The Key to Knowledge Transfer: Self-Directed Learning

Malcolm Knowles, one of the fathers of adult learning theory, wrote the following in his landmark book The Adult Learner:

Teaching is a process of guided interaction between the teacher, the student, and the materials of instruction. Teaching, like medical practice, is mostly a matter of cooperation with nature. The function of the teacher is to guide the student into the experiences that will enable him to develop his own potentialities.

In his research on adult learning, Knowles determined that adults learn most effectively when they:

  • Take the initiative to begin the learning process by identifying subjects and content that is important to their work or needs
  • Assist in the diagnosis of their specific learning needs
  • Create their own learning goals so the focus is on what they need to know versus what the organization wants to teach them
  • Play a key role in identifying the strategies and resources they will use to achieve their learning goals

This makes their learning more effective and helps learners integrate it into their daily lives.

The concept of self-directed learning puts the learner in charge of the direction of the training. If you are the facilitator, then you must be flexible and competent enough to be able to adapt to what the learners need. Rigidly following a training agenda might allow the facilitator to “check the box” for completing a training program, but the learners might not obtain anything useful from the session.

To practice self-directed learning in a workshop, you need to:

1. Be highly prepared and know the subject.

If you are going to allow learners to set the workshop direction, you need to be prepared to handle wherever they take the program.

2. Focus on the learning objectives.

Self-directed learning doesn’t mean that you ignore learning objectives. Rather, the learning objectives—what you need to accomplish—provide focus for the learning. You let the learners determine how you will get there.

3. Ask good questions and listen.

An effective facilitator who practices self-directed learning asks lots of engaging questions and then carefully listens to the learners’ responses. The facilitator uses this as a tool to understand “what” and “how” the learners need to accomplish the learning objectives. This also ensures that the learning is interactive.

Practicing self-directed learning with adults is a critical process that ensures the learning meets learners’ specific developmental needs. Self-directed learning concepts can intimidate facilitators, but with a little practice, they can be fun and, more important, highly effective.

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