The Paradox of Self-Direction

initiativeFor the past several years, I’ve taught a graduate course on adult learning.  In total, I’ve probably had over 50 master’s degree students take this class.  And overwhelmingly, they have expressed enthusiasm and excitement as they’ve discovered the world of andragogy, the self-directed style that, I believe, underlies much of effective adult learning.  In sharp contrast to the pedagogical world to which most had been exposed and inculcated throughout their lives, they react to these new ideas with full-blown exultations!

images-3Fast forward 14 months, and I typically welcome back into my classroom for what will be their final journey en route to their master’s degree conferment.  The three-course applied sequence is designed to immerse them in the research side of being an organizational development professional.  It’s the scholar side of our scholar-practitioner model.  And it’s intense!  With oftentimes little to no prior research background, these talented students are hit with a lot of technical information.  Research methodologies, language, and approaches fly at them for sixteen weeks.  And by the third 8-week course, they are expected to take a completed research design, gain approval for their project from the institution’s Human Participants’ Research Board, and be off and running on their guided, yet independent applied research project.

And it’s during this research sequence that we begin seeing cracks in the andragogical armor.  It’s then that this notion of self-directed learning is really put to the test, support for the learning approach openly questioned by the students’ themselves.

You see, not surprisingly, as long as one is learning within the framework of comfort, it’s easy to really like this notion of self-direction.  Take an abrupt leap outside the paradigm, however, and one’s faith is tested!

Baby_bird_first_flightAs faculty, in those instances when self-doubt creeps into our graduate students’ psyches, we’re offered several choices.  We can allow the students to fall back into their comfortable pedagogical cocoons, where our handholding and spoon feeding soothes their battered confidence.  Or we can insist on sticking with the andragogical foundations, comforting and reassuring our students without providing the answers to their growing quandary.

If we choose the former, we smooth out the students’ path, remove the anxiety, and carry them over the finish line.  And as natural “problem-solvers,” there’s not much more rewarding than knowing YOU were instrumental in getting someone to reach their goal.  It’s a great ego-stroke.

But there is something that’s even more rewarding than that.  You see, if we instead choose the latter, allowing our students to struggle, remaining on the sideline while they try and fail, pick themselves back off the ground and try again, we gain even greater reward.  Now, we aren’t passive bystanders, however.  No, we’re there alongside them, encouraging them, motivating them, and yes, challenging them.  But at the end, it’s in finding the intestinal fortitude to figure things out for themselves and to will themselves across that finish line that will have a more indelible impact on their lives.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going, right?  The next time you’re challenged and finding yourself wanting desperately to fall back on the “easy way” back into your comfort zone, take some time to really think about what you’re giving up by doing so.  Most times, sticking with the tougher road will be more rewarding in the end.

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