adult learner

Adult learners have different needs than our students, so we need to design professional development differently.  (Think andragogy vs. pedagogy. This piece, focusing on Malcolm Knowles, will be the first of several that examine different theoretical lenses about teaching the adult learner while keeping them practical. )

When designing professional learning, I try to consider the following five adapted from Malcolm Knowles’ assumptions (in italics) about the adult learner because they still feel relevant today:

1. Adults need to know the reason for learning something (relevance). Teachers and administrators need to know from the beginning what and why they should take the time and energy to learn something new. For example, how will it make them more effective teachers? Are there new professional expectations, such as the Common Core State Standards?  Will this new learning help them understand a new evaluation system? Will they be able to reach more students than they did before?  The context for professional learning should be shared upfront and should be clearly relevant.

2. Adults are interested in learning content that has immediate relevance to their jobs or personal lives (readiness to learn and orientation to learning).  Early in life—during college years for example—people are more comfortable learning information that they may use later. Adults, on the other hand, need their learning to be immediately applicable and practical. Adults live complex lives with multiple responsibilities, so they don’t feel they have the luxury of learning lots of theory without direct application.

When designing professional learning, make sure it connects directly to classroom use. I always ask myself, have I given them everything—the what, why and how, and the resources–that they need to be able to implement the strategy being introduced and/or adapt it for their students?

3. Adults bring a wealth of experience to the learning process (experience). It’s important to remember to acknowledge the range of experience in the room. Going further, we need to design multiple opportunities for educators to share their experiences in meaningful ways during professional learning. Adult educators can enrich professional development experiences for all participants if given the opportunity.  The collective wisdom of the room far outweighs any one individual, including the presenter.

4. Adults are more self-directed in their learning (self-concept and motivation to learn).  Knowles’ discussion of mature learners becoming more motivated by internal incentives applies to professional learning in that we should provide opportunities for choice and for participants to work out aspects of the learning for themselves. Allow time for participants to problem-solve during the professional development session. Adults don’t respond well to having others tell them what they should do instead of involving them in the process.  Whenever possible, I also try to involve participants in defining the goals of professional learning initiatives during initial planning stages.

5.   Adults need a collaborative, respectful environment.  Children need collaborative, respectful environments as well, but it’s important to establish an environment where teachers feel that their expertise is respected and where there’s a high comfort level with sharing and expanding on each other’s ideas, a place where it’s also safe to admit not knowing the answers. Most adults crave a social aspect to their learning; so much of teaching is solitary that teachers appreciate the time to learn and collaborate with their colleagues.

Essentially, we need to provide professional learning opportunities that are relevant, collaborative, immediately applicable, job-embedded and make extensive use of the rich experiences participants bring.