Self-Directed, Experienced-Based Learning


In this day and age, school-based educational efforts, on their own, can never be enough. Today, no amount of formal education can guarantee you the knowledge, perspective, and skills needed to assure your comfort and safety. In a world like ours, filled with radical complexities and accelerating rates of change, as well as other contemporary challenges and opportunities, high-quality formal education is a necessity. But degrees and certificates alone will never be enough to let you build the career or life you aspire to. At best, formal education can only be the "Front End" portion of what, both today and tomorrow, has to become for each of us a lifelong learning journey

Today, in addition to our formal degrees, each of us needs to know how to design and implement our own experience-based, self-directed learning programs. Specifically, we each need to know how to use our own self-awareness to organize and launch the kinds of personal and professional learning journeys that allow us to do three crucial things:

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

Self-Directed Learning

Forty years ago, Herbert Simon and Malcolm Knowles launched what these days we know as the self-directed learning movement. In Skill in Chess (1973), Simon offered us what now is one of the most famous learning propositions ever published, “There are no instant experts in chess. No chess player on record who ever has reached the grandmaster level with less than a decade’s worth of intense preoccupation with the game." "We," Simon said, "estimate, very roughly, that a grandmaster [must spend] 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions…if they're going to reach the grandmaster level." 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 and proposition for the field of education and learning.

Several years’ later 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 biggest step forward that Kolb offered in this book, the contribution that was the first to turn Simon and Knowles’s insights about the significance personal experience has for and adult’s learning efforts, was Kolb’s four step experiential learning process. In practice, every adult’s learning efforts go through a four-step learning cycle that looks 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:


In short, Kolb's four-stage model identifies for us the specific steps that any adult has to take if they’re going to implement the kind of experience-based learning processes that Simon hinted at in Skill in Chess. These experientially-based learning skills are the ones that here at TLO we believe are essential if we want to react and respond to the 21st Century's startling challenges and inspiring opportunities. For most adults, at least two of these four steps are ones that they take without ever being explicitly and persistently conscious of what they’re doing; they take place behind the scenes. Those steps that are easy are their favorites, their learning preference; these are the skillsets they’re aware of and are best at.

Recent Experience

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

More recently, however, I’ve learned that if and when an adult learner consciously integrates Simon's discoveries about focused attention with Anders Ericsson's insights about deliberate practice, Kolb's insights about experiential learning, and Jack Mezirow's transformative learning skills, they can actually accelerate the pace and effectiveness of their individual's learning efforts. In fact, this four-fold integration of Simon, Ericsson, Kegan, and Mezirow dramatically reduces the time it takes an adult learner to master complex new skills to well below the 10,000 hours that Simon prescribed.

The exciting thing about all this is that it seems as if, when you take what we know about focused attention, deliberate practice, experiential learning, and transformational learning and integrate these four learning practices into a comprehensive self-directed approach, we can tailor and support whatever learning journey you might be interested in launching in such a way that it becomes concrete, practical, and almost always enjoyable.