The Difference Between Formal Education & Self-Directed Learning

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Formal education and experiential learning are two different approaches to learning, two distinct methodologies that are aimed at catalyzing different results. For sure, they’re both concerned with learning. But, while they do evidence certain commonalities, the differences between them are more significant than the similarities. These differences shine through when you examine their nature, purpose, history, and methodology.

Their Nature

Education is concerned with the transmission of knowledge from one individual to another. It’s the process through which a knowledgeable individual – usually a credentialed teacher – is formally charged with transmitting a community’s accumulated knowledge to other individuals who possess less knowledge and legitimacy.

Experiential learning is concerned with supporting individuals in their own personal exploration of their unique lived experiences, both at work and in life. In this context, experiential learning has five main characteristics

  • It’s a continuous exploratory process grounded in experience
  • It’s best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes.
  • It’s an expansive process focused on adaptation to the world.
  • It involves transactions between a person and their environment.
  • It a process that’s focused on creating new knowledge specific to the individual.

Experiential learning of this sort sees an individual moving through four discrete steps: (1) having a concrete experience followed by (2) observing and reflecting on that experience, which leads to (3) forming abstract concepts and broad generalizations about the nature of their experience, which are then (4) used to test hypotheses about how, in future situations, to act more effectively. 

Their Purpose

Education, as a societal process, has three main purposes: (1) Socializing people about their community’s knowledge, cultural norms, and received wisdom; (2) certifying the fact that an individual has mastered either the societal or the professional curriculum that’s deemed necessary to become a functioning member of the community or a person who’s qualified to practice a given profession or trade; and (3) helping individuals develop their own personal talents, especially the cognitive and emotional skills they need to build the career and life they aspire to.

Experiential learning is a personal meaning-making process. The primary source material for this process is each person’s own lived experience. Experiential learning has four essential purposes:

1.    Strengthening the skills we already have, especially those that are producing less than optimal personal or professional results.

2.    Developing the new skills we need if we're going to respond effectively to the 21st Century's new entrepreneurial and leadership challenges.

3.    Reframing basic assumptions and presumptions we currently hold about our lives and the world we live in that all too rapidly are becoming outdated. 

4.    Providing each of us with the knowledge and skills we need to effectively pursue our own lifelong learning journeys.

Their History

Education, as we know it today, had its origins in Europe’s medieval universities. In the thirteenth century, European universities revamped their academic programs in ways that saw young men from wealthy families, often at no more than 13 or 16 years of age, begin to enroll in carefully designed courses of study in theology or philosophy that emphasized the study of Latin, rhetoric, and logic. After four years, this course of study was completed, and formally marked by the awarding of a “baccalaureate.” This baccalaureate degree, in truth, was nothing more than a preliminary step toward a “mastership (later called a masters degree), which involved three more years studying arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. This “mastership” was not designed as something that was useful or practical; it was designed to encourage the development of intellectual and moral excellence, what today we know as a liberal arts education.

Experiential learning, on the other hand, has its origins in ancient Greece. Around 350 BCE, Aristotle wrote, "for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” As a formal approach, experiential learning first found it’s footing in Western Europe’s guild system, which was an association of craftsmen formed for mutual aid and protection. The guild system, and its concept of experiential learning, flourished in Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries. It apprenticed young men to a master baker, stonemason, or builder, letting them work under their master to learn his trade. This approach to experiential learning has slowly evolved and expanded across the centuries until, in the 1970s, David Kolb promulgated what is now the modern theory of experiential learning.

 Their Methodology

Education today is a societal processes that transmits its knowledge, norms, and wisdom through predetermined courses that, these days, are very much more diverse that those just described as characteristic of medieval universities. In today’s societies, knowledge is organized into pre-defined curricula, certification processes, and graduation rituals. Regardless of what the course of study is, it’s always delivered through a formally organized set of “teacher/student” rolls and interaction patterns. Essentially, in today’s educational system, teachers teach and students study.

Experiential learning, by way of contrast, is a personal meaning making process, one that’s built on the foundations of an individual's own personal experiences. Experiential learning can and most often does, take place without a teacher or a formal curriculum. Experiential learning is an organic process, one that unfolds naturally. An effective experiential learning effort generally requires certain elements; for example, it requires an individual who, for whatever reason, is open to examining his or her own lived experiences, especially those that were challenging, discouraging, or laced with anxiety. Beyond this, in order to learn from these kinds of experience, a person must have four distinct abilities:

  • The willingness to be actively involved in the examination of their own experiences;
  • The ability to both remember their life experiences in some detail and reflect back on these experiences;
  • The ability to use analytical skills to conceptualize the experiences they want to learn from; and
  • The decision-making and problem solving skills necessary to translate new insights into new perspectives and skills.

A Summary

Education is the process through which a society transmits its knowledge, cultural norms, and skills from one generation to the next. Education is the process a society uses to credential and certify certain individuals as competent to perform key jobs and represent themselves as members of a given profession. Education is also the process set up by society to support an individual’s own personal efforts to further their own careers and realize their most authentic selves.

Experiential learning, on the other hand, is the process that motivated individuals, at their own initiative, use to initiates personal efforts aimed at helping them (1) better understand their own beliefs and values, (2) examine precepts and presuppositions they’re holding that might not be serving them well, (3) reframe outdated modes of thinking, (4) improve existing skillsets that are no longer functional, and (5) develop new skillsets more appropriate to they complexities and challenges they’re currently facing. 

Education is something that one gets at specific points in their life from institutions that have pre-defined and proscribed the things a student must learn. Experiential learning, in contrast, is an informal, personally designed and driven process, one that often sees the person in an unconscious response to their life’s significant experiences. Occasionally, experiential learning becomes a conscious effort, one that the person designs, organizes, and implements on their own for themselves. Either way, experiential learning is always the foundation for a lifelong learning journeys. It's something an individual's always doing, from their birth until their death.