The practise of adult based learning

As L&D practitioners, there is probably a reasonable assumption that we understand what it means to design learning solutions which are suited for adults. After all, we’re working in organisations full of adults (mostly), and our role is to help them develop required skills or learn knowledge which will help them be more effective at work.

The typical approach to going through learning tends to be the method we all know and are familiar with. Turn up to a session, be told what the objectives are, be taken through content, be given a model to work with, do some activities and complete some actions. Hey presto, you’ve learned said skill/knowledge and you’re now going to be more effective.

My problem with this, and actually the problem for the profession, is that this approach assumes much on the part of the L&Der, and takes little account of the adults you’re working with. For certain topics, such as health and safety or learning any range of technical skills, this approach can work because there will tend to be high applicability to the day to day functioning. For most other topics, though, this pedagogical approach just isn’t appropriate for adults.

Consider this, when you have needed to attend a course or a programme, what was useful about the learning you received? Some part of it would have been about the content, but the most part of your learning would have probably come from the discussions had about the content, your experience of the content and your insights you derived from the content. Was that driven by the facilitator, by yourself, or through discussion with others in on the course? Quite likely a mix of that, but most course aren’t designed to facilitate adult learning, they’re designed to facilitate classroom based learning.

Consider also e-learning that has been poorly designed and is simply about click next with screen after screen of text and forced choice questioning. Aside from the UX and Instructional Design of the e-learning, what most likely hasn’t been considered is how do adults learn using a digital tool like this? The best design of e-learning I’ve seen for adults is when the content is engaging, you can develop insights from it, and you’re presented with a range of content including pictures, audio, video, case studies and text (obviously not altogether).

Andragogy, the practise of adult based learning, is a concept I was introduced to a while ago by Conor Moss (the legendary academic practitioner from Sheffield). It assumes at its core that adults are capable of self-directed learning and that given the right environment, they can enter into their own learning, at their pace, with a desire to learn and know what to do next. For any of you who have attended unconferences, you will be familiar with this style of approach. In the formal learning context, I think we can do more of this, and less of the pedagogical approach.

Putting this into practise means doing things like:

  • Asking a group to carry out an activity with a clear brief. Once they’re done, explain the purpose of what the activity was for, and ask the group to discuss their insights as they completed it. Once they’ve discussed it, to share with others in the room about their experience of the activity and what they learned.
  • Posing a question to the group, letting them discuss it and allowing them to direct the conversation as they see fit.
  • With clear guidance on how to use digital tools, asking them to research a topic or read an online article on a topic and then openly discussing and sharing their insights with one another.
  • Carrying out reflective practise in relation to their experience of the topic at hand. When have they had to apply this topic before? What did they do? How did they feel? What was their experience of it? What did they learn? What did they feel challenged by? Reflective practise is a highly useful tool to be able to encourage adults to think about their own experience, derive their own insights and learn something about the topic they may not have considered before.

When I’ve applied an andragogical approach to learning design and facilitation, I have faced some challenges I hadn’t expected.

People still need clear guidance on what you want them to achieve. They can’t just be left to their own devices with a topic. That’s mostly because they’re in unfamiliar territory. But, they have enough wherewithal to complete an activity, so just be clear on why they’re doing something, and what you’re asking them to do, and they’ll be off.

People still need a set time and place to be, in order to complete their learning. Ask them to self select and self motivate, and they’ll get caught up in the day to day operations. Give them a clear date and time to be somewhere to do something, and they’ll make it happen.

You have to help them develop their applicability of the content. They’re quite happy having great discussions, but not all are good at understanding how to apply the content.

I find this approach to learning design and facilitation to be far more challenging as a facilitator and practitioner as it means I need to do more than just know content, deliver content and evaluate content. It means I’m actively working with the content and the adults I’m with to create a rich learning environment. I don’t always get it right, and I don’t always provide the right clarity or guidance I should, and it’s been a really valuable learning journey in understanding how to deliver adult based learning.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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