How adults learn

 Jan 30, 2017

Reading through an article on Adult Learning* recently, I must confess to thinking that I pretty much had the theory sewn up. You can imagine then, how I felt when I read the following:

“These myths hold that adult learning is inherently joyful, that adults are innately self-directed learners, that good educational practice always meets the needs articulated by the learners themselves…”

In a nutshell, that the theory of adult learning has one universal interpretation.

  1. Let’s consider Self-directed Learning.

  2. Simply saying that adults are “innately self-directed learners” fails to consider social context. Is self-directedness a result of our culture, or our upbringing? Certain nationalities are said to prize education really highly. Coming as I do, from South Africa, where it’s survival of the fittest and great store is placed in qualifications, given that the unemployment rate is about 30%, learning by any means is in our “DNA”. Is it perhaps related to our personalities? You know whom I’m talking about! What about the actual learning task itself? Where do social networks fit in and peer support… or judgement? Do some people learn better through interaction with others, or by themselves? Amongst certain cultures*, where working cooperatively is the norm, and the educator guides and directs, the idea of self-directedness could result in learners being quite anxious, initially.

  3. And then there’s Experiential Learning

    Surely the logic that adults have lived and experienced life means that they can and will learn differently to the youth? Surely building on experiences that adults have had in their life gives us a foundation to work from as educators, and furthermore, helps forge learning links from the known to the unknown?

    The article suggests that two challenging assumptions may be at work:

    1. Firstly, that our experiences are influenced by our culture. If, in our culture, questioning and challenging are not encouraged, that will surely impact on our experience of learning. We will prefer to be told, rather than prefer to be allowed to discuss, hypothesise, synthesise and in effect, teach ourselves.

    2. Secondly, that the years and over which we have gained our experiences, and the quantity of those experiences, are not necessarily an indication of progress or quality. If I’ve been a trainer for 30 years, am I still doing the same old stuff the same old way I did it then, or have I consciously tried to learn more, adapt to changes, critically interpret and evaluate my training methods and learning material in order to effect successful transfer of knowledge? To put it bluntly, are you better because of the number of years you’ve been doing something, or because of the qualitative improvement and skills you have acquired and experienced over the years?

  4. An additional thought

  5. I wonder to what extent facilitators of learning factor in the emotional intelligence component? At New Horizons we run a course on Assertiveness for example. What use is learning and practising the method, or understanding the concept, if at an emotional level, the student is fearful and anxious around the very situation that will require them to be assertive? A student should not be learning to please the facilitator, but to learn and apply what they learn, in the real world.

In conclusion, I have tried to highlight that our learners are not a homogenous group of people about whom we can make assumptions, simply because they are adults. Gender, ethnicity, culture, emotional intelligence, the political arena, and many other factors, affect adult learning.

*Brookfield, Stephen, 1995. Adult Learning: An Overview.


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About the Author:

Fee Hosking  

With over 24 years experience as a trainer, Fee is one of our most senior Professional Development trainers at New Horizons Sydney. With a professional background as a management consultant in the South African manufacturing industry, Fee brings credibility, experience and authenticity to all of the subjects that she trains. She has the ability to engage professionals from the junior to the senior level. Bringing great energy to the classroom, Fee ensures that the learning experience for all who attend is an enjoyable one, which in turn makes it a truly impactful one.

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