You may not have thought much about this before but adults learn very differently than children. The type of schooling we all had as young kids simply wouldn’t work on our grown-up brains, and not just because we already know our ABCs. The method of teaching older humans is completely different than the one for young kids, which better allows adults to really get the most out of their schooling.
If you’re planning on going back to school, taking a continuing education course or completing a training, it may be worth learning more about the theory behind adult learning, which is known as andragogy. Having some knowledge about andragogy theory can help you evaluate potential programs and allow you to understand why certain courses and trainings are designed the way they are.
Here’s an overview of andragogy theory and the ways it works to help you learn as an adult.
What Is Andragogy Theory?
Andragogy, or adult learning theory, is the science and practice of adult learning. (The corresponding term for child learned theory is pedagogy.) Andragogy was conceptualized by Malcom Shepard Knowles in the late 1960s and 70s. He published the now classic book The Adult Learner, which is currently in its eight edition and continues to be updated, even after Knowles’ death.
Before Knowles’ work, much of the focus on the science of learning was on pedagogy and how to best teach children. Knowles was somewhat of a revolutionary because he acknowledged that teaching adults comes with a different set of expectations and circumstances. His work focused on how to harness the strengths of adult learners and form curricula that would be best suited to these advantages.
The Key Pillars of Understanding Adult Learners
Knowles, and those who came after him, developed a foundation for adult learning, outlined in five key points. These pillars differentiate adult learning from child learning and lay the groundwork for educators to create lessons, classes and educational opportunities that best fit with how adults learn.
Here’s a brief overview of these six important values of andragogy:
Adults need to know why they must learn something
Unlike children who are guided through standard learning that becomes the groundwork for the rest of their academic lives, adults need to understand the value of why they are learning something. In andragogy, this is called the “what is in it for me” (WIIFM) factor. Adults don’t typically want to learn merely for the sake of learning—and they typically don’t have the time for that anyway. They want to know why what they are learning matters and why they should learn it.
Adults need to feel like they are building on their own experiences
Adults come to learn after already having life and career experience. Their continuing education should build upon this in some way. Teachers should work to tie their students’ experiences to the new material that their adult students are learning.
Adults need to feel autonomous in their earning
Unlike children who, when left to their own devices, might veer off course, adults should be more self-directed in their learning. They need to feel responsible for their education and be at least somewhat autonomous, whether it’s by completing an online course, controlling the pace of a course or studying independently with infrequent check-ins from an educator or advisor.
Adults want to learn specifics that can affect their current lives
There’s a clear reason that older people go back to school: to learn specific knowledge, gain a necessary skill or to solve a problem. They are not looking for generic courses or certifications. They have a need and they want it fulfilled through education.
Adults need to be self motivated to learn best
Sticker charts and awards are great for kids but adults learn better when they are motivated internally rather than externally. Part of this is up to the educator to find out what drives students but most of this is up to the adults who are learning themselves. Finding what motivates them helps them to better succeed.
How to Know if Andragogy Is at Work
If you’re evaluating a training, course or school, look for the following qualities to see if andragogy theory is being implemented. This way, you know if a particular institution or class takes advantage of the ways adults learn best.
Clear definition of personal advancement
You have to know your “why” of taking a given course or getting a particular certitifaction. Do you want to get a raise? Change careers? Or are you looking to develop a new skill? Now, will the school or course you’re considering really help you achieve that? It’s important to be honest in what you’re hoping to get out of your education and what it can realistically provide.
Adults who are back in school come from all kinds of life stages and circumstances. You need to be in a place where diversity is celebrated and where all people are listened to and appreciated. The barrier between teacher and student should be somewhat fluid—everyone should treat one another as peers, not as if there is a hierarchy.
Friendship and networking opportunities
A big reason people might seek out education as adults is to meet new people, form connections and build relationships. If you’re looking for a social atmosphere, be sure that the place you’re learning from offers this.
Self-directed learning and pacing
In an adult learning environment, people should take responsibility for their own learning. They should feel challenged without being overwhelmed and allowed to work at their own pace, considering that they may be working a fulltime job or raising a family as well as going to classes. Individualized learning programs could be created to cater to specific needs as well.
Active involvement in learning
Finally, in adult learning, there shouldn’t be any droning professors going on and on before a passive audience. Learning should be interactive with exercises and role playing, or at the very least thoughtful and stimulating discussion or group projects where students have a hands-on approach to their learning.
The best way to live life more fully is to never stop learning. Pushing yourself through additional schooling is always a worthy endeavor. But you want to get the most out of your time—and money. Evaluating a school or training course to ensure that it follows andragogy theory will help ensure that you’re going to learn as much as possible and come away from the experience with new knowledge that you can really use.
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