Principles of Adult Learning

Learning is defined as: “a change in the efficiency or use of basic cognitive processes, both conscious and unconscious, that promote more effective problem solving and performance tasks” (OECD, 2007, p. 212). Over the years adult education researchers have used evidence-based information to develop a set of principles to facilitate adult learning. Some of these key principles and their implications for practice are reviewed in this section. Adult are self-directed learners. Self-directed learning gives the responsibility back to the learners and enables them to have direct input into the learning process so that they can set learning goals, choose when and how to learn and assess their progress. Following is a list of suggestions to facilitate self-directed learning (Lowry, 1989):

  • Be a manager of the learning experience rather than an information provider; 
  • Teach inquiry skills, decision-making, personal development and self-evaluation of work; 
  • Help learners develop positive attitudes and feelings of independence in relation to learning; 
  • Encourage critical thinking by incorporating appropriate activities, i.e. seminars; 
  • Provide opportunities for self-directed learners to reflect on what they are learning; and 
  • Promote learning networks, study circles and learning exchanges. 

Jack Mezirow is an American adult education theorist who developed transformation theory in the early 1980s based on research of adults returning to university (Mezirow, 1981). Mezirow theorized about the cognitive processes of learning for individuals based on instrumental and communicative competence and functional frames of reference. Instrumental learning refers to learning how to be in the world, while communicative learning refers to understanding meanings and their underlying purposes, beliefs and values. Frames of reference are the “structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences” and include our concepts, feelings, values and conditioned responses. A critical learner “assesses assumptions, how they were acquired and their consequences to our actions and feelings” and through this reflection a transformation in the learner’s frame of reference can occur. Transformation is beyond simply establishing a new point of view; it is the critical self-reflection of an existing point of view that can lead to a transformed point of view and further, to a new habit of mind. Such transformations can make learning a more inclusive, discriminating, self-reflective and integrative experience. As reflective practitioners, workers are constantly constructing new knowledge by evaluating and reflecting on the effectiveness or failure of their actions. Reflection followed by action is known as praxis. A transformative learning process further enriches workers‘ knowledge (Mezirow, 1995). The process of transformative learning is enabled by the following ideal conditions for learning, adapted by Mezirow from Habermas’s ideal speech conditions (Mezirow, 1981).

  • Access to accurate and complete information;
  • Freedom from coercion and distorting self-deception;
  • Ability to weigh evidence and assess arguments objectively;
  • Be open to alternative points of view;
  • Become critically reflective upon assumptions and presuppositions and their consequences;
  • Have equal opportunity to participate in various roles of discourse; and
  • Be willing to accept an informed, objective, rational consensus as a legitimate test of validity until new perspectives, evidence or arguments are encountered. 

While adults bring to the learning situation wealth of extremely rich life experiences and previous knowledge that can facilitate learning; they can also bring along numerous challenges that can compromise the learning outcomes. Following is a summary of these key challenges (Muehlen, n.d.):

  • Lack of confidence in learning capacity;
  • Fear of looking weak in the group;
  • Want to avoid making mistakes;
  • Reduced speed of learning;
  • Highly conservative;
  • Difficulty accepting views of others; and

Wide inter-individual differences [Adapted from: (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005)].

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