By Daniel G. Groleau, Ph.D., SPHR
Simply stated, andragogy is the art and science of teaching adults. The andragogical learning model postulated by Malcolm Knowles (1984) rests on the premise that teaching adults should differ from teaching adolescents and children. According to Taylor, Marienau and Fidler (2000), adult learners are individuals over age 25 who require the use of teaching techniques that differ from those appropriate for younger individuals. The diverse experiences, talents and wealth of knowledge of adult students provide valuable resources to the training environment.
Tapping into the collective knowledge of adult participants, as well as understanding some basic characteristics and qualities of the adult learner, is paramount to successful training outcomes. An awareness and appreciation of theory and basic principles of adult learning by training professionals (adult educators) can enrich the learning experience and, furthermore, yield greater success in the transfer of learning outcomes to workplace environments. This paper will present some characteristics of adult learners and then suggest how incorporating adult learning theory and methods into training design and delivery can enhance learning outcomes for this population of learners.
Characteristics of Adult Learners
The trainer should be mindful of characteristics that influence how adults learn when designing and delivering training programs. Malcolm Knowles (1984) assumption informs the andragogical model of adult education. Knowles observed that:
1. Adults tend to be self-directed learners.
2. Adults have a rich reservoir of experience that can serve as a resource for learning.
3. Since adults readiness to learn is frequently affected by their need to know or do something, they tend to have a life-, task- or problem-centered orientation to learning as contrasted to a subject-matter orientation.
4. Adults are generally motivated to learn due to internal or intrinsic factors as opposed to external or extrinsic factors.
An Overview of Adult Learning Theory
Theories of collaborative learning, constructivist learning and transformation learning are prominent in the adult learning literature. Many researchers promote the merits of collaborative learning theory and practice for example, Brookfield (1986), Bruffee (1993), Bowden and Merrit (1995), and Howell (2001). Adults tend to prefer collaboration learning processes that allow opportunities for them to participate and interact with the trainer and other participants. Relatedly, constructivist learning theorists, such as Kerka (1997), Spigner-Littles and Anderson (1999), and Applefield and Moallem (2001), view learning as an active process of constructing rather than acquiring knowledge. Constructivist learning theory suggests that knowledge is something that individuals construct for themselves using their previous experiences, knowledge and understanding as the building blocks. Transformational learning which can occur gradually or from a sudden, powerful experience changes the way people see themselves and their world (Clark, 1993). The interest in transformative learning theory may be explained by the fact that it is unique to adulthood (Taylor, 1998). Transformational learning processes and methods will be the focus of discussion in the following section.
Transformational learning theory is well established in the literature on adult learning. Many scholars, including Baumgartner (2001), Cranton (2002), Kegan (2000) and Mezirow (1997), emphasize learning as a transformational process. Transformative learning is about making changes through transforming ones perspective or meaning and making sense of these changes. Cranton (2002) proposes some strategic guidelines for teaching for transformation, as summarized below:
1. Create an activating event. In order to bring about a catalyst for transformation, the instructor needs to expose students to viewpoints that may be discrepant with their own. For example, small group interaction or debates can allow adults to share perspectives in dramatic and interesting ways.
2. Articulate assumptions. Articulating assumptions is not easy. It may be impossible for some adult learners to answer the question, What assumptions are you making here? Nevertheless, it is important for the trainer to ask such probing questions.
3. Construct questions to encourage students to describe what they believe and how they came to believe it. For example, an educator might ask, Is your view based on your own experience or the experience of someone you know? What have you read or heard that supports your view?
4. Engage students in critical self-reflection. To encourage critical reflection, the instructor should provide the opportunity for students to question their assumptions: to examine what they think and how they feel and to consider the consequences of holding certain assumptions. Critical self-reflection may take place in the classroom, but it is perhaps more likely to occur outside it. Recalling critical incidents and reflection journals are a good way to stimulate self-reflection.
5. Be open to alternatives. Being open to perspectives different from ones own can be exceedingly difficult. Students may articulate their assumptions and reflect on them, but shut down when faced with accepting alternatives. The educator has to create safe and enjoyable ways for people to try on different points of viewways of acting out or talking about alternatives. Role-playing, debates and taking a position on an issue from a different perspective are ways to accomplish this objective.
6. Discourse. Engaging learners in discourse, as opposed to regular discussion, can seem stilted or artificial. Cranton suggested first presenting and discussing the optimal conditions for discourse: having accurate and complete information, being free from coercion and distorting self-deception, weighing evidence and assessing arguments, being open to alternative perspectives, critically reflecting on presuppositions, having equal opportunity to participate and accepting informed consensus as valid knowledge (Mezirow, 1991). Videotaping of discourse and dialogue journals are two techniques that can be utilized.
7. Revise assumptions and perspectives. Teaching for transformation is setting the stage and providing the opportunity. When students actually revise their assumptions or larger frames of reference, there is little the instructor can do aside from giving support. The process may be painful for some and joyful for others. Whenever possible, the trainer should make the time for one-on-one interaction with a student who is changing beliefs.
8. Act on the revisions. To help students act on their revised assumptions or perspectives, trainers need to set up situations where they have the opportunity to do so. For example, experiential learning projects where students go out into the real world and try out their transformed views can be assigned. Simulated committee meetings, field trips or site visits are other options to explore.
9. Help students set up action plans when they leave the course or workshop. This can be as simple as asking participants to write down two or three concrete things they will do, or it can be a more formal plan with goals, strategies for achieving those goals and mechanisms for getting feedback from others. The more the adult educator pays attention to how students will act on their revised assumptions and perspectives, the more the educator can ease that process for them.
Roles and Responsibilities of the Training Professional
Fundamentally, adult learners must be able to wrap their arms around the concepts and principles as applicable to their realities and the realities of the work setting. Imel (2001) noted that adult educators often act as change agents. Since transformational learning is a process involving change and the questioning of assumptions, an understanding of the connection between adult education theory, the learning environment and the role of the training professional as an agent of change can be important. Two critical roles of the training professional are: 1) creating a learning environment conducive to adult learning; and 2) facilitating the process of critical thinking and critical reflection.
Creating an Atmosphere Conducive to Adult Learning
Creating a learning environment that meets the needs of adult learners is a key element of successful adult education programs. Since Malcolm Knowles introduced the idea of a learning climate, adult educators and trainers have been aware of how the environment affects learning. The challenge is to create a nonthreatening atmosphere in which adults have permission to participate and in which they are expected to share in the responsibility for their learning.
Therefore, a primary responsibility of the trainer is to create structured (yet perhaps informal) settings where dialogue can occur and provide the learner with the opportunity to examine the perspectives of others. The challenge for trainers is to create a nonthreatening atmosphere in which adults can share their experiences and conceptualizations. First, the learning process must engage the adult learner. Secondly, the trainer must give the adult learner an active role in the learning process. Taylor, Marienau and Fiddler (2000), for example, suggest that an essential element is a dialogical process. The authors contend that effective adult learning must be grounded in a developmental dialogue between the self-directed learner and his or her trainer and fellow students. Although it is important to realize that each adult is an individual, some generalizations based on the research body of knowledge can be made. Imel (1988) proposed the following strategies for creating an interactive and inviting learning environment:
1. Establish adult-to-adult rapport. To build rapport with adults in the learning environments, the instructor needs to use positive nonverbal communication, deal with the whole person, address learners as equals, share authority and employ informal room arrangements, such as placing all the chairs in a circle, in a U or around a table. Adult students also appreciate instructors who share appropriate information about themselves and who are approachable and accessible.
2. Create a participatory environment. A participatory environment, which helps learners assume responsibility for their own learning, can be created by involving the learners in deciding on course content and establishing class management guidelines, having learners serve as instructional resources and monitoring learner satisfaction throughout the activity. Providing multiple learning options, which enable learners to choose those methods and materials best suited to their needs, will also encourage participation.
3. Facilitate adult independence. Instructors can help adults assume more responsibility for their own learning by encouraging them to learn on their own, by serving as a role model of an independent adult learner and by teaching decision-making and problem-solving techniques.
4. Provide for individual differences. Because they have an independent self-concept, adults view themselves as individuals, and it is important to acknowledge adults as individuals in the educational setting. Individual differences can be accommodated by using a variety of instructional techniques, providing appropriate and varied instructional materials, relating instruction to learners experience and adjusting for physiological and psychological differences.
Furthermore, Tisdell (1995) suggests that a learning environment must attend to inclusivity at three levels. The learning environment should reflect the diversity of participants in the learning activity, attend to the broader contexts in which the participants work and live and reflect the ever-changing needs of a diverse society, because learners do not live in a vacuum.
Facilitating the Process of Critical Thinking and Critical Reflection
Critical thinking and reflection and the development of a critical consciousness are important processes in adult learning. The trainer can be very instrumental in facilitating the development of these processes. Brookfield (1995) suggests that it is the responsibility of the teacher of adults to help learners become critically reflective and to think of themselves as individuals who are capable of taking action and changing the world. Critical thinking and critical reflection involve changing assumptions, beliefs and values about how the world works. A relationship exists between the change process and facilitating critical thinking and reflection. When an adult educator assumes the role of change agent, Imel (2001) suggests the following steps might guide the process:
1. Pay attention to the context. Understanding the context is critical to success in acting as a change agent. Individual learners have norms and values that will influence the direction of change.
2. Be prepared to be proactive. Underlying the change agent role is the assumption that the change agent will bring about change. When acting as a change agent, therefore, an adult educator must be prepared to initiate the change process even though fulfilling this role may raise questions of facilitating change, including the responsible use of power in giving students tools that they can use in their lives (Tisdell, Hanley and Taylor, 2000).
3. Attend to learning. Since learning and change are interconnected, an adult educator can assist those who are undergoing the change process in understanding the different kinds of learning as well as the learning cycle of the change process. Williams (1992), for example, talks about adult educators as assisting learners in peeling the onion of theory and practice that have produced current acceptable practices in any areas (p. 47).
4. Build in action. Any change will not be complete unless it involves action. Taking action related to a new mental concept will increase the flow of information surrounding it and allow those involved to test it out, receive reaction to it and involve others in learning about it (Williams, 1992).
This paper presented a brief overview of adult learning theory and principles and suggested some techniques that could be incorporated into instructional design and delivery. An understanding of the needs and desires of adult learners, along with the context in which learning occurs, can be critical determinants of learning success. In addition, creating a comfortable atmosphere of collegial participation that supports dialogue and input from all members of the group is essential. Integrating knowledge and basic principles of adult learning theory and methods into training sessions could serve to enhance both learning processes and learning outcomes. The role of the training professional is perhaps summed up best by Rogers (1989) who said, Learning is part of a circuit that is one of lifes fundamental pleasures: The instructors role is to keep the current flowing. The role of the instructor includes being a coach (sometimes a referee), a mentor, a facilitator, a co-learner, and a colleague (p. 38).
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Thanks to Dan Groleau for contributing this article. This paper is intended to provide general information and is not a substitute for legal or other professional advice.
Dan Groleau holds a Ph.D. in education with a specialization in adult education from Capella University. He is a former HR practitioner and teaches HR management courses in both online and traditional learning environments. Dan also provides HR consulting services.
For more information on this subject, contact the SHRM Knowledge Center.