Entry by Glenn Taylor, of LLG1 in ODL600: Adult Learning Theory -- Assignment 5
I begin this paper by introducing the concept of adult learning more generally, sharing my views on its origins and challenges. I then assert that there are three core principles that characterize effective adult learning, including that it must: a) occur in an authentic learning environment, b) take the form of a co-created and experiential process, and c) be oriented towards application. From there, I explain each of the three principles, providing examples from the literature and research on the topic, in addition to insights from my own experience. Following the explanations of each principle, I conclude with a few summary comments.
Although the understanding and formal study of adult learning theory has developed over the last couple of centuries, adults have engaged in learning since the beginning of time. Whether prompted by survival, ambition, curiosity, change, societal norms, or technological advances, continuous learning has been a part of our experience as humans. The degree to which most of us consciously pursue and actively engage in learning, however, becomes more of a choice as we move into our adult years. Consequently, I posit that those adults who intentionally seek out learning are inherently more likely to be engaged in, and benefit from, the process.
That said, adult learning comes with its own unique challenges, from the limitations of time and money, to the proverbial plate spinning involved with balancing multiple responsibilities and priorities. Additionally, the element of technology within the online learning context, with all of its benefits of convenience, can present new challenges to creating fully engaged learning.
As I’ve reflected on my own experience as an adult learner, and integrated that with the various theories of adult learning, a set of guiding principles has begun to emerge for me. For adult learning to be most effective, I believe it must: a) occur in an authentic learning environment, b) take the form of a co-created and experiential process, and c) be oriented towards application.
An Authentic Learning Environment
The environment in which adult learning occurs is critical. In my opinion, if the ‘container’ that is created for the learning does not foster real and open conversations and interactions, the adult learning process can be greatly hindered. I believe the most ideal environment for effective adult learning can be described as authentic, as characterized by the elements of trust, vulnerability, autonomy, risk-taking, support and humor.
As McDougall (2015) points out, students would be more likely to initiate topics, exchange personal experiences, or challenge each other’s ideas if they are learning in an environment of trust, especially because there may be times when differing views might conflict. McDougall (2015) also offers that the use of positive, relevant and well-meaning humor can encourage a sense of community and create a safe space for authentic discussion. Additionally, when adult learners are allowed autonomy, they are able to take bigger risks. This, in turn, creates the condition for more authentic dialogue and sharing to occur between learners (McDougall, 2015).
Malcolm Knowles concept of Andragogy supports the idea that the autonomy of adult learners can contribute to an authentic learning environment. The first tenant of Andragogy suggests that the movement from dependency to autonomy is part of the natural and authentic development of people as they age into adulthood (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). In other words, to be authentic to our nature as adults is to allow for some self-direction and independence.
I assert that the appearance of an authentic learning environment is highly impacted by the approach of the teacher. If an instructor doesn’t initially create an open and safe space, modeling vulnerability and risk-taking, then learners are more likely to have a superficial and shallow learning experience. This is especially true in the case of digital learning environments, when participants can easily opt to hide behind the technology, not engaging as vulnerably through use of video chat, personal photos, or the sharing of real challenges.
A Co-Created and Experiential Process
In addition to the environment, the way adult learning takes place matters. I believe that the most impactful adult learning occurs in a co-created and experiential fashion. This means that the process of learning is based in mutuality, collaboration, active participation, and self-reflection, while also drawing on past and current experiences of the learners.
An environment of mutuality can be very powerful. This builds on the autonomy of learners, and positions the teacher as more of a facilitator and partner rather than a person of authority or control. Knowles reinforces this concept in his foundational assumptions connected to Andragogy, which include the idea that teachers and students are “joint inquirers” (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 85). When the instructor becomes a partner, adult students can feel more free to participate actively and contribute to the learning. In this sense, learning is not knowledge that is being handed down to the learner, but it is what emerges when teacher and student act together.
Ruey (2010) explains that collaborative and interactive learning, as opposed to passive approaches, are found to help students learn more effectively. This concept connects to the Experiential Learning theory of Situated Cognition, which says that knowledge is received from participation in the moment’s activity, together with others, and with the tools they have at their disposal (Merriam et al., 2007). Building upon this further, I think the most effective learning not only creates participatory experiences in the moment, but also encourages the student to reflect on the connection between what’s being learned and their past experiences.
When a connection is made to the personal experiences of the student outside of the current learning environment, this illustrates the theory of Social Constructivism, which says that “knowledge is socially situated and is constructed through reflection on one’s own thoughts and experiences, as well as other learners’ ideas” (Ruey, 2010, p. 707). This is reinforced by the Experiential Learning theory of Reflective Practice, whereby learners can make judgments or draw conclusions based on their own experiences and prior knowledge (Merriam et al., 2007).
Experience and learning are linked even more deeply in the theory of Transformational Learning, where a learner’s experiences can at times create the powerful impetus and inspiration to learn something they might not have otherwise explored. In these cases, having a learning process connect the dots between a learner and an experiential catalyst can greatly enhance the learning of all participants.
Oriented Towards Application
If we return to Knowles foundational assertions related to the nature of Andragogy, we see that he associates adult learning with the need to produce an immediacy of application for learners (Merriam et al., 2007). One only has to look at the most popular online blogs and professional development Websites to see this case in point. Articles are titled with phrases that include a specific number of “tips,” “keys” or “steps,” such as the “7 tips for managing your time better.”
My own personal experiences as an adult learner, and as a teacher, speaker and facilitator, reinforce this idea. I always get asked by my client organizations to clearly outline the tangible takeaways associated with a talk or training workshop. Without such statements, it’s much harder to attract attendees. Potential audiences to talks, workshops, online courses, or in-person classes only decide to act when they are convinced that they are going to trade their valuable time for something equally or more valuable in return. They are asking themselves, “how will attending this course solve a problem, enhance my life, or support my passions?”
In a way, this orientation towards concrete skills and practical application can be tied to the traditional Behaviorist learning theory, which emphasizes learning as a change in overt behavior (Merriam et al., 2007). I see many of today’s adult learners, especially in the online environment, focused on training that can support and advance their career. They want behavior change that looks like new or strengthened competencies, ones that will help them get noticed or get ahead.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to explore the various research, thinking and theories behind the idea of learning in adulthood. I recognize in myself a potent desire to continue learning, while also being an instrument through which others can learn and grow. My reading and reflection on the nature of effective adult learning has helped to fill-out and solidify my own personal theory of such – that is, that for adult learning to be most effective, it must: a) occur in an authentic learning environment, b) take the form of a co-created and experiential process, and c) be oriented towards application.
McDougall, J. (2015). The quest for authenticity: A study of an online discussion forum and
the needs of adult learners. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 55 (1), 94-113.
Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in
adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ruey, S. (2010). A case study of constructivist instructional strategies for adult online
learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41 (5), 706-720.