How is adult learning different?

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So how exactly is adult learning different from child and adolescent learning?

This is a question I hear all the time. When I can, I take a moment to discuss it and offer answers grounded in established theory and empirical data. I don’t mind doing so, although I dream of a time when I won’t have to so much. The problem is not that such questions arise, it’s that many within the field of adult and lifelong learning struggle to answer them. Consequently, the field struggles to justify its existence, even to those who are already strong advocates for education and learning. If we can’t win these folks over, how can we expect to win over the others?

Here I detail three principal qualities of adult learning that distinguish it from the kind of learning that occurs with most children and adolescents. Importantly, these are not simply restatements of the empirically devoid assumptions that have been so popular in the field over the past four decades. Often these assumptions masquerade as foundations for a science of adult learning and, frankly, don’t help the field gain inroads in more scientifically rigorous fields.

1: Different Cognitive Capabilities

First, adults have different cognitive capabilities than children and adolescents. Before I expand on this point, I offer the following caveat: natural processes occur on continuums and rarely, if ever, appear wholly formed once a certain arbitrary age associated with “adulthood” is reached. Capabilities emerge incrementally, and their emergence happens at different times for different people– for some, they never happen at all. So when I speak of cognitive capabilities, I am speaking in terms of averages and probabilities (the language of science). An adult may be said to have a higher likelihood of possessing a certain cognitive capability than, say, an 8-year old. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some 8-year olds and some adults with similar cognitive capabilities. End caveat.

With that said, there is considerable early research showing that abstract reasoning capabilities emerge in adolescence and early adulthood (see Inhelder & Piaget, 1958; Schaffer, 1988; Siegler, 1979). That is, people entering adulthood begin to show the ability to use hypothetico-deductive reasoning to covertly manipulate abstract concepts (in the mind’s eye) and construct consequences for hypothetical actions without ever having to actually experience them. This ability is the foundation for reflective thinking and the scientific method, and it offers adults a tremendous advantage in the world. Adults can look back on personal experience and relate things from that experience in new ways to change their meaning (i.e., function). Undoubtedly, some children can do this—and do it well—but, on average, a person is more likely to show this ability toward what we call “adulthood.” We can see this capability accounted for in some of the most common educational practices advocated for with adults (e.g., reflective activities and reflective practice). Further, there is emerging research showing that how people process and interpret their emotions changes throughout adulthood (Garrett, 2016). As people grow older, they tend to emphasize positive experiences in their thinking more so than negative ones, thus creating qualitative differences in terms of how the experience of new learning is processed by relating it to past experience. And last, there is considerable evidence showing that how we construct identity changes from childhood to adulthood (Kegan, 1994). Most adults develop a sense of self whereby their concept of “I” (the self) is less and less fused with (defined by) their relationships, identities, and ideologies. As a result, they are able to pause for a moment and reflect on these things as concepts separate from the self. When people do this, they are able to expose those things to scrutiny and analysis. Most children and adolescents aren’t so good at doing this.

Hypothetico-deductive reasoning . . . This ability is the foundation for reflective thinking and the scientific method, and it offers adults a tremendous advantage in the world.

So what adults can do with their learning is different from children, how adults interpret their learning is different from children, and how adults see the things that make up their self is different from children. These distinct cognitive capabilities allow educators to use distinct learning strategies.

2: Different Cultural Demands

Second, there are different cultural demands placed on adults than on children and adolescents. In the U.S., most adults hold jobs, and many have partners and dependents that draw considerably on their time. The average workweek in the U.S. is now 34.4 hours (OECD, 2014), roughly consuming the same time that children and adolescents spend on their formal education. Additionally, the average family household in the U.S. remains at 3.2 people, while the number of householders age 65 and older has tripled over the past 50 years (U.S. Census, 2017). This means that a large number of adults in the U.S. spend nearly 31% of their waking lives at work, and when they are home they are not only taking care of themselves, but also others who are both younger and older. These demands are simply not placed upon most children and adolescents in the U.S. The ramifications are that adults have different demands on their time, and most do not have as much time for formal learning.

When we are working as adult educators and designing for adult learners, we had better make sure learning is happening. Adults’ time is far too precious for learning strategies that don’t help them attain the ends for which they strive.

This has led some adult learning theorists to argue that adults must see the immediate relevance in their learning and that educators should focus on content that is relevant to adults’ lives (see Knowles, 1984). I think this idea makes a giant leap from a) what is going on outside learners’ heads (illustrated by the data) to b) what is going on inside learners’ heads (not illustrated by the data) to c) what educators should do about what is going on inside learners’ heads (not illustrated by the data and an example of the naturalistic fallacy). We can acknowledge adults’ competing demands on their time without purporting assumptions of what they all need. What is clear is that adults have less time for formal learning, but what is not is what they need. This likely varies across learning settings and the learners themselves.

What I take all this to mean is that when we are working as adult educators and designing for adult learners, we had better make sure learning is happening. Adults’ time is far too precious for learning strategies that don’t help them attain the ends for which they strive.

3: Different Means of Participation

Third, adult learning is mostly voluntary. Of course there are exceptions (e.g., mandatory continuing professional education and professional re-certification), but for the most part when adults participate in formal learning, they are not doing so as a captive audience. Over 40% of the 17.6 million non-compulsory undergraduates in the U.S. are now over the age of 25 (CLASP, 2015), and learning for work, both on- and off-the-job, comprises the bulk of adults’ lifelong learning (ATD, 2017). In most cases there are no penalties for not-engaging. Nothing immediate happens when an adult learner walks out of (or tunes out) a boring workshop with no formal assessments of learning. Nothing immediate happens when an adult learner fails to register for a redundant online training session, or quits on the second day of a community college English course. No one is going to send adults to the principal’s office or call home to find out what’s going on. In short, adults participate in learning for a variety of reasons, and punitive contingencies are normally not in place should they decide to no longer participate. I’d argue this is a good thing, but that’s another blog post.

Motivating adults to show up, engage, and persist is part and parcel of any adult learning experience.

This means that motivating adults to show up, engage, and persist is part and parcel of any adult learning experience. Of course, educators are free to ignore this, but adult learners will likely vote with their feet. When considering learning strategies, then, adult educators are best served by thinking about how the strategy helps learners engage with the material and persist in the learning experience. I am of course not suggesting that educators of children and adolescents should not consider these things as well–they should–but the implications for not considering them is different because the contingencies to promote adult learners to physically show up are not in place like they are with children and adolescents. In a sense, then, adult educators must be marketers of learning that keep learners interested in wanting to learn more.

References

CLASP. (2015). Yesterday’s non-traditional student is today’s traditional student. Retrieved from http://www.clasp.org/resources-and-publications/publication-1/CPES-Nontraditional-students-pdf.pdf

Garrett, M. D. (2016). Piaget’s missing cognitive stage. Psychology Today. Retreived from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/iage/201602/piaget-s-missing-cognitive-stage

Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). Adolescent thinking.

Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd Ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

OECD. (2014). OECD Factbook 2014: Economic, Environmental and Social Statistics. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/factbook-2014-en.

Piaget, J. (1970). Science of education and the psychology of the child. Trans. D. Coltman.

Schaffer, H. R. (1988). Child Psychology: the future. In S. Chess & A. Thomas (eds), Annual Progress in Child Psychiatry and Child Development. NY: Brunner/Mazel.

Siegler, R. S. & Richards, D. (1979). Devlopment of time, speed and distance concepts. Developmental Psychology, 15, 288-298.

U.S. Census. (2017). Historical household tables. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/families/households.html

Author: Kevin M. Roessger

I am a research and educator interested in advancing the adult learning sciences. I blog about evidence-based practices and policies for adult and lifelong learning.

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