Adult Learning Theories

For our EDTC 6106 course. We are focusing on ISTE Standard 4: Professional Development and Program Evaluation Performance Indicator B: Design, develop, and implement technology rich professional learning programs that model principles of adult learning and promote digital age best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment.  

While thinking about this standard, besides my own experience as an adult learner I really had a small understanding of what adult learning theories were and how they could be leveraged to create a strong professional development. To gain a better understanding I wanted to explore the different types of adult learning theories. While researching I found that understanding and applying these learning theories to the goals of the professional development are very important. Simply stated, adult learners are different than students in that adults bring with them more mature and complex experiences, beliefs, and views of the world. The way in which we support adult learners can greatly impact the outcomes of professional development. This is especially important in teaching where teacher outcomes of professional development impact student outcomes. I’ve come to the conclusion that having an understanding of the adult learning theories can be viewed as a basis and foundation for learning how to support teachers. In this blog post I will highlight some adult learning theories and illustrate characteristics or considerations when teaching adults. While reading this I encourage you to reflect on how these theories or elements of these theories can work together to support adult learners. 

Andragogy: Applying prior experiences in the journey of learning

One well known adult learning theory is Andragogy. Similarly to the term pedagogy (in Greek meaning “child-leading”) andragogy refers to adult learning, in Greek meaning “man-leading”. Andragogy became synonymous with this meaning after Malcolm Knowles an American educator used the term in the 1970’s to describe “the art and science of adult learning”. Knowles outlined six assumptions that are specific to adult learners. Although these six assumptions do not always apply to all adult learners and contexts we can view them as important aspects to consider when planning or teaching adults (which leads to Knowles guiding principles further below). 

Six Assumptions of Adult Learners:

  1. Self-Concept- adults have a more secure sense of self-concept and are able to direct their learning goals and pathways.
  2. Adult Learning Experience- adults have a vast array of experience that they can draw upon as a resource in their learning. 
  3. Readiness to Learn- adults are ready to learn and apply learning to the context in their lives. 
  4. Practical or Problem Centered Learning- adults are looking for practical or problem based learning that they can apply to the context of their lives. 
  5. Motivation to Learn- adults have more internal motivation to learn. 
  6. Need to Know- adults need to know why they should learn something. 

Based on these six assumptions, Knowles came up with guiding principles for educators to consider when teaching adults. 

Guiding Principles:

  1. Explain why adults need to learn. 
  2. Involve, encourage, and/or provide choice for adults in the planning of content, process and evaluation of their learning.
  3. Provide opportunities for adults to use and build on their past experiences (encourage a growth mindset, mistakes are part of this process). 
  4. Provide practical (and within reach) learning experiences, content should focus on relevant problems for the adult learners, allowing adults come up with their own conclusions. 
  5. Ensure that learning is problem-centered and tap into motivational factors. 

Transformational Learning: Revealing ideas and perspectives to create new ones

Transformational learning is another prevalent adult learning theory. It’s based on the premise that adults can construct learning by making meaning of experiences, thus changing the way the individual fundamentally thinks. It was defined as a cognitive process by American sociologist Jack Mezirow in 1978. Mezirow’s transformational learning process consists of ten phases. A simplified version of his ten phases is the Nerstrom Transformative Learning Model which has four phases. 

Nerstrom’s Four Phases of Transformational Learning Theory:

  1. One’s experience- this is experience from everything that has occurred in one’s life. 
  2. Assumptions- these are perspectives, values and beliefs we have from our experiences and how we see the world.  
  3. Challenge Perspectives- usually at this phase a new perspective is presented or realized. It can be unsettling and cause the learner to review their mindset and thought patterns. Mezirow calls this a “disorienting dilemma” because the new dilemma does not fit in with their existing learning scheme. Opportunities to critically self reflect and re-examine minsets, beliefs and thought patterns are important. Using dialogue to better understand the new perspective is one strategy that can be used to transition into the last phase. 
  4. Transformational Learning- this phase is where the learner adopts and acts on a new learned perspective, their lens of the world broadens. 

Based on Transformations Learning Theory Phase’s some conditions you may want to consider when teaching adults are: 

Transformational Learning Theory Conditions:

  1. Understand your learners backgrounds, and anticipate beliefs. 
  2. Provide opportunities for learners to identify and articulate their assumptions and current perspectives. 
  3. Provide a safe space for critical self-reflection to consider where underlying assumptions come from, how these assumptions influenced or limited understanding. 
  4. Provide conflicting viewpoints or a disorienting dilemma (something that will challenge what the learners believe) and opportunities for learners to openly and respectfully discuss alternate ideas, beliefs, perspectives and ideas. 
  5. Provide opportunities for learners reflect, test and apply new perspectives.

Experiential Learning Theory: Making meaning through experiences 

Experiential learning theory is making sense of new experiences, and supports the idea that adults learn from “hands- on” experiences and “doing”. It was developed by David Kolb in the 1970’s. Active participation in an experience is key, as is self reflection. It focuses on the process over the outcome. Experiential Learning normally takes place in field-based experiences (internships, practicums, service learning) or classroom based learning (role playing, case studies, simulations, experiments, presentations). Kolb reveals four stages of the Experiential Learning process. 

Kolb’s Four Stages of Experiential Learning:

  1. Concrete Experience– a new experience or situation is encountered. 
  2. Reflective Observation–  learner reflection on the experience and identifies inconsistencies between the experience and their understanding. 
  3. Abstract Conceptualization- experience and reflection gives way to a new idea or understanding of abstract concept(s).
  4. Active Experimentation– the learner applies and tests their new learning and ideas to the world, resulting in new experiences. 

Ideally, if drawing from Kolb’s experiential learning theory, opportunities, activities and materials would ensure that his four stages would be addressed as to take the learners through the whole process. Chapmen et al. provided a list of characteristics that should be present in order to define an activity or method as experiential. These characteristics you may want to consider when teaching adults are: 

  1. Mixture of content and process- provide experiential activities, this may or may not be in the classroom or it may not involve the teacher directing the learning. However, providing underlying content or theory may still be necessary. 
  2. Absence of excessive judgment– create a safe space for learners to explore, think, share and reflect. 
  3. Engagement in purposeful endeavors- engage the learner in purposeful or relevant work.
  4. Encouraging the big picture perspective- choose activities that allow learners to make connections to what they are doing and the real world, and work in ways where they can see the relationship between complex systems. 
  5. The role of reflection- provide opportunities to reflect on the experience, thoughts, learning and their ideas. 
  6. Creating emotional investment- make the experience impactful or critical for the learner. 
  7. The re-examination of values- provide a safe place for the learner to re-examine their ideas, and values through self reflection, feedback, dialogue or other processes. 
  8. The presence of meaningful relationships- explain or show the relationship between the learner to self, learner to teacher, and learner to the learning environment. The relationship between learner and teacher is much different, where the learner takes on an active role in managing their own learning. Additionally, the learning may occur in different learning environments that provide context pr personal experience. 
  9. Learning outside one’s perceived comfort zones– “learning is enhanced when students are given the opportunity to operate outside of their own perceived comfort zones.” This doesn’t refer just to physical environment, but also to the social environment. This could include, for instance, “being accountable for one’s actions and owning the consequences” (Chapman, McPhee, & Proudman, 1995, p. 243).

Additionally two other important considerations would be: understanding your learners and identifying their needs and appropriate learning experiences, and thinking about or anticipating potential challenges when integrating experiential learning.

Self Directed Learning Theory: Taking the driver’s seat in learning

Self directed learning is connected to Knowle’s theory of adult learning, specifically self concept. Self directed learning is a natural part of adult life; approximately 70 percent of adult learning is self directed (Cross, 1981). Self directed learning is also a reflective process where the learner takes initiative in planning, carrying out, and evaluating their learning. Although in self directed learning the learner is in charge of making decisions about the content, methods, resources, and evaluation of the learning they are often working with the help of teachers, mentors, resources, and/or peers. 

You can support adults engaged in self directed learning by: 

  1. Assessing Readiness to Learn: assessing or have the learner self reflect on their readiness to learn to help determine what supports could help your learner’s success of their independent study. 
  2. Setting Plans For Learning: setting goals, timelines and setting norms like: structure, feedback, meetings and roles can help the learner and you navigate their process in self directed learning. 
  3. Motivating Learning: provide appropriate learning resources that could help the learner to meeting their goals. 
  4. Facilitating Reflection: provide feedback and engage in reflection with the learner to help them process their progress and learning. 

Overall, I feel like there are a lot of commonalities or overlap found in each of the learning theories. While there are many more learning theories out there I touched on four that I recognized as impactful to teaching educators. I think that even a general understanding of these four theories gives a basis for how we might address adult learning when planning professional development or a learning course for educators. My hope is that my general understanding of these four theories can launch my next blog post which will explore the roles adult learning theories play out in teacher professional development scenarios. Although I may only provide examples of professional development backed by adult learning theories I also want to learn about instructional design models that could help coaches or leaders navigate designing impactful (theory based) professional development for educators.

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