Education Design: Learning Theory

Principles of Adult Learning

I’d like to state at the outset that I don’t believe androgogy and pedagogy break along a neat dividing line. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the tabula rasa is not much less cluttered going into kindergarten as college, and differences are primarily in scaffolding. It’s not unreasonable to assert that, at any age, we bring varying degrees of pre-existing knowledge, preconceptions, and misconceptions to learning depending on the subject at hand, and what we want to believe about it  I view it more as a long series of overlapping normal curves with different stages of core knowledge, critical thought, insight, and maturity that we all bring to the table when acquiring new knowledge in any given field.
It’s also important to point out that most of the literature on adult learning focuses either on the college student or the worker. There is some attention paid to self-actualization and more personal learning within these works, but the primary focus is on these structured learning environments.

With those musings out of the way, there are some principles that can help guide development of curricula and content.

Malcolm Knowles posited that people move from being directed by others in their learning to self-directed learning, and in adulthood learners are problem-centered – they learn primarily so that they can solve a specific problem before them. This assumes an internal motivation to learn, and that adults learn most from experiences (learning-by-doing) rather than passive learning situations. So he proposed that adults should be involved in planning their own learning experiences6.

Kolb developed a four-stage experiential learning model: doing, reflection, concluding or conceptualization, and experimentation. Adults have “knowledge, values and relationships” that influence how and what they learn (here again, I’d argue that children also have knowledge values and relationships that, though certainly not formed to the same extent as an adult, need to be considered in what they’re taught). His learning model suggests four styles of learning: accommodating, diverging, assimilating, and converging.

Patricia Cross ‘ Characteristics of Adult Learners (CAL) model proposes that learning is affected by two classes of variables- personal and situational characteristics. Personal characteristics include three key dimensions (aging, life phases, and developmental stages), while situational characteristics that impact learning include part-time vs. full-time learning, and voluntary vs. compulsory participation. Cross identified some principles drawn from the interaction of these variables7:

  • Participation is motivated by both positive and negative influences
  • Participation is correlated to anticipated learning outcomes
  • A sense of security precedes the need for achievement
  • Expectations of reward affect motivation

The model came out of literature review and there isn’t a body of evidentiary research behind this (there isn’t a lot behind most major learning theories either because it’s very difficult to tease out the effect of individual variables), but you need only stop for 5 seconds in any working environment to see that this can be a useful framework for shaping education.