Using Adult Learning Theories to Plan for Professional Development

As I get deeper into this quarter, we are taking a deeper look at ISTE Coaching Standard 5:   ISTE Standard 5: Professional Learning Facilitator 5a. Design professional learning based on needs assessments and frameworks for working with adults to support their cultural, social-emotional and learning needs.  My last study focus was on important aspects of designing professional developments. This module, I am looking at adult learning frameworks to specificially design professional development for adult learners. This leads into the question of which frameworks we should be using, along with how to implement them to achieve a positive learning experience in the professional development we plan.  Let’s jump right in with my current research question:  How can professional learning facilitators utilize adult learning framework to ensure positive learning experiences during professional development?  To start this off, we need to take a look at adult learning in general.   Helen Colman does a great job in her article by stating “adult learning theories are based on the premise that adults learn differently than children”. When I was first hearing about adult learning theories my opinions were split. One part of me felt that a brain is a brain and if there is one way to learn that is beneficial for children that it will be perhaps not as beneficial for adults, but it will still get the job done. But as I continued to learn about these theories I came to understand that yes, while some ways children learn can be similar to the ways adults learn, that we have to take into consideration that adults have a base of knowledge and experience that is vastly different than a child. Consider the beginning of an effective lesson with a child… we know that activating prior knowledge can be one of the best ways to have children connect with a lesson. This can be similar for adults, however, the way in which you do this, and which pieces of prior knowledge you are pulling from will be different.   This leads us right into what the different adult learning theories are. There are many different great resources that list a number of different theories and go into detail on each. Some include 10-12 theories, and some focus on a smaller number and combine a few. The resources that I am pulling from mention 6 main theories: andragogy, transformational learning, experiential learning, self-directed learning, project based learning, and action learning.   Here is a fantastic chart that Helen Colman created that gives brief descriptions of the 6 theories, along with the characteristics that are best suited for each theory. Keep in mind, her information is written with the goal to inform the general public of adult learning theories and how a specific platform can achieve the different theories. While not geared specifically for education, it is still quite insightful as an overview.  These 6 theories are also not in separate boxes from one another. A learner does not have to fit into just one. This brings me to a list of tips on how to enhance adult learning, also highlighted by Colman. She really did a great job framing the adult learning theories and helping readers to understand how to incorporate them into professional development!  1. Build a blended learning solution   Some adults are more in-sync with learning when they are attending face-to-face workshops. Some are enable to engage in a higher level when they are at a conference, and some still can dive into information in an online course more successfully than when others are present. Building a blended learning solution allows for more people to be successful  2. Link learning to expected results   With students, success criteria can help to hone in on expected learning. For adults, linking the learning to the result we expect of them can also help to encourage the path towards success.   3. Formalize your informal learning  While the setting of a professional development may not seem formal in nature, by adding a piece of formality to it, it can help increase the experience. Providing a means to document or reflect on professional development or learning can formalize an experience and create purpose.  4. Build communities for practice  Allowing adults to have an opportunity to collaborate while learning can help to target training opportunities. While large scale trainings and learning opportunities are sometimes beneficial, a targeted approach for smaller groups or communities to learn strategies or content that is specific to their position can have a longer lasting result.  5. Chunk your content  By breaking your content into smaller chunks, learners are able to take pieces of learning at their own speed. This also enables learners to have time to reflect on each topic before starting a new one.   6. Incorporate microlearning  Different than breaking learning into smaller chunks, microlearning enables an adult learner to specifically target 1 strategy or skill that is completable in a matter of minutes.   7. Enable personal learning paths  Encourage self-directed learning! While this is not always an option, allowing adult learners to have voice and choice will absolutely lead to more positive experiences. If a full self-directed learning opportunity is not available, allowing for a chosen learning path can be a great way to still enable choice in learning experiences.   8. Align learning to needs, not wants   Similar to planning lessons for students, you define the end result and the need that is present. From there, you can include the wants… or choices of staff. This will prioritize the need for learning, while also allowing for the voice within the learning experience.   To wrap it all up, each adult learner is unique and has different learning styles. By incorporating some of the adult learning theories into professional development plans and learning opportunities, you can help to ensure positive experiences. Here is one last graphic that helps to sum up some great tips to keep in mind while planning a professional development experience.   Which tip resonates with you? How do you encourage positive learning experiences with staff?  Resources:  Colman, H. (2020, April 29). 6 Adult Learning Theories and How to Put Them into Practice. 6 Adult Learning Theories and How to Put Them Into Practice.  Davis, V. (2015, April 15). 8 Top Tips for Highly Effective PD. Edutopia.  ISTE Standards for Coaches | ISTE. (n.d.). ISTE. Retrieved January 30, 2021, from  Kearsley, G. (2010). Andragogy (M.Knowles). The theory Into practice database. Retrieved from  Knowles, M. (1975). Self-Directed Learning. Chicago: Follet.  Kosturko, L. (2015, October 14). Professional Development: Technology’s Key to Success. Getting Smart.  Pappas, C. (2020, April 15). The Adult Learning Theory – Andragogy – of Malcolm Knowles. ELearning Industry. 

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