What is adult education theory

Adult Education Theories

A good exercise program is an incredibly important part of an organization's success.

It is the first thing new employees come into contact with, it helps to engage existing employees through training, and it creates the foundation on which all employees interact with the organization's knowledge base.

To fully optimize your organization's training program, it is important to know, understand, and apply the theories of adult education.

After reading this article, you will understand the theories of adult education and be able to implement the principles of adult education into your organization's training program. That way, you'll be able to create programs that involve learners, save time, and lead to better employee performance.

Adult education theories:

  1. Andragogy
  2. Self-directed learning
  3. Transformative learning
  4. Experience-based learning
  5. Project based learning
  6. Action learning
  7. behaviorism
  8. Cognitivism
  9. constructivism
  10. Social learning theory

What are adult education theories?

There are a number of different theories about adult education, but they all start from the same idea: adults learn differently from children.

The way adults and children learn differs in many important ways:

  • Adults tend to be more self-motivated because they understand the value of education and often have a solid goal in mind when they start studying. Children need a higher level of commitment because they are less naturally motivated in learning situations.
  • Adults can draw on their existing knowledge base to understand new concepts, while children often approach a new topic from a completely blank board.
  • Adults are much better able to direct themselves to solve problems and learn new concepts, while children have a greater need for orientation.

Adult learning theories underscore the fact that training programs must be designed with adults in mind to be effective. There is no single theory of learning for adults, but there are different theories to suit the needs of different organizations.

1. Andragogy

Andragogy means the art and science of teaching adults, as opposed to pedagogy which is the art and science of teaching children.

Developed in 1968 by Malcolm Knowles.

The theory of andragogy postulates that adult learners:

  • are much better placed to direct their own learning than a child who is learning.
  • use their own knowledge base and life experience to help them learn.
  • are motivated, present and willing to learn when the material is of immediate relevance, e.g. in a new professional, social or life role.
  • want to be able to immediately apply new information to solve problems in their life.
  • Have a voice in both planning and evaluating their learning experience.
This means that andragogy is better for those who are highly self-motivated or who are in a goal-oriented and structured program, or for teaching how to solve certain problems.

Unmotivated learners or those who prefer the classroom experience to alternative learning will not find as much value in this type of learning. Some critics have pointed out that this type of learning will not work in all cultures.

To use andragogy in training, the instructor should create a space that welcomes collaboration, with materials relevant to the needs of the learners. The trainer should use real-world examples to demonstrate why the lesson is important and how this concept will be valuable to the learner. Learning should be done by doing, not memorization or repetition.

An organization can effectively use andragogy in its training program by identifying common problems that the learner will encounter in their new role and then assisting the learner in developing solutions to those problems.

2. Self-directed learning

This theory, also known as SDL, was proposed by D.R. Garrison develops and builds on Malcolm Knowles' theory of andragogy.

It summarizes concepts of how adults manage themselves and creates a theory based on the premise that the adult learner:

  • takes the initiative to understand what needs to be learned. The learner sets learning goals, finds the resources they need, creates and follows a learning plan, and then evaluates their own results.
  • selects those who can help, including teachers, mentors, or peers.
  • Will respond positively to being in control of their own learning path, taking the time to make informed decisions, and incorporating learning on a daily basis.
Self-directed learning works well for self-motivated learners as well as those who respond well to technology-assisted learning.

This type of learning works well for subjects with specific, black or white answers rather than gray areas. For example, a learner might see the need to master a new language. Self-directed learning would be helpful because he could look for apps, books or discussion groups that would help him learn. You can check their own learning progress and there will be clear answers as to whether or not they are using the language correctly.

Learners need to be able to evaluate their own results to see how they are progressing with their learning and to assess which areas to focus on.

While SDL can be a useful training tool, having a trainer who makes learning easier makes it even more useful. This person can assist the learner with self-assessment, work with the learner to determine the right starting point for the learning journey, and help the learner access the resources that will best help them.

The facilitator acts more as a guide and source of encouragement than a teacher. He is available to help if needed, but leaves the learner the space he needs to control his or her learning by himself.

Self-directed learning critics point out that self-directed learning can be difficult for some learners, especially those who are less educated, poor in reading and writing, or low in self-confidence.

The results of SDL may differ from what is planned or desired, and learners may need more time to fully immerse themselves in the subject than those who have more rigorous programs.

This type of learning can be a valuable part of a blended training program, especially in terms of upskilling.

3. Transformative learning

This theory, developed by Jack Mezirow in 1978, deals with the ability to change the way the learner sees the world through learning.

This theory assumes that by introducing new concepts by a teacher, questioning assumptions, and disrupting perspective, a learner becomes a learner:

  • change their worldview in a significant way, resulting in an entirely new frame of reference.
  • face a "disorienting dilemma", information that calls his perspective so fundamentally into question that he reconsiders his previous point of view and adapts his convictions through critical thinking.
  • He will find it easier to remember the concepts taught as the transformation involves behavior, thoughts, and beliefs.
This type of learning is well suited for employees who need to develop personally or professionally to learn about complex analytical processes, or to teach learners how to apply evaluation and analysis to different situations.

This type of learning will not always be relevant within an organization, and it has been criticized for putting rationality over emotions, relationships and culture and being blind to context.

To employ transformational learning within an organization's training program, trainers should create the right environment, one that supports the learner through authentic interactions, honest and empathetic teaching, and a supportive space in which the learner is encouraged to question their beliefs without judgment .

Lecturers should introduce material that explores different viewpoints and guide learners to study it intensively.

Learners who enjoy challenging the world around them will respond well to this type of teaching, and those who are avid debaters, rational thinkers, or critical analysts will find this type of learning interesting.

4. Experience-based learning

This type of learning theory was developed by David Kolb in the 1970s.

It focuses on hands-on learning and uses experience to demonstrate concepts. In experiential learning, the learner will:

  • actively participate in the learning process.
  • reflect on their experiences after the participation phase and develop and consolidate the knowledge they have acquired.
  • Think about the successes and failures of the learning process in order to develop improvements for the next learning activity. It uses an abstract conceptualization to take advantage of the new skills he has learned during the process.
This type of learning works well for people eager to learn and for tasks that require systematic thinking or mechanical skills.

Some organizations use experiential learning to teach professionalism, customer service, or even supply chain management.

The criticism of experiential learning focuses on the overemphasis on individual knowledge at the expense of the social context.

An organization can develop training programs that leverage experiential learning by setting up role-play exercises, engaging thought leaders to share their experiences, or using virtual reality to simulate common situations employees might encounter at work.

A good facilitator will encourage reflection and conceptualization after completing the experiential aspect of learning and stimulate learners to think about how to activate their new knowledge in their everyday roles.

5. Project-based learning

At the center of this theory, developed by John Dewey in 1897, is the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčlearning by doing, usually as a group.

The theory assumes that learners:

  • Acquiring knowledge in a more holistic and in-depth way when actively engaging with a real-world topic.
  • deal with this problem over an extended period of time by researching, developing and testing possible solutions, while receiving regular feedback from trainers.
  • Will understand knowledge more fully if they have to actively apply it.
Project-based learning is great for organizations looking to develop their management teams' long-term project management skills, process improvement, and research and development projects, particularly in the software and technology space.

One criticism of PBL is that some members of the group may be tempted to take advantage of the collaborative nature of the group and let up. If there is a lack of guidance from the instructor, it may not be recognized and some learners will take on more than their fair share while another learner will get credit for another's hard work.

An organization can incorporate this theory into its training programs by creating environments where groups can meet to solve real problems within the company. It can be as simple as learning new software or as complex as developing a new product concept. By providing trainers to act as guides and facilitators, groups can be prepared to develop their knowledge with minimal interference and maximum ownership of the end product.

This theory shares much in common with phenomenon-based learning, with the notable difference that phenomenon-based learning encourages the learner to approach problem solving in a multidisciplinary way, using a global mindset.

6. Action learning

This theory was developed by Reg Revans in 1982 and is concerned with solving problems while simplifying solutions, often in a group dynamic.

In Action Learning theory, learners learn:

  • pursuing a process of asking questions about the problem to better understand it, thinking about possible solutions, determining the best, and then finally taking action.
  • After taking action, the learners reflect again, questioning their process, the results and how they could improve them.
  • It's about building cohesion, gaining the ability to work together, and better understanding group dynamics throughout the process.
An organization can use action learning to facilitate team building, identify learning needs in areas where training is required, and increase organizational knowledge among employees.

In this type of learning it is important that the group is given enough time to reflect on the process after the action. Without this time, the desired learning will not take place. A qualified moderator is required for these activities, who primarily ensures that the participants stay on course within the time frame and that there is space for the reflection phase.

Action learning can be translated into training plans by assembling groups of learners to solve sample problems or perhaps even complex problems that the organization is facing. With the help of a moderator, the teams can be confronted with the issue and then given the simple guidelines above. When they start working their way through the process, the facilitator will guide them by giving them knowledge where needed, but generally curating the environment needed for the learners.

7. Behaviorism

Behaviorism, developed by B. F. Skinner in the 1940s, is based on the theory that people learn through conditioning, using stimuli, rewards, and punishment.

This theory suggests that the learner:

  • Gaining information in response to stimuli.
  • benefits from lessons that repeat and reinforce information while the learner receives it passively.
  • Requires demonstration of either positive or negative consequences.
Behaviorism is very common in training programs where a standard outcome is desired, such as health and safety demonstrations or corporate policy seminars. In a situation where trainers do not require participation or action from learners, this type of learning can be useful.

With a dedicated trainer and incentives for students who perform well, behaviorism is easy to incorporate into an in-house training program. However, this shouldn't be the only type of training a learner receives. Critics find that behaviorism can quickly demotivate learners and lead them to ineffective memorization of important information.

8. Cognitivism

This theory was developed as a rejection of behaviorism and found that learners were much more actively involved in the learning process than behaviorists claim.

This theory says about the learner:

  • Acquiring knowledge by combining old and new information in a holistic way.
  • Receives information, processes it and arranges it according to the existing knowledge in order to be able to call it up better later.
  • Is an active participant in one's own learning process.
Cognitivism can be very effective in scenarios when a learner is able to reflect on the knowledge acquired and then apply it to their own work. For example, after a week-long training seminar, a learner may be encouraged to take a morning to reflect on what they have learned and how this new information can be applied in their role.

To capitalize on cognitivism in education, trainers should ensure that information is presented in a way that makes sense to the learner. The more the information relates to the learner's existing knowledge, the easier it will be for the learner to remember. Analogies and metaphors can be particularly helpful, as can concept mapping. Successful instructors will structure new information so that it clearly shows how it relates to existing knowledge.

When applying this theory to an on-the-job training program, be careful not to overload learners with information. Cognitive overload can occur when a learner has been given too much information without having had enough time to process it.

9. Constructivism

This theory says that knowledge is not created by transferring it from the trainer to the learner, but rather by the learner creating meaning for himself.

Constructivists believe that learners:

  • actively create their own meaning and knowledge from experiences.
  • are the engine behind their own knowledge development by linking old information with new and then contextualizing it.
  • use their own personal and cultural experiences to contextualize new information.
In constructivism, teachers act as intermediaries for learners, asking questions and providing informational resources that learners can use to explore the concepts being taught. Through assimilation and accommodation, learners use their existing knowledge, experience and beliefs to gain an understanding of new concepts.

In the workplace, this theory can be put into practice when employees write self-reports, group learners into teams to learn new concepts, or participate in mentoring programs. The trainer should be as active as the learner, providing guidance while the learners use the information provided to create their own meanings.

10. Social learning theory

This theory, developed by Albert Bandura in the 1970s, combined behaviorism and cognitivism.

Social learning theory assumes that learners:

  • Information will be gained by combining their own experiences with observations of the rewards and punishments others receive for their actions.
  • observe the reaction to behavior in the workplace and gain an understanding of how they should behave.
  • imitate the behavior of those around them who respect them.
This theory is useful for demonstrating correct behavior in the workplace. Managers act as role models, showing what is acceptable, rewarding those who follow their lead, and consistently correcting those who do not follow the modeled behavior.

Instructors should be clear about what they are performing and can use anecdotes, role play, or training videos to back up the information. Based on the idea that if the trainer is respected, learners become more engaged, successful programs should employ trainers who are well respected within the organization.

Social learning theory will not serve your organization well if there is no consistency. The learners will quickly recognize whether there are favorites or whether negative behavior has no consequences. Trainers should pay attention to equality and fairness.

All of these theories can be used alone or in mixed training programs. Learners will differ in their response to the training and it is always helpful to have the information presented in different ways so you can ensure that your staff is well informed, knowledgeable, and safe.