A study of how Adult Learning is achieved

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There's an old saying that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" and whether you believe that or not, the same principle cannot be applied to humans. In fact, adults can learn just as easily as children but there are differences between what works effectively for adults and what works best for children.

Historically, education has been understood in terms of pedagogy, the art and science of teaching the child. Pedagogy embodies an instructor-focused education where instructors assume responsibility for making decisions about what will be learned, how it will be learned, and when it will be learned. Usually, when pedagogy is practised, the relationship of the student to the teacher is dependent and often passive, and the relationship between the student and his/her peers is a competitive one. This model of education was fiercely criticised by many educators who believed it was falling short of its potential (e.g., Dewey, 1938), and who emphasised learning through various activities rather than traditional instructor-focused curricula. According to these critics, children learned more from guided experience than authoritarian instruction. These beliefs led to the development of a learner-focused education philosophy, appropriate not only for children but also for adults; a completely different set of learners, with totally different values and expectations from their learning experience (Lindeman, 1926).

Andragogy, or the study of adult learning, developed out of a realization that there is a difference between the way adults learned as children, and the way they approach learning as adults. As children, learning was often of no immediate, practical value. The focus was on memorization and simple skills, on essentially lower level objectives.  Children learn what they need to learn for "later", whenever later is.  Subjects are taught to prepare children for college entrance examinations or vocational careers.  The result of the learning is a "grade", which must be earned to graduate.  Yet most adults take an entirely different approach to learning.  Home improvement is a good example.  A couple decides they want a deck out their back door.  They have determined the objective, and now proceed to buy books, talk to lumberyards, and do any number of learning activities to build their deck.  The completed deck serves as the evaluation product and method.  Self-help books and tapes are another example of adult learning.  Many adults set out to improve their memories, lower stress, gain happiness... on their own.  They have set the objectives, developed the learning methods, and eventually evaluate their own success at meeting the objectives.

Building on the earlier work of Lindeman (1926), research on adult learning (e.g., Beder and Darkenwald, 1982) has asserted this alternative set of assumptions about teaching and learning. Known as andragogy: the art and science of teaching adults (Knowles, 1980:38), the new instructional model rearranges the relationships between the 'four common places' (instructor, learner, context, curriculum) of an educational situation (Schwab, 1973). It moves from emphasising 'someone teaching something to someone in a given context' to one that captures the essentials of the interaction between those constituents in the following manner: 'someone learning something with someone and/or others in a given context that facilitates interaction'. Andragogy produces collaborative relationships among students and between the students and the instructor. What the class knows as a whole becomes more relevant. The emphasis shifts from the instructor onto the students' contributions to the group discussion and learning, their roles, and the responsibility which they engage in, as well as their attitudes towards change, readiness in filling complementary roles, and the like (Borko and Putnam, 1996).

Literature Review

It is widely recognised that, in most academic systems, curricula and instructors constitute the starting point, while learners are secondary. Ramsden (1992) claims that the larger part of student 'learning' is not about understanding theories and concepts, but about adapting to the requirements of instructors. Much earlier work by Lindeman (1926) proposed a shift in the paradigm of adult education to more student-centred education as he noticed that too much of learning consisted of vicarious substitution of the learner's experience (the adult learner's living textbook) and knowledge. Lindeman emphasised the importance of adult education by writing: 'Adult education will become an agency of progress if its short-time goal of self-improvement can be made compatible with a long-time, experimental but resolute policy of changing the social order' (Lindeman, 1988:105). Building on the earlier work of Lindeman, Knowles (1973) asserted that adults require certain environmental conditions in order to learn:

1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.

2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities.

3. Adults are most interested in subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.

4. Adult learning is problem-centred rather than content-oriented.

Knowles (1973) emphasises that adults are self-directed and expect to take responsibility for decisions and therefore adult teaching methodology must accommodate this fundamental aspect. In practical andragogical terms, teaching needs to focus more on the process and less on the content being taught. Strategies such as case studies, role-playing, simulations, discussions and self-evaluation are considered most useful.

Most of the teaching strategies for adult learners have been explored by a number of authors (e.g., Walklin, 1990; Galbraith, 1991; Gonczi, 1992). The common ground of all researchers is that adult teaching has to be strongly linked with active learning, a notion that is not very clearly defined. However, Bonwell and Eison (1991) state that 'students must do more than just listen: they must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems. Most important, to be actively involved, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation'.

Teaching and learning exist along a continuum with pedagogy (directed learning) at one end, and andragogy (facilitated learning) at the other. In the early 1970's, Malcolm Knowles proposed that adults learn differently than do children and used the term "andragogy" to describe his philosophy of "the art and science of teaching adults." Andragogy stood in stark contrast to pedagogy, the traditional approach favoured in education at the time. The pendulum of adult education has swung from a traditional teacher-centred approach through to a learner-centred approach, and is finally coming to rest at a mid-point that represents a much more balanced approach.

Differences in implicit and explicit learning

Researchers have suggested that implicit learning plays a crucial role in the acquisition of linguistic, social, and motor skills, and possibly other skills as well (Gomez & Gerkin, 1999; A. S. Reber, 1992, 1993). In contrast to explicit learning, implicit learning occurs without conscious awareness and is thought to be a phylogenetically older form of learning, which predates consciousness (A. S. Reber,1992; P. J. Reber & Squire, 1994). Based on this line of reasoning, A. S. Reber (1992; Abrams & Reber, 1988) proposed that implicit learning should show relatively small variations as a function of individual differences in age and maturity and be relatively unaffected by neurological or psychological disorder. Moreover, in contrast to explicit learning, the implicit learning processes are largely invariant to individual differences in age and relatively independent of measures of higher cognitive functioning such as IQ (A. S. Reber, Walkenfeld, & Hernstadt, 1991).