Adult Learning: The forgotten animal (Part 1)

SHARE   |   Tuesday, 08 March 2016   |   By Isang Lekhutlile

The past Sunday happened to be one of the most memorable days of my life. I attended a church service in one of the main-line churches and the preacher was the oldest Reverend in my church. His message was loud and clear and he emphasized that “Experience is always the best teacher”. Indeed, my view seems to connect with his theory on one or two applications. The second most important teaching of the day accentuated the theory of Adult learning. The concept of Adult Learning to me seems to get less attention from scholars, educators and HR practitioners. In Botswana, Adult Learning is more often than not associated with teaching adults on the ABET system only. I tend to differ with the subject and this is one of the most interesting concepts which in my opinion managers, educators, trainers and HR Practitioners should and must know.

Educators, like myself, need to raise awareness and increase knowledge about the subject of Adult Learning. Adult education and learning will be a necessity rather than an optional luxury in advanced economies in the twenty-first century due to the accelerated pace of change in the global economy and the penetration of new technologies into nearly every aspect of daily life. Adult learning and education as components of lifelong learning are gaining increased relevance in view of the growing pressure to face new, complex and rapidly changing issues and challenges, such as poverty, exclusion, migration, environmental degradation and climate change and a shortage of food and natural resources, HIV/AIDS and other diseases, and the advent of new technologies that now permeate all fields of life.

Adult learning theory provides the basis for understanding the way adults learn and the factors influencing the learning process. The basic assumption of adult learning theory is that adults engage in learning for personal reasons and that learning adds value to their life in some way. The general objective of the article is to highlight the importance of adult learning and to forge a worldwide commitment to adult and continuing education in the perspective of lifelong learning. Since the 1970s, adult learning theory has offered a framework for educators and trainers whose job it is to train adults. Malcolm S. Knowles (1973) was among the first proponents of this approach. In his book, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, he resurrected the word "andragogy" a term popular in German education circles in the early 1800s, and used it to label his attempt to create a unified theory of adult learning. The term andragogy (andra – meaning “man”; agogos– meaning “learning”) was first used by Alexander Kapp in 1833 to describe the educational theory of the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato was one of the innovators of adult education in that he would teach anybody (women included). As a result, he provided the model of the instruction of adults.He used it to refer to the normal process by which adults engage in continuing education (Knowles 1973). The two dimensions of andragogy as elaborated by Knowles are its assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners and the process elements of adult education that stem from these characteristics.

Adult learning is defined as ‘the entire range of formal, non-formal and informal learning activities which are undertaken by adults after a break since leaving initial education and training, and which results in the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. ( Certain theorists, such as Brookfiled (1986), define adult education in terms of whether or not the students are treated as adults. Contrary to the way younger learners are taught, adult education refers to the process whereby anyone “over 16 (or whatever)” are treated “as adults – capable, experienced, responsible, mature and balanced people” (p.47). The premise of Knowles’ learning theory centred originally on four principles or assumptions and later expanded to six. The learning assumptions include the concepts of self, experience, readiness, and orientation. The concept of self defines the adult by roles or identities taken on throughout life. Experience defines one’s history, which forms the foundation for self, and accumulates over time. Readiness derives from the need to acquire new knowledge based on changes in or the variety of adult roles one must assume. Orientation centres on performance and problem solving with immediate application to real life situations. 

Contemporary adult learning research in the context of the workplace puts the learner centre stage and recognises people as the primary agent for change and organisational performance outcomes. The adult experience creates the backdrop for learning and the learning process becomes one of inquiry rather than a set of known truths. Workplace learning must involve learning from experience and engagement in a group form of learning. Sharing knowledge and solving complex problems requires personal interaction and application of new information. Since knowledge is what matters, organisations and individuals alike must become continuous learners so that they can competently respond to the changing needs/demands of a more informed consumer. This seeks incorporation and understanding of Adult Learning in organisations. As organisations continue to seek new methods and approaches to learning in the workplace, the employee as an adult learner must not be overlooked. Adult learners need a reason for engaging in learning and motivation to learn. Organisations need to define the reasons and provide the appropriate motivation.  So adult learning is the process to build up confidence of employees at the workplace in terms of better performance. There is no doubt that adult learning plays an important role in human resource development to meet the overall objectives of an enterprise. In conclusion, this animal deserves respect just like any other subject be it economics or science.