Self-Directed Learning

Today, in addition to acquiring our formal degrees, each of us needs to know how to create the "Back-End" portion of our own unique learning efforts. After graduation, each of us needs to know how to design and implement personalized, experience-based, self-directed learning programs. We need to know how to leverage our own experiences, transforming them into personal and professional learning journeys that do three crucial things:

  • Improve essential skills we already have,
  • Develop the new skills needed to succeed at work and in our lives, and
  • Reframe our outdated modes of thinking in ways that more effectively respond to today's challenges and opportunities.  


Forty years ago, Herbert Simon and Malcolm Knowles launched what's now known as self-directed learning. In Skill in Chess (1973), Simon offered us one of the most famous learning propositions ever published: “There are no instant experts in chess--certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) were a person has reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade's participation with the game." "We," Simon said, "would estimate, very roughly, that a master might spend perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours...staring at chess positions…" Simultaneously, Malcolm Knowles published two books, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (1973) and Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers (1975), which together served to establish the subject of self-directed learning as a valid approach for the field of education and learning.

Several years’ later Herbert Simon's research was the foundation for Malcolm Gladwell's famous 2008 assertion, "It takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world class in any field."

In 1984, David Kolb elaborated and concretized Simon's research in his book, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. The step forward that Kolb offered in his book, the contribution he made to Simon and Knowles’s insights about the significance of personal experience was Kolb’s four-step experiential learning process. In practice, Kolb showed that every adult’s learning efforts go through a four-step learning cycle that progressed like this:

Step 1: Immediate action provides us with the experiential basis for personal observations and reflection (Concrete Experience);

Step 2: These reflections are pulled together into new conceptual theories, from which we deduce new implications for action (Reflective Observation);

Step 3: These new hypotheses then serve us as guides for “experimenting” with new behaviors in our real worlds (Abstract Conceptualization); and

Step 4: In turn, these new behaviors create new experiences for us, which restart the learning cycle (Active Experimentation). 

In practice, Kolb’s four-step learning sequence looks like this:




Kolb's four-stage model identifies for us the specific steps that any adult must take while implementing the experience-based learning processes that Simon hinted at in Skill in Chess.

At TLO, we believe experientially-based learning skills are essential if we want to react and respond to the 21st Century's startling challenges and inspiring opportunities. Most adults take these four steps without ever being explicitly aware of what they’re doing; they take these steps unwittingly, unconsciously. 


TLO's experience with Kolb’s learning cycle over the past several years confirms that, for most adults, mastering complex new skills, regardless of whether they’re personal or professional, does in fact take 10,000+ hours.

However, we’ve also discovered that, if an adult learner consciously integrates Kolb's insights about experiential learning with Simon's discoveries about focused attention, and then matches these two skillsets with Anders Ericsson's insights about deliberate practice and Jack Mezirow's ideas about transformative learning, adult learners can accelerate the pace and effectiveness of their individual learning efforts. In fact, when an adult learner consciously integrates the knowledge and skills that Kolb, Simon, Ericsson, and Mezirow offer, they can dramatically reduce the time it takes them to master a complex new skill to well below the 10,000 hours that Simon prescribed.

This is exciting news. It appears that, when you take what we know about focused attention, deliberate practice, experiential learning, and transformational learning and integrate these four practices into a comprehensive, self-directed approach to improving existing skills and developing new ones, you can actually tailor and support whatever Back-End learning journey you might be interested in launching in such a way that it becomes concrete, practical, and almost always effective. And certainly something that takes considerably less than 10,000 hours to complete.