Part of being an effective teacher involves understanding your learners and how they learn best. Adult learning posits a set of assumptions about how adults learn. If you’ve had experience teaching adults, you’ll find that it can be a very different experience from that of teaching children. Learning philosophies and certain techniques may overlap, but approaches will differ.
Whereas information seems to be soaked up by children like a sponge, adults may find that they can’t learn things as quickly as they did when they were younger. My friends and I always remark about how our memory retention has ebbed over the years though researchers would probably debate this observation.
Knowles makes these five assumptions of adult learners:
Self-directed: As a person matures, he/she is less likely to be coerced into participating in learning activities. They are more autonomous and are not going to be dependent on the teacher for the next lesson, the next assignment and the next activity. They have expectations and will most likely have set up their own learning goals.
For the educator, this means less structure and oversight yet still providing the student with the challenge by promoting inquiry instead of just leading them to the answer. Since adult learners have their own goals and are self-motivated, they’re more interested in completing these goals than getting a numerical value to quantify their learning. The teacher must therefore provide regular specific feedback which reflect and acknowledge goal completion. This coincides with Edwards’ hypothesis on using criterion-based as opposed to norm-based measurements.
Experience: Adults bring to the table a vast wealth of life experiences which they draw from and which help them make sense of new information. This is when it could sometimes be very tricky. Children will readily rely on the experiences of the teacher since they have limited experience as a resource for learning. As such, learning becomes easier for kids because they have no experience to negate whatever the teacher has said. For adults, some would have life experiences which lead to certain notions and biases. In this case, the educator must be able to point out these biases or even allow the student to reflect on these biases in order to move them to allow different perspectives which would help them accept new information. Adults could be very bullish with new information which contradicts with their experiences.
In my case, anything that involves numbers causes my brain to shut down because I’ve had a traumatic experience learning maths when I was growing up. Among my students, I find that their own experiences and backgrounds have led them to grow up thinking that English is only for the elite and learning the language is limited to answering a few worksheets in class and ends in the four corners of the classroom as it has no application to real life. Their exposure in the workplace challenges this notion and makes them realise otherwise.
This hypothesis can also be used to support Vygotsky’s theory of Social Learning which posits for a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). Though children and adults would benefit from social learning, adults will naturally have a higher degree of prior knowledge owing to his/her breadth of experience.
Goal-oriented and Relevancy-oriented : Adults see learning as a means to an end. Whereas going to school is mandatory for kids, adults pursue learning because it helps them meet their goals. Thus, the training has to be worthwhile. With regard to relevance, both children and adults would like to feel that learning is relevant to their lives, especially as I got to high school. At that point, I started wondering why it was I needed to learn certain topics or subjects like math. I felt complete disdain and a lack of interest for subjects which I believed were not relevant to me in my daily life.
After finding out about these assumptions of the adult learner, andragogy suddenly seems to be quite a daunting task. For one, adult learners rarely see rewards the way children do, and giving them candy doesn’t work. They have a lot of things in their minds, and learning courses is but one of them. Unlike kids who know they move up grade levels, adults learners take learning courses to enhance their skills, keep their job, get a job, switch careers or continue further with their career plans. The goal is loftier and the stakes are even higher.