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Moving towards self-direction in higher education: desirable and challenging

Moving towards self-direction higher education desirable and challenging
Over the course of the last few decades, there has been a great demand for a shift in higher education, transcending its exclusive focus on the promotion of knowledge and skills acquisition to support students in their epistemological development. In very broad terms, epistemological development can be defined as the progressive transition, as we mature, towards more complex ways of making meaning of ourselves, our experiences and our relationships (Keeney, 1983).
Our current society is characterized by interconnectedness, scientific and technological breakthroughs, and a knowledge-driven economy. In this context, the competences that young adults need to develop so that they can perform successfully as learners, workers, and citizens are becoming increasingly complex. Among other things, they are asked to be innovated, self-managing, and display personal responsibility. Underlying the development of these competences, there is the need for young adults to undergo a specific type of epistemological change: they have to move from an uncritical reliance on external sources of authority to the internal authorship of their identities, relationships, and beliefs. Put in specific terms, in order to cope successfully with the societal demands of today, young adults need to move from a socialized mind to a self-authoring mind (Kegan & Lahey, 2009). While the socialized mind is shaped by the expectations of our environment, the self-authoring mind is able to take a step back from that environment in order to generate an internal authority that makes choices about external expectations. Thus, self-authored or self-directed individuals demonstrate critical thinking and individual initiative, and are able to set their own goals and standards and use resources to pursue them, as well as assume responsibility for their own learning and are able to self-evaluate (Grow, 1991). Becoming a self-directed individual is a fundamental epistemological transition to undergo to optimally develop both in the personal, academic and professional realms.

The question remains: how can higher education settings support young adults in their transition towards self-direction? By generating learning contexts that challenge students’ socialized minds in such a way that they might be reexamined (Kegan, 1994). In this quest, a key issue is supporting students as they cross the “great divide” from thinking about learning in terms of reproductive application toward thinking about learning in terms of knowledge (re)construction (Van Rossum & Hamer, 2010). From a conception of learning as knowledge (re)construction, students are required to think by themselves, make connections to achieve understanding, and use criteria and evidences to support their opinions. In the promotion of such competences, teaching methodologies based on constructivist principles that require students taken increased action and responsibility within collaborative, experiential, and problem-based learning scenarios are essential.

desirable and challenging higher education

Is this change easy? Not really, as learning contexts that aim to promote students’ epistemological transition toward self-direction are very often taken by students accustomed to content-based learning settings as unsettling and threatening, eliciting emotions such as confusion, frustration, or uncertainty (see for example Formenti & Dirkx, 2014). The experience of this kind of unpleasant emotions, however, can be taken as drivers for meaningful learning. Specifically, they might help students to notice that their previous assumptions about what they are required to do as learners are no longer successful and motivate them in such a way that they critically revise them (Mälkki, 2010). This relates to the constructivist idea that those situations that enter into conflict with our known ways of making meaning are a potential trigger for the development of more complex ones that enable us to adapt to our environment (Piaget, 1975/1985).

To support students in their familiarization with new ways of performing as well as to address positively the likely initial emotional destabilization, teachers need to provide students with a holding environment that entails a balanced system of challenges and supports, generating a context of trust and striving for the creation of authentic relationships with their students (Brady, 2014; Cranton, 2002). This highlights the social nature of any kind of learning process and hopefully reminds us that teaching could be conceived as a fine-tuning art aimed at supporting students’ holistic development.

By Gloria Nogueiras

References
Brady, L. (2014). Relationship, relationship and relationship in teaching / learning. Educational Practice and Theory 36(2), 27-34. doi: 10.7459/ept/36.2.03

Cranton, P. (2002). Teaching for transformation. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 93, 63-72. doi: 10.1002/ace.50

Formenti, L., & Dirkx, J. (2014). A dialogical reframing. Journal of Transformative Education, 12(2), 123–133. doi: 10.1177/1541344614554508

Grow, G. (1991). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly, 41(3), 125- 149. doi: 10.1177/0001848191041003001

Keeney, B. P. (1983). Aesthetics of change. New York: Guilford.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Mälkki, K. (2010). Building on Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning: Theorizing the challenges to reflection. Journal of Transformative Education , 8(1), 42–62. doi: 10.1177/1541344611403315

Piaget, J. (1985). The equilibrium of cognitive structures : The central problem of intellectual development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (original work published in 1975).

Van Rossum, E.J., & Hamer, R. (2010). The meaning of learning and knowing. Rotterdam: Sense Publisher.

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