Adult Learning Principles and PD

ISTE Standard 4: Professional Development and Program Evaluation

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.

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As a teacher, even in four short years, I have taken part in too many  professional developments to count. It is hard for me to think of another career that dedicates so much time and effort to continuing education and an ever adapting growth mindset. That is powerful. However, PD does not always impact its adult learners in a meaningful way. If I look back at all of those sessions I attended, there are only a handful I could still tell you about. This module has been a new focus for me personally. I have never thought about how adult learning principles play into the effectiveness of a PD session. As a cohort, we explored the essential question of what role adult learning principles play in planning educational technology professional development. With that in mind,I then posed the question: “What practices can help develop differentiated PD that appeals to multiple learning styles?”

The first thing that stood out to me when I began to find resources that addressed my essential question was the need to address the differences between child learners and adult learners. Although it makes sense to me, I had never really thought about it much. The online article “Professional Development and Adult Learning Theory,” states:

The real issue lies in the vast differences between child learners and adult learners.  That should be obvious, but the execution of most professional development illustrates that the differences have not been fully considered. When professional development providers deliver PDs by lecturing, for example, the delivery method itself works against the very principles of how adults learn (Prather, 2015).

The article then introduces andragogy, a learning theory developed by Dr. Malcolm Knowles. Knowles introduced four principles that should be considered when designing and implementing learning experiences for adults. These principles, adapted by the article, are:

Adults Must be Involved in the Planning of Their Learning

Teachers should have input during the planning of  PD. This planning could be pre assessments or focus groups. The online article “3 Ways to Create a Differentiated PD menu,” mentions that before we start to plan PD for the year, perhaps we should find out:

  • What teachers know
  • What they are really interested in learning
  • How they learn

These thinking points could really be valuable when beginning to frame your mindset around planning PD.

Experience Provides the Basis for the Learning Activity

Adult learners bring so much to the table when the come into a PD. They bring prior knowledge, background and personal experiences that should all be taken into consideration. Every educator, new or veteran, has different strengths to contribute and a PD facilitator/teacher leaders should be aware of their audience.

The Professional Development Must Have Immediate Relevance and Impact on Teachers’ Lives

This is a really important component to PD. Teachers have so much on their plates, that when they sit down after a long day with hundreds of other things on their minds, a PD needs to be relevant and something they can apply immediately. As “Professional Development and the Adult Learner” puts it,  

A professional development session at the end of a long day of teaching about some abstract theory or philosophical framework will not go over well.  But offer a PD to your staff about how to cut their workload in half by using Google docs, you’ve got a blockbuster (Prather, 2015).

I think we can all relate to that.

Adult Learning is Problem-Centered

Adult learners should have time to analyze, think, reflect and apply what the knowledge they gain from a PD session. If it is applicable and hands on, the learning is the most beneficial. “Adults prefer to process information by doing something with it.” (Prather, 2015.) The “Main Dish” of the “3 Ways to Create a differentiated PD menu” mentions that adult learners should have different ways to engage in their learning:

  • listening/watching presentations
  • tweeting exchanges to share gems of the experience
  • engaging in either the active usage or documentation of the material

Allowing for these paths, or like variations, within every tech training is essential because it allows for learners to engage in the way best suited for them. Some may only listen and take notes on a notepad, but others might form a Pinterest Board on DI as the presenter talks, and others might just start constructing within the new tech platform, learning as they go (Teach on the Edge).

After exploration, I have learned that several things are relevant when taking adult learning principles into consideration while designing effective PD. Acknowledging that adults learn differently than children is the first principle that should affect thinking. Recognizing that adults bring background knowledge and personal and professional experiences into PD is important. And finally, adults should be learning knowledge that is applicable to real life and can be applied almost immediately. They should have time to learn, analyze, reflect and apply the knowledge from PD. All of these components together help address all adult learning styles and help ensure that PD is and remains relevant long after it is over.


3 Ways To Create a Differentiated Learning PD Menu. (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2017, from

Prather. (2015, November 12). Professional Development and Adult Learning Theory. Retrieved January 30, 2017, from

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