Adult Learning Principles

Posted: 6 June 2018

Author: Emily Robinson Leclair, Community Learning Network

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Comments: 3

Recommendations: 1


I am going to let you in on a little secret; last July I set some goals for myself for the year ahead. And now, here we are a year later… I feel like I have learned a lot this year, but I have landed in a different place than I thought I would a year ago.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I did a little digging into the Adult Learning Principles to learn more about why my plans changed, and thought you would be interested in my findings.

To begin, let’s go way back. To 1970 to be exact. Simon and Garfunkel released their album Bridge Over Troubled Water and Malcolm Knowles revolutionized the field of teaching. Prior to 1970, teaching focused on children. Malcolm Knowles created a clear distinction between teaching children and adults. 

If you have participated in Introduction to Adult Foundational Learning this likely sounds familiar. I flipped to the ‘Looking at Adult Learning’ activity in the IAFL Participant Guide and found the following:

Andragogy is the art of using specific educational methods for adults. Malcolm Knowles is an educator who brought great understanding to this area. Knowles championed the importance of a learner-centred approach that recognizes key points about adult learners.

Adults need learning that:

    • Is self-directed
    • Builds on their rich store of past experience and knowledge
    • Helps them meet their own goals
    • Is relevant 
    • Is practical 
    • Provides respect

Defined as the “art and science of helping adults learn”, Knowles’ theory of andragogy still holds up. In fact, his five assumptions that characterize adult learners correspond directly to the Adult Learning Principles we refer to today. 

1. Self-concept 

A learner in adulthood is self-directed. The CALP Logic Model identifies this activity as ‘Planning with Learners’. Working with learners to identify their learning goals and develop a strategy to meet their learning goals provides respect and honours a learner’s self-concept. 

2. Experience 

All adult learners bring past experience and knowledge to their learning. A learning environment that builds on this wealth of experience will increase a learner’s confidence. 

3. Readiness to Learn

Throughout adulthood, learners take on different roles in their home, work and community. With those roles come different literacy and foundational learning requirements. A successful learning opportunity helps learners meet their own goals

4. Orientation to Learning

Adults pursue learning that is practical, relevant and applicable to their everyday lives. They often come to learning to satisfy an immediate need or solve a problem. 

5. Motivation to Learn (added in 1984)

Adult learners who report making progress toward their learning goals are internally motivated. For those learners referred to a CALP learning opportunity, they are far more likely to persist in their learning if they believe it is relevant to their needs and goals. 

When I reflect on my own learning from last year, I can check all of the following:

✓Is self-directed
✓Builds on my rich store of past experience and knowledge
✓Helps me meet my own goals
✓Is relevant
 ✓Is practical
 ✓Provides respect

So let’s dig a little further. In 1984, based on his five characteristics of adult learners, Knowles proposed a set of four principles of andragogy:

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

(The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, copyright 1970 by Malcolm S. Knowles)

Look at #3. Is it possible that, like our adult foundational learners, my learning goals shifted over the course of this year? Did I require learning that was more immediately relevant to my work? I think yes. 

Even more reassuring is #2. “Failure is the key to success” is a well-known phrase that supports Knowles’ second principle of andragogy. There is no doubt about it, I have learned a lot in this my second year with the Community Learning Network – both from my accomplishments and my mistakes. 

So if I can recognize that my learning needs and priorities have changed since last July, how can we help CALP learners navigate their own shifting priorities or changing goals? 

  • Schedule regular, informal check ins
  • Work with tutors or CALP staff to incorporate a learner’s identified learning needs into their learning
  • Work with learners to help them incorporate skills practice into their everyday life
  • Provide learners with a simple form or checklist to reflect on and track their learning progress
  • Be alert to changes in a learner’s everyday life – has something changed at home, work or in their community
  • Ask learners if their learning goals have shifted or changed

I opened this blog with a reference to Simon and Garfunkel and would be remiss not to close with them as well, do you remember the song ‘Cecilia’? Specifically, the chorus 

Cecilia, you're breaking my heart
You're shaking my confidence daily

As CALP Staff we want to ensure that we work with learners to build their confidence in their own learning. Adult learners often report an increase in confidence as an indicator of success even before they make significant gains in acquiring or building their foundational skills. Let’s set ourselves and our learners up for success! 

Emily Robinson Leclair
CLN South Regional Support Staff

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