Tan, C. (2018). Whither teacher-directed learning? Freirean and Confucian insights.
Educational Forum, 82(4), 461-474.
The Educational Forum, 82(4), 461-474.
Teacher-directed learning is perceived to be detrimental to student learning and incompatible
with learner-centred pedagogies. This essay challenges this perception by referring to Freirean
and Confucian insights. It is argued that Freire, Confucius and Xunzi advocate the active
involvement of the teacher in the student learning through necessary intervention and guidance
towards self-directed learning. This article proposes a flexible application and judicious
combination of teacher-directed and learner-/self-directed learning that considers the learner’s
Keywords: Confucius, Freire, student learning, teacher-directed learning, Xunzi
What is Teacher-Directed Learning (hereinafter TDL) and its relationshiop with learner-centred
pedagogies? TDL has been the dominant mode of instruction around the globe, especially in
formal educational settings where didactic approaches are valued for faciltiating content mastery
and exam preparation. However, TDL is increasingly viewed pejoratively and eschewed in the
modern and digital age. Surrounded by the rhetoric of so-called 21st century skills such as
knowledge creation, learner autonomy and ICT-literacy, policymakers, academics and educators
have turned their attention instead to learner-centred philosophies and pedagogies. A number of
researchers have criticised TDL for promoting ‘wordy teaching’ (Saunders & Goldenberg, 1996),
rewards and punishment to stifle students’ autonomy (Kamii, 1986; Schweinhart & Weikart,
1988), passive learning (Bolhuis & Voeten, 2001) and teacher imitation (Kewley, 1998). TDL
has also been contrasted with popular pedagogical practices such as student-centred methods,
child-directed education, self-directed learning and peer collaboration (Knowles, 1975, 1984;
Bruner, 1985; Forman & Cazden, 1985; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1988; Kewley, 1998). The issue
of the characteristics, salience and impact of TDL is an important and practical one as it directly
affects student achievement and school reform.
So is TDL necessarily detrimental to student learning and incompatible with learner-
centred pedagogies? This article answers this question by referring to Freirean and Confucian
insights on teaching and learning. Freirean and Confucian ideas have been selected for our
comparison as they represent two antithetical views on TDL. Freire, located within the Western
tradition of critical pedagogy, is known for his critique of TDL through the ‘banking concept of
education’. On the other hand, Confucius and his followers, whose teachings underpin and shape
East Asian educational traditions, are credited for propagating textual transmission, didacticism
and rote-memorisation. It is therefore pertinent to explore and compare Freirean and Confucian
views with respect to TDL. The Freirean ideas discussed in this paper are derived from the
writings of Paulo Freire whereas Confucian perspectives refer to those of Confucius and Xunzi.
The writings of Xunzi have been included in our study as his educational thought was influential
in classical Chinese tradition, comparable to that of Aristotle in the Greek world (Knoblock,
1988). At the outset, it should be clarified that the terms ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ will be used
synonymously throughout the paper to refer to ‘educator’ and ‘learner’ respectively. The usage
of these terms may include but does not imply the existence of a formal school system with
prescribed syllabus, structured curriculum and modern pedagogies. The ‘students’ or ‘learners’
Freire, Confucius and Xunzi had in mind are primarily adult disciples from all walks of life
rather than children or students in a school setting. But the fundamental Freirean and Confucian
educational principles delineated in this article apply to both adult learners and children. Another
clarification is that a discussion of the ideas of Xunzi alongside those of Confucius does not
imply that there are no philosophical differences between them. Xunzi, for example, is known
for arguing that human nature is bad whereas Confucius is silent on the topic. Nor does the
choice of Xunzi suggest that the works of other (neo)Confucian thinkers such as Mencius and
Zhu Xi are irrelevant or less important. As mentioned, Xunzi’s works have been selected for our
study as his views on teaching and learning are highly germane to our topic on TDL. This essay
begins with an introduction to the concept of TDL, followed by an elucidation of Freirean and
Confucian insights on TDL. The third section highlights the implications of Freirean and
Confucian educational approaches for teacher-directed and learner-/self-directed learning.
Teacher-Directed Learning (TDL)
Despite its ubiquitous use in the academic and popular discourse, TDL remains an ambiguous
and contested term. Scholars have related TDL variously to teacher-centred learning, direct
instruction, content oriented conception and traditional learning (Creemers, 1994; Hannafin, Hill
& Land 1997; Kember 1997; Bolhuis & Voeten, 2001; Attard et al., 2010). TDL has also
generated different receptions from researchers. On the one hand are writers who castigate TDL
for imperilling active student participation and independent thinking. An example is Kewley
(1998) who claims that TDL champions the imitation of one’s teacher with “no room for arguing,
debating, or questioning between the presentation of the solution and the imitation of the
behaviour” (p. 31). Other researchers who are more sympathetic towards TDL also underscore
its usefulness in enhancing the students’ learning of concepts. For instance, Chang (2003) posits
that TDL “provided students with systematic instructional content and organised teaching
sequence, which might have facilitated students’ understanding of the natural hazard problem
and help them grasp scientific facts and concepts” (p. 435).
One way to make sense of and reconcile the diverse and competing views on TDL is to
conceptualise it as a multi-faceted term that comprises varying forms and degrees of teacher
directedness. Building upon Knowles (1975, 1984), teacher directedness in TDL may be
manifested in one or more of the following forms: diagnose the students’ learning needs,
determining learning objectives, providing human and material resources for learning, selecting
and executing appropriate learning strategies, and assessing learning outcomes. In addition, TDL
may come in different measures along a continuum. At one end of the continuum is maximum
TDL that is characterised by pervasive and sustained knowledge transmission, passive learning
and rote-memorisation. Also known as ‘transfer’ theory of learning (Fox, 1983) or ‘tradition
teaching’ (Bolhuis & Voeten, 2001), this approach is one where the teacher “initiates all the
activities; children initiate none of them” (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1988, p. 218). Such learning
sees students as dependent and the teacher as the authority, using teaching methods such as
formal lectures, structured drills and intensive individual tutoring (Grow, 1991). By creating and
perpetuating “the powerlessness of children who enter the classroom and wait for the teacher to
tell them to open their work-books” (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1988, p. 217), maximum TDL is
often used as a tool for indoctrination.
At the other end of the continuum is minimum TDL where teacher directedness is
employed sparingly in the process of student learning. A number of scholars have contended that
some form and degree of teacher directedness are essential for successful student learning, even
in instances when learner- or self-directed approaches are adopted (e.g. Knowles, 1975; Grow,
1991; Blumberg & Michael, 1992; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1988; Bolhuis & Voeten, 2001;
Lunenberg, & Korthagen, 2003; Roberts, 1998; Author). For example, Schweinhart and Weikart
(1988) aver that child-initiatied learning requires the teacher to create a framework to maintain
the purposefulness and direction of the programme. Illuminating the concept of self-directed
learning, Grow (1991) asserts that “highly self-directed learners sometimes choose highly
directive teachers” (p. 128). Concurring with Grow is Garrison (1997) who points out that self-
management and self-monitoring do not imply that students are independent of the teacher;
instead, they still need teachers as facilitators to provide the support, direction, standards and
To further explain the application of and synthesis between teacher-directed and learner-
/self-directed learning, it is instructive to refer to Grow’s (1991) ‘Staged Self-Directed Learning’
model. Although this model is designed for self-directed learning, it incorporates teacher
directedness into the model that makes it relevant to our discussion. Grow introduces four stages
of self-directed learning, each with its distinctive learner’s need and teacher’s style. The four
main types of students are ‘dependent’ (Stage 1), ‘interested’ (Stage 2), ‘involved’ (Stage 3), and
‘self-directed’ (Stage 4). Grow (1991, 1994) explains that even if an individual has achieved
Stage 4 of becoming ‘self-directed’, teacher directedness is still needed in the form of inspiring,
mentoring, challenging and provoking the learner, “plan[ing] concepts, questions, or paradoxes
in the learner’s mind which require a lifetime to work through” (p. 135). Although Grow refers
to stages of learning, it should be noted that the stages are not linear or rigid but interactive and
overlapping. Grow’s model serves as a useful conceptual lens with which we can view and
compare Freirean and Confucian perspectives on TDL in a later section.
Freirean and Confucian Insights on TDL
Against maximum TDL
Freire rejects maximum TDL that emphasises pervasive and sustained knowledge transmission,
passive learning and rote-memorisation. His views on this form of TDL are encapsulated in what
he calls the ‘banking concept of education’. This refers to a teaching approach where the teacher
is a depositor who “issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive,
memorise, and repeat” (Freire, 1970, p. 72). Freire (1970) maintains that the banking concept of
education is anti-educational as students are expected to merely record and repeat what is taught
without understanding. Asserting that “[m]ere mechanical memorisation of the superficial
aspects of the object is not true learning”, Freire (1998) contends, “Such a relationship with the
obect makes the learner into a kind of passive instrument who ‘transfers’ some contents” (pp. 66-
67). Central to Freire’s (1970) critique of the banking model is dehumanisation which is “a
distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human” (p. 43). Reducing to “adaptable,
manageable” human beings, learners become passive entities to be fitted for the world (Freire,
1970, p. 73). Their creative and critical reflective abilities are also undermined as they are not
given the opportunity to practise any act of cognition – an activity that is the sole prerogative of
the teacher in the banking model.
Freire’s educational vision is humanisation – to become more fully human where one is
not an object but a subject who knows and acts (Freire, 1970, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2005). Such a
person perceives the way one exists in the world with and in which one finds oneself.
Knowledge is re-created when the learner, in collaboration with one’s teacher and peers, unveils
the world of oppression and transforms reality. To unveil reality is to recognise the state of
oppression one is in, whether it is through the banking model or other oppressive ideals,
structures and practices. Humanisation requires conscientisation that refers to “the deepening of
the attitude of awareness characteristic of all emergence” (Freire, 1970, p. 109). Conscientisation
enables the learner to be critically aware of prevailing social, political and economic
contradictions and forms of oppression in society. The learner becomes a transforming human
being who embraces praxis where reflection and action are integrated. Armed with “a different
understanding of history and of his or her role in it”, such a person “will refuse to become
stagnant, but will move and mobilise to change the world” (Freire, 1996, p. 183). The ‘pedagogy
of the oppressed’ which is the title of Freire’s (1970) book, in short, is “the pedagogy of people
engaged in the fight for their own liberation” (p. 53) so as to “regain their humanity” (p. 48).
Like Freire, Confucius and Xunzi object to maximum TDL on the basis that it fosters rote
learning without understanding and application. Confucius repudiates rote-memorisation by
expressing his displeasure over a learner’s inability to expound on what one has learnt (Analects
7.3; all citations of Confucius are taken from this text and translated into English by the author).
Emphasising the importance of personal understanding and inferential thinking on the part of the
students, he states:
I do not enlighten a person who is not striving [to understand]; I do not provide [the words
to a person] who is not already struggling to speak. If I have raised one [corner] and the
person does not come back with the other three [corners], I will not [teach that person]
Also rejecting mere memorisation without comprehension and application, Xunzi stresses the
primacy of learning broadly and examining oneself thrice daily in order to achieve clear
knowledge and faultless conduct (Xunzi, chap 1, lines 9-10; all citations of Xunzi are taken from
this text and translated into English by Hutton, 2014). Confucius, in alignment with Freire,
opposes the reduction of human beings to ‘containers’ to be taught and disciplined. During
Confucius’ time, political rulers such as the Duke of She resorted to harsh legalist practices to
oppress the masses (Slingerland, 2003). Confucius speaks out against such rulers who “lead the
people with edicts and keep them in line with punishments” (2.3). He reminds rulers not to
oppress the common people by making them work without first establishing trust with them
(9.10). Rejecting dehumanisation, Confucius envisions the attainment of humanity or
benevolence (ren) for all human beings. Ren is the overarching and general quality that
encompasses all virtues such as respect, sincerity, empathy, courage, strength, decisiveness,
simplicity, tolerance, trustworthiness, diligence and generosity (12.2, 13.27, 14.4, 17.6). That all
human beings are potential ‘subjects who know and act’ (Freire, 1970) in accordance with ren is
affirmed by Confucius: “Being ren lies in oneself, how could it come from others” (12.1). The
process of attaining ren requires self-transformation whereby one learns, internalises and
manifests ren thoughts, feelings and actions throughout one’s life (4.4, 4.6, 15.9). In like fashion,
Xunzi delineates the relationship between learning and virtuous living:
[H]e repeatedly recites his learning in order to master it, ponders it in order to comprehend
it, makes his person so as to dwell in it, and eliminates things harmful to it in order to
nourish it. He makes his eyes not want to see aht is not right, makes his ears not want to
hear what is not right, makes his mouth not want to speak what is not right, and makes his
heart not want to delierate over what is not right. […] This is called the state in which
virtue has been grasped (Xunzi, chapter 1, lines 218-231).
It can be concluded from the preceding that both Freirean and Confucian worldviews object to
maximum TDL on mainly two grounds: it is dehumanising by inhibiting the progress of the
learners towards humanisation/humanity, and it is disempowering by reducing learners to mere
objects to be manipulated and oppressed.
In support of a certain degree of teacher directedness
But the antagonism of Freirean and Confucian philosophies towards maximum TDL does not
mean that they oppose all types, variations and manifestations of TDL. On the contrary, both
Freirean and Confucian worldviews support a certain degree of teacher directedness in student
learning by rejecting laissez-faire education. The latter is an approach where the teacher
relinquishes any authority and allows students to do whatever they wish (Roberts, 1996). In his
critique of Freire’s educational approach, Blackburn (2000) argues that Freire’s pre-determined
vision of liberation is impositional and paternalistic. But Roberts (1994, 1998) rightly counters
that any educational endeavour for learners necessarily involves the imposition of certain system,
structures, processes and presuppositions on the participants (also see Mayo, 2004; Beckett, 2013;
Author, XXXX). Although Freire (1970) denounces the banking mode for allowing the
programme content to be solely determined by the teacher and leaving “the students (who were
not consulted) [to] adapt to it” (p. 73), he does not recommend that no programme content should
be chosen at all. What Freire as well as Confucius and Xunzi object to instead is the imposition
of any programme content that dehumanises students by disregarding their needs, potentials,
choices and situated experiences.
That Freire (1998) opposes a non-directed approach to education is evident in his
declaration that “[i[t is my good sense that will tell me that exercising my authority in the
classroom through the decisions I make, the activities I direct, the tasks I assign, and the goals I
set for both individuals and the group is not a sign of authoritarianism” (p. 60, italics added). He
reiterates that “I must intervene in teaching the peasants that their hunger is socially constructed
and work with them to help identify those responsible for this social construction, which is, in
my view, a crime against humanity” (Freire & Macedo, 1995, p. 379, cited in Freire, 1970, p. 20,
italics added). Freire (1998) observes that the desire of “overcoming the legacy of
authoritarianism so prevalent among us” has led some educators to fall into “the opposite error of
limitless freedom, accusing the legitimate exercise of authority of being an abuse of authority” (p.
95). Freire holds that the educator “cannot be a mere facilitator” (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 180)
but should instead direct the students to critique reality and overcome oppression in their lives.
Although Freire recognises that he “cannot manipulate” the students, he adds that he also
“cannot leave the students by themselves” (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 157). What is needed then is
“accepting the directive nature of education” where education is never neutral and the teacher’s
role is not to be silent (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 157). Given that educational practice “is always
directive” (Freire, 1999, p. 79), a key question “is to know towards what and with whom is it
directive’ (Shor & Freire, 1987, pp. 22–23).
Rather than accepting a laissez-faire approach, Freire has a specific educational goal in
mind that is targeted at empowering human beings to become more fully human through
conscientisation. Although he does not stipulate a fixed programme content for the learners, he
privileges learning content that is drawn from the learners’ situations and perceptions of the
world and reality. Furthermore, Freire (1998) is not against student evaluation per se, calling it
“obviously necessary”; what he opposes is adopting “a type of methodology that aims at
silencing constructive diversity, constructive criticism, and, ultimately, freedom” (p. 104). As for
the teaching method, Freire particularly favours the use of dialogue to engage students critically
so that the teachers can co-create knowledge with students. The task of the teacher, far from
being uninvolved in the students’ learning, is to ‘re-present’ situations as problems to students as
part of humanisation. It is noteworthy that although the dialogic method proposed by Freire is
student-centred, the process is still initiated and guided by the teacher. Freire (1999) stresses that
dialogue between teachers and students “does not place them on the same footing professionally”
and that “a dialogical relation does not, as is sometimes thought, rule out the possibility of the act
of teaching” (p. 117). As further explained by Shor (1993), “By frontloading questions and
backloading lectures, the teacher invites students to assert their ownership of their education,
building the dialogue with their words” (p. 32). Elaborating on the directed nature of Freire’s
approach, Roberts (1994) asserts that Freire does not intend dialogue to discuss “whatever
themes happen to be of interest to participants”; instead, he aims to direct dialogue to overcome
oppression operating in Brazil at the time (p. 319).
A Freirean teacher also utilises a certain degree of TDL in terms of the values and
dispositions an educator wishes to inculcate in the learner (Roberts, 1996, 1998). Rejecting
values of pessimism, diffidence and obedience, Freire aims to nurture students who are confident,
socially caring and empowered to create a better world for all. Far from being neutral, Freire’s
approach produces a specific type of self-directed learner: one who possesses critical thinking,
praxis, self-control, commitment and transforming ability to overcome oppression (Freire, 1996,
1998, 1999, 2005). His educational vision also presupposes certain virtues that are needed to
bring the vision to fruition; the objective of dialogue is to engender “a profound love for the
world and for people”, humility, faith in humankind and mutual trust (Freire, 1970, p. 90).
In tandem with Freire, Confucius and Xunzi support an appropriate degree of teacher
directedness to help students to become junzi (exemplary or noble persons) who extend the
normative tradition. A junzi is an autonomous and empowered person who leads and influences
others to live morally in accordance with the Confucian normative tradition. The normative
tradition accordingly is located in the Zhou dynasty through its institutions, rituals, texts, conduct
of the sage-kings and other cultural resources. Confucius identifies the following components of
learning: “Set your heart-mind on Way (dao), base yourself on virtue, lean upon humanity (ren),
journey in the arts” (7.6). The ‘arts’ in ancient China comprises six subjects or domains of
learning, namely ritual, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and mathematics. Teacher
directedness is indispensable for the acquisition of disciplinary content such as learning the
rituals, specialised skills such as playing musical instruments, and expression of virtuous living.
Xunzi asks rhetorically, “If you are without a teacher, how will you know that your practice of
ritual is right?” (chap 2, lines 177-178). He reasons that one cannot grasp the deep meanings of
ancient classics such as the Book of Odes, Book of Documents and Spring and Autumn Annals
without expert tutelage (Author, XXXX). Confucian instruction however should be
supplemented by learner-centred methods that encourage students to ask questions, reflect
critically and apply what they have learnt in their lives (Analects, 7.8). Xunzi draws attention to
the importance of using one’s intelligence and investigative abilities to deliberate on and
distinguish between things (chap 21, lines 388-393).
As in the case of a Freirean curriculum, a values-centred rather than a neutral approach is
propagated (Shim, 2007). That a particular moral orientation is privileged by Confucius is
evident in his aspiration for students to attain ren (humanity) by possessing ethical values such as
empathy, diligence, courage and sincerity. Shun (1993) observes that ren encompasses “a much
wider confluence of emotions, attitudes, values, and ultimately a particular ethical orientation
that, in the final analysis, would bring about social order” (p. 311, italics added). Commenting
that the common goal of education for Freire and Confucius is social justice, Zhao (2013)
concludes that both thinkers believe that the “school is not simply an ivory tower storing and
passing down wisdom from our ancestors; instead, a school is a democratic public sphere
(Giroux, 1985, p. 38) in which teachers and students are political subjects who are committed to
freedom and democracy and collective political action” (p. 21).
It should be noted that a Confucian prescription of a specific programme content does not
mean that the content should be imposed on the students without considering their readiness and
interest. Certainly Confucius (as well as Xunzi) would concur with Freire that the content should
not be simply about what the educator wants to teach in an authoritarian manner. Although the
programme content should revolves around the Zhou culture, Confucians are in agreement with
Freire that the teacher’s role is to ‘re-present’ (Freire, 1970) the material in such a way that caters
to the students’ learning needs and lived experiences. Neither is the Confucian emphasis on the
teacher as the content expert and moral exemplar means that the students’ submission to their
teacher is unconditional, or that the students’ autonomy is handicapped. Confucius urges all
learners to place the pursuit of humanity above their deference to their teachers (15.36). He also
teaches that a person’s humanity (ren) is not based on one’s social position or professional
authority but rather on one’s conduct and mistakes made (4.7). It needs to be pointed out that the
parallel between the Freirean and Confucian perspectives on the necessity of teacher directedness
and its compatibility with learner-centred approaches does not entail that there is no difference
between the two thinkers. Compared with Confucius and Xunzi, Freire argues for a more equal
relationship between the teacher and students. Freire (1970) envisages a form of education where
students are “critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher” (p. 81) and are jointly
responsible for a process in which all grow” (p. 80). An equal relationship between the teacher
and students is proposed where the teacher “is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one
who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach”
(Freire, 1970, p. 80). As students are empowered to question their prior perception of reality and
of themselves, they “apprehend that situation as an historical reality susceptible of
transformation” ((Freire, 1970, p. 85). While Confucius and Xunzi also believe in equipping
learners to reflect and challenge current realities, identify problems and work towards a
resolution, they maintain the importance for students to respect their teachers as content experts
and moral exemplars. Unlike Freire’s conception where knowledge is internal to the learners, the
source of knowledge for Confucian proponents is external and located in the Zhou culture.
Students, it follows, need to depend on and look up to their teacher as role models to learn about
the Zhou culture and moral conduct. Xunzi avers that not having teachers as role models will
result in people misusing their talents and abilities: “the clever among them will surely engage in
robbery, and the bold among them will surely engage in villainy” (chap 8, lines 460-462).
Conversely, “[i]f people have teachers and proper models, then the clever among them will
quickly achieve comprehension, and the bold among them will quickly achieve awe-inspiring
status” (chap 8, lines 465-467). To be sure, Confucians do not reject the idea that teachers should
learn alongside their students as part of their lifelong quest to become more fully human, given
that humility and empathy are part of ren. But Confucians claim that the relationship between
teachers and students is not and should not be an equal one; the former still plays a leading role
in setting an example and guiding their students to learn, internalise and exhibit ren in their
Overall, both Freirean and Confucian paradigms see a compatibility between teacher
directedness and self-directed learning where “individuals take the initiative, with or without the
help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human
and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies,
and evaluating learning outcomes” (Knowles, 1975, p. 18). Such form of learning presupposes
learner motivation where the individual self-monitors and self-manages in creating and
sustaining meaningful and worthwhile learning outcomes (Garrison, 1997). But the attainment of
self-directed learning in students necessities, paradoxically, teacher-directed approaches to lead
and support students in the learning process.
Implications for Teaching and Learning
An examination of Freirean and Confucian views reveals that TDL is not necessarily derogatory
and undesirable to student learning. On the contrary, it is essential and beneficial to support
learner- and self-directed learning of students when used appropriately. What is objectionable,
from both the Freirean and Confucian viewpoints, is a simplistic understanding of TDL or an
‘either-or’ mind-set that sees teacher directedness and student-centred education as antipodal. As
noted by Knowles (1975), “all teacher-directed learning is not necessarily bad … and all student-
directed learning is not necessarily good” (p. 21). The implication from our exploration of TDL
is for educators is to adopt the appropriate form and measure of TDL flexibly and combine it
judiciously with learner-/self-directed learning so as to meet the learner’s needs.
With reference to Grow’s ‘Staged Self-Directed Learning’ model eluidated earlier, it is
instructive that Grow classifies Freire’s educational approach as belonging to Stage 3. This is the
stage where the student is described as ‘involved’ and the teacher functions as a ‘facilitator’.
Discussion in this stage is expedited by the teacher who participates as an equal. This approach is
contrasted with Stage 1 that is characterised by drill, informational lecture and coaching, Stage 2
that typically involves inspiring lecture plus guided discussion, and Stage 4 where individuals are
involved in self-directed study group and other individual work. Students in Stage 3 already have
the basic skills and knowledge and are ready to engage in deeper learning with a good guide.
Although students in this srage see themselves as “future equals of the teacher”, they are not
experienced or motivated enough to achieve that goal. Hence they still require the teacher to
direct in their critical reflections of themselves, their culture and milieu. Teacher directedness
may be in the form of assigning students to open-ended but carefully-designed projects, and
providing written criteria, learning contracts and evaluation checklists to help learners monitor
their own progress (Grow, 1991).
However, a drawback of Freire’s critical pedagogy or other approaches in Stage 3 is that
it may not be suitable for all students and in all contexts. As pointed out by Grow (1991),
“critical pedagogy alone may not be sufficient to move students from dependent to independent
learning” (p. 139). Commenting on the challenges of implementing critical pedagogy, Ira Shor
reports that his students “are waiting for the teacher to speak and do all the work and leave them
alone to copy down what should be memorised” (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 129, cited in Grow,
1991, p. 139). Using the example of undergraduate nursing education, Levett-Jones (2005) avers
that many nursing students prefer the teacher to take the lead by providing “direct, concrete,
teacher-structured experiences and highly organised activities, with clearly stated requirements
and expectations” (p. 366). In a scenario where the teacher does not provide sufficient direction,
the learner will not be able to appreciate the freedom to learn as such a person lacks the “skills
such as goal-setting, self-evaluation, project management, critical thinking, group participation,
learning strategies, information resources, and self-esteem, which make self-directed learning
possible” (Grow, 1991, p. 138).
To cater to the diverse needs of students, educators could consider other variations of
TDL, including Confucian approaches. Returning to Grow’s (1991) model, it is tempting, at first
glance, to classify Confucian pedagogy as belonging to Stage 2 where the student is ‘interested’
and the teacher serves as ‘motivator and guide’. Teachers in Stage 2 use a directed but highly
supportive approach that reinforces learner willingness and enthusiasm for the purpose of
helping students become self-directed (Grow, 1991). To this end, the teacher sets high standards
for the students, trains the students to set their own goal, motivates and guides them to achieve
their goals. Although a Confucian educational approach matches that in Stage 2, its educational
ideas and practices are not confined to that stage. Confucius himself pioneers the principle of
catering one’s teaching method to suit the learner’s needs (youjiao wulie) in ancient China. A
case in point is recorded in the Analects where Confucius gives two different answers to the
same question asked by two disciples. When asked by another disciple when Confucius gives
contradictory advice to the two students, Confucius replies, “Ranyou is diffident, and so I urged
him on; but Zilu has the energy of two, and so I reined him in” (11.22). It is therefore more
accurate to describe the Confucian educational approach outlined in this paper as comprising all
the four stages where a teacher adjusts one’s pedagogy based on the learner’s character, abilities
and needs. A more directed approach such as Stages 1 and 2 may be more suitable for learners
who are quiet, passive and accustomed to listening to teachers (Chang, 2003; Iwasiw, 1987;
Slevin & Lavery, 1991Chang & Mao, 1999; Levett-Jones, 2005). Strong teacher directedness is
also salutary for a student who “is new to the subject or has little previous experience of the
subject, when the focus of learning is on the content rather than the subject, or when students are
motivated towards achieving an external goal (Levett-Jones, 2005). Teachers could adopt
Freire’s pedagogy when they judge that the students are sufficiently grounded in the requisite
foundational knowledge, skills and dispositions or ready to self-direct their own learning.
Given that a teacher may teach different learners with divergent needs concurrently or
that the same learner may have varying needs for diverse subjects or in disparate settings, it is
imperative for teachers to go beyond one stage of learning and one version of TDL. They should
instead adjust their teaching style to suit the learner’s needs and explore a synthesis of TDL and
learner-/self-directed approaches. In other words, they could adopt “a mixture of traditional
lecture-format approaches, procedures to activate student learning, and techniques to guide and
coach learning processes” (Bolhuis & Voeten, 2001, p. 383). Ilustrating the combination of
teacher directedness and learner-centredness, Chang (2003) reports that the ‘teacher-directed
Computer Assisted Instruction (TDCAI) approach’ was more effective in improving the students’
achievements than the ‘student-controlled CAI (SCCAI) approach’. He explains:
[T]he teacher-centred teaching method makes clear to the student what the objectives are
and clarifies which learning materials and information are the most important. On the other
hand, the SCCAI has probably left students with a large amount data and information,
which might have impeded students’ learning of structured knowledge (p. 435).
Another instance of a fine balance between TDL and learner-/self-directed approaches is
problem-based learning (PBL). The teacher needs to provide the initial information to students
through lectures before students can start working on the problem in the problem-based methods
(Barrow, 1986; Author). Recognising the role of teacher guidance in PBL, Blumberg and
Michael (1992) differentiate between what they call ‘classical PBL’ which is more student-
centred and a ‘mixed PBL curriculum’ that is more teacher-centred. The latter brings together
faculty-generated learning objectives with specific reading assignments with the student-
generated, case-based learning issues. Blumberg and Michael (1992) report from their empirical
study that “the faculty-generated learning objectives and resource sessions can help to reinforce
the self-directed learning process as the students realise that they have developed their own skills
in defining what they, and the faculty, believe is important to learn” (p. 6). Knowles (1975), in
identifying the competencies needed for educators to promote self-directed learning in students,
underlines the teacher’s ability to diagnose learning needs, facilitate group decision making an
processes, assist learners set their own goals, and evaluate learning outcomes in a way which
promotes both reflection on learning and peer review.
Freire’s robust critique of the banking concept of education may give the impression that he is
against all manifestions of TDL. Concurrently, Confucian educational cultures have been
stereotyped as didactic and values-based, reinforced by the formation and memorisation of
Confucian classics for the civil service exam in ancient China. The essay challenges the above
Freirean and Confucian interpretations as well as the related claim that TDL is pernicious and
antithetical to learner-centred philosophies and pedagogies. It is posited that TDL is necessary to
and salutary for successful student learning. Freire, Confucius and Xunzi object to any form of
TDL that dehumanises and disempowers students. At the same time, they support the
indispensable role of the teacher in directing the students through planning and guiding the
students in dialogue and reflection. A key difference between the Freirean and Confucian
insights is that the former emphasises a more equal relationship between the teacher and students.
This study highlights the need to consider the learner’s needs against a backdrop of historical and
social contexts and cultural orientations that shape one’s frame of reference (Baumgartner, 2001).
Rejecting a view of the individual learner as one who is “autonomous, free, and growth-oriented”,
Merriam (2001) stresses that “every person has been shaped by his or her culture and society,
that every person has a history, and that social institutions and structures define, to a large extent,
the learning transaction irrespective of the individual learner” (p. 7). By exploring and
comparing the educational philosophies and pedagogies from Freirean and Confucian traditions,
this essay hopes to extend the existing research on TDL and provides a bridge to East-West
dialogue and cross-fertilisation.
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