Did you know that adults have special needs as learners?
When we were kids, we went to school, and we sat through class every day, and our teachers taught everyone pretty much the same way. It didn’t really matter if you were a visual learner, an auditory learner, or a kinesthetic learner. The teacher pretty much did whatever s/he felt most comfortable doing. Times have changed, and teachers are more aware of learning styles now, and other issues that affect children’s learning.
But the principles of adult learning are still pretty new to most people. If you’re a speaker, and you’re doing any kind of education or training with the groups you’re speaking to, this applies to you.
First, a little history. Malcolm Knowles is considered the “father of adult learning”, although the topic had been discussed and researched over a century earlier.
Knowles’ assumptions were that adults:
1) move from dependency to self-directedness;
2) draw upon their reservoir of experience for learning;
3) are ready to learn when they assume new roles; and
4) want to solve problems and apply new knowledge immediately.
In his book, “The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy,” Knowles opposes the view that adults are unable to learn: “…the rapidly accelerating pace of change in our society has proved this doctrine to be no longer valued. Facts learned in youth have become insufficient and in many instances actually untrue; and skills learned in youth have become outmoded by new technologies.”
The term “andragogy” has come to mean self-directed learning for people of all ages, as opposed to the term “pedagogy” which defines teacher-directed learning. In practical terms, it means that when educating or training adults, process comes before content.
Knowles may not have invented these terms or concepts, but he was the first to put them together into an organized theory. Additional theories of adult learning have been developed since Knowles’ time, as well. Here is an overview of adult learning principles that will greatly improve your understanding of how and why adults learn. This will allow you to tailor your presentations and training more effectively to the groups you serve.
1. Adults are autonomous and self-directed
Adults want to decide for themselves what, when, how and why to learn. Speakers/instructors should allow adults to direct some of their own learning. Here are some ways to facilitate this:
* Ask your participants what they already know about your topic and what they’re interested in learning. Find out what their goals are for being there.
* Share your agenda and ask for input. This might lead to switching around the order of your workshop to better serve the group’s needs. You might find you spend more time on certain subjects than you had planned, and less on others. Be flexible.
* Act as a facilitator, guiding the group and encouraging them to reach their own conclusions, rather than force-feeding information in a lecture format. Allow them to be responsible for their own learning.
* Do your research on the group and organizational needs beforehand, so you can provide a combination of information that meets their perceived needs and their actual needs.
2. Adults have a lifetime of knowledge and experience that informs their learning
Adult learners can be a valuable resource for you as an instructor/speaker. It’s also important for them to connect learning to those previous life experiences. Here’s how to make the most of your audience’s experience and knowledge.
* Don’t assume that your participants are “blank slates” and know nothing about your topic. Nothing is more insulting than a speaker who launches into a lecture without first finding out the needs and knowledge level of the audience. Do your research and ask first to find out what they already know.
* When appropriate, ask your audience to share their experiences, and create activities that call on them to use their experiences, for example, in small group discussions.
* Prepare activities that involve choice, so the learning process can better fit the individual levels of your participants.
3. Adults need relevancy in learning
It’s important to adults that they are learning something relevant and applicable to real life, whether it’s work-related or personal. Here’s how to make learning relevant to your audience.
* Identify learning objectives and ask participants to share their goals.
* Discuss and ask for sharing of real-world applications of your topic.
* Avoid giving a workshop or presentation that’s too theoretical.
In the book “Teacher”, Sylvia Ashton-Warner discusses relevancy in her work as a teacher with Maori children. She recalls trying to teach them to read out of European textbooks with images and language that mean nothing to them. When she starts working within their own language, culture and experiences to teach them reading, they blossom. Relevancy is one of the major keys to learning for people of all ages.
4. Adults are motivated to learn by both external and internal factors
When we were kids, many of us were not motivated to learn by anything other than our parents’ and teachers’ rewards and punishments.
As adults, we have many reasons for pursuing learning:
* it’s a requirement of a job
* we want to make new friends and connections
* for professional development and to advance our careers
* to relieve boredom
* because we’re interested in a particular topic and want to learn for fun
* to create a better environment for our children and families
. . . and the list goes on.
As an instructor/speaker, it’s important to understand the many reasons why your attendees are in your seminar. They may not be there by choice, for example. Ask them why they’ve come and what they hope to gain from the experience.
As it is important to understand what motivates your participants to learn, it’s also important to understand what might be barriers to their learning:
* worry about finances
* time constraints
* childcare issues
* relationship issues (one partner feels threatened by advancement of the other)
* lack of confidence in ability to learn (some people grew to believe they were not good in school, and they carry that with them forever)
* insecurity about intelligence
* concern about practicality and relevance
. . . and the list goes on!
Understanding the motivations and barriers your participants face can help you as an instructor pinpoint how best to serve them, by increasing their motivation for learning.
5. Adult learners have sensitive egos
Many of us, over the course of a lifetime, have developed a fear of appearing stupid or incompetent. As children, we were encouraged to explore, ask questions and learn about the world, but somewhere along the way, that was taken away from us. Many adults have mixed feelings about teachers, school, and structured learning.
Some people go to great lengths to hide their inability to read, for example, or their lack of understanding of the duties of their job.
An instructor/speaker must be aware of these issues and build trust by treating learners respectfully, sensitively, and without judgment.
* Allow participants to build confidence by practicing what is learned in small groups before facing the large group
* Use positive reinforcement to encourage participants
* If sensitive issues are to be discussed, create a safe space by enforcing confidentiality and allowing participants to “pass” if there’s something they’re not comfortable talking about
* Provide activities that are low-risk before moving on to activities featuring higher risk or greater trust
* Acknowledge participants’ previous life experience and knowledge and allow them to voice opinions and share in class leadership
A speaker who believes she/he knows more than anyone else in the room is asking for trouble, and creating an environment that will discourage learning.
6. Adults are practical and problem-oriented, and want to apply what they’ve learned
Probably the most important result for adult learners is to be able to apply their learning to their work or personal life – immediately. Help facilitate this by doing the following:
* Use examples to help them see the connection between classroom theories and practical application
* Use problem-solving activities as part of learning
* Create action items or task lists together with participants
* Help learners transfer learning to daily practice by offering follow-up coaching or mentoring
* Create an experiential learning environment that follows an experiential learning cycle
This has been just a brief overview of adult learning principles. I hope you’ve found some of the tips in these articles to be helpful.
At its most basic level, adult learning tends to be self-directed and based on the person’s individual needs and life experiences. Follow these tips when working with adults, and you will be on your way to creating a truly effective learning experience.