Basic principles of adult learning

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №4 - 2012

Assylbayeva Assel, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan
Yelakov Vladimir, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

The differences between an adult and a child are quite obvious. From the point of view of learning, children are more eager to wonder at new things and new insights. It is natural for children to focus on the physical world which they are slowly discovering. Adults, on the other hand, who for the most part already know what things are, tend to look for meaning and deeper insight. Most instruction, by necessity and tradition, has been focused on children and young adults – from elementary to college education. From a teacher’s perspective, the issue is how one approaches an adult when it comes to instruction. It is only logical to think that adults have an outlook and needs different from those of children, hence the need for a different approach. For centur³es, there was no distinction between the education of adults and of children, although the content may have been slightly different. Everyone was taught in the same manner regardless of age, prior experience, or developmental level. The scant literature or investigation in adult education has led to the notion that the adult learner is a “neglected species” (Knowles, 1978).

During the middle of the last century, experience and research has shown the need for an alternative approach in the practice of adult education (Godbey, 1978). It was in Europe that the term andragogy was first used to refer to some form of adult learning. Malcolm Knowles, who is considered to be the central figure in the US adult education during the latter half of the 20th century, learned of the term from a Yugoslavian adult educator and introduced it into American adult education literature in 1968 (Holton, 2001). Knowles defined andragogy as the “art and science of helping adults learn” (Knowles, 1968).

Andragogy focuses on the issues concerning the need for a different approach to teaching adults. The underlying foundat³on of the theory is that adults are different and so a different style of teaching and of learning should be studied.

The term “adult” can mean different things to different people. Knowles clarifies what we mean by the word "adult" from four different perspectives: biological, legal, social, and psychological (Knowles, 1984). The biological definition of being an adult can be seen as that age when the person has the capacity to reproduce, i.e. bear offspring. Most people, regardless of race or culture, reach this age sometime during adolescence. The legal definition of adult, on the other hand, varies from place to place. It is defined as that age when we can marry without consent, vote, get a driver’s license, etc. (Hartree, 1984). Socially, we become adults when we start performing mature roles such as those of a full-time worker, a breadwinner for the family, a spouse or a parent, a voting citizen, and others. Finally, we are considered adults psychologically “when we arrive at a self-concept of being responsible for our own lives, of being self-directing” (Knowles, 1984). For Knowles, it is this last definition that is most important when it comes to understanding adult learning.

Knowles differentiated adult learners (“non-dependent” or “member role”) from non-adults (“dependent” or “student role”) into 10 items (Knowles, 1978):

1) Adult learners are increasingly independent whereas non-adults are strongly dependent;

2) Adult learners are more self - directed, self-disciplined, and self-operating while non-adults are more other-directed, need external discipline, and have little self-operation in effect;

3) Adults are active learners (student-centered learning) while non-adults are passive learners (teacher-centered learning);

4) Adults usually find no “correct” answer for most problems studied/lived while non-adults usually have a “correct” answer for most classroom problems studied;

5) For adults, “correctness” of behavior is more rigid and associated closely with cultural/social stereotypes or tradition while, in non-adults, behavior is not as rigidly bound by “correct” stereotypes and tradition;

6) Adults are more aware of the influence and effects of decision-making or problem-solving processes and, therefore, less likely to implement “theoretical” solutions in real-life settings whereas non-adults are not as aware of the effects of decision and are more prone to implement solutions studied in class to real-life situations;

7) Adults have more-developed views and a value system which may differ from the teacher leading to conflict in the learning setting while non-adults are less likely to have strongly-developed value systems or points of view;

8) Adults naturally have more and varied life experiences which may be organized differently that could block, modify, or affect perception, problem-solving, and decision-making while non-adults have less and fewer kinds of life experiences and are, therefore, less likely to be influenced in perception, problem-solving, and decision-making;

9) For adults, investment of time in a learning activity may be as an important part of decision for involvement as investment of money or effort; for non-adults, investment of time in an activity is not usually an important part of decision for involvement in a learning activity;

10) Active learning is usually practiced in areas of interest and, therefore, there maybe less varied learning activity involvement for adults while with non-adults, varied learning is more common.

According to andragogy, adult learning is based on originally six key assumptions (Knowles, 1978):

a) the need to know;

b) the learners’ self-concept;

c) the role of the learners' experience;

d) readiness to learn;

e) orientation to learning;

f) motivation.

Adult learners need to know the reason why they need to learn before they make the first step to learn it (Knowles, 1968). The question adults initially ask is how the new knowledge or skill would benefit them. One’s grandmother would more willingly learn how to use a computer and e-mail if she is told that she can communicate with somebody half a globe away and even be able to receive digital pictures, which she can print immediately. Another way of looking at it is that it would be more difficult for adult students to learn something when they do not understand why they have to learn it. It is a totally different case for young children who have to accept whatever the teacher presents for learning. Children normally do not ask how something is applicable in their lives before learning it.

The self-concept of adults revolves more around being responsible for their own decisions and for their own lives (Knowles, 1984). Adults have a better self-direction – they can choose where to go, what to know, when to start, etc. According to Knowles (1978), this can often pose a dilemma in teaching adults. Normally, adults agree to learn because they are aware that they need to know something. The teacher is seen as one who has that knowledge or skill. Hence, adults sometimes feel a conflict between a dependency (on the teacher) and the deeper psychological need to be self-directing (Knowles, 1978). After acknowledging this problem, which, according to Knowles, might be one reason for the high dropout rate in most voluntary adult education programs, adult educators have worked at creating learning experiences that help adults to make the transition from dependent to self-directing learners (Knowles, 1978). One of such methods is involving them in the planning and design of instruction.

As for the role of the learners’ experience, adults not only have much more experience than children, their experience is also of a different quality. Naturally, adults have more experience due to their longer lifetime. However, the quality of adults’ experience is also different in that there are certain things that only adults can experience – working full-time, seriously falling in and out of love, trying to make ends meet financially, etc. Adults have a qualitatively much wider set of experience. For adults, the quantity and quality of experiences they bring are in themselves rich resources for learning and reflection. With their little experience, children normally rely on the experiences of the teacher, on books, audio-visuals, and other materials.

According to Knowles, adults become ready to learn those particular things they need to know and do so they can cope effectively with their real-life situations (Knowles, 1984). In short, it is easier for people to learn when they are developmentally capable of it and feel the need to learn it. For children, their role is more passive in that they become ready to learn whenever and whatever the teacher presents to them else they will fail in the exams.

The assumption of orientation to learning is very much related to the previous one although on a more general level. Adults are more life-centered in that they are “ motivated to devote energy to learn something to the extent that they perceive that it will help them perform tasks or deal with problems that they confront in their life situations” (Knowles, 1984). Experience teaches adults what to expect from life and they are more willing to prepare for future needs. Moreover, for adults, the process of learning is in itself important. Thus, it is an outlook or orientation proper to adults. Children, on the other hand, focus more on subject matter for learning. They see and experience learning more as an accumulation of content or an added skill. Younger ones are also more likely to whine about tedious processes as they are more interested in final results.

Adults are motivated to keep on growing, developing, and learning. The fact that there is such a thing as adult education is proof enough that they have this desire to learn more when they often do not actually need to. With children, it is often a battle with grades, acceptance, approval, and rewards. These assumptions reveal an epistemology that is heavily influenced by pragmatism and a little of interpretivism. The fact that experience and reason play a key role as sources of knowledge makes andragogy lean more towards pragmatism. On the other hand, there is also a tint of interpretivism in that each learner will have his or her own assumption of what reality is based on the uniqueness of each one’s set of experiences (Knowles, 1968).

These assumptions still provide a summary and a clearer picture of who adults are and where they come from. In fact, the assumptions can be generalized into other domains and not just in learning (Knowles, 1978).

There are four basic questions for structuring any learning experience (Knowles, 1980):

1. What content should be covered?

2. How should the content be organized?

3. What sequence should be followed in presenting the content?

4. What is the most effective method for transmitting this content?

Under a pedagogical approach, the teacher’s role is to answer and implement the answers to these questions. Under an andragogical approach, the teacher’s job is to design a process whereby the learners both help create their own answers to these questions as well as participate in their implementation.

According to Knowles, the following principles are the basis for creating practices and procedures that guide the organization and provision of andragogical learning experiences (Knowles, 1972). The adult learning characteristics and needs being addressed by each principle are mentioned in the parentheses:

1. The adult learner must be able to define what they want to learn (autonomy, personal need, reasons, and intrinsic motivation);

2. The plans for the learning program should be made jointly between "teacher" and "student" (autonomy, personal need, reasons for learning);

3. The adult must be involved in the evaluation of the learning program (autonomy);

4. The climate of the learning program must be safe and non-threatening (experience);

5. The program should relate to and include the adult's existing experiences and cognitive structure (experience);

6. Learning activities should be experiential and "hands on" rather than passive and pedagogical (personal needs, pragmatic experience);

7. Learning should lead to practical solutions to experienced problems. The curriculum should be problem-, rather than subject-, based (personal needs, pragmatic experience);

8. The proper role of the "teacher" is one of process facilitator and co-learner rather than content expert (autonomy).

Knowles translates these principles for adult education into the following practices and procedures (Knowles, 1978):

1. Climate. In contrast to the climate in a trad³tional setting where there is a lot of formality and the teacher is an authority figure, adult learning should be characterized by mutuality, collaboration, respect, and informality (Knowles, 1978). Since the adult learner is self-d³rected and internally motivated, it would be beneficial for both teachers and learners to regard each other more as peers helping one another. According to Knowles (1978), for many k³nds of learning in adult education, peers are considered one of the richest resources for learning and that any form of competition stifles the access to those resources. A climate conducive to learning should be created. While it is important to provide a climate that is physically comfortable, the real focus must be on creating a psychological climate of safety, acceptance, trust, and respect. This is a key respons³bility of the facilitator.

2. Planning. A mutual planning procedure should be used that involves the learner in planning what the learn³ng will cover. This is a “cardinal principle of andragogy” (Knowles, 1978). Adults have a more mature self-concept and far richer experiences. A more concrete example on this point is the use of learning contracts. Learning contracts provide a vehicle for making the planning of learning experiences a mutual undertaking by letting learners participate in the process of diagnosing their needs, formulating objectives, identifying resources, choosing strategies, and evaluating their accomplishments (Knowles, 1978). According to St. Clair “the notion of adults working together to design the educational process encapsulates the core values of andragogy in many ways” (St. Clair, 2002). Again, it re³nforces the adults’ self-direction. They are masters of their own destinies.

3. Diagnosis of needs. One basic way to include the adult in planning involves the following two-step process. First, desired learning competencies or outcomes are identif³ed, and second, discrepancies between those desired competencies and the learner's current abilities are noted. The result is a self-assessment of what the learner wants to learn. From an honest assessment of their current state, they can move on to the next step, which is to formulate goals (Knowles, 1978).

4. Formulation of objectives. The adult should be involved in establishing learning objectives. The adult learner needs to be a part of this process in line with the climate of mutuality and collaboration mentioned in the first step and the involvement of the learner in the overall planning of his or her education stipulated in the second step (Knowles, 1978). The adult learner should have an opportunity to exercise self-direction in making the objectives. This gives the adult learner a sense of control.

5. Design. The adult should be involved in selecting and planning the sequence and nature of learning experiences and resources used in the process. Knowles suggests some concepts of educational design of a suitable format that takes into account the available resources, methods, schedule, sequence, social reinforcement, individualization, roles and relationships, criteria for evaluation, and clarity of the design (Knowles, 1978). Again, this reinforces the adult learner’s self-direction and makes use of his or her experiences in the process of learning. The design also takes into account adult learners’ physical and mental conditions – proper scheduling.

6. Activities. The activity should be focused on experiential techniques, making full use of the adult learner’s vast experiences. Then, in the actual operation of the activities, the teacher’s role becomes sort of an administrator merely overseeing the adult learner progress without any hint of authority. The learner usually has enough motivation and self-direction to do the activity with little supervision unless he or she needs help or guidance. Here, the teacher acts more in the capacity of a facilitator, resource person and mutual student than as independent expert (Knowles, 1978). Knowles identified a number of specific actions that a teacher should perform in order to perform the role of facilitator, such as creating the right mood or climate; helping participants clarify learning expectations and intentions; organizing and making available a wide range of learning resources; and reacting to student inquiries socratically by asking questions rather than providing “expert” answers.

7. Evaluation. This step should be like a mutual re-diagnosis of needs and how they have or have not been met. For Knowles, “if every learning experience is to lead to further learning, as continuing education implies, then every evaluation process should include some provision for helping the learners re-examine their models of desired competencies and reassess the discrepancies between the model and their newly developed levels of competencies” (Knowles, 1978). Adults are mature enough to honestly see their achievements and possible areas of weakness.

Thus, adults not only can but also do continue learning in one way or another after completing their compulsory education. In this case, andragogy is the method of choice for educating adults because it more adequately addresses the distinctive learning needs and requirements of the adult learner. Unlike the teacher-controlled classroom, the andragogical learning experience is one in which "teacher" becomes a learning facilitator and co-learner with the "student" as an equal partner in the learning process. According to the theory, andragogical methods, by providing autonomy and actively involving adults in this learning process, should produce more and/ or better learn ing for the adult participants than would the traditional pedagogical approach do.


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Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №4 - 2012

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