We usually connect education with children. Why should we, then, educate adults, and how can we define when a child becomes an adult?

mehmed latifagic

The main difference between educating adults and educating children is that a child starts with the education with no or very little experience with the subject matter of what they are being taught. Children have some knowledge or understanding of living creatures, but when they start school, their knowledge is normally not a result of studying biology. Their knowledge is acquired in a non-organized way, randomly. At school, their education is based on scientific facts and it is more profound than the random life experience. This would bring us to the assumption that children approach most of the teaching at school from a ‘tabula rasa’ stage. In that case, teacher’s task is to fill in the knowledge in organized and logical manner. This organization and flow of education at school for children is covered by the science of pedagogy.

The question is: can we apply the same principles on adult learners? Most of the pedagogical principles are applicable to adult learners as well, but there is a sub-category in educational sciences that is called andragogy, which provides guidelines on teaching adults. In order to be able to effectively teach adults, we have to take andragogical assumptions in consideration. Adult learners are normally those who have already had more or less extensive education (as children and adolescents) and have normally collected some life experience and professional experience. Their motivation to learn is to improve their knowledge in order to improve their professional and private lives. 

This is where the concept of Life Long Learning becomes important In the modern world, things are changing rapidly and we are all forced to accommodate in order to be up to date in our professional and private lives. And we do not have choice. Even adults have to continuously learn to catch up with modern civilization full of changes. We have to be agile – ready to change the ways to reach our goals and to fulfil our expectations.

To properly define syllabuses and curriculums for adult learners, or let us say ‘Life Long Learners’, we can lean on pedagogy, but we also need to integrate the andragogic assumptions. Andragogic assumptions have been defined and analyzed by many authors, and Mr. Malcolm Shepard Knowles has created guidelines for educators in adult education based on these principles. He presented them as the following five assumptions.

Self Concept

Mr. Knowles comes to conclusion that as a person matures, self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being. This means that an adult takes more responsibility for their personal and social behavior, which influences their education. Unlike children, adults are consciously deciding to educate themselves. This means that they have their own concept of what and how they want to achieve their educational objectives. This self-concept can be simply defined in one sentence: Adults have a need to know something. Unlike adults, children normally have to be at the school and do not have specific needs for knowledge, or their specific needs for knowledge do not influence school programs even if they have them. 

Foundation – Previous Experience

As a person matures, they accumulate a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning. Previously acquired knowledge becomes a part of the experience and establishes an astonishing foundation for further learning and improvement. Experiences that adults collect over the years, enable them to articulate their educational needs in a simple and easy way, and to harness this experience to support their personal and social development. At the same time, this foundation (experiences) helps them to acquire new knowledge more easily and also selectively, since they can concentrate on the most important elements of the educational materials – the ones that are missing in their experiences. 

Readiness

As a person matures, readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of social roles. This means that adults are most interested in learning of those subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their professional or personal life. They do not want to learn abstractions which are not applicable immediately. They go on to further education because they need something, and that something has to be applicable either on their professional or private life. Their learning has to be meaningful, and it has to show immediate application. This elevates the level of their recognition from and respect in their society. 

Orientation

As a person matures, time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem-centeredness. Therefore, adults do not learn the content of the subject, but learn how to solve their real-life problems by understanding the content that is presented to them. 

Motivation

Adults do not need high extrinsic motivation for learning as children do. Their motivation is intrinsic, which is a very important pre-requisite for successful learning. So, even if grading system in adult education exist it does not have the motivational role that it has in education of children. As we mentioned before, adults learn to understand and with motivation to apply that knowledge in their daily life. That can save them a lot of time and nerves, and help them solve their problems efficiently and effectively. Their motivation is application of the knowledge (internal triggers) rather than receiving the best grades (external triggers).

Old Latin’s proverb says “Non scholae, sed vitae discimus” – We do not learn for the school, but for life.  Adults are much closer to this than children in the majority of educational systems in the world. If you are about to teach adults, then you should integrate these assumptions into your teaching before you start preparing your educational program. 

Mehmed Latifagic