What Is Adult Learning Theory and Why Is It Important?

What Is Adult Learning Theory and Why Is It Important?

BY KATHY IRISH

We often take for granted that people know how to learn. After all, we all had to learn while in school, right? But, that can be a dangerous attitude to take when it comes to corporate training initiatives, especially since adults don’t learn the same way kids do.

That’s where Adult Learning Theory comes into play. Knowing how adults tend to learn, you can tailor corporate training programs to take advantage of qualities adult learners have, like an eagerness to learn relevant material, the need to connect with experience and motivation to grow.

A lot of corporate training is based loosely on models of education found in schools, but an adult’s motivation for learning is much different than a child’s. When adults choose to learn something, it is because they see value in those things. It is our interests and ambitions that drive learning, not the need for a good grade to pass a class.

In corporate learning, that difference is sometimes forgotten. When that happens, training is based on a school model, where people are grouped together and required to learn content. That model doesn’t always work, considering most working adults haven’t been in school for a while. So how do we make training something that adults WANT to do, and how do we make it effective?

Those very questions — how to make training something that adults want to do, and how to make it effective — are what drive the field of research, known as Adult Learning Theory.

ADULT LEARNING THEORIES

If we are using labels honestly, there are several different adult learning theories in the research literature. Some include:

Transformative learning. True learning experiences should somehow change the individual. In practice, it recommends starting with learning experiences that appeal to your specific audience, and then moving on to activities that challenge assumptions and explore other points of view.

Self-directed learning. This approach acknowledges that the majority of the learning adults do is outside the context of formal training, and so, the emphasis is on augmenting those informal learning experiences. This can be through providing content, helping individuals plan their learning or evaluating learning experiences after the fact.

Experiential learning. Experiential learning makes the case that the essence of adult learning is making sense of experiences. Adults learn best when they learn by doing, like role playing, simulations and so on.

Andragogy. This theory combines many of the insights from the above theories. This approach starts by recognizing the differences between adults and children and designs learning experiences from there.

There are many variations on these too, and there isn’t one “correct” learning theory. Each provides insight into the ways in which adults learn. Not all adults learn in the same way, and it is important to find approaches that blend several theories so that they can work for the majority.

— Kathy Irish is VP of Operations at ej4.

Leave a reply