The realization that adults learn differently from children led educators and scholars to the difficult task of defining the distinct manner by which adults learn. This was necessary in order to establish adult education as a separate field requiring non-traditional strategies in terms of teaching-learning style and instruction, but needed the same attention and effort as early education.
Although the field of adult education has since branched out into numerous categories involving both formal and informal educational settings, the concept of adult learning continues to evolve as a result of the increased interest and numerous contributions to the field by educators and scholars alike. Indeed, adult education professionals have had to define the unique characteristics of adult learning vis-a-vis dominant learning frameworks focused on the teaching and learning of children.
For instance, Malcolm Knowles used the term “andragogy” in an effort to differentiate adult learning from “pedagogical” or child learning approaches (Atherton, 2005). According to Knowles, there are five key differences between andragogical and pedagogical approaches to the teaching-learning process. These differences emanate mainly from the perceived differences between the characteristics of the adult as a learner compared to the child learner.
In contrast to pedagogical approaches to teaching-learning which view the learner as highly dependent upon the teacher/instructor’s guidance and experience, andragogical approaches focus on the learner’s ability for self-direction and capacity for drawing knowledge from experiences (Yale University Library, 2005).
Another important source of distinction between pedagogical and andragogical approaches is that the former focuses on the role external sources of motivation in the achievement of positive learning outcomes while the latter emphasizes the importance of motivation for learning that is intrinsic in the individual adult as a learner (ibid). Hence, andragogical approaches assume that adults can take responsibility for the direction and outcomes of their learning, a task that has been traditionally assigned to the teacher or the instructor by most pedagogical approaches in education.
Aside from Knowles’ notion of andragogy, another influential theory in the conceptualization and benchmarking of adult education outcomes is Mezirow’s concept of Transformative Learning, which posits that adult learning involves perspective transformation or the process by which adults “become more adaptive and able to profit from experience” as a result of the expansion of the frames they use for interpreting and understanding the meaning and construction of their experiences (Parkes, 2001, p. 82).
Unsurprisingly, the results of Maher’s (2002, p. 11) study on the first three generations of adult educators reveal that adult educators considered both Knowles and Mezirow among the leading theorists of adult learning. The same study is made interesting by the fact that it reflects how the perceptions and philosophies of adult educators themselves are shaped by the impact of their experiences and how they construe and fit the meaning of these experiences into their lives as educators. As Maher (2002, p.
12) notes, the responses of the adult educators she surveyed “represents a living example of how adult development occurs as a result of ‘a mixture of everything that happens to us’” which parallels both Knowles and Mezirow’s contention that adult learning is generally driven by the need by adults to continually frame and re-frame their existence through making sense of their experiences. Consequently, one of the differences that can be expected from adult educators or professionals who are more often involved in adult education in terms of the instruction approach is their more facilitative style of teaching.
This stems from the adult educators’ perception that their students are in possession of knowledge and experiences that are relevant to the learning process as suggested by both Knowles and Mezirow, and that adult learners often want more control over their learning experiences and outcomes (Timarong, Temaungil & Sukrad, n. d. ). Another difference between adult educators and child educators is that the former often expects learners to assume responsibility and direct their own learning. This behavior is influenced by the notion that adult learners are often often conscious of their own learning needs.
Likewise, adult educators often have a more informal relationship with their student, which is influenced by their view of the student as an individual as opposed to the more formal and rigid structure in early mentoring (Landsberger, 1996). However, this does not mean that adult educators have lower expectations in terms of learning outcomes. On the contrary, adult educators place more responsibility on their students since adult learners are treated as partners in the learning process and therefore have the ability to actively participate in planning, monitoring, and evaluating their education.
The assumption that adults learn differently from children has numerous implications for instruction, particularly in how educators address learners’ specific needs and preferences. First, the educator has to consider the adult learner tendency for autonomy and self-direction in evaluating their teaching style. Second, instruction in adult learning has to take into account adult learners’ preference for relevant, problem-based learning and the relationship between these new knowledge to their specific contexts and life tasks (Lieb, 1991).
Hence, adult learning instruction must be able to incorporate multiple teaching strategies, practice respect for self-directed learning processes, and offer experiential learning opportunities in order for learners to gain a sense of control and personal relevance of their learning (Maher, 2002, p. 7). Lastly, adult instruction must enable learner participation in all aspects of the learning process, and clarify the learner’s responsibility for assessing and evaluating their own performance vis-a-vis their goals for learning.
Clearly, the dichotomy between adult learning and child learning primarily stems from the distinct learning needs and styles of each group of learners. Hence, adult learners require teaching strategies and styles that are vastly different from the traditional teaching methods employed in early education. Thus, the field of adult learning itself is made unique not only by its distinct goals and outcomes for the learner, but by the greater responsibility for the learning process that it allocates to the learner as a mature, independent individual.
Atherton, J. S. (2005) Learning and teaching: Knowles andragogy: an angle on adult learning. Retrieved October 31, 2008, from http://www. learningandteaching. info/learning/knowlesa. htm Landsberger, J. (1996). Learning as an adult Andragogy. The Study Guides and Strategies. Retrieved October 31, 2008, from http://www. studygs. net/adulted. htm Lieb, S. (2007). Principles of adult learning. Retrieved October 31, 2008, from http://honolulu. hawaii. edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/adults-2. htm Maher, P. A. (2002).
Conversations with long-time adult educators: the first three generation (ED471248). Retrieved October 31, 2008, from http://www. eric. ed. gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/1a/9c/bd. pdf Parkes, D. (2001). About adult education: Transformative learning. Journal of Workplace Learning. 13 (3). 182-184. Retrieved October 31, 2008, from ProQuest Data Base. Timarong, A. , Temaungil, M. , & Sukrad, W. (n. d. ). Adult learning and learners. Retrieved October 31, 2008, from http://www. prel. org/products/pr_/adult-learners. htm
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