Friday, June 1, 2012

Thinking about child -v- adult learners

The first real experience I had with adult learners was with a health education programme and it was that experience that led me to decide to return to the UK to train as a teacher of children.  I have spent the past 30 years happily teaching all ages of children, from early learners aged 3 to 18 year olds who were getting ready to go to university.  During my time in Thailand I taught both the oldest and the youngest students in the school and I enjoyed the daily variety tremendously.  Over the past 3 years, however, I've thought a lot more about teaching adults.  Some of this was because of running PD opportunities for teachers in my current school, some was because I trained to be a PYP workshop leader and some was because I started doing online courses and thinking about being an adult learner myself.

There's a different word for the art and science of teaching adults, as opposed to children - androgogy. This word was first coined by the German educator Alexander Kapp almost 200 years ago, but was applied to modern education by Malcolm Knowles in 1967 who believed adults are self-directed and autonomous learners and so teachers need to be more facilitators of their learning.  Knowles believed that adults had different motivations than children for wanting to learn and therefore need a different approach:

  • they need to know the reason why they are learning something
  • they learn through experience - including making mistakes
  • they are responsible for their own decisions and so need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their work
  • they are interested in subjects that have immediate relevance
  • they respond best to problem-based rather than content-based learning
  • they are internally rather than externally motivated
As I read through this list I thought it could equally well be applied to everyone - I think children learn best when all these factors are taken into account too.

At the PYP Workshop Leader Training in 2010 we discussed the implications of adult learning for us when running workshops.  I had the opportunity to put this training into practice last year when I led a Making the PYP Happen workshop in Paris.

Self-directed, autonomous learners: adults learn best when they collaborate as active participants in the learning process and are involved in determining how and what they will learn and the pace at which they will learn.  For me this implied that I needed to plan sessions that were interactive and where the participants had choices.  In order to meet the individual needs of the adult learner it's important to know about the participants and what they want to get out of the workshop.  Reflecting on the two recent courses I've done through the ASB Online Academy, I can see that these were definitely being taken into account.  We were invited to introduce ourselves and explain what we hoped to get out of the course before the actual lessons started, and we could work through the lessons at our own pace whenever it was convenient time for us.  

Goal  and relevancy oriented:  because adults know what they want to get out a workshop they want to be involved in work that has immediate and direct relevance and application.  As a workshop leader I know it's important to give the learner outcomes up-front and to ask the participants what their goals are so that the workshops can be tailored to meeting these needs.  

Practical and problem-based:  adults are impatient with theories unless they can apply them to their practical experiences.  They need their learning to be expressed in action.

Knowledge and experience:  adults bring their knowledge and experiences to the learning - these experiences can be personal and professional and can even be habits that interfere with new learning.  Adults need to appreciate that their attitude is their own choice and this will affect what they get out of the learning.

Reflection:  adults learn through reflecting on their own and others' experiences and often enjoy reflecting in social situations.  It's really important for workshop leaders to give a time and a place for these reflections (at our WSL course we called these "fireside chats" and had these several times a day).

Stage of development:  adults are at different stages of development - personal, chronological and professional - and these stages affect the learning.  For workshop leaders this is difficult because the participants can be at all of these different stages.  This is very different from teaching a class of students who are all roughly the same age and at the same stage of development.

Competing interests:  adults may have different motivations for taking courses.  Some of these reasons could be to meet external expectations or requirements, others may simply be there for their own interest.  Adults also have other demands on their energies and time:  money, schedules, interest, families and so on which may affect how committed they are to the learning.

Different learning styles:  many adults have already developed a dominant learning style which is why it's important to provide choices.

Environment:  adults need to learn in trusting and respectful environments - they have potentially a greater "loss of face" when failing than children.  They need to be given the freedom to experiment and also the challenge to acquire new perspectives.

In the new school year I'm going to embark upon an Ed.M through Boston University.  I'm curious to see how my experiences as an adult learner can also help me learn to be a better teacher of adults.

Photo Credit:  Then and Now by Svein Halvor Halvorsen, 2008  AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you that all the above should be remembered for our students too when planning. I think that we need to remind ourselves to be as reflective about the above with the students as we are when teaching adults. Great thoughts.