Note: We re-aired this episode in July 2023. For the most recent version, with more detailed show notes and a transcript, see “Redux: Revisiting Adult Learning Theory.“
If we had to pick just one thing as the crux of the success of a learning business we’d definitely argue it would have to be the learning experiences—the products and services that are actually offered. That’s because the learning experiences that learning businesses provide are at the essence of what they do.
But in order to effectively do this, we need to have a solid understanding of adult learning theory. And although many of us are already familiar with concepts related to this, there can be tremendous value in taking time to periodically revisit them.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Celisa and Jeff examine the principles of adult learning theory – specifically related to the need to know, self-concept, and experience – and the implications each of these has on designing, developing, and delivering meaningful learning experiences.
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[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Celisa and Jeff revisit the principles of adult learning theory and how those apply to decisions about products and services.
The Six Principles of Adult Learning Theory
[01:49] – Note that the six points that we’ll cover come from the work of Malcolm Knowles. Knowles was born in 1913 and died in 1997, and he’s often called the “father of andragogy”.
Pedagogy, a more common term, deals with teaching children; andragogy is a continuation or extension of pedagogy and deals with adult learning. In 1973, Knowles published The Adult Learner, a classic in the field of adult learning.
In The Adult Learner, Knowles outlines six principles of adult learning theory:
- The need to know. Adults need to know why they need to learn something.
- Learners’ self-concept. Adult learners expect to be responsible for their own decisions.
- The learners’ experiences play an important role. What adult learners know and have done already impacts how they learn.
- Readiness to learn. Adults become ready to learn when they need to know or do something in their life.
- Orientation to learning. Adult learners are life-centered (or task- or problem-centered) rather than subject-centered.
- Internal motivators are more effective than external ones.
Those are the six points, but in this episode we’ll unpack the first three points and look at their implications—that is, how learning businesses might use those points to guide the design, development, and delivery of their learning products and services for adult learners.
Note that we do, in fact, cover all six principles in depth in An Essential Guide to Andragogy for Learning Businesses.
Sponsor: AUTHENTIC Learning Labs
[04:27] – Before we cover the three main points, let’s pause to thank our sponsor for this quarter.
AUTHENTIC Learning Labs is an e-learning company that offers products and services to help improve your current investments in education. One key product is Authentic Analytics, a dedicated suite of visualization reports to help analyze and predict the performance of education programs. Organizations use Authentic Analytics to easily scan through volumes of data in intuitive visuals, chart performance trends, and quickly spot opportunities, issues, and potential future needs.
The Need to Know: Adult Learners Need to Know Why
[05:06] – Knowles asserted that “Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.” You might have heard this principle phrased as “What’s in it for me?” Or sometimes we boil it down to “start with why.” And this “why” point seems obvious, but too often (at least in our experience) this principle is skipped over or only partially embraced.
Letting this point guide you means beginning with your marketing—not your promotion only, but a marketing approach that encompasses all four Ps. And if you’re unsure of the other Ps, beside promotion, you can check out our recent podcast episode focused on the 4 Ps.
Embracing this point also begins with doing the tracking, listening, and asking necessary to understand what your learners need to know. If you do your homework to discover the learners’ needs upfront, then the learning experiences you create will be grounded in this first point that adult learners need to know why they need to learn whatever the topic is.
And we have a framework called the Market Insight Matrix that will help you structure your tracking, listening, and asking efforts in a way that’s sustainable over the long haul.
Once you answer the why and therefore have some assurance that you’re making the right products and services, you’re still not done with this point about adult learners needing to know why. You also need to communicate the why to the learners. As you deliver a learning experience, you want to overtly tie the content or skills you’re teaching back to the outcomes and positive change the learners are after.
To help you do that, as you design and develop a learning experience and the promotions for it, you want to ask questions like:
- What are the outcomes learners will be able to achieve based on this learning experience?
- What positive change will you help them create?
Then communicate those answers to the learners—in the promotions that will hopefully convince them to sign up and then during the experience.
And even more importantly, you’ll want to help learners make such connections for themselves.They’re better able than you are to make the why of any learning experience more meaningful and specific to them. You just need to encourage them and give them the cognitive space to do so.
What do we mean by cognitive space and encouragement? Those might take the shape of simple reflection questions—asking, for example, “What are your biggest challenges with pricing?” (which happens to be something we asked both before and during a recent Webinar we held on pricing educational products).
And if you ask reflection questions like that, it’s really important to give the learners some quiet time to think and jot down notes or an opportunity to share in pairs or small groups. Sometimes silence scares facilitators and instructors, but it’s actually a really powerful tool in learning.
A little silence is key if you actually want people to do something, like reflecting or taking notes—it’s really, really hard for someone to think while a presenter is still talking. You can also take a more scaffolded approach to connecting the learning to the why. To do that, you might draw on real-world examples or more formal case studies that show how a concept has played out for an individual or organization.
There’s a quotation from Ellen Langer’s excellent book The Power of Mindful Learning that we think applies here:
There are two ways a teacher can make facts or ideas seem personally important. The most common approach is to shape or interpret ideas so that their relation to the lives, interests, and curiosities of the majority of students is readily apparent. When critics of education clamor for relevance, they are usually speaking of this sort of relevance. The second approach is to change students’ attitudes toward the material, that is, to teach students to make the material meaningful to themselves.
Make sure to check out our interview with Ellen Langer about mindfulness and learning.
Self-Concept: Adult Learners Expect to Be Responsible
[10:50] – Here’s how Knowles explained this second principle of adult learning theory:
Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, for their own lives…. They resent and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them. This presents a serious problem in adult education: The minute adults walk into an activity labeled “education,” “training,” or anything synonymous, they hark back to their conditioning in their previous school experience, put on their dunce hats of dependency, fold their arms, sit back, and say, “teach me. (65)
Knowles pointed to a huge problem we face as learning businesses—sometimes our learners are resistant. They expect to be treated as dependents because that’s what they got used to in their education early on, and then they sit and wait to be spoon-fed.
It’s true that many adult learners don’t expect to be asked to be full participants in learning experiences. And that has at two least implications:
- Adult learners don’t necessarily come to learning experiences knowing how to be active, self-directed learners. In fact, two years after The Adult Learner first came out, Knowles published Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, a practical primer, to help fill that knowledge gap, to help show learners how to direct their own learning and teachers how to support learners’ self-direction.
- Learner engagement among adults can really suffer. Which is why we see so much attention on engagement and engagement tactics.
To address both these implications—that our adult learners don’t necessarily expect to be full participants and that, even when they are willing, they don’t necessarily know how to participate fully, how to direct their own learning—choice becomes critical.
Being responsible implies making choices. So it’s important to offer options in how learners can engage with your content. That may mean offering the same content in different formats (say, having an audio, video, and text options for each major point in a learning experience). Or it could mean offering different ways of interacting with the content (say, offering a self-paced course and a synchronous course). Or it might mean providing additional resources and readings or an online community or listserves so the learners can decide how deep to go on a topic (or, frankly, opt to remain shallow). So it’s important that learning businesses think about what choices they can provide learners—and then provide them.
See our related episode, Learner Engagement – What It Is and How to Foster It.
And, above and beyond what can be done for a slice of content or a particular course, a learning business might opt to look at overarching resources that will support their customers in becoming effective self-directed learners. At the less scaffolded end of the spectrum, you might point your learners to resources (like Self-Directed Learning, the Knowles book we mentioned earlier, or Jeff’s book 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner. At the highly scaffolded end, a learning business might create a service to help learners identify their personal needs and then create an individualized learning plan.
The more your learners are able to connect their own answer to “Why learn this?” to the learning experience, the more they’ll value the experience. In that sense, self-directed learning ties to the work of behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who described the phenomenon that “labor enhances affection for its results” as the “IKEA effect.” IKEA sells a lot of some-assembly-required products—and has been very successful at it.
IKEA, Ariely, and Knowles all get at the same principle—we value what we have a hand in, what we’re responsible for. Whether that’s a chair or bookshelf we put together ourselves or a-ha moment we have in a workshop about how to apply the concept to the work and tasks we’re responsible for.
[16:35] – Before we move on to the third and final point about adult learning theory we’ll cover in this episode, let’s thank our sponsor for this quarter.
CommPartners helps learning businesses conceive, develop, and fulfill their online education strategy. Their solutions begin with Elevate LMS, an award-winning learning platform that provides a central knowledge community and drives learner engagement. To extend the value of Elevate, CommPartners provides a wide range of online education services including curriculum design, instructional design, fully managed Webinars, Webcasts, livestream programs, and virtual conferences.
Experience: What Adult Learners Know Already Impacts How They Learn
[17:12] – Another key aspect of adult learning theory is that, while learners of all ages bring their past experience to any situation, and that past experience determines what and how they learn, adults – simply by virtue of being older than children – bring more years of experience.
And it’s not only a question of quantity of experience increasing with age. Variance increases too. Standards in the US public school system exist to ensure (at least in theory) that a second grader, for example, finishes the year with a common set of skills and knowledge shared by second graders in other schools. With adult learners, it’s much harder to know what skills and knowledge will be mutual. Knowles wrote,
Any group of adults will be more heterogenous in terms of background, learning style, motivation, needs, interests, and goals than is true of a group of youths. (66)
This issue of prior knowledge poses both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is we as providers of learning have to do the work to make sure we position learning experiences appropriately, so adult learners know which of our offerings might be a fit for them. It might mean labeling offerings as intended for novices, those with intermediate knowledge and skills in the topic, or experts. It might mean making use of pre-assessments and prerequisites. It might mean assigning pre-work so all learners come to a learning experience with some shared baseline knowledge.
And we did that with some of our events, putting out a list of handful of books and articles, what we called Emphatically Recommended Readings, and encouraging registrants to read them before showing up. And we did that with the express goal of doing some level-setting, of trying to make sure that diverse group of learners had some shared concepts, vocabulary, and examples.
So those are some things we can do before a learning experience. Once learners are at or otherwise engaged in a learning experience (having hopefully picked the one appropriate for their prior knowledge), we need to work to draw out their experience and expertise. Knowles said that:
For any kind of learning, the richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves.
Not just good resources, but the richest resources.
And experiential techniques, like group discussions, case-based and problem-based activities, simulations, and hands-on practice, can elicit learners’ prior knowledge exponentially better than transmittal techniques (like lecture and presentation)—transmittal techniques tend to let folks sit back, cross their arms, and say “teach me,” which isn’t nearly as effective.
Sometimes we as learning businesses can get too caught up in the desire to look like we have all the answers, even if we don’t. That’s a mistake. We need to not be afraid to acknowledge the expertise resident in our learners. We need to give the learners opportunities to share their experiences and to draw on these experiences as they engage in your products and services.
Peer learning is another great option for drawing out the experience and expertise of learners. There’s the potential for one learner’s experience to directly help another learner. And there’s the potential for a learner’s experiences to help her learn better herself, through elaboration, one of the learning strategies showcased in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning . Relating material to what you know already is a common approach to elaboration. So drawing on our learners’ experiences represents a great opportunity. And not drawing on them presents a danger. As Knowles put it,
To children, experience is something that happens to them; to adults, experience is who they are. The implication of this fact for adult education is that in any situation in which the participants’ experiences are ignored or devalued, adults will perceive this as rejecting not only their experience, but rejecting themselves as persons. (67)
And there’s a second danger inherent in prior knowledge. Even when we as learning providers acknowledge and draw it out, prior experience can bring the curse of knowledge, biases, or inappropriate expectations—see our related episode, Getting Conscious About Bias with Howard Ross and Shilpa Alimchandani.
So, we have work to do in positioning our offerings and in delivering them in ways that seek to surface and address such unconscious tendencies. Indeed, our most important work with adult learners may sometimes be helping them unlearn.
[22:41] – Wrap-Up
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[25:01] – Sign off
- An Essential Guide to Andragogy for Learning Businesses– covers all six principles of adult learning theory, not just the three covered in this episode.
- The 4 Ps of Marketing Your Learning Business
- Mindfulness and Learning with Dr. Ellen Langer
- Learner Engagement – What It Is and How to Foster It
- Getting Conscious About Bias with Howard Ross and Shilpa Alimchandani
- Effective Strategies for Teaching Adult Learners (Learning Revolution)