Adult Learning Theory

adults need

The topic of Adult Learning styles has much relevance in Iowa TLC Districts.

As I have discussed in earlier posts, the school district I work in was selected by the Iowa DOE in March 2014 to receive ongoing grant funding for our Iowa Teacher Leadership and Compensation Grant.

The model outlined in our TLC plan includes 3 Teacher Leader Roles: Instructional Coaches (100% released), Lead Teachers (25% released), and Model Teachers (no release). In all these roles, teacher leaders are working with other adults and in most of the roles; teacher leaders are also still working directly with students in their own classrooms.

Among the basic philosophies of the JCSD TLC plan are that teachers and teacher leaders are engaging in reciprocal learning and coaching over the course of the year. An embedded assumption within our model is that teacher leaders will be able to effectively collaborate and learn from other teachers and vice-versa. However, the transition from facilitating learning for students to learning for adults likely will not be as seamless or effective in the first few months and years of the implementation of our model as it will eventually be.

I found the articles to provide some insights that will be important for our district to be mindful of as we continue to implement our TLC Model.

The key points from the first article on Adult vs. Adolescent Learning Styles by Dave Bissonte were:

  • Adults need to be provided with a rationale as to why they are learning something.
  • Adult learners are self-motivated.
  • Adult learners like to have a choice and voice as to how they will learn.
  • Adult learners like to share their expertise and contribute.
  • All learners need feedback to grow.

The second article (Principles of Adult Learning & Instructional Systems Design) by NHI also raised a similar point about how adult learners have much more self-awareness than adolescent learners. It really stressed more about the need to consider the learning domains, learning styles, and why adults learn. The 3 primary learning domains discussed were: Cognitive (knowledge of a body of subject matter), Affective (attitudes and beliefs), and Behavioral (practical application). It also asked the reader to consider various learning styles that may characterize adult learners, focusing primarily on 3 types of learning styles: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic. Several universal assumptions of all adult learners were presented in the context of the acknowledgement of the existence of different learning domains and styles. Perhaps these were of the most value to me as far as new points of consideration. These assumptions included:

  • Adults want to know what they should learn. They need to see the benefits to learning something as outweighing the costs of not learning it. As a result, facilitators of adult learning need to be able to answer the classic “What’s in it for me?” question on a regular basis.
  • Adults need to take responsibility. Adults are already in charge of their own lives and are responsible for their own life decisions. They desire to be seen as capable and responsible learners. Adults want to learn in ways that are active and not passive. They loathe “sit and get” sessions.
  • Adults bring life experience to learning. Adults self-identify through their life experiences. These experiences can be an asset for the facilitator and other adult learners, providing real life context and relevance to learning. However, life experiences can also be a liability among adult learners as the may lead to biases and assumptions that may hinder or taint their learning and that of other adult learners. Facilitators of adult learning must carefully balance these assets and liabilities.
  • Adults are ready to learn when the need arises. Adults have much power and control over when they choose and commit to learn. Perception and prior experience with employer facilitated training is a huge factor to buy in from adult learners. Adults need to see the training more as job-embedded and not job-required. They need to see the value in the learning.
  • Adults are task-oriented. While education is subject-centered, adult learning must be task-oriented. What is the purpose of the learning? What will the adult learner use this for? What task will this learning enable them to better complete?

The last article I read was What is the Collaborative Classroom?, by Tinzmann et al, 1990. This article focused on the characteristics of a collaborative classroom, specifically focusing on teacher and students roles in the collaborative classroom. It also shared some of the research base for collaborative learning as well as providing some exemplars of collaborative classrooms in place.

As I read this article, I found myself pondering how effective collaborative learning can happen at the adult level within the context of our TLC model. It cannot be overlooked that the learning styles and needs of adults are necessarily divergent from those of adolescents. In many ways, there is a different dynamic in place when working with other adults. These are your colleagues, your peers. Teacher leaders should never lose perspective that they have much to learn from their fellow colleagues, likely much more than they can reciprocate in return.

In closing, perhaps it is best to see adult learning as a process. Much can be learned in the journey and the pathway to successful adult learning is winding and full of challenges and obstacles that will lead to opportunities for growth. In many ways, this is much like how we have become better classroom teachers!

~Brad Hurst

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