Adult Learning Principles. I just don’t get it.

Adult Learning Principles. I just don’t get it.

Am I just being fussy here or does this really matter? I really do struggle with the phrase ‘Adult Learning Principles’. Perhaps I am looking in the wrong places but I have yet to see a list of principles that apply exclusively to adults. I googled the term and on one website about ‘adult education’ I found the following:

Adults prefer learning situations which:
– Are practical and problem centred
– Promote their positive self esteem
– Integrate new ideas with existing knowledge
– Show respect for the individual learner
– Capitalize on their experience.
Reference. Best Practice Resources.

Can anyone explain to me how these principles do NOT apply to those who are not adult? Do they not equally apply to a 14 year old at high school? An eight year old learning the piano? An 18 month trying to learn all the stuff babies learn just by being in the world? Do not each of these principles apply equally to these situations and to any other where ‘non-adults’ are involved?

I went into Wikipedia and did a search for Adult Education and I found this:
‘One of the most important differences is that adults have accumulated knowledge and experience that can either add value to a learning experience or hinder it.’ www.wikipedia

I suspect that there is not a person on the planet of ANY age without some ‘accumulated knowledge and experience’. The same source goes on to say that:

‘Another important difference is that adults frequently must apply their knowledge to learn effectively; there must be a goal or a reasonable expectation that the new knowledge will help them further that goal.’ www.wikipedia

This seems to be saying that a person must see personal meaning and relevance in what they are learning. I cannot count the number of young people I have talked with who find no meaning in their education. They do not see ‘a goal’, and they therefore cannot have ‘a reasonable expectation that the new knowledge will help them further that goal.’ And they tend to be disenchanted and disenfranchised. So yes, this idea too is important. It is important to everyone.

Here is another person’s view. Take a look at and an article by Douglas Cruikshank called ‘The Good Doctor: Reaching out to an Unmotivated Student.’ Douglas started as a school student in the late 50’s and tells a story of doing poorly and being disinterested. Until a memorable teacher approached him. Douglas says that this man had:’…noted that…I had a fascination for numbers when they related to something real that was interesting to me, not as abstractions.’

Education that applies to something ‘real’. Makes sense to me. This is exactly the point made about Adult Education on the Wikipedia site. And I would not argue for a moment the worth of students having a goal and an expectation of furthering that goal. Yes, education needs to be meaningful and relevant. And these principles apply equally to those who are not adults.

So why do we have such principles? Is it something to do with the differences between adults and young people? And even in this it is reasonable to ask if there are any differences. And I would have to say that I think yes, there are.
1. Most adults have been learning stuff for some time, and tend to be clear about just HOW they learn. And beyond a preferred learning style, because they have been around for a while, they also tend to know what they just like and don’t like, what works for them and what doesn’t.
2. Secondly, younger people tend to be more active, and physical movement often suits them well in the learning process. Adults just slow down a bit as we get older. And it is amazing how lower back pain can really discourage jumping around the place. Although having said this, the very same back pain is a good reason for not having older people sit around for too long.
3. And thirdly I have to say that in my experience, younger people are often just less tolerant of some of the ways of the world that adults have come to accept, or more truthfully, to often just put up with. Things like long winded speeches, meetings that go on a long time, complicated and formal procedures for conducting meetings or running seminars or courses. And frankly I tend to be with the younger people on this one.

Beyond these things, I cannot find enormous differences between adults and younger people, and I suspect individual differences make up for more variation in approaches to learning than does age. Consequently, adult learning principles seem to me to be principles that apply generally to the process of learning.

There is an odd implication in the use of the phrase ‘Adult Learning Principles’, that somehow they do not apply to young people. And this does not seem a useful or productive idea. Earlier this year I was at a four day camp with people aged from childhood through into their ‘elder’ status. The workshops I facilitated did not distinguish at all between those present in terms of principles. I publicly interviewed a four year old, there were open discussions with people in their 50’s, there were physical activities that involved everyone. There were real differences in approaches and responses, in terms of people’s ages, experience and roles in life. But the process was the same for everyone. And some of the ‘principles’ we acted on were:
– active involvement
– interest
– a balance of comfort and challenge
– choice and privacy
– a balance of playful and serious.

I’m not sure if these are principles or not but they seem like reasonable ideas to base a useful learning experience on. Yet the word ‘adult’ features nowhere.

These two pictures are from that camp. As part of a circus skills workshop we were jumping and running and rolling…something like that. The first photo is of four year old ‘Spiderman’ doing his jump and roll. The second is of Martin who is an elder of his indigenous group. (Though ‘elder’ hardly describes this man). And he is doing exactly the same thing.

Martin’s comment was: ‘You gota have a go don’t ya.’ And that’s a fine principle for learning too. And it doesn’t have the word ‘adult’ attached to it.

I think why any of this matters is because it is important that words do not become a substitute for something more important. The words ‘Adult Learning Principles’ pop up over and over again in describing how various training events will be conducted, or how younger people will be treated because the program will be operating on these principles. Any learning process does need to be respectful and stimulating; it does need to be relevant and it does need to take students’ experience into consideration. So am I being fussy? Possibly, but I think referring to these ‘Adult’ principles seems at least unnecessary, perhaps misleading and perhaps even unconstructive in how we shape our thinking about education and learning. For people of any age.

Comment ( 1 )

  • Sam stott

    yep pete, totally with you on this… and i’ve got a masters in, you guessed it, *adult* education.

    my understanding of the discipline, and through that possibly the discourse that you critique, is that ‘adult education’ arose alongside of ‘(school) teacher education’, and that rather than focusing on curriculum in educational institutions like schools, it prepared people who were facilitating learning among other adults.

    pedagogically, i totally agree with the point you raise about ‘adult learning principles’ being applicable to everybody. i employ these principles in my work with young people who have disconnected from school-based learning which apparently is not, as a matter of course, informed by them (although individual teachers or particular schools might be onto it).

    i’d be interested to hear from school teachers, primary or secondary, about whether adult learning principles are being recognised in their field, as *human* learning principles…

    the other thing which springs to mind is a question about different learning styles and different teaching styles and how these connect or disconnect across cultures. i think of, for example, the gurukul system in india which, from my (limited) understanding, involves a lot of rote learning after which philosophical debate may be entered into and the learning may be applied to everyday life – but not the other way around…

    i wonder whether ‘adult learning principles’, as they appear in the discourse of ‘adult’ education, may be contemporary western-specific.

Post a Reply