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Adult learning theory & HRD programs

July 31, 2009

The success of any education or development effort depends greatly on quality design and delivery. Once a needs analysis has been undertaken and gaps identified, it is prudent for educators of all types to revisit the learning theory that supports the targeted learners. Organizational learning follows this logic and understanding the modalities of the learners involved is crucial to a positive return on investment, especially during difficult economic conditions. There is no substitute for strong instructional design and delivery, regardless of the level of importance of the content. Content will be lost if the framework is not supported in this way and that, summarily, amounts to a patent waste of time and money.

Henschke (2005), who has career-long experience as an international HRD practitioner and consultant, highlights one of his “lessons learned” as being regardless of global location (and excepting context) adults around the world learn similarly. “Andragogy” is defined by Hesnchke (2005) as the “art and science of helping adults learn” (p. 23). The author has compiled a great number of publications and scholarly works beyond that which is cited here, covering historical antecedents (which have shaped the concepts), foundational theories, practical applications and an international analysis on the subject. Henschke (2005) advises those interested in the dimensions of andragogy to look to a variety of sources for information to better understand the unique needs and issues surrounding adult learning theory and practice.

Similarly in 2001, the journal New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education published its third update on adult learning theory. Topics covered included embodied learning, spirituality and learning, narrative learning, workplace learning, non-Western perspectives on learning, recent developments in postmodernism, and neuroscience’s recent contributions regarding the brain and learning. Merriam (2008) contributed to these publications and pointed out the only constant across the continuum was the inclusion of transformational learning (TL). Merriam (2008) also pointed out there are key differences in the emphasis and developments of TL as the empirical base has continued to grow with the addition of diverse theoretical perspectives. TL is essentially the process of the learner being conscious of their tacit assumptions about the topic(s) as well as the facilitator(s)’ being conscious of their own tacit assumptions. (Philosophically, one could consider Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowing for a deeper understanding, however, for purposes of this discussion it is outside of our scope.)

Merriam (2008) describes adult learning as dynamic and complex and discusses it as a multidimensional phenomenon as opposed to merely a cognitive activity. The author points out the biggest dynamic shift in adult learning theory has been in the form of context. (Context here refers to forms and locations which link the individual and their learning process to their respective context.) Context as a dimension of understanding of adult learning, Merriam (2008) argues, is the key to facilitate learning that is “richer” and “more holistic” (p. 95). Learning is a multi-dimensional phenomenon with the brain’s physical responses to sensory data which is subsequently and inextricably tied to constructing meaning (Merriam, 2008). Further, recent significant neuroscience research supports the the conclusion that the structure of the brain changes during the learning process and is reinforced by “emotive, sensory, and kinesthetic experiences” (Merriam, 2008, p. 96). Sensemaking and story telling are part of narrative learning and provide another method of facilitating knowledge transfer that adults will relate to and retain.

While adult learning has been shown to be affected by the aging process, the largest point adult educators and HRD practitioners must draw upon is that the learning experience must be positive and memorable. Further, the learning experience must emanate from something that is relevant and accessible to the learning, otherwise it will not resonate and will amount to nothing more than a fleeting encounter with new information. Adult learning must acknowledge the context from which the learner comes as well as the context in which the learner will recall the learned behaviors. Understanding that the most applicable learning is the learning that will be utilized again and again is critical to designing HRD programs that facilitate not only a learner’s ability to gain new knowledge but also the opportunity for a positive and contextually appropriate experience. If the learner has nothing to relate to or cannot transfer the theoretical basis of the new knowledge to some experience or situation they have already had, there will be no place to put it and such learning will have been nice for the moment but irrelevant in the long run.

Henschke, J. (2005). Reaching beyond the United States: Adventures in international adult education and human resource development. Adult Learning, 16(1/2), 23-24.

Merriam, S. (2008). Adult learning theory for the twenty-first century. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 119(Fall 2008), 93-98.


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