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Teaching adults: Make it germane, respect their experience

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Many of us don't think much about the elements of a successful learning program for adults.

For many, our learning experiences are centered around the traditional classroom. We sat in ordered rows of seats while a teacher instructed us in various subjects, often through lecture.

Even if you attended college, the traditional model was still predominant. In many cases, a typical classroom of 50 years ago looks very similar to those of today.

However, the design and makeup of a classroom are slowly evolving, and for classes where adults are the primary audience, it is changing more and more. When teaching adults, care must be taken to respect their experience and existing level of knowledge.

Very simply put, teaching children is often referred to as pedagogy, and teaching adults can be referred to andragogy.

In a pedagogical approach to learning, the student depends on the instructor for all learning and with very little experience in the subject matter.

Adults, on the other hand, arrive at the learning space with a rich history, experience and prior learning that requires a change in approach to instruction.

Because of this, the instructor may have adult learners in the classroom with more experience or knowledge of a given subject matter. It is more important for the instructor to guide their learning rather than specifically impart information to them. Empower, rather than dictate.

There are several assumptions about adult learners that if followed can help understand their motivations to learn and set up appropriate learning environments:

NEED TO KNOW: Adult learners often ask “Why do I need to know this?” They need to know why something is important and why it applies to their life or profession.

SELF-CONCEPT: Adults are more likely to be independent learners, relying less on the instructor for guidance, and will begin to become self-directed.

As they begin to gain confidence in the subject, they will ask more related questions to apply to their experiences and requirements of the knowledge.

LEARNERS' EXPERIENCE: In pedagogy, students are viewed as a “tabula rasa” or blank slate. The teacher's job is to imprint knowledge on that blank slate.

Adults, on the other hand, use their experiences to make connections to a new subject. So if you are learning about wiring a three-phase motor, a student's experience wiring conventional appliances will help direct him and make sense of the new information.

READINESS TO LEARN: Adults generally have stronger motivations to learn.

These can be intrinsic (an internal desire to learn and improve oneself) or extrinsic (requirements for the job or a desire to improve performance for a new position).

ORIENTATION TO LEARNING: Adults tend to learn to solve a problem.

They may learn programmable logic controllers because it's required of the position or learn management techniques because of a promotion to management. These solve immediate learner needs.

Understanding these key fundamentals about adult learners can help you design and approach a teaching opportunity. The key concepts to remember are that adult learners may already know many topics and a traditional approach of lecture may not always work.

Teaching adults can be very rewarding, and many times the instructor comes away with more knowledge.

Understanding the specific requirements of the adult learner will make your classes more enjoyable, productive and instructional for your students.

Tom Bux is the director of the Center for Leadership and Workforce Development (workforce.lccc.edu) at Lehigh Carbon Community College, Schnecksville. He can be reached at tbux@lccc.edu.

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