Some observations from Self-Directed Learning by Malcolm Knowles

by Malcolm Knowles (Follett, 1975)

It is a tragic fact that most of us only know how to be taught; we haven’t learned how to learn.

There is convincing evidence that people who take the initiative in learning (proactive learners) learn more things, and learn better, than do people who sit at the feet of teachers passively waiting to be taught (reactive learners).

Proactive learners enter into learning more purposefully and with greater motivation.  They also tend to retain and make use of what they learn better and longer than do the reactive learners.

Self-directed learning is more in tune with our natural processes of psychological development.

Many of the new developments in education – the new curriculums, open classrooms, nongraded schools, learning resource centers, independent study, nontraditional study programs, external degree programs, universities-without-walls, and the like – put a heavy responsibility on the learners to take a good deal of initiative in their own learning.

We are entering into a strange new world in which rapid change will be the only stable characteristic…This implies that it is no longer realistic to define the purpose of education as transmitting what is known.  In a world in which the half-life of many facts (and skills) may be ten years or less, half of what a person has acquired at age twenty may be obsolete by the time that person is thirty.

The main purpose of education must now be to develop the skills of inquiry.  When a person leaves schooling, he or she must not only have a foundation of knowledge acquired in the course of learning to inquire but, more importantly, also have the ability to go on acquiring new knowledge easily and skillfully the rest of his or her life.

To be adequate for our strange new world we must come to think of learning as being the same as living.

We must learn from everything we do; we must exploit every experience as a “learning experience”.

Every institution in our community – government agency, store, recreational organization, church – becomes a resource for learning, as does every person we have access to – parent, child, friend, service provider, doctor, teacher, fellow worker, supervisor, minister, store clerk, and so on and on.

Learning means making use of every resource – in or out of educational institutions – for our personal growth and development.

It is no longer appropriate to equate education with youth.  Education – or, even better, learning – must now be defined as a lifelong process.

The primary learning during youth will be the skills of inquiry and the learning after schooling is done will be focused on acquiring the knowledge, skills, understanding, attitude, and values required for living adequately in a rapidly changing world.

The “why” of self-directed learning is survival – your own survival as an individual, and also the survival of the human race.

We are talking about a basic human competence – the ability to learn on one’s own – that has suddenly become a prerequisite for living in the new world.

“Self-directed learning” describes a process in which 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.

Teacher-directed learning assumes the learner is essentially a dependent personality and that the teacher has the responsibility of deciding what and how the learner should be taught; whereas self-directed learning assumes that the human being grows in capacity (and need) to be self-directing as an essential component of maturing, and that this capacity should be nurtured to develop as rapidly as possible.

Teacher-directed learning assumes that students enter into education with a subject-centered orientation to learning (they see learning as accumulating subject matter) and that therefore learning experiences should be organized according to units of content; whereas self-directed learning assumes that this orientation is a result of their previous conditioning in school and that their natural orientation is task- or problem-centered, and that therefore learning experiences should be organized as task-accomplishing or problem-solving learning projects (or inquiry units).