Contrasting adult learning with student instruction

Adult (andragogic) Learning Model

How adult learners differ from students in school and university and what this means in terms of teaching adults.

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For adult learning to be a success one must understand how learning as an adult is different from learning as a child or university student - a difference in content and process. Although the focus of this page is business simulation and adult learning, the issues addressed are relevant to any business course design and provision.

Pedagogic Instruction
Andragogic Learning
Core Adult learning principles
Food Chain Issues
Business Simulation Issues

Pedagogic Instruction

Our introduction to learning is at school and this is usually reinforced at college or university. Here learning is associated with remembering examinable facts (bottom of Bloom's Taxonomy). This focus (on content) means that the lecture and listening passively is appropriate. Unfortunately, this means that many are conditioned to think that learning is to do with content and transfer of this passively to the learners.

Andragogic Learning

Knowles [1] and others prefer the word andragogic rather than pedagogic to describe adult learning. Both pedagogy and andragogy are based on the Greek word agogos (meaning guide). But for andragogy agogos is coupled with andros (man) and for pedagogy it is coupled with pedos (boy). So, pedagogy is guiding boys (children) and andragogy is guiding men (adults).

In teaching terms the two approaches are fundamentally different. Andragogic teaching is based on recognising and building on experience; being action oriented; being self directed and based on self motivation; being task or problem centred and with a focus on the learning process rather than just the knowledge content.

Core Adult Learning Principles[1]

1. Learner's Need to Know
  • what
  • why
  • how

In school or university learning focuses on what is learned (content). For the adult learner this extended to and overshadowed by the reason for learning (why) and the learning process (how).

The why need means that the learning must be relevant to the learner. As simulation places the learner in the position of working on a "real" business problem there is a direct link to business.

The how need means that the learning process is important and as the learner needs to links the learning (what) to its relevance (why) this process should be self-directing, allow time for reflection and ensure deep cognitive processing.

2. Self-Concept of the Learner
  • autonomous
  • self-directing

In school and to an extent university, the learner is in the position of subservience and perhaps fear of failing. He or she sees themselves in the context of their parents rather than as individuals.

In contrast the adult learner seems herself or himself as an autonomous, self-directing being. Thus at school or university the pupil sees the teacher as a font of knowledge and accepting of the relevance of the learning. In contrast, the adult business person, especially the experienced manager, is willing to challenge the trainer and demand that the teaching is relevant.

In the context of challenging the trainer, in my experience, academic instructors object to this and make the mistake of trying to put-the-learner down! In contrast, the experienced trainer of adults uses this challenge to draw out and make the learning relevant.

3. Prior Experience of the Learner
  • resource
  • mental models

Where business people are learning in small groups the diversity of their experience and prior learning is a rich learning resource. And, the need to argue and negotiate this contributes to the group's learning and means that deep cognitive processing occurs and new learning is linked to and refreshes prior learning (mental schema.)

But, experience and prior learning may have been misinterpreted and create bias. Also, generally, it is important for the trainer to recognise the adult learner's experience and knowledge and his or her role is that of leader rather than instructor.

4. Readiness to Learn
  • life-related
  • developmental task

Again contrasting learning at school and university with the adult business learner suggests that the former is concerned with content and knowing (passing exams).

In contrast, for the business person learning is life related. He or she learns in order to develop their work skills - to be more successful. Where the relevance of the learning is demonstrated, adult learners are motivated to learn. With simulation this is often demonstrated by the way learners work into the early hours. But, where the learners cannot see the relevance. they are demotivated.

5. Orientation to Learning
  • problem centred
  • contextual
Because the adult learner learns to aid his or her work and problem centred activities demonstrate the relevance of the learning, adult learners find these motivational. For simulations, this means that the simulation must reflect the structure and issues facing their company and industry sector.
6. Motivation to Learn
  • intrinsic value
  • personal payoff
Anyone who has seen business people working into the early hours will not be surprised that adults are motivated to learn - provided that is that they see the relevance, have found the learning process engaging and productive. Further, the learning process must be self-directed and provide regular feedback on success. And, if the feedback indicates failure there must be ways to overcome this.

Food Chain Issues

Finally, as illustrated below, the food chain differs between academic education and adult learning.

Business Simulation Issues

The differences2 between the academic student and the business learner suggest that business simulations designed for academic use may not provide effective and efficient learning in executive training.

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[1] Knowles, Malcolm S et al (1998) The Adult Learner, Butterworth-Heinemann ISBN 0-88415-115-8

[2] Hall, Jeremy J. S, B. (1995) Chalk and cheese? Executive short course vs academic simulations The Simulation and Gaming Yearbook Volume 3 Kogan Page London


2002 Jeremy J. S. B. Hall

Most recent update: 24/12/11
Hall Marketing, Studio 11, Colman's Wharf, 45 Morris Road, London E14 6PA, ENGLAND
Phone +44 (0)20 7537 2982 E-mail
jeremyhall@simulations.co.uk