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Adult Learning Theory and Professional Development

Adult Learning Theory and Professional Development


In this lesson, students will evaluate the significance of adult learning theory in professional development.

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Source: Globe, Clker,; Stick Figure, Clker,; Chat Bubble, Pixabay,; iPad, Pixabay,; Jack Mezirow,; Malcolm Knowles,

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Hello there, and welcome. As teachers, we find ourselves in the unique position of being both facilitators of learning, and receivers of learning. In this lesson, we will focus on us as the receivers, and evaluate the significance that adult learning theory has on our own professional development. Let's get started.

Professional development is also known as professional learning, professional growth, or continuing education. Whatever you call it, it's a huge contributing factor when it comes to improving student achievement, and continuous improvement that will impact your school and your district.

Like I said, teachers are both facilitators of learning and receivers of learning. This makes it important to understand the adult learning theories if we are to engage our adult learners in professional development. Because if you engage them, they will learn. As adults, we learn differently than children do, and understanding why will be beneficial to teachers. In this lesson, we'll explore some of the reasons why that's the case.

Adult learning theories aren't new. They've been around for years. They define and illustrate the conditions under which adults learn best. In terms of professional development, it's important to consider these theories when creating plans or activities. The three overarching theories we'll cover in this lesson are andragogy, self-directed learning, and transformational learning.

Andragogy, which is defined as the art and science of helping adults learn, is based on six key assumptions about adult learning. Self-directed learning is a process in which individuals take the initiative in planning, carrying out, and evaluating their own learning. And transformational learning is learning that change is the way individuals think about themselves fundamentally, and their world, and that involves a shift in consciousness. Let's take a closer look at each one.

The first theory, andragogy, is the most popular for adult learning. Known as the founding father of andragogy, Malcolm Knowles spent time as an adult educator for the YMCA of Boston in the 1940s, but was unable to find resources on how adults learn. He found that much of the research focused on pedagogy, which is how children learn. So he began to focus on the differences between the assumptions made about pedagogy and its counterpart, andragogy.

As a result, he developed four assumptions, and later added a fifth and sixth in 1980. Please keep in mind that in many publications and documents these same assumptions are referred to as principles. As we go through them, realise that it's possible to shape a professional development plan based on each one.

Assumption one, self concept. It's all about an adult's ability to choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. Adults are likely to want to have influence on those choices.

Assumption two, experience. As people mature, they accumulate a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for their own learning.

Assumption three, readiness. As an adult, we will be more ready to learn something that we will have to use in our daily life, versus something that we're not likely able to use. I often use the example of being able to change a diaper. I had to learn how to do it, and fast.

Assumption four, problem-centered orientation. Adults are more likely to be engaged in their learning if they know they will be able to apply that information now to solve a problem.

Assumption five, internal motivation. We strive for this ourselves and continue to nurture this for our students. Adults are more strongly driven by internal motivators than external motivators.

And assumption six, the need to know. Adults have a difficult time learning if they don't know why they're learning it. For a child, they're preparing for college and career.

Next comes self-directed learning, which is attributed to the work of Dr. Huell in 1961, Allen Tough in 1967 and 1971, and later Malcolm Knowles. The terms self-planned learning and self-teaching, and later self-directed learning, are all connected to Knowles' assumption of self concept. Self-directed learning is a reflective process in which individuals take the initiative in planning, executing, and evaluating their own learning.

Today, the term self-directed learning is often interchangeable with self-teaching, self-learning, self-study, learning projects, self-education, and independent learning. Approaching learning from a self-directed perspective is a natural part of adult life. Here, the learner is empowered to make decisions about content, methods, resources, and evaluation of learning.

According to the work of Dr. Rosemary Caffarella, there are four main goals of self-directed learning. They are, to have the aspiration to gain knowledge or develop a skill. For example, the desire to learn a new language. Goal two, to become more self-directed in learning. For example, not only wanting to learn a new language, but taking classes and trying to converse with others who speak that language.

The third goal, to foster transformational learning essential to self-directed learning. For example, after traveling to the foreign country, one discovers the connection of the people and their culture to their own situation or environment. And finally, goal four, to promote emancipatory learning. Supporting social justice and political action as integral parts of self-directed learning. For example, taking the connection and becoming politically active to support the foreign country.

These goals truly build upon one another and put ideas into action. Adults are able to and have the means to take more control of what they want to accomplish. It isn't always easy, however. But those who follow through achieve these goals, or something similar to them.

This has an impact when it comes to creating professional development plans because teacher choice and self-direction lead to teacher satisfaction with the professional development. According to the Gates Foundation research, when teachers are allowed to choose the majority or all of their professional learning experiences, they are more than twice as satisfied as those who are not given such choices. We shouldn't ignore these benefits.

The transformational learning process is critical because it allows the learner to take their experience, critically reflect, and then have valuable discussion that might lead to the decision to make necessary changes. Transformational learning was first defined as a cognitive process by American sociologist Jack Mezirow in 1978. According to Mezirow, transformational learning is a process of making meaning of one's experience which, of course, comes from critical reflection.

You will see many districts incorporate this philosophy in their teacher evaluation models. The thinking is that when individuals have the ability to reflect upon their learning and their environment, transformational learning will follow. It's that intense, focused, and critical reflection that helps learners change how they think and alter their perspective.

The foundation of the theory is basically that learners make new meaning on their experiences. Transformational learning is not confined to the classroom. It can happen anywhere, the workplace, community, even within the individual learner.

The transformational learning process is made up of four main components. They are, one's experience, the learner's ability for critical reflection, reflective discourse, and taking action. Mezirow believes that for adults the most significant learning happens in steps two, three, and four, because that is when learners begin to re-evaluate their lives and make changes. When this is happening, whatever they set out to learn in the first place becomes secondary.

Let's take a look at a couple of potential professional development plans, and see how they align to the adult learning theories mentioned in this lesson. A first-grade teacher with limited experience using technology in the classroom has been given four iPads. She has decided to write the following professional growth plan. Let's see if we can pull out any elements of the three adult learning theories that we covered.

I immediately recognize assumptions three and six, readiness and need to know. This teacher knows that she will use the information in her classroom, and also has a clear understanding of why she's learning it. If she added a piece about student data showing a need for language improvement, assumption four, problem-centered orientation, would have been evident as well.

There is an element of self-directed learning, because she will be taking the initiative to plan and execute her own professional development, and also reflect on her learning. The only component of transformational learning that jumps out at me is number three, reflective discourse, when she debriefs with the teachers that she observes. This could easily be bulked up as she continues the conversation with other colleagues, and begins to spread what she has learned.

The second example will be of a middle school teacher who has received consistent feedback that he is under-performing when it comes to questioning, giving directions, and discussion techniques. Let's try to identify elements from the learning theories.

Assumptions four and six are evident to me because this teacher knows there's a problem that needs to be addressed, and also knows by accessing this professional development it will help his practice. In terms of self-directed learning, his plan demonstrates goal two, because he will be taking steps to do so. Goals three and four are missing, however, because he doesn't talk about actually implementing what he learns.

As for transformational learning, the plan does include components of reflection, discourse, and action. However, they can certainly be strengthened by adding details about what specific actions he will take.

To summarize this lesson, we set the stage by discussing that as teachers, we are both receivers and facilitators of learning. Then we looked at three adult learning theories: andragogy, self-directed, and transformational.

And now for today's food for thought. Take a professional growth goal you have used, and see how many of the elements of adult learning theories you can identify. And to identify more information on how to apply what you've learned in this video, check out the additional resources section that accompanied this presentation. The additional resources section includes hyperlinks useful for applications of the course material, including a brief description of each resource.

Thanks so much for watching. We'll see you next time.

Notes on "Adult Learning Theory and Professional Development"

(00:00-00:19) Intro

(00:20-00:58) Adult Learning

(00:59-01:48) Theories

(01:49-03:44) Andragogy

(03:45-06:06) Self-Directed Learning

(06:07-07:36) Transformational Learning

(07:37-08:44) Example 1

(08:45-9:31) Example 2

(9:32-10:12) Summary/Food For Thought

Additional Resources

17 Tips To Motivate Adult Learners

This article offers strategies for designing professional learning opportunities for adults.

Teaching the Teachers: At a Glance

This research from the Center for Public Education indicates that effective professional development needs to occur over time, be supported by coaching, be connected to the teacher's content, and occur within the context of professional learning communities.