Principles of Learning: Boiling it down

I could have called this post the principles of adult learning. But I’d be doing ourselves a disservice.

learning_principles_wordle Learning is learning. As people get older, their learning experiences are bigger – their mental models about what learning is and how learning happens have been in place for longer so this experience folds into every new one. But really, learning is learning.

So when I read about Principles of Adult Learning, like the oft-cited ones below, I am wary. Because I worry that it closes doors.

  • Adults are internally motivated and self-directed
  • Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences
  • Adults are goal oriented
  • Adults are relevancy oriented
  • Adults are practical
  • Adult learners like to be respected

(Malcolm Knowles, in Adult Learning Theory and Principles)

I worry that adopting these principles would limit how I view the adult learners I teach or the teachers I support.

Not all adults have the same learning principles
While I do not believe in learning styles, I do believe that different things can motivate our learning. I usually like to see the big picture before learning anything so I can see where the details fit (but not always) and I have a friend who focuses on details and creates the big picture from them (but not always). For me, learning is relevant when I can see how it fits in the big picture, for my friend it is relevant when the details can be put together creatively. AND all of this varies related to the subject matter. We engage with language learning in a very different way than we engage with geometry. Not a one-size fits all relevancy here.

These principles can be applied to other learners
I have absolutely taught little people who have had life experience. In order to teach them well it was essential I take their experience into account. Relevancy is important to children as well, only it is often times dismissed. How many times has a child asked, why do I need to learn this? Only to be answered, you’ll understand later or because I said so.

Not only that but:
Not all learners in adult education are adults
An increasing number of students in adult education centres in Quebec are aged 16-18. Coming to school for them is less of a choice than a requirement by their parents.

Everyone enjoys respect
This is not a principle reserved to adult learners!

So how do we look at learning in a practical way? The tough answer –> this is somewhat different for each teacher. But when I look at and learn from master teachers, they all have (at least) two things in common:

  • They know their subject matter well.
  • They love, respect, and trust their students.

2 Replies to “Principles of Learning: Boiling it down”

  1. I too have been uncomfortable with the separation of andragogy from pedagogy. Learning is learning and there are as many different learning styles as there are learners.
    It’s interesting to note however that a lot of the andragogic thinking springing from Knowles and Merriman (over the years) has found it way into youth sector practice thereby mitigating the contrast once drawn.
    I think the “Why do I have to learn it?” question is one we, as teachers, need to be honest about. Sometimes groundwork needs to be set-down without understanding what goes on top, and a certain level of trust between teacher and student needs to be present for the answer “You’ll know when we get there.” to be accepted. I think that when some sort of contorted logic is used to make specific learning relevant trust is lost.

    1. Hi Paul and welcome to the blog 🙂

      Absolutely – the contorted logic approach can damage trust.

      I am not sure I agree with this –> “Sometimes groundwork needs to be set-down without understanding what goes on top.” I’m not saying that I need to be shown the big picture of advanced algebra when learning about mystery numbers in Grade 1 but I do think there needs to be some kind of discussion around why its a good thing to know how to figure out a mystery number.

      (and sometimes because it is a cool trick to know can be enough!)

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