Understanding Adult Learners: Implications for Brain Training

Understanding adult learners

Posted by on Oct 10, 2014 in Blog, Understanding Adult Learners

Labout market inclusion and extension of older workers

Labour Market Inclusion and Extension of Older Workers

The economic prosperity, which is helping Canadians sustain a high standard of living, is being threatened by diminishing skill stocks due to the aging of baby boomers, rising retirement rates and slow population growth (Expert Panel on Older Workers, 2008). To sustain growth in productivity the “economic output must be achieved by a smaller and older workforce” (Prskawetz, Fent, Guest, n.d. p. 1). Research also indicates that the entry of young people into the workforce is being delayed because they are taking much longer to complete their education and training (McMullin, J.A.; Cooke, 2004). Estimates suggest that 20% of the Canadian population will be over the age of 65 by 2015. Others project that by 2031, 25% of the population will be over the age of 65. It is also anticipated that the labour force participation rate will drop to 57% in 2025 as a result of the aging workforce (McMullin, J. A.; Tomchick., n.d.). The ratio of workers to retirees is expected to be two-to-one by 2031. People tend to retire earlier in spite of the fact that they are living longer due to continuing medical advances. For example, it is estimated that Canadians may now live a healthy life two or more decades after retirement; however, the average retirement age in Canada is 62 (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2008).

Due to the economic uncertainty, Canadians appear to be giving second thought to retirement. A recent survey conducted by Sun Life reveled that “Canadians expecting to be retired at age 66 declines by almost 50 per cent in five years” (Sun Life Financial, 2013, p. 1), due to the fear of outliving their retirement savings. There are growing concerns among policy makers regarding the dependency ratio of the aging population and governments’ ability to sustain the social safety net as life expectancy continues to grow in industrialized countries (Ghosheh, N.; Lee, S.; McCann, 2006). Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) estimates that in the next 10 years, two out of every three job openings will be attributed to the aging workforce (Standing Committee on Human Resources Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, 2008). A consensus is also emerging among government and industry leaders that skill shortages will intensify and become more widespread, due to the aging of the Canadian workforce (Government of Canada, 2008). There is also a widespread recognition that immigration, Canada’s traditional source of labour, will have limited impact in offsetting the labour force deficit because of the worldwide competition for talent (Expert Panel on Older Workers, 2008; Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario, 2007). Several countries are taking bold steps to address the population aging issues, by extending working lives and postponing the labour market exit of older workers.

Across the G7 countries there has been a wave of reforms to remove disincentives to early labour market exit, to combat the labour market exclusion and to promote inclusion and participation of older workers. These reform efforts have primarily targeted aspects of pension plans and social assistance, which tend to encourage early withdrawal from work life. The most common changes include increasing the age of eligibility and introducing penalties for earlier retirement. On the other hand, a whole range of incentives has been introduced to promote labour market extension beyond normal retirement age, by enabling retired employees who are working full-time or part-time to contribute to their pension plans. Most G7 countries have also abolished a mandatory retirement age. Various legislations are also being enacted to ban age discrimination. Canada has implemented some of these reforms and the implementation of others is under consideration (WDM-Consultants, 2011).

The trend toward ‘Freedom 55’ seems to be wearing down as a growing number of Canadians are becoming uncertain about their economic future during their retirement years. However, research indicating that two-thirds of older Canadian workers intend to work past retirement age may be overestimating the potential pool of older workers. Approximately one third of older workers end their work lives due to illnesses or disabilities; another third retire from work and are simply not interested in maintaining any form of labour market attachment. It is the remaining third that constitutes the estimated potential pool of older workers who are fit and willing to work beyond normal retirement age (WDM-Consultants, 2011).

There are some major employer barriers that act as impediments to the hiring and retention of older workers and that also push the workers to sever their labour market attachment earlier. The most notable of these barriers include: discriminatory employment practices, discriminatory re-employment practices, the generalized perception that older workers earn more and are less productive than younger workers, intergenerational divide at the workplace, and company policy restricting the rehire of retired workers (WDM-Consultants, 2011).

There are various employee barriers impinging on the labour market extension of older workers. Human capital deficiencies encapsulate three main employee barriers, namely: skills and learning deficiencies, deficiencies in workability, and some personal issues that are not conducive to labour market integration and extension. In spite of various initiatives for promoting lifelong and life-wide learning, older workers have little access to workplace training to learn new skills and to continuously improve acquired skills. Even when they have access to training, they may lack the information-processing skills to fully benefit from the opportunity (WDM-Consultants, 2011). The OECD has identified this problem as being a major challenge that needs to be overcome in order to facilitate the labour inclusion and extension of adult workers:

Rapid societal change is…increasingly requiring older adults to acquire and use complex information with new technologies, not just in the workplace but also in many aspects of home and everyday life. These requirements can pose considerable challenges to older adults faced with declining sensory, perceptual, and cognitive abilities as they aged. Consequently, there are compelling reasons for understanding the effects of aging on adult learning, both from psychological and educational perspectives and from the point of view of the underlying brain mechanisms that support cognition and learning” (OECD, 2007, p. 212). 

According to Camusso, although many people who enter the world of work have the necessary capacity to successfully adapt to workplace requirements, their cognitive skills may decay over time, resulting in a decline in their ability to adapt to changes. It is important therefore to give adult workers the opportunity to develop and hone their cognitive skills (Camusso, 2001).

The modern workplace has been altered significantly by automation and computerization. Many physical job tasks have disappeared and have been replaced by cognitive tasks that involve the transmission and processing of information from a computer screen or a numerical control system. As the job tasks become more complex and mental, the requirements for sound basic essential skills are also becoming more stringent. However, a significant proportion of adult workers lack the basic literacy and numeracy skills to successfully cope with their job requirements. The reorganization of labour is a third factor that significantly affects skills requirement. Specialized job roles are being replaced by a variety of job tasks performed within autonomous production teams. This new work environment calls for versatility and autonomy (Camusso, 2001).

Research has shown that workers need to deploy complex information processing skills and meta-cognitive strategies for solving problems in technology rich environment (Chinien & Boutin, 2011). Hong and Liu identified three types of meta-cognitive strategies that may be deployed by computer game players. Following is a brief description of each:

  • Trial-and-error thinking: Players determine problem attributes through trial-and error tactics, and make no attempts to reflect and revise their thinking process;
  • Heuristic thinking: Players apply experience gained form trial-and error mode to avoid repeating the same mistake; and
  • Analogical thinking: Players solve problems through an analytical mental process (Hong, Hwang, Tam, Lai, & Liu, 2012)
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Labour Market Inclusion and Extension of Older Workers

Posted by on Dec 7, 2013 in Blog

The economic prosperity, which is helping Canadians sustain a high standard of living, is being threatened by diminishing skill stocks due to the aging of baby boomers, rising retirement rates and slow population growth (Expert Panel on Older Workers, 2008). To sustain growth in productivity the “economic output must be achieved by a smaller and older workforce” (Prskawetz, Fent, Guest, n.d. p. 1). Research also indicates that the entry of young people into the workforce is being delayed because they are taking much longer to complete their education and training (McMullin, J.A.; Cooke, 2004). Estimates suggest that 20% of the Canadian population will be over the age of 65 by 2015. Others project that by 2031, 25% of the population will be over the age of 65. It is also anticipated that the labour force participation rate will drop to 57% in 2025 as a result of the aging workforce (McMullin, J. A.; Tomchick., n.d.). The ratio of workers to retirees is expected to be two-to-one by 2031. People tend to retire earlier in spite of the fact that they are living longer due to continuing medical advances. For example, it is estimated that Canadians may now live a healthy life two or more decades after retirement; however, the average retirement age in Canada is 62 (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2008).

Due to the economic uncertainty, Canadians appear to be giving second thought to retirement. A recent survey conducted by Sun Life reveled that “Canadians expecting to be retired at age 66 declines by almost 50 per cent in five years” (Sun Life Financial, 2013, p. 1), due to the fear of outliving their retirement savings. There are growing concerns among policy makers regarding the dependency ratio of the aging population and governments’ ability to sustain the social safety net as life expectancy continues to grow in industrialized countries (Ghosheh, N.; Lee, S.; McCann, 2006). Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) estimates that in the next 10 years, two out of every three job openings will be attributed to the aging workforce (Standing Committee on Human Resources Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, 2008). A consensus is also emerging among government and industry leaders that skill shortages will intensify and become more widespread, due to the aging of the Canadian workforce (Government of Canada, 2008). There is also a widespread recognition that immigration, Canada’s traditional source of labour, will have limited impact in offsetting the labour force deficit because of the worldwide competition for talent (Expert Panel on Older Workers, 2008; Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario, 2007). Several countries are taking bold steps to address the population aging issues, by extending working lives and postponing the labour market exit of older workers.

Across the G7 countries there has been a wave of reforms to remove disincentives to early labour market exit, to combat the labour market exclusion and to promote inclusion and participation of older workers. These reform efforts have primarily targeted aspects of pension plans and social assistance, which tend to encourage early withdrawal from work life. The most common changes include increasing the age of eligibility and introducing penalties for earlier retirement. On the other hand, a whole range of incentives has been introduced to promote labour market extension beyond normal retirement age, by enabling retired employees who are working full-time or part-time to contribute to their pension plans. Most G7 countries have also abolished a mandatory retirement age. Various legislations are also being enacted to ban age discrimination. Canada has implemented some of these reforms and the implementation of others is under consideration (WDM-Consultants, 2011).

The trend toward ‘Freedom 55’ seems to be wearing down as a growing number of Canadians are becoming uncertain about their economic future during their retirement years. However, research indicating that two-thirds of older Canadian workers intend to work past retirement age may be overestimating the potential pool of older workers. Approximately one third of older workers end their work lives due to illnesses or disabilities; another third retire from work and are simply not interested in maintaining any form of labour market attachment. It is the remaining third that constitutes the estimated potential pool of older workers who are fit and willing to work beyond normal retirement age (WDM-Consultants, 2011).

There are some major employer barriers that act as impediments to the hiring and retention of older workers and that also push the workers to sever their labour market attachment earlier. The most notable of these barriers include: discriminatory employment practices, discriminatory re-employment practices, the generalized perception that older workers earn more and are less productive than younger workers, intergenerational divide at the workplace, and company policy restricting the rehire of retired workers (WDM-Consultants, 2011).

There are various employee barriers impinging on the labour market extension of older workers. Human capital deficiencies encapsulate three main employee barriers, namely: skills and learning deficiencies, deficiencies in workability, and some personal issues that are not conducive to labour market integration and extension. In spite of various initiatives for promoting lifelong and life-wide learning, older workers have little access to workplace training to learn new skills and to continuously improve acquired skills. Even when they have access to training, they may lack the information-processing skills to fully benefit from the opportunity (WDM-Consultants, 2011). The OECD has identified this problem as being a major challenge that needs to be overcome in order to facilitate the labour inclusion and extension of adult workers: “Rapid societal change is…increasingly requiring older adults to acquire and use complex information with new technologies, not just in the workplace but also in many aspects of home and everyday life. These requirements can pose considerable challenges to older adults faced with declining sensory, perceptual, and cognitive abilities as they aged. Consequently, there are compelling reasons for understanding the effects of aging on adult learning, both from psychological and educational perspectives and from the point of view of the underlying brain mechanisms that support cognition and learning” (OECD, 2007, p. 212). According to Camusso, although many people who enter the world of work have the necessary capacity to successfully adapt to workplace requirements, their cognitive skills may decay over time, resulting in a decline in their ability to adapt to changes. It is important therefore to give adult workers the opportunity to develop and hone their cognitive skills (Camusso, 2001).

The modern workplace has been altered significantly by automation and computerization. Many physical job tasks have disappeared and have been replaced by cognitive tasks that involve the transmission and processing of information from a computer screen or a numerical control system. As the job tasks become more complex and mental, the requirements for sound basic essential skills are also becoming more stringent. However, a significant proportion of adult workers lack the basic literacy and numeracy skills to successfully cope with their job requirements. The reorganization of labour is a third factor that significantly affects skills requirement. Specialized job roles are being replaced by a variety of job tasks performed within autonomous production teams. This new work environment calls for versatility and autonomy (Camusso, 2001).

Research has shown that workers need to deploy complex information processing skills and meta-cognitive strategies for solving problems in technology rich environment (Chinien & Boutin, 2011). Hong and Liu identified three types of meta-cognitive strategies that may be deployed by computer game players. Following is a brief description of each:

  • Trial-and-error thinking: Players determine problem attributes through trial-and error tactics, and make no attempts to reflect and revise their thinking process;
  • Heuristic thinking: Players apply experience gained form trial-and error mode to avoid repeating the same mistake; and
  • Analogical thinking: Players solve problems through an analytical mental process (Hong, Hwang, Tam, Lai, & Liu, 2012)

 

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Principles of Adult Learning

Posted by on Dec 7, 2013 in Blog

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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Implications of Adult Learning Principles for Instruction

Posted by on Dec 7, 2013 in Blog

Examination of the adult learning principles related to this project goal revealed that there is not a single theory of learning that has been established for adult learners (Merriam and Cafferella, 1991). There seems to be a lack of a comprehensive model to guide the development of instructional materials for adult learners. The work of Knowles has however set the foundation for some best practices in adult education. Listed below are some of the basic adult learning principles and their corresponding implications.

Table 5. Adult Learning Principles and Implications or Instruction

Adult learning principle Implications for instruction
Adults are practical, problem-centered, and goal oriented. They want to learn what is meaningful and what will have an immediate benefit for them.
  • Inform the learner of the benefits of the learning outcomes, and the consequences of not participating in the training.
  • Ensure the practicality of all learning tasks.
  • Learning must be relevant to the learners.
  • Use less theory and more practice.
  • Assess what they already know about the training tasks (Knowles et al., 2005), (Muehlen, n.d.).
Adult are self-directed and goal-oriented learners. They can set learning goals, choose how to learn and assess their progress
  • Provide some autonomy and independence to adult learners.
  • Give adult learners a sense of control over their own learning by allowing them to progress at their own rate and using their own learning agenda (Knowles et al., 2005), (Muehlen, n.d.).
Training can threaten the ego of adults.
  • Provide low-risk activities.
  • Build individual success incrementally.
  • Motivate learners to promote motivation to learn.
  • Provide guided practice.
  • (Knowles et al., 2005), (Muehlen, n.d.).
Adult learners have rich experience.
  • Capitalize on prior experience.
  • Collect data on learners’ needs before, during and after training.
  • Keep training time flexible.
  • Allow for options to meet needs.
  • Make provision to address need to unlearn old habits (Knowles et al., 2005), (Muehlen, n.d.).
Adult learners want to be treated with respect.
  • Allow learners to pace their progress.
  • Provide bug-free environment and high quality training materials that are effective and efficient.
  • Avoid “talking down” to participants.
  • Validate and affirm their knowledge.
  • Use training material that is free of gender and cultural biases (Knowles et al., 2005), (Muehlen, n.d.).
  • Create a safe, welcoming learning environment (Keillor, C.; Littlerfield, 2012).

The work of the education theorist Robert Gagné has also been instrumental in the development of best practices for instructional development. In defining the conditions of learning, the education theorist Robert Gagné has proposed nine events of instruction, which activate the processes of information processing to support effective learning.  These events are:

  • Gaining attention;
  • Informing the learner of the objective;
  • Stimulating recall of prerequisite learned capabilities;
  • Presenting the stimulus material;
  • Providing learning guidance;
  • Eliciting performance;
  • Providing feedback about performance correctness;
  • Assessing the performance; and
  • Enhancing retention and transfer.
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Brain Plasticity and Adult Learners

Posted by on Dec 7, 2013 in Blog

Research has shown that due to the aging brain, adults experience a decline in cognitive functions such as processing speed, working memory and long-term memory. There seems to be a precipitous decline after the age of 40 (Hertzog et al., 2008). However, it is believed that older adults ”may be able to compensate for their decline in basic cognitive functioning by bringing their considerably greater verbal and world knowledge to bear upon the solution of a given problem” (OECD, 2007, p. 215). Although there is evidence of cognitive decline with aging, interestingly, there are also some age-related changes that can make a person wiser and gain wisdom. Wisdom allows a person to see the big picture in multiple perspectives, and to see the interconnectedness and interdependencies among things.

In recent years, there has been widespread interest in commercializing training programs to enhance the cognitive functions of adults, encouraged by cutting edge research on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Cognitive training studies have demonstrated that intensive training can improve the cognitive functioning of adults (Hertzog et al., 2008). Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons are generated in human brain. Contrary to previous beliefs, new research evidence has demonstrated that new neurons are continually generated in the hippocampus and other regions of the brain. This finding has important implications for learning and memory in adulthood. Research suggests that an increase in the number of neurons results in an increase in cognition and memory capacity (OECD, 2007).

Neuroscience research has debunked the taken for granted dictum that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks”. New evidence-based information indicates that contrary to previous beliefs: “training-induced plasticity is not restricted to developing brains” (Wan & Schlaug, 2010, p. 7). Longitudinal studies (Draganski, B; Gaser, C; Kempermann; G; Kuhn, H.G.; Winkler; J.; Buchel; C.; May, 2006) (Scholz, J; Klein, M. C; Behrens, T. E; Johansen-Berg, 2009) demonstrated that even a mature brain is malleable and that structural changes to enable the brain to cope with information processing demands of the environment can be induced by intensive skills training (Hertzog et al., 2008). After conducting an exhaustive literature review on the effects of enrichment training on adult cognitive development, Hertzog and his colleagues concluded that recent studies have successfully demonstrated that training cognitive and metacognitive control strategies can contribute to the cognitive enrichment of adults. They also found that: “training cognitive-control strategies, including attentional control and metacognitive self-regulation, may prove to have more broad generalizability to cognitive task environments that training approaches that teach specific strategies relevant of specific cognitive tasks” (Hertzog et al., 2008, p. 44 ).

The brain plasticity revolution has sparked the interest of entrepreneurs for developing and marketing brain training programs. Brain training is expected to grow to a 6 billion dollar industry in 2020. Concerns for mental health of a graying population and productivity challenges at the workplace, which is estimated to be 2 trillion dollars, are the drivers of this exponential growth of brain training. The great majority of adults believe that it is their responsibility to take care of their brain fitness, and nearly half (48%) of those who have experienced brain training exercises believed it made a difference (Sharpbrains, 2012)

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