How adults learn - one mistake to avoid

Many years ago, when I first started teaching adults, I made a crucial mistake. During our first lesson, I told my learner that his initial results show that his language level is A1. If only I had stopped there... but no, I continued by saying that this is the level of fourth-graders in our educational system. I compared the knowledge and experience of a thirty-year-old businessman to that of a ten-year-old kid. 

Comparing adult and young learners makes no sense for so many reasons. I'll address those in the text that follows. But first, let's see if there's anything a thirty-year-old business person and a ten-year-old kid might have in common when it comes to learning.

Choice. Whether we talk about children or adults, providing choice enhances intrinsic motivation, effort, task performance, and perceived competence, among other outcomes (1). The presumption that feelings of having choice can be a powerful motivator is pervasive in motivation theory and research. 70 years ago, Lewin (2) showed that choice has a powerful motivating effect, demonstrating that people would be more likely to engage in an activity if they believed they had chosen it.

Questions. In his amazing book A More Beautiful Question, Berger (3) explains how the key ingredient for professional and personal growth is - asking the right questions. And this is how children learn too. Did you know that children ask around 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five? 40,000!! And it is not just to annoy their parents (even though it sometimes looks like it's their goal). No. They actually want to learn why and get to the bottom of things (4). Unfortunately, many adults simply stop asking questions. This is one explanation for why this happens (3).

For starters, to question, we need to think, and thinking requires some mental workload. So, what does our brain do? It tries to find ways to reduce this workload. One way to reduce the workload is not to question and accept everything around us and operate in an autopilot mode. 

Secondly, to ask questions, we need to accept our ignorance. This means that others will also become aware that we actually don't know something. And our society often punishes ignorance by labelling the ignorant as idiots. 

Finally, to question, we need to remain curious. And this is where most school systems fail children. The teacher is seen as an authority figure, and children are afraid to question authority.

So, asking questions is what helps us learn. We just have to learn how to continue questioning.

Motivation. This is the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviours. It is what causes us to act, whether it is changing career or crawling towards a toy. 

It seems that there are some similar underlying principles that help young and adult learners learn better. But, this is just the beginning of the learning process. During my PhD studies, we had a very interesting professor who wrote a book called Edukologija (Educology) and most of his lectures were based on andragogy. (This is the term popularized in 1980. and it means the "art and science of helping adults learn"). Andragogy theory says that adult learners:

  • are more independent and self-directed;
  • have vast reserves of experience from which to draw;
  • have specific learning goals because of that experience;
  • are there because the curriculum applies more directly to their lives; and
  • require immediately applicable knowledge.

So, if you want to help adult learners learn, keep in mind that they bring substantial prior knowledge and experience that form a foundation for their learning. They want to take charge of their learning journey, and they find the most relevance from task-oriented learning that aligns with their own realities. And please, don't compare them to a ten-year-old kid. 

(1) Patall, E., Cooper, H., Robinson, J. (2008). The Effects of Choice on Intrinsic Motivation and Related Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis of Research Findings. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 270 –300.

(2) Lewin, K. (1952). Group decision and social change. In G. E. Swanson, T. M. Newcomb, & E. L. Hartley (Eds.), Readings in social psychology (pp. 459–473). New York: Holt.

(3) Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question: A power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York/London/New Delhi/Sydney: Bloomsbury.

(4) Society for Research in Child Development. (2009, November 13). When preschoolers ask questions, they want explanations. ScienceDaily.