directed learning is the inclusion of critical reflection, for it is through critical reflection that connections are made (e.g., Spears’s learning clusters) and new knowledge is created. In fact, providing the opportunity for reflection is a characteristic often cited as critical to learning organizations and the creation of individual and organizational knowledge (Kline & Saunders, 1998; Marsick & Watkins, 1999; Senge, 2006). Brookfield (1995) also supports this view, stating that “developing critical reflection is probably the idea of the decade for many adult educators who have long been searching for a form and process of learning that could be claimed to be distinctively adult” (p. 3).

Some may question whether it is the "critical" part of critical reflection that makes it adult. The idea of critical thought processes was something that, personally, I found myself struggling with in the early months of my doctoral studies. Growing up female in a middle-class American family, I was told that to be critical was to be impolite. Through my studies now as an adult in my early forties with the benefit of greater life and professional experience, I have been able to see that being critical can be done very respectfully and is, in fact, a much preferred way to approach the considerations of much any topic we are confronted with as scholars, professionals, and adults. Being critical does not have to mean that you are minimizing someone else’s points. Rather, it means that you ask carefully-considered questions such as those proposed by Browne and Keeley (2004):

- What are the issues and the conclusions?

- What are the reasons?

- Which words or phrases are ambiguous?

- What are the value conflicts and assumptions?

- Are there any fallacies in the reasoning?

- How good is the evidence?

- Are there rival causes?

- Are the statistics deceptive?

- What reasonable conclusions are possible? (p. 13)

Critical thinking and reflection also mean that one is not simply accepting the status quo, nor taking an absolute agree-or-disagree stance. Critical thinking and reflection means being comfortable with the ambiguity of “truth” and what’s “right”—and being open to many definitions. And why embrace critical thinking and reflection? As Brown and Keeley (2004) so aptly argue, “...critical thinking begins with a desire to improve what we think. The point of [the questions you ask is to] help [you] to have a deeper understanding or appreciation of what is being said” (p. 3).

Returning to the subject of self-directed learning, Brookfield (as cited in Merriam et al., 2007) also argues that “having learners exercise control over all educational decisions needs to be a consistent element of self-directed learning” (p. 109). Brookfield (1993) also argues that this “self-direction can be interpreted as part of a cultural tradition that emphasizes the individual's standing against repressive interests.” Furthermore, “self-directed learning should be interpreted as part of a cultural tradition emphasizing individuals' standing against oppression. This involves recognizing that (1) political issues of control and power are at its heart and (2) authentic practice of self-directedness requires certain political conditions (access to resources)” (SK, n.d.). Thus together, the practices of reflection and learner control as applied to self-directed learning ensure that the learner questions the status quo and forms educated conclusions based on a critical thought process.


Brookfield, S. (1993). Self-directed learning, political clarity, and the critical practice of adult education [Abstract]. Adult Education Quarterly, 43(4), 227-242.

Brookfield, S. (1995). Adult learning: An overview. In A. Tuinjman (ed.) (1995). International Encyclopedia of Education. Oxford, Pergamon Press. (Forthcoming). Retrieved February 6, 2008 from http://www.fsu.edu/~elps/ae/download/ade5385/Brookfield.pdf

Browne, M. N., & Keeley, S. M. (2004). Asking the right questions: A guide to critical thinking (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Person Prentice Hall.

Kline, P. & Saunders, B. (1998). Ten steps to a learning organization (2nd ed.). Salt Lake City, UT: Great River Books.

Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (1999). Facilitating learning organizations. Brookfield, VT: Gower.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood (3rd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization (Rev. ed.). New York: Doubleday.

SK. (n.d.). Brookfield’s Self-directed learning, political clarity, and the critical practice of adult education. In ERIC. Retrieved February 6, 2008 from http://eric.ed.gov

- Robin

Copyright Robin Donnan 2008. All Rights Reserved.


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