Principles of Adult Education

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It’s hard to imagine today, but for most of human history, the concept of adult education was pretty much nonexistent. The need simply wasn’t there — most of society was agrarian, and men and women who lived these relatively uncomplicated lives knew everything they needed to by the time they were in their teens.


When the industrial economy came into being about two centuries ago, the laborers who made it run were trained on nearly all the tasks they had to perform within the first couple of days on the job.


Even in the professional sphere (doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc.), most people didn’t pursue education past their collegiate years.


This is not to say that all these folks stopped learning once they reached adulthood. (Because of our nature, it’s just about impossible for human beings to cease absorbing new knowledge at any point in their lives.) It just meant that their years of formal training and education were over after they made it through their salad days.


In modern times, though, industries form, change and die at such a rapid pace, most adults have to participate regularly in structured learning programs to keep up. IT certifications in particular arose wholly out of an unprecedented demand for vocational training and skill assessment.


Formal education is now viewed as a lifelong process rather than something limited to 12 to 20 years of one’s youth.


Hence, it is important for both adults and the people who teach them to understand how — and why — this distinct age cohort learns. (For the purposes of this article, “adult” can be defined as 25 years old or more, as this is the age when most people are finished with their initial college experiences and have assumed a high level of responsibility for their own lives.)


First, it’s worth pointing out that adults tend to take different approaches to learning than young people do. For the most part, adolescents don’t tend to question how what they learn applies to them. Their aims are getting through the class with a good grade (or just getting through the class, period).


Also, because they tend to take courses on completely unfamiliar subject matter more frequently, they usually depend far more on the instructor’s guidance.


Adults, though, approach learning in a more autonomous and practical way. They want a certain level of assistance from their teacher, but they generally favor a more hands-off, facilitative instructional strategy.


They typically take classes on topics with which they already familiar and are interested in to some extent, so they want to be able to work through issues and draw their own conclusions rather than just passively receive data.


Also, adults will ask — in their own minds, if not out loud — why they need to know about certain information. If they don’t see how particular data connects to what they intend to apply in their professional or personal lives, they’ll probably be much less likely to retain it.


Good learning programs for adults are those that give a considerable amount of freedom to students and have a demonstrable connection to the world outside the classroom. Environments that are interactive, experiential, experimental, nonlinear and motivational are ideal.


Keep these qualities in mind as you evaluate and compare training and certification offerings.

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