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The word ‘self’ in self-directed learning (SDL) indicates a locus for both the responsibilities related to learning and the outcomes of that learning. Self-directed learning is conducted by the student and for the student. Frambach et al.1 remind us that beliefs about responsibility for learning and the outcomes of that learning are influenced by culture and may vary from one culture to the next so that responsibility may be located in the individual or in the collective. Outcomes, we learn from the article,1 can be perceived in a number of culturally determined ways, such as in personal growth or examination performance. However, whatever a programme’s desired outcomes may be, its students must bring to it and build selves that are compatible with those outcomes.

Self-directed learning is conducted by the student and for the student

In addition to locating responsibility and outcomes, the term ‘self-directed learning’ reminds us that attributes of the learner are cogent in this form of learning. In SDL, students confront who they are as learners and just what learning entails. For example, Frambach et al.1 indicate that secondary school experiences play an important role in preparation for SDL. These experiences shape students’ views of both who they are as learners and what it means to learn.

Whatever a programme’s desired outcomes, its students must bring and build selves that are compatible with those outcomes

Hence, the concept of self figures prominently in self-direction in terms of the locus of responsibility and outcome, as well as in the attributes and beliefs the self brings to and develops when learning. It is this prominence of self that has drawn Jennifer Kong and myself to explore the self one brings and the self one builds in SDL. Frambach et al. invite an expansion of our thinking in this regard to include considerations of culture.1

When the authors refer to a student’s degree of preparation for SDL,1 I believe they are alluding to considerations of fit between the self and the demands of the learning environment. In this vein, Hendry and Ginns2 identify attributes that they postulate enhance one’s readiness for SDL. These include critical self-evaluation, learning self-efficacy, self-determination and effective organisation. There is a lot of ‘self’ in these attributes. Students must think about themselves and ask some important questions. Can I effectively evaluate my own performance? Do I believe I can learn independently? Am I independently motivated to learn? Can I stay organised?

The effort required to answer these questions calls for a kind of ‘constructive narcissism’. One must believe that thinking about the self is not ‘self-ish’, but necessary. Indeed, the process of reflection that includes the self as an object of that reflection is considered central to successful SDL.3 The nature of this sort of reflection will vary across cultures and individuals.4,5

One must believe that thinking about the self is not ‘self-ish’, but necessary

Furthermore, the way we think about ourselves may well involve the making of comparisons, both within one’s self and between self and others. The authors’ data indicate that students in Asian and Middle Eastern contexts are more competitive in nature than their Western counterparts.1 I would argue that ‘competitive’ refers to a tendency to define one’s self in comparative terms. Competitive students require external, comparative data from things like examinations. In problem-based learning (PBL) settings, such students may continually compare their knowledge with that of other group members. Contributing to others’ knowledge would make the comparison with self less favourable; this is not the sort of thinking that is conducive to good PBL work.

Thus far, I have focused on the self the learner brings to SDL. It is equally important to consider the self the learner builds during self-directed opportunities (G Poole, J Kong; unpublished research, 2012). Regarding this building process, Frambach et al. remind us that potentially students may internalise what we might infer to be the PBL culture as much as they externalise their cultural ways on the PBL setting.1

The way we think about ourselves may involve making comparisons, both within one’s self and between self and others

Internalisation of the PBL culture involves the development of attributes that are conducive to self-direction and their incorporation into one’s sense of self. To this end, Frambach et al. provide evidence to indicate that students ‘increasingly internalised the principle of SDL as they moved from Year 1 to Year 3’.1 I would suggest that this principle concerns the locus of responsibility for learning discussed earlier in this commentary and consistent with the definition of the principle the authors provide in their paper.1 I would go further to suggest that the process of internalisation, in this case, involves a comparison between who students think they are and what they think is required of them in PBL. Over time, they build a self that they see as fitting more aptly with the demands and learning opportunities of PBL.

Internalisation of the PBL culture involves the development of attributes that are conducive to self-direction

A pressing question for medical educators, regardless of their culture, concerns whether we want our students to build selves that support SDL. Certainly, in Western medical schools, in which SDL opportunities that range from PBL to self-directed scholarly projects are common, the answer would be yes. In their concluding remarks, however, Frambach et al.1 caution against the assumption that Western values can be universally applied. They state: ‘Rather than taking on the cultural and contextual challenge of adopting student-centred, problem-based methods, it might be wiser for medical educationalists to rise to the challenge of exploring or creating alternatives that best fit their particular context.’1

The process of internalisation involves a comparison between who students think they are and what they think is required of them

For example, in North America a notion such as ‘adaptive expertise’6 is considered an important educational outcome. Cooke and colleagues6 draw a distinction between the kind of expertise that requires the well-learned application of knowledge to solve a problem and the creative processes that generate new approaches or that allow for the kinds of foresight that anticipate problems before they happen. Mylopoulos and Regehr assert that ‘adaptive expertise is understood as the product of a learned skill set that must be encouraged and practised from the earliest stages of training’.7 They are not alone in this assertion. Indeed, a theme of Cooke et al.’s Educating Physicians6 is that we need curricular reform that allows students to build a sense of self that includes this kind of expertise.

Other cultures will have their own desired outcomes in mind for medical education. Whatever those might be, students will need to bring and build selves that are compatible with those outcomes. In so doing, they are sculpted by their culture and their learning environments.

References

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  2. References
  • 1
    Frambach J, Driessen E, Chan L-C, van der Vleuten CMP. Rethinking the globalisation of problem-based learning: how culture challenges self-directed learning. Med Educ 2012;46:73847.
  • 2
    Hendry GD, Ginns P. Readiness for self-directed learning: Validation of a new scale with medical students. Med Teach 2009;31 (10):91820.
  • 3
    Fisher M, King J, Tague G. Development of a self-directed learning readiness scale for nursing education. Nurse Educ Today 2001;21:51625.
  • 4
    Markus HR, Kitayama S. Culture and the self: implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psych Rev. 1991;98 (2):22453.
  • 5
    Zhu Y, Han S. Cultural differences in the self: from philosophy to psychology and neuroscience. Soc Pers Psychol Compass 2008;2 (5):1799811.
  • 6
    Cooke M, Irby DM, O’Brien BC. Educating physicians. A call for reform of medical school and residency. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 2010;50.
  • 7
    Mylopoulos M, Regehr G. How student models of expertise and innovation impact the development of adaptive expertise in medicine. Med Ed. 2009;43:12732.