Working with Adult Learners

Friday, 18. November 2016

Teaching adult learners is similar to teaching youth although there are many important differences. These differences are generally thought of as a system of andragogy. Andragogy is concerned with methods and practices for teaching adults. The similar, but differently defined, pedagogy, is concerned with methods and practices for teaching youth.

One difference between andragogy and pedagogy has to do with experience. Youth have less experience, but they also have fewer types of experiences. Adults have more experience but also many different types, such as student, parent, worker, citizen. For adults, experience is a source of knowledge. Though more experience can also be a disadvantage since it can result in bias and presupposition, or a closed mind. Experience for adults is not something that happened to them, as it is for youth. Experience for adults is closely linked to self-identify. As a result, the educator of adults who disregards experience may be perceived as disregarding identify.The Adult Learner by Malcolm Knowles

Still another difference is readiness to learn. For youth school is compulsory. Adolescent students are required to attend and when they do, they are grouped by age. The same rule applies for advancing the young from one grade to the next. Generally, age determines advancement, not readiness. For adults, learning experiences are often selected based on readiness, such as professional training to begin a new career or recreational courses to better enjoy retirement. In comparison to youth, adults organize into learning groups based on choice or interest. Age may still exert some influence, but it has less impact in comparison to youth education.

Another difference is orientation to learning. Learning for youth is typically general and subject-centered. It is preparation for an unknown future. For example, a teacher of primary age students organizes lessons in reading, math, science. Likewise, secondary students rotate between English, history, biology. Youth learn for postponed application, such as preparing for some career or to attend some college. Adults, on the other hand, tend to be life-centered, learning specific knowledge and skills for immediate application, such as career advancement or enrichment.

Differentiating between andragogy and pedagogy provides some general guidelines for working with adults, but it is also necessary to know specifically what an educator does to optimize adult learning. One expert on the subject, Malcolm Knowles, has proposed several principles for educators to consider when working with adult learners.

According to Knowles (1990, pp. 85-87), effective educators of adults

Accept and value adult learner feelings and ideas

Cooperatively design learning experiences and partner in the selection of materials and methods

Contribute resources as co-learners in the spirit of mutual inquiry

Expose adult learners to new possibilities for self-fulfillment

Help develop and apply procedures for self-evaluation

Help clarify aspirations for improvement

Help identify problems adult learners experience because of gaps in their knowledge or skill, and likewise diagnose gaps between current and desired level of performance

Help draw upon adult learner experience through discussion, role playing, and case method

Involve adult learners in forming objectives in which the needs of learners, the institution, the teacher, and the subject matter are considered

Cooperatively develop criteria and methods for measuring progress toward meeting learning objectives

Provide physical conditions that are conducive to interaction, and

Seek to build relationships of mutual trust and helpfulness among learners by encouraging cooperative activities and refraining from competitiveness and judgment.

Knowles, M. (1990). The adult learner: A neglected species (4th ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf.

Reynolds, M. C. (1989). Knowledge base for the beginning teacher. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-036767-4.