by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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The world is very familiar with the theories of how children learn and develop throughout their early lives, however scant attention is given to the ways in which adults learn and develop after childhood. Billions of dollars are spent annually in the world to provide professional development to adults, yet most of these programs fail to deliver effective outcomes from this spending. The main reason that professional development does not impact adults as much as it could is that it does not address the individual needs, goals, practices, and belief systems of adults. Adult learners are diverse individuals, each representing an individual set of learning needs, learning processes, and goals for their work, yet their learning in the workplace does not address this individuality.
Malcolm Knowles, the world’s most noted expert in the field of adult learning, writes in his book, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (1978), that for many decades the belief system surrounding adult learning was based on the ways in which children learned. Knowles suggested that most adult learning opportunities were merely copies of the type of learning that is provided to children, despite the major differences in the ways that children and adults learn. According to Knowles, early theorists on adult learning focused more on the ‘ends’ of adult learning rather than the ‘means’ of adult learning. The assumption was that as long as the outcomes were clearly defined for the learners, it didn’t matter how they learned. This led to many adult learning experiences taking a one-size-fits-all approach that failed to address the individuality of each learner.
In order to change the way in which learning experiences were provided for adults, Knowles theorized a new way in which to support adult learners: andragogy. He considered andragogy to be “a unified theory of adult learning.” For Knowles, andragogy was based on four assumptions that would change the way in which adult learning processes were addressed:
Changes in self-concept: The adult learner moves from a state of dependency to a state of self-directedness. As they do this, the learner becomes less dependent on the person providing the learning, and more apt at learning on their own.
Role of experience: The adult learner builds upon previous experiences in their life to relate new information and experiences. Their experiences provide a base for an ever-growing accumulation of knowledge and skills.
Readiness to learn: The adult learner is focused on learning what he or she needs to learn in order to perform successfully in life and work. The learner disregards anything they don’t feel they need to learn, and rather focuses on learning that addresses needs.
Orientation to learning: The adult learner focuses on problem-based learning rather than subject-based learning. Learning experiences that focus on particular problem areas serve the adult learner best, rather than large overviews of a general topic.
While Knowles’ assumptions of adult learning seem simple and straightforward, there is a dearth of their use in adult learning experiences. Oftentimes, adults are taught in the exact same way that children are taught in schools across America. As Knowles points out, there is an intense need to change the way in which learning experiences are provided to adults in the workplace. Learning opportunities for adults can have a major impact if they are designed to meet the learner’s needs, build on their experiences, change their self-concepts, and address their learning orientations. If the goal of adult learning in the workplace is to increase effectiveness and productivity, shouldn’t every organization want to provide learning experiences that allow for ultimate growth by their professionals. Taking Knowles’ ideas into account can amp up any professional development and make the difference that is needed!
Knowles, M.S. (1978). The adult learner: A neglected species (2nd ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.