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Adult Learners
by Andrew E. Schwartz

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Sure, adults are more independent than children, but that doesn’t mean you can leave them alone in the classroom.

Before Malcolm Knowles coined the word “andragogy” to describe the principles of helping adults learn, some popular wisdom on the matter had already accumulated. Learning gets “harder” as you get older; adults learn languages differently than children do. Whatever the truth in these matters, learning does present different risks and benefits to adults than to children. And it is certainly true that adults, increased understanding and greater store of acquired knowledge make them far more critical judges of the material being presented and of the instructor. To be effective, any training program or lesson plan must be designed with the needs of an adult audience in mind, and this requires thinking about the ways in which adults differ from children in their approach to new learning.

For the most part, children are open to new ideas and people, enthusiastic, and curious. However, they also have short attention spans and limited knowledge and life experiences. Adults tend to be more closed and cautious when facing new information, but they have longer attention spans and they may be very knowledgeable in the subject area being taught. Their wide variety of life experiences may be useful in solving problems or constructing useful idea structures. While adults may at times feel threatened by new things and ideas, and be reserved and controlled in class, they do not require constant supervision, they are capable of being less dependent and emotional than children are likely to be, and they are less likely to be passive recipients of information.

Adults expect recognition on a level close to equality with the instructor; they expect acknowledgment of their contributions to class and their knowledge in the field. In short, unlike children, adults want to be partners of the instructor instead of beneficiaries of his wisdom. But still, there are many very real reasons for adults to feel defensive and fearful in training programs.

They are often attending training because of orders which imply that they are not performing well.

They are vulnerable to personal and professional embarrassment from poor performance in the training program. Poor performance in the classroom may become the basis for personnel decisions by supervisors or the source of ridicule by peers. New ideas, practices, and policies tend to represent a threatening rejection of the “status quo” which the trainee may have a strong psychological commitment to and a large personal investment in maintaining.


Andrew E. Schwartz, CEO, A.E. Schwartz & Associates of Boston, MA a comprehensive management training and professional development organization offering over 40 skills specific programs and practical solutions to today's business challenges.

Copyright, AE Schwartz & Associates. All rights reserved.
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