6 Keys to facilitating adult learning

Teaching IB Diploma students has always been different from teaching MYP Year 2 classes. My DP students always wanted to discover, Why are we learning this?

Diploma students are closer to adult learners in their ways of learning than learners in the earlier years of MYP. The differences between pedagogy or the learning of children, and andragogy, the learning of adults, give us six keys in our leadership of learning as team leaders, coordinators and teachers of 17-19 year olds.

How is adult learning different from how children learn?

As people mature, they feel an increasing need to direct their own learning. Malcolm Knowles propelled the concept of andragogy, which is composed of the Greek words for ‘man’ and ‘leader of’. Andragogy literally means leader of humans. (The teaching of children is called pedagogy, which means “leader of children.” This does not in any way imply that children are not fully human…Let’s thank the ancient Greeks and move on.) Andragogy is different from pedagogy in more ways than the literal translation from the Greek.

Andragogy assumes some conditions present for adults to  learn, which form the foundational concepts of how adult learning is facilitated by leaders of learning.

Recognising the six assumptions of adult learning might serve as keys to designing well-crafted experiences which drive learning for more mature learners in our schools.

Key #1 Establishing the need to know 

Adults need to know why something is worth learning before they decide to spend time and effort learning it. Adults will investigate the rationale for why learning something will benefit their overall life. If the new knowledge or skills seem to hold benefits for the adult learner, he or she will invest time and resources to the learning.

For the team leader who leads adult learning, establishing the team’s need to know is essential to engage the team in learning engagements that occur within the team’s time and collaborative gatherings. The buy-in to learning can be evoked through:

  • Intellectual rationale
  • Explicit understanding of benefits to work performance
  • Benefits to others
  • Discovery of a knowledge-action gap

Intellectual rationale

An intellectual rationale might be sourced from the organization’s mission or vision, the program philosophy, or a set of standards that describe the role of team members. Through a dialog on the organizational rationale for ‘why we do things, this way’ the team may see alignment with the organizational aspirations and look for ways to gain the necessary skills and knowledge congruent with the organizational ethos.

If a school has embraced an inclusive belief in its mission, using a one-size-fits-all approach in the classroom becomes mission-inappropriate. Or, we might say there is a need to change toward personalisation and differentiation practices.

Explicit understanding of benefits to work performance

Learning engagements can be presented to adult learners in terms of their personal gains. Better functioning within a program, as a response to a question on how to make something happen,  drawing on the experiences of colleagues, and other personally meaningful benefits can serve as catalysts for participation in learning.

When a neuro-atypical learner is part of the class a teacher facilitates for the academic year for example, that child’s learning presents a professional challenge, and the satisfaction of supporting that child’s learning is key to the adult’s investment in transforming approaches to teaching and learning, which create success in the learner’s experience in the class. Additionally, advocacy for learners who learn ‘differently’ may stem from a teacher’s personal experiences of difficulty through a learning experience, which might include their own struggles as a child learner, and the value of a teacher who helped them succeed through those struggles. A past experience with challenges to the adult’s learning presents a source of the next rationale for learning new approaches.

Benefits to others

Adam Grant in his book Originals; How nonconformists move the world shared that adults seem to respond more to organisational needs when they perceive that learning something and applying it impacts others positively. In Grant’s study, a hospital wanted a simple way to get people to wash their hands often. They posted two different posters near sinks and recorded which posters created the trigger to action. One poster said “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases” and the other poster said, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” The second poster was 10 percent more effective in motivating the hospital staff, with the emphasis on “patients” instead of “you.” Instead of a logic of consequence, adults respond to their own values which may include being a helpful person to others.

Teams might find that focusing on learners and their learning in curriculum development conversations helps teachers find personal agency in positively impacting student learning. Collaborative meetings, which focus on “This is how I do things in my classroom” might shift to “What might we do when learners are not learning?” When this shift happens, teacher change from a stance of advocacy to a stance of collaborative inquiry and together, problem-solve toward more systemic and programatic approaches that include all learners.

Discovery of a knowledge-action gap and agency

Teams can already be invested in a school’s improvement through shared philosophies and values. When there is a disruption in the form of change, whether it is in new approaches, new information, new skills, teams may find that there is a knowledge-action gap. When an action plan indicates the need for new knowledge, this is a big reason why teams might go into high gear in their learning, to address the gap and climb out of an implementation dip to mastery.

Key #2 Learner’s self concept

Adults may have as part of their self-concept the belief that they are responsible for themselves. Independence and being able to contribute to a goal are expressions of this self-directedness. This also leads to adults having the need to be perceived and treated as self-directed learners.

What this means to the team leader who facilitates learning for adults is that delivering professional programs that echo the flow and design of pedagogy, drawing on authority from one source (the leader); compliance; little opportunity to co-construct the experiences for learning and similar designs may serve to alienate the adult learner. Adult learners, we remember, like to hold direction over their own learning, and compliance methods tend to annoy them (at best).

The team leader facilitating learning designs learning engagements which allow for autonomy and choice, two expressions of the inherent agency in adult learners.

Key #3 The role of learner experiences

Adults have more experiences than children, so they bring to the group a wealth of resources for learning. The diversity of experiences represented in a team means that everyone can learn from their teammates and not just from the facilitator or team leader. 

Because adult groups can contribute much to one another’s learning through their collective craft knowledge and skills, adult learning experiences require thought into how approaches can be designed for individualization and draw on each other’s diverse experiences. The inquiry approach works well for adult learners, as do open-ended tasks.

Adult learning can have the added benefit of approaching transformational learning because it may allow for examination of biases, mental models, and presuppositions related to the concepts in the learning engagements. Team leaders will also benefit from refraining from neglecting or devaluing the experiences of the team members. Since adult identity is tightly tied to experience, devaluing experience may result in feelings of being devalued as a person.

Key #4 Readiness to learn

When some need comes up in a work situation that implies a knowledge-action gap, adult learners may begin searching for ways to address the gap. In adults, a readiness to learn is strongly tied to a desired life outcome. This may mean wanting to be more successful at work, knowing more about a topic, or getting better at a skill set or success strategy.

Key #5 Orientation to learning

Motivation comes from perceived benefits that a learning will bring. Some of these might be being able to perform tasks more readily with knowledge and skills gained through a learning situation. 

Sometimes, an adult may have a negative self-concept from his or her own experience in school. One head of school shares that a fixed mindset of having been a ‘bad’ student in mathematics caused her to freeze each time she had to look at financial information, and discussions with the business manager became painful because she perceived herself as a bad learner in mathematics. Her self-directed course of action to break through the fixed mindset became to sit with the business manager one on one to understand the financial concepts until she felt more comfortable with using the knowledge in her own work.

Other barriers to orientation to learning might be not having had opportunities or resources to learn a particular concept or topic, time constraints, and having gone to professional development events in which the adult was treated like a child. The last barrier particularly can ‘sour’ a participant to adult professional learning and requires sensitivity and continued support from a stance of mutual growth. [Jennifer Abrams’ Swimming in the Deep End, aims to teach what to do in situations when the resistance to learning comes from an embedded mental model. More on this when I’ve had a chance to reflect on learning from Abrams’ book.]

Key #6 Motivation

Adults learn because of some external factors such as potential promotion, better jobs, higher salaries, and the like. Internal motivators might be a desire for increased job satisfaction, self esteem, improved quality of life, and feelings of efficacy and mastery. These internal motivators are often powerful sources of energy for a team. 

Fred Kofman in his work The Meaning Revolution; Leading with the power of purpose tells the story of how your ‘job is not your job.’ He was leading a workshop for adults and they seemed quite resistant to having to attend the workshop, and he inferred they might have thought it a waste of time.

He started by asking them what their jobs were, and the persons who volunteered answers spoke their job titles, and not with a little bit of resentment in tone of voice. Sensing their growing dissatisfaction of the experience of having to spend a day with him, Kofman then told the group he would be able to prove that their job was not what they said it was. When two final people volunteered answers, he said, “Wrong.”

Here’s an excerpt from Kofman’s book.

Karen said, “I’m an internal auditor.”

“And what’s your job as an internal auditor?”

“To assure that the organisational processes are reliable.”

“Karen, did you play sports in school?”

“Yes,” she replied, “I played soccer.”

“Great! As an Argentinean, I’m wild about soccer. What position did you play?”

“I played defense.”

“What was your job?”

“To stop the other team from scoring,” she said.

Kofman paraphrases her answer to the team and then asked, “What’s the job of an offensive player?”

“To score goals,” several people said in unison.

“Great, it seems we are all on the same page. My next question is, what’s the job of the whole team?”

“To cooperate,” someone said.

“To cooperate in order to do what?”

“To play well,” someone else said.

“And why would the team want to play well?”

“To win!” Came a shout from the back of the room.

“Bingo!” I replied. “The job of the team is to win the game.”

Kofman continued, “If the primary job of each and every team member is to help the team win, and if the defensive player is a member of the team, what is the primary job of the defensive player?”

“To help the team win,” a third person muttered.

Later, Kofman took the team to an insight. “Imagine that you’re the coach of a team that’s losing one to zero with five minutes to go. What would you tell the defensive players?”

“To go on the offensive and try to tie the game,” someone asserted.

“Exactly! So how would you react if they told you, “Sorry Coach, but that’s not our job?”

Kofman in The Meaning Revolution; Leading with the power of purpose pages 2-4

Later, Kofman shares the story of JFK touring NASA. He met a janitor mopping the floor at the NASA headquarters and the president introduced himself. JFK asked the janitor what he did at NASA, and the janitor replied proudly, “I’m helping put a man on the moon!”

Kofman suggests that the meaning of work, not job descriptions, are more powerful motivators for adults. When people understand their role in helping a team ‘win’ toward mission success, motivation rises and energises both the individuals and the team.

Keeping in mind these keys to adult learning helps us create meaningful environments and experiences for the learning we facilitate for mature learners.

How might you use these keys to andragogy in your own work?


Grant, A. (2016). Originals; How nonconformists move the world. New York, NY: Viking.

Knowles, M. S., & Holton, E. F. (2011). The Adult Learner; The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. New York: Routledge.

Kofman, F. (2019). Meaning Revolution: Leading with the power of purpose. London: W H ALLEN.

Featured Photo by Jason D on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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