An Interview with Malcolm Knowles

By Hatcher, Timothy G. | Training & Development, February 1997 | Go to article overview

An Interview with Malcolm Knowles


Hatcher, Timothy G., Training & Development


Hatcher: You have been credited with influencing current thought on self-directed learning. How would you define self-directed learning for today's workplace?

Knowles: It is a learning situation in which learners take the initiative in diagnosing their own learning needs, in formulating learning objectives, in locating resources to fulfill objectives, in carrying out a learning plan, and in evaluating the extent to which they met objectives.

H: How would you describe a self-directed learner?

K: Someone who perceives it his or her primary responsibility to carry out personal learning projects or programs with the help of a facilitator and other resources.

H: Do you think all workers are capable of self-directed learning?

K: Well, they are capable of learning to be. Most aren't able to start right off being self-directed because their prior conditioning is that the learner is a passive recipient of transmitted information. So, they have to reorient to what learning is.

H: Are there certain steps people should take to start the self-directed learning process?

K: I think they should team up with colleagues who can share and help in the experience. So, finding a peer helper or designated facilitator is probably the first step. The first thing the facilitator should do is team up learners in self-help teams.

H: What motivates a person to become self-directed?

K: I think that the most common motivational factor is having to confront situations that require some new or additional knowledge or skills. Another motivator is being placed in an environment - such as a class - in which the name of the game is self-directed learning.

H: How can self-directed learning be applied on the job? Where do you start?

K: In every class that I teach, I open by specifying that the mode is going to be self-directed learning, with me serving as facilitator and resource. So, the norm is set that this is going to be a collective process.

H: How do you deal with resistance to self-directed learning?

K: There is almost always initial resistance until [learners] have a successful experience with self-directed learning. That's why - I've done this with as many as 200 students - one of the first things I do is provide a 15-minute exercise in which they experience success in identifying their own learning needs. If resistance continues, I ask them to see me individually so that I can go more deeply into the process.

H: How long does it usually take for people to grasp the concept of self-directed learning?

K: In my experience using the orientation, it takes about an hour. Their understanding increases as they go deeper into the process.

H: What specific things have to happen for self-directed learning to be successful in business?

K: In my own practice, the starting point is always with the top executives. Once they have a rewarding experience, they become very supportive.

H: What techniques do you use to ensure that people have early successes? …

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