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How to Help Adult Learners Learn

by Lori Gracey
adult learners
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While in my younger days, I concerned myself a lot with how adolescent brains learned and retained critical content, today I spend most of my time thinking about adult learners. And the good news is that, over the past 25 years, what we know about how adults master new ideas and skills has grown exponentially. I’d like to take a quick look at some of this research and how those of us who provide professional development opportunities might apply it.

The First Thing to Know: Adults Learn Differently Than Children

Malcolm Shepherd Knowles (1913 – 1997) was an American educator well known for the use of the term “andragogy” as synonymous to adult education. According to Knowles, andragogy is the art and science of adult learning. (This is to differentiate it from the term “pedagogy,” which specifically refers to the learning of children.)

Most cognitive scientists mark the “adult brain” as beginning at or around age 23. That means that, if you teach adults in the same manner you do, have, or would teach traditional-age students, it is highly likely that learning is not, in fact, taking place.

Knowles posited six principle ways in which adult learners are different than school-age children:

  • Adults are self-directed learners (self-concept).
  • Adults accumulate experience that becomes an increasingly rich resource for learning (experience).
  • Readiness to learn is related to social roles (readiness).
  • Adults want immediate application of knowledge (problem-centered orientation).
  • Adults tend to be internally motivated (intrinsic motivation).
  • Adults need to know the reason or learning something (need to know) (source).

I would like to examine each of these principles in a series of blogs over the next few weeks, taking a look at what each one means and how it might be applied to the learning opportunities that we provide. In today’s blog, I’ll look at the first two principles.

Adults Are Self-Directed Learners

As we become adults, we feel the need to assert our independence. And this comes into play in learning, too.

“Growing up, learners acquired more self awareness and move from being dependent – typical of children – to more and more autonomy. In training settings, then, it is crucial for the adult to perceive this independence, being able to make choices in relation to the learning process” (source).

As we plan professional learning opportunities, we must provide our educators multiple avenues to exert their independence and to make their own decisions about what they will learn (to the greatest extent allowed) and how they will learn it. Obviously, there are some topics that everyone must master due to legal requirements (STAAR testing moderation, for example) or safety (fire drill expectations) or daily work needs (use of the district LMS). But beyond that, what teachers and administrators choose to learn should be exactly that: their choice. So the one-size-fits-everyone content offering is not valid with them and is, quite frankly, a waste of everyone’s time.

Perhaps even more importantly, in ALL learning offerings, adult learners must be given the opportunity to make choices about how they will learn the content. That may mean that we offer the professional development as self-paced courses, as podcasts, as videos, in person and working collaboratively. While this is obviously a lot more work on the provider’s part, it is critical to having the learning actually take root and last.

The questions to ask ourselves as we plan professional development should include:

  • Is the learning that I want teachers to master critical to everyone? Are there components of it that are optional or would be best for certain users, subject areas, or grade levels?
  • Is this something that the educators want to learn? How do I know that?
  • How many different ways can I provide the learning experiences?
  • In what other ways can I provide choice during the learning? Could it be in how they work together (singly, in pairs, in small groups, jigsaw) or how they annotate their learning (presentation, notes, collaborative document, sketchnote, KWL chart)?

Adults Bring Experience with Them

The fact that adults have experience that they bring with them to new learning is important for two different reasons. One has to do with their individual identity and the other has to do with brain plasticity.

A Part of Our Identity

“Compared to younger learners, adults have more experience and, in most cases, they gather their own identity from this background” (source). What we have already learned therefore contributes greatly to our view of ourselves. If, for example, we have experienced problems with technology in the past, that may make us believe as adults that tech doesn’t work for us and is not worth our time.

So in providing professional learning, it’s good to begin by having participants think about what they already believe about themselves with regard to the topic being studied. A form of KWL (what I already KNOW, what I WANT to learn, and then, after the learning, what I have LEARNED) can be useful for this, as can a capacity matrix. Or you may want to just ask people to reflect on their thoughts and feelings about the topic before the learning begins. However you prefer, it is important to have adult learners examine how their previous experience with the topic has become a part of their self identity and how it can further their learning in this new area.

Questions for adult learners to answer may include:

  • What prior knowledge or experience do I have with this topic? What do I already know? What information may be lacking?
  • Are there past mistakes that I have made on this topic? How can I avoid making similar mistakes this time? What can I learn from those mistakes?

Brain Plasticity in Adult Learning

Another way that the experience of adult learners impacts their new learning has to do with brain plasticity.

“… the adult brain has plasticity, which means that as long as it is stimulated, it is possible to continue to grow—to build new connections; in fact, Feyler (as cited in Wilson, 2006) specifically defines plasticity as the capacity for the brain to grow. But, as Taylor and Marienau (2016) point out, the role of plasticity vis-à-vis prior experience is more important that just growth; plasticity’s critical role is in allowing the brain to adapt and change over time based on learning that comes from new experiences” (source).

As professional development providers, how can we leverage this relationship between prior experience and plasticity? The best way, according to the research, is to provide the learner with an enriched environment, one with multiple types of stimuli. “Things like pictures, charts, sounds, smells, vivid images, stories, colors, music, and poetry are all examples of ways multi-modal stimuli that help create enriched environments. Creating an enriched environment also increases the likelihood that you will connect with a higher percentage of your learners’ prior experiences” (source).

How can we provide this enriched environment in a school or online learning setting? Science says we need to avoid what are called low-frequency activities, such as lectures, and utilize high-frequency activities, those that utilize multiple modalities to increase the likelihood of strong synaptic connections. The bottom line is engagement. How can the content to be learned be presented in a variety of ways, chunked into small, manageable segments, and offered so that the learner is constantly engaged in something new and different?

Our Next Steps for Adult Learners

Obviously, all of this requires a lot of advance preparation on the professional development provider’s part. And, I admit, it can seem overwhelming. So take it in small steps.

  • First, reflect on your thoughts and feelings about making these changes. What experience are you bringing to the table that may impact your learning?
  • Next, select one specific area of the learning to focus on. Will you work first on providing choice to your adult learners or work more on offering activities with greater engagement? Don’t try to do both at the same time.
  • Look at the content to be learned and how it can be broken down into shorter, more manageable chunks. What’s the best way to organize it?

In the next blog in this series, we’ll look at two more ways that adult learners are different from our PreK-college students and how that should impact the professional development that we offer. In addition, if this topic is of interest to you, consider attending the virtual Elementary Technology Conference June 13-15. I will be presenting several sessions on Knowles’ work at the learning event and I would love to have you join me there. The sessions will provide a deeper look at Knowles’ research and also share how that can be tied into John Hattie’s studies of what works best in education. So register today and let’s learn together!

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1 comment

Cynthia Piña April 20, 2021 - 3:33 pm

This is wonderful! One of my favorite topics – andragogy!

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