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Training - Don't treat adults like children

By JAMES COAKES Published 24th Jun 2014
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Malcolm Knowles was one of the first people to recognize the importance of understanding the way people learn in order to create effective educational programs for adults. Knowles was one of the most important figures in adult education in the US during the later half of the 20th century, and his influence continues to shape the way that we approach workplace training today.

One of Knowles' most important contributions was his emphasis on the importance of self-directed learning for adults. He advocated a shift in focus from the idea that adult learning was about educating people to the understanding that it was about helping them to learn. Education was not something that a teacher could give to an adult learner. It was something that the individual had to achieve for themselves. He also believed that adults learned differently from children, and popularised the term ‘andragogy’ for adult learning, as opposed to pedagogy; the teaching of children.

Andragogy, for Knowles, focused around five key characteristics that separated adult learners from younger students. Adults have a more mature self-concept, which makes them more self-directed beings. Adults have also developed more experience, which they can use as a resource while learning new ideas. They have a greater social readiness to learn, and a different orientation to learning, since what is learned can potentially be immediately applied to problems in the workplace. Adults also have more internal motivation to learn.

As Infed's biography of Knowles suggests, this theory of adult learning does have certain limitations. For example, it considers all adult learners to share the same characteristics and doesn't take their personal experiences and life situations into account, or allow for differences in learning styles between experience-led activists, thoughtful reflectors, abstract-thinking theorists and practical pragmatists. However, it does provide us with a picture of the adult learner that can shape the way we approach adult education and training.

A self-directed learner who is driven by internal motivation requires very different handling to a reluctant child who is sent to school by their parents, and this is being reflected in a more learner-centred approach in adult education, according to the CIPD, with 62% of respondents to a recent survey reporting that their companies were focusing on developing a learning culture.

A student who is eager to learn and who engages actively with the learning process will probably not benefit from the passive learning and rote memorisation that might work for children. Experienced learners who are oriented towards workplace problems might instead do better when simulations, role-playing and case studies are used.

Recent surveys of managers have found that engagement is currently a key objective. As business recovers and the so called ‘war for talent’ increases managers realise that they need to create engaging workplaces and this includes the training programmes that they run. It is often said that business has changed and companies can no longer ‘do things to’ employees. Rather they have to create the conditions where those things happen by choice.

Those who question the sudden arrival of engagement as a key business objective question why it should suddenly be trending. Was there ever a time when engagement was not a key objective. As with so many trends it’s just that people are suddenly talking about it.

Malcolm Knowles work and thinking shows that creating the environment for desired results through engagement is not a new idea. In fact, he was writing about it in the 1950s.

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