by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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Earlier this week, we posted a blog on Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theories and the impact of these theories on providing effective learning opportunities for professionals. We continue this conversation in this blog with a focus on modern approaches to adult learning that were founded in Knowles’ early work. A leading voice in this field is Dr. Sharan Merriam, a professor of Adult Education at the University of Georgia. Her work in this field has generated a theory that there are five main approaches to adult learning: behaviorist, cognitivist, humanist, social cognitivist, and constructivist. For Merriam and other experts in this field, the key to effective adult learning is to match the individual learner’s preferred learning type with these approaches.
In order to effectively connect the learning approaches with individual learner’s needs, an understanding of Merriam’s five main adult learning approaches is warranted.
Behaviorist: This approach centers on the acts of reinforcing good behavior and changing bad behavior and is most commonly found in organizations where evaluation is based on quantifiable measures. The approach is accomplished through a process where behavioral changes are reinforced through rewards and punishments. The behaviorist approach is the most commonly used adult learning approach in professional development.
Cognitivist: This approach focuses on the cognitive development of the learner, by building new knowledge on previous knowledge gathered by the learner. In this approach, the belief is that the more the learner knows about the content needed in their profession, the more productive they will be in their work. The entire focus on cognitive growth means there is no room for growth in other areas of the individual.
Humanist: This approach arose out of the work of psychologist Carl Rogers who theorized that learning in adulthood must include learning by the whole person, not just cognitive learning. Instead of focusing merely on new skills and behaviors to acquire, the humanist approach provides space for learning by the entire being, as well as the opportunity to grow as in individual in terms of how they relate to others in the workplace.
Social Cognitivist: This approach focuses on the development of new knowledge and understanding through the interaction of the learner and other learners. In this approach, the learning environment matters greatly for the best learning emerges out of collaborative learning. Social interaction, observational learning, and social modeling are keys to the social cognitivist approach. Albert Bandura (2000), a leading expert in this approach, suggests that the adult learner in this approach is aided through three forms of agency: personal (leaner alone), proxy (instructor to learner), and collective (social environment).
Constructivism: This approach involves a process where learners construct new knowledge and understanding by linking it to previous knowledge and experiences. Thus knowledge is constructed through the internalization of experiences in the environment that help to rearrange and reassess previous knowledge in the individual. This approach relies largely on the learner coming to the learning experience with a wealth of knowledge that they can use to development into deeper levels of understanding.
Merriam and other experts in the field do not try to suggest that one approach is necessarily better than the others. Rather they focus on the idea that the approach that works best is that which fits best with each learning situation, learning goal, and individual learner. The key is to understand that every adult learner in the professional development program comes has a specific approach that fits best. Some organizations may need to focus on content knowledge (cognitivist approach) for the professionals, however in other organizations there might be a greater need for social interaction (social cognitivist) in the learning opportunity. The key to effectiveness in adult learning is to find the best fit between approach and learner.
Bandura, A. (2000). Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(3), 75-78.
Merriam, S.B., Caffarella, R.S., & Baumgartner, L.M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.