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Why Adults Learn Differently

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Can you imagine going back to kindergarten?  Sitting at a tiny desk all day and playing with kraft scissors,  going out and running around at recess, and gluing macaroni to paper until your hands are covered and tacky.  Maybe that sounds like heaven to you right now.  Maybe it sounds like torture.  But one thing you can be sure of, you won’t be learning much of anything, and that’s for a simple reason.

Adults learn differently than children do.  Kids get a lot out of kindergarten because they’re learning how to manipulate their environment.  This is the first chance they’ve had to experience what a classroom has to offer.  On top of that they’re learning to work with other kids for the first time.  It may seem like old hat but it is worth repeating, that socialization is one of the main benefits of attending school.  

But an adult will already have gotten everything they need out of kindergarten.  They will know how to relate to others, work in a group, solve problems, share, play nice, etc.  When adults learn the same approach that work for children won’t work for them.  Instead they need an approach to learning which speaks to them directly.

The most important thing when it comes to adults learning is autonomy.  Adults need to be able to direct their own learning.  Whether it’s choosing the topic or controlling how they move through learning the topic, adults have learned to make their own choices, and that needs to be reflected in how they learn.  

Right along with autonomy, adults need to be treated like the adults they are.  Now autonomy is a part of this obviously, but it also includes things like not talking down to the learner, or treating them like less than they are.  In a perfect world you wouldn’t treat a child as inferior just because they haven’t learned something yet, but it’s extra important as adults, because adults are taking a risk in admitting not only that they don’t know something, but that it will be helpful for them to learn.  That courage deserves respect, and that needs to be reflected in the learning that’s designed for them.  

Lastly, adult learning needs to be sure to take the bigger picture into account.  Children will often times just learn because it’s what they’re wired to do.  I bet if you thought you could still remember nursery rhymes or random facts from your childhood that you haven’t actually referenced in years.  When you’re a kid information just sticks in your brain, but when you’re an adult there needs to be an explicit application.

When information is connected to a wider context, to a past history, a future application, and an overall meaning, it is lent importance and that makes it easier to remember.  We remember information that connects to the information we already know, so the best way to ensure learning for adults is as effective as possible, is to make sure that what they’re learning connects back to a frame of reference they already understand.

These three aspects, autonomy, respect, and context are crucial to any attempt to help adults learn effectively.  Whether they’re learning online or learning in person, these three things will make it easier for them to learn new information, retain that information, and recall that information.  Learning can be a lifelong endeavor.  It should be.  And that means we have to remember what makes adult learning different from other types of learning.