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Experiential and Self-Directed Learning Theories of Development

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2684 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Adult Learning and Development


The drive behind this paper is to review the experiential learning theory and the self-directed learning theory regarding psychological development, psychological stages, and sociology assumptions.  It will also explore the beliefs and ideas of some relevant theorists such as David Kolb and his experiential learning theory, Mr. Dale Edgar and his cone of learning theory and Malcolm Knowles’ view on self-directed learning. Additionally, it will explore the four-stage cycle of experiential learning, the cone of learning and Knowles’ three reasons for self-directed learning. Analyzing these concepts and theories will give us educators some tips on how to model our methods for teaching and prepare us as students on how to prepare for the future of learning.

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When a person starts to learn and when a person decides to learn are two different things.  The word learning is defined as the performance or skill that a person learns developed by teaching or learning by experience (Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 2018).  Some people seem to think that the process of learning begins at the age of one year old, some seem to think that the process begins when the child is in the womb.  However, scientists and theorists tell of several theories regarding the timeline and the way a person learns.

 From the time a child enters the world, he or she begins his learning process.  One theory that makes this line of thinking possible is the experiential learning theory. The experiential learning theory suggests that knowledge is formed from the learner experiencing things in their lives and thereby learning from those experiences.  This type of learning is titled experiential for two reasons. The first reason is to link its intelligent background with the work of John Dewey, Kurt Levin, and Piaget.  The second reason is to highlight the essential part that familiarity plays in the process of learning (Kolb, 2006).  This theory was brought to light by David Kolb in which he produced a learning theory model in 1984 (Kolb, 2006).  In this theory, Kolb explains that learning involves the obtainment of concepts that can be used feasibly in a host of different conditions.  In Kolb’s theory, the inspiration for the growth of fresh ideas is supplied by innovative occurences.  Kolb’s experiential learning theory functions on two levels: a four-stage cycle of learning and four separate learning styles (McLeod, 2017).  Kolb’s learning theory is set up to where the learner visits all four phases. The first phase is considered the concrete experience stage.  This is where a new experience or situation happened in the person’s life.  The second phase, the reflective observation phase, is the phase that has the person thinking back on the new experience that he or she has encountered. Abstract conceptualization is the third phase.  In abstract conceptualization, a person may now start to think of modifications or different ways to handle or steer the previous experience. Lastly, is the active experimentation phase.  In this phase, the person will now apply the modifications that were thought about in the third phase to the experience thereby resulting in new experiences (McLeod, 2017).  Regarding adult psychological development, a person can enter this process at any stage and follow the steps in sequence until a new experience has been formed (Learning Theories, 2017).

Four Stage Cycle of Experiential Learning

Figure 1: Kolb’s 4 Stage Cycle of Experiential Learning Adapted from Learning Theories. (2017, February 4). Experiential Learning (Kolb). Retrieved from https://www.learning-theories.com/experiential-learning-kolb.html

 Experiential learning is an on-going process.  In adult learning, it is sometimes called informal and incidental learning. Experiential learning started to catch on in adult education to revel and accept people’s own understanding in their consciousness development. We know that much adult learning takes place at the job, at home with family, with any community involving and any other places of unofficial instruction. Many believe that much of the knowledge that we have received in our lives has come from “doing” our everyday activities. There are several questions different thoughts that surround this theory and continue to be debated (Candy, 1980).

 During the 1960s, Mr. Dale Edgar theorized that learners remember further info by what they “do” versus what is “heard”, “read” or “observed”.  His exploration led to the evolution of the Cone of Experience, which is also recognized as experiential learning.  The Cone was first developed in 1946 and was used to describe numerous learning experiences. Fundamentally, the Cone demonstrates the advancement of experiences from the most physical (at the bottom of the cone) to the most theoretical (at the top of the cone) (Maheshwari, 2016).

The Cone of Learning

Figure 2: The Cone of Learning

Adapted from Maheshwari, V. K. (2016, October 31). EDGAR DALE’S CONE OF EXPERIENCE | Dr. V.K. Maheshwari, Ph.D. Retrieved from http://www.vkmaheshwari.com/WP/?p=2332

 Mr. Dale Edgar believes that the more logics that are immersed in learning, the more enhanced the learning will be (Maheshwari, 2016).  As the Chinese teacher, Confucius once stated, “I hear, and I forget.  I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.” (Quote Ambition, n.d.)

  Self-directed learning is the process that learning comes from ones self.  As with all the ideas found in the study of education, there much lies a lot of confusion with self-directed because there are several forms. You may hear it called self-planned learning, self-teaching, independent study, and distance education.  Some people believe that when mentioning self-directed learning, we are speaking of schooling for young people, however, Gibbons and Phillips (1982) offers a view that states, “Self-education occurs outside of the formal institutions, not inside them. While schools can prepare students for a life of self-education, self-education can only occur when a person chooses to learn what he can also decide not to learn (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991).

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  Several theorists have their view on self-directed learning.  Malcolm Knowles’ view is the one that is most used in adult education which states that self-directed learning defines a procedure in which personnel take the initiative, with or without, the assistance of other people in identifying their learning needs, framing learning objectives, recognizing social and physical means for learning, selecting and applying suitable learning plans, and assessing learning outcomes (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991).

 To understand self-directed learning today, you must believe that in the educational process, the learner must take responsibility when developing, applying and assessing their learning experience as well as have a yearning to accept the responsibility to learn.  Knowles’s theory of adult education suggested that adults succeed in situations where they are highly motivated, where they can participate in the learning process, and where learning content had practical applications (Manning, 2007). In addition to Knowles theory he also pointed out that when working with adults and education, the adult will find a casual environment beneficial to learning, they require an exact statement of what is asked of them, a chance to practice what they have learned, and immediate feedback is also required.  Knowles pinpoints three reasons for self-directed learning as follows:

  1. Individuals who take the initiative in learning, learn more things and learn better than do people who sit at the feet of teachers possibly waiting to be taught. 2. Self-directed learning is more in tune with our natural processes of psychological development. 3. Many of the new developments in education … put a heavy responsibility on the learners to take a good deal of initiative in their own learning. Knowles also states five key assumptions which underlie self-directed learning: 1. Self-directed learning assumes that the human being grows in capacity and needs to be self-directing as an essential component in maturing.
  2. Self-directed learning assumes that the learners’ experiences become an increasingly rich resource for learning that should be exploited along with the resources of experts.
  3. Self-directed learning assumes that individuals become ready to learn what is required to perform their evolving life task or to cope more adequately with their life problems.
  4. Self-directed learning assumes that the natural orientation of individuals is task or problem‑centered. 5. Self-directed learning assumes that learners are motivated by internal incentives such as the need for self-esteem (Manning, 2007).

 In our history, there have been some people that may have designed and guided their own learning. Some consider Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln as self-educated men. Why do you ask?  Abraham Lincoln came up through the struggle.  It is stated in The Education of Abraham Lincoln that he never attended school formally, maybe a week here or a month there, never receiving a good year of formal education (“Learning by the Light of the Fire,” n.d.) His mother and stepmother were both illiterate, (not meaning ignorant, but without a formal education.)  However, he was taught to memorize. He memorized what people spoke and of what he read. Most of his knowledge and public speaking abilities came from the initiative of reading books.  It was a tradition during that time that students learned lessons by themselves. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century when rooms of group instruction became common in schools in North America. However, it was a little different for Ben Franklin. Although he attended grammar school and another school for writing and mathematics as a young boy, he eventually had to be taken out of school because his family could not afford it.  He then went on to become an apprentice for a candle maker (“Learning by the Light of the Fire,” n.d.).  Although Ben had to be taken out of school, he still held on to that motivation and initiative to be a self-directed learner.

 Being that technology and society is changing at such a fast rate these days, becoming a self-directed learner is going to be an element that most people will have to consider to be aware and stay in tune with the happenings in the world.  Many people think that becoming a self-directed learner means to be isolated from other people such as your classmates or teachers, however, it does not necessarily mean that.  Self-directed learning can involve numerous practices and sources, such as self-guided reading, study group participation, internships, and thoughtful writing activities (Singapore Management University, 2017).

 Once an adult gets involved in adult education, whether it being the educator or attending school themselves, he or she will have to consider all the theories, beliefs and ideas of adult development and education.   Throughout the course of this study, we have read about several theories, different types of adult education literature and talked about different adult learning concepts.  While the process of adult learning, education and development have undergone a considerable amount of research over the past years, resulting in frequent changes, this a key topic that is worthy of more and more research. 

There are a demand and interest in experiential and self-directed learning.  Adult learning programs are now beginning to adopt flexible learning delivery methods to encourage adult students to show the initiative and keep the motivation that is needed to complete adult learning programs. Like most courses, learners will also be able to share their experiences, opinions, and ideas with their peers such as webinars, live instruction, and self-studies.  Being that the cost of college is increasing rapidly, more students will start to look toward a more cost-efficient way of learning which may start to look like learning from home or self-directed learning.  Online learning will soon become the hottest kid on the block and will soon become competition for in-seat universities.  Although getting the “college experience” is a thing that most young adults look forward to. I believe just being able to compete in the job market with a reasonably priced degree will be the goal that they would want to strive for.


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