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  1. 1. The Secret of Adult Learning Theory: It’s NOT About Age! 1 The Secret of Adult Learning Theory: It’s NOT About Age! By: Sharon L. Bowman, M.A., President Bowperson Publishing & Training, Inc. Website: Email: Phone: 775-749-5247 Fax: 775-749-1891Note: This article is formatted using the4 Cs Accelerated Learning instructional * They want to or need to process. To get the most from thisarticle, you are encouraged to participate * They learn in different the activities along the way. You willlearn more, and be able to apply what * They learn best in an informalyou learn, because of your participation. environment.For more information about the 4 Cs, logonto and down- * They see themselves and self-directedload the free article titled: “Bag It! A and responsible.Quick and Remarkably Easy Instruc-tional Design Process.” * They learn best when they have hands-on practice. * They bring their own past experiences to the learning. * They learn best when they can relate new information to what they already know.CONNECTIONS * They have their own ideas to contribute.One-Minute Fast Pass: You already Now think about the children you know,know a lot about how adults learn. As a the children you’ve raised, or the childteacher or trainer, you’ve observed adult you once were. Think about what youlearning in action. And, as an adult know about how children learn and howlearner yourself, you’ve experienced you learned as a child. With thoseadult learning “up close and personal”. thoughts in mind, check off any of theSo take a few moments to check off any following statements that you think ap-of the following statements that you ply to children’s learning:think apply to adult learning: Bowperson Publishing & Training, Inc. 775-749-5247 ©2007 All rights reserved.
  2. 2. The Secret of Adult Learning Theory: It’s NOT About Age! 2 remembering and using the information* They want to or need to learn. they were being taught, adults were learning very little from lectures, as-* They learn in different ways. signed readings, drills, quizzes, rote memorization, and examinations.* They learn best in an informal environment. The author’s name was Malcolm Knowles, a Boston university associate* They see themselves and self-directed professor of adult education. His writ- and responsible. ings spanned 4 decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s, and he was almost solely* They learn best when they have responsible for making two words hands-on practice. household items in the worlds of teach- ing, training, and adult learning theory:* They bring their own past experiences pedagogy and andragogy. to the learning.* They learn best when they can relate new information to what they already know.* They have their own ideas to contribute.You’re probably thinking by now,“What’s going on? It’s the same list.”And you probably checked off all thestatements in both the adult learning listas well as the children’s learning list. Soread on to discover the most profoundsecret about adult learning theory and Pedagogy Versus Andragogyone that will change your whole percep-tion about teaching and training adults: For better or worse, Malcolm Knowlesit’s NOT about age! changed the beliefs about adult learning in the United States. I use the phrase “forCONCEPTS better or worse” because the effects of Knowles’ lifelong work had both posi-Let me tell you a story: Once upon a tive and negative consequences.time, in the early 1960s and 1970s to beexact, a college professor wrote a num- First, he said that children learn bestber of definitive books pointing out that through what he termed “pedagogy,”the ways most adults were being taught which he defined as “teacher-centered”– through lecture-based classes – didn’t instruction, where the focus is on lec-work very well. In fact, in terms of ture-based learning. Second, he said that adults learn best through “andragogy,” Bowperson Publishing & Training, Inc. 775-749-5247 ©2007 All rights reserved.
  3. 3. The Secret of Adult Learning Theory: It’s NOT About Age! 3that is, “learner-centered” instruction, Unwittingly, Knowles did a drastic dis-where the focus is on experiential-based service to children. He permanently ce-learning. mented the old paradigm of teacher- centered instruction for non-adult learn-Thus, the word pedagogy became syn- ers. He made the assumption that, be-onymous with learning environments in cause children had been taught withwhich children sit passively while in- lecture-based methods since the earlyformation is poured into their heads via 1800s, it must be the way children learnlectures, books, and tests. Knowles used best. Because that was the way it hadthis word to describe how children learn. been done for decades, it must be effec- tive. Circular, “chicken and egg” think-The word andragogy became synony- ing, to be sure.mous with hands-on, informal instruc-tion that is based on the relevant learningneeds of adults. Knowles used this wordto describe how adults learn. In one ofhis most famous books, written in theearly 1970’s, titled “The Adult Learner:A Neglected Species,” Knowles empha-sized the need for experiential learningin adult classes and training – a radicaldeparture from traditional methods ofadult instruction at the time. Knowles’ mistake regarding how chil- dren learn was understandable. At the time, there wasn’t much research about how the human brain learns, meaning how the brain is hardwired to take in in- formation, store it, and retrieve it when the learner needs the information to per- form some task. The brain research has been growing since the late 1970s, with the majority of the published research appearing from the late 1990s to the pre- sent. Adults Versus Children When Knowles realized that traditional methods of instruction weren’t workingKnowles did adults a huge favor in the for adults, he assumed that it was a mat-United States: he significantly changed ter of age-difference, not a matter of in-the perceptions of educators and trainers effective instructional methods to beginas to what adults need in order learn ef- with. He didn’t have the research indi-fectively. To that end, he demonstrated cating what we now know: that mostand preached the need for more infor- people, regardless of age, do NOT learnmal, experiential learning environments best when just sitting, passively listeningfor adults. to a lecture. Bowperson Publishing & Training, Inc. 775-749-5247 ©2007 All rights reserved.
  4. 4. The Secret of Adult Learning Theory: It’s NOT About Age! 4 From Adult Learning One-Minute Myth or Fact to Human LearningThe brain research from the past two Sort the cards belowdecades proves that human beings learn into two groups by labeling each card Mbest when they are actively involved in for Myth or F for Factthe learning process – experiencing a (careful: this isn’tvariety of meaningful, motivating, self- True or False!). Thendirected learning methods in an infor- check your answers.mal, hands-on learning environment.This kind of “brain-based” learning de-scribes human learning. It is NOT basedon age, gender, culture, generation, or 2. Humans like to beany other arbitrary assumptions. self-directed and actively 1. Humans learn best by involved in learning. The truly ironic piece in the whole listening andparadigm of adult learning theory is that, taking tests. 3. Both children andforty years after Knowles’ research, adults have their ownmuch of adult instruction is STILL preferred ways ofpedagogical in nature – lecture-based, learning.teacher-centered. Although a lot of lip 4. Humans learn betterservice is given to Knowles’ adult learn- when they feel gooding theories, and most train-the-trainer about learning.programs cite Knowles’ work, lecture- 5. Humans learn dif-based instruction is still the order of the ferently depending upon their ages andday in the majority of adult learning en- abilities.vironments – even in those classes thatteach about adult learning! Old habits 7. Regardless of their 6. Past experiences aredie hard. ages, humans have important to the human their own ideas to learning process.CONCRETE PRACTICE contribute. 8. Informal learningFirst, let’s take a look at what you now environments enhanceknow about HUMAN learning. Remem- learning.ber, HUMAN learning refers to how the 9. Relating newbrain remembers, stores, retrieves, and information to whatuses information. It is NOT age-related. they already know is confusing to learners.Take a minute to do the Myth or Factactivity on this page. Then continuereading. Answer Key 1. M 2. F 3. F 4. F 5. M 6. F 7. F 8. F 9. M How did you do? If you got them all, bravo! Bowperson Publishing & Training, Inc. 775-749-5247 ©2007 All rights reserved.
  5. 5. The Secret of Adult Learning Theory: It’s NOT About Age! 5One-Minute to Choose and Circle. Here is a bit more information to add toBased on the characteristics of how hu- what you already know:mans learn, what will be your choiceswhen designing and delivering your next Use a variety of active learning strate-training, class, or presentation? Read the gies to involve learners. Examples are:following list and circle what you will paired and small group discussions,do. quick games (more collaborative than competitive), “teach backs” where learn-I will: ers teach each other what they’ve learned, quizzes that learners make andA. Include a variety of instructional take, learner presentations, large groupstrategies that involve learners so that discussions, projects, simulations, skitsthey are talking, writing, moving, and (often called “role-play”), and the like.doing topic-related activities, instead ofjust listening to me speak. Give learners choices. From a list of review tasks, let learners decide whichB. Make sure learners are quiet and lis- they wish to do and let them work intening to me as I present the information pairs, triads, or small groups to accom-to them. plish the tasks.C. Give learners choices of discussiontopics and review activities as they learnthe material.D. Begin by explaining the agenda, syl-labus, or overall plan for the learningexperience.E. Begin by facilitating a discussionabout what learners already know aboutthe topic. Take time to find out what learners know. At the beginning of the training,F. Set up the room with desks, tables, or give them a few minutes do discuss whatchairs in orderly rows in which learners they know or have heard about the train-face the front of the room. ing topic. Throughout the training, en- courage them to share comments, ideas,G. Arrange the room informally, with insights, and opinions with the wholeround tables scattered throughout, or group.chairs in small cluster groups so thatlearners can talk to each other. Create an inviting, friendly, informal learning environment. Cluster learnersOf course you chose A, C, E, and G, be- into small groups using round tables orcause you know how humans learn best. chairs arranged in small circles groups. On the tables, put plenty of colorful felt Bowperson Publishing & Training, Inc. 775-749-5247 ©2007 All rights reserved.
  6. 6. The Secret of Adult Learning Theory: It’s NOT About Age! 6pens, colored paper, post-it notes, index **********************cards, and the like. On the walls, hang This article is part of Sharon’s newestcolorful charts with topic-related infor- book, Training from the BACK of themation on them. If possible, provide Room, published by Pfeiffer Co., a divi-snacks and beverages, or ask learners to sion of John Wiley & Sons. Log ontobring their own. for Sharon’s five popular training books already in print.CONCLUSIONS Log onto Sharon’s website atYour challenge is to take what you know for other free,about human learning and begin to de- downloadable pdf-formatted articlessign learning experiences that move about effective training.from traditional, teacher-centered in-struction towards more brain- ***********************compatible, learner-centered instruction. Resources for this article:One-Minute Think and Write. Think The Accelerated Learning Handbook.about the topics you teach, train, and David Meierpresent. Also think about how you tradi-tionally instruct adults. On the lines be- How to Give It So They Get It.low, list a few new instructional Sharon Bowmanstrategies you might experiment with,ones that are compatible with how adults Informal Learning. Jay Crossreally learn, that is, strategies that workbest for human learning. Then include Preventing Death by or more of these strategies in your Sharon Bowmannext training, and watch the learninggrow! The Ten-Minute Trainer. Sharon Bowman________________________________________________________________ Training from the BACK of the Room. Sharon Bowman________________________________________________________________ **********************________________________________ Note: See the next page for information________________________________ about the author.________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Bowperson Publishing & Training, Inc. 775-749-5247 ©2007 All rights reserved.
  7. 7. The Secret of Adult Learning Theory: It’s NOT About Age! 7Author and corporate trainer SharonBowman helps educators and businesspeople “teach it quick and make itstick,” - fine-tuning their information-delivery skills and turning their passivelisteners into active learners.Sharon is the president of BowpersonPublishing & Training, Inc., a profes-sional member of The National Speak-ers Association (NSA), and theAmerican Society of Training and De-velopment (ASTD). Over 70,000 of herpopular training books are already inprint.For more information about SharonBowman and her books and training,log onto, oremail her at book orders, go Publishing at775-749-5247*********************** Bowperson Publishing & Training, Inc. 775-749-5247 ©2007 All rights reserved.
  8. 8. Bag It! A Quick and Remarkably Easy Instructional Design Process. Bowperson Publishing & Training, Inc. 775-749-5247 ©2007 All rights reserved.