Taylor: Adult learning differs from childrens’

Once adults leave school, around 50 per cent never take any further education.

Probably less than one per cent of infants are incapable of learning.

In North America, only five per cent of children don’t go to school.

But once those children become adults and leave school, around 50 per cent never take any further education. And of those who do, over 80 per cent take only job-related courses; barely 20 per cent choose further education for personal improvement.

The decline of interest in education is staggering, but perhaps understandable.

Adults take risks when they enter any educational program. They have to expose themselves to situations where others know more than they do.

No one likes to appear ignorant.

Adults also find that many educational programs place them into a style of learning they gladly gave up long ago.

Children, young people, and adults learn in different ways. That should be obvious, but apparently isn’t.

For small children, everything is new. They don’t have enough life experience yet to pick and choose what they should learn, so they absorb everything. No one actually teaches infants how to crawl, how to walk, how to speak. They observe; they copy; they do it.

And at that age, everything they absorb has immediate application in their lives.

Then they go to school.

The school system assumes that students need to store information for future use. Like calculus and chemistry—valuable in later life. But teens don’t need calculus to wash dishes, or chemistry to flip burgers.

The school classroom and the university lecture are both systems for presenting and storing information that may be useful later.

Then those students graduate, go out into the world and start a whole new approach to learning.

Adult learners have two characteristics.

First, they are increasingly selective. They study and learn only what they want to learn. They have little desire anymore, to store information that might never be useful to them.

Second, they learn by associating new information with what they already know. A new idea will stick only if it can be hooked up, in some way, with their existing experiences or understandings.

Adults find learning easiest when a new idea confirms what they already know and believe. It’s like finding a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle that drops perfectly into place.

It’s much harder when a new idea forces them to re-arrange puzzle pieces that they had already put together.

And the hardest thing, for any age, is to un-learn something they had previously taken as unchallenged truth. For example, people who grew up thinking that Jesus walked on water have to un-learn that conviction before they can deal with that story as symbolic narrative.

Ditto for parents who grew up believing that children benefit from boot-camp discipline.

Small children throw tantrums when a pattern of behaviour no longer works the way it used to. A closed mind is the adult equivalent of a child’s tantrum.

Unfortunately, too many adult education programs try to put learners back into school classrooms or university lectures. It doesn’t work, and adults don’t like it, because that’s not how they learn anymore.

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