Sunday, April 19, 2015

How Adults and Children Learn (Andragogy v. Pedagogy)

Rodney Dangerfield goes Back to School (1986)

     Children, it seems, are coming full circle.  Before the fifteenth century, as Philippe Aries argued in his 1962 Centuries of Childhood,  children were thought of as small adults, less capable, perhaps;  but they dressed the same as adults, were little shielded, and began working as soon and as hard as they were able. While many of his points (such as the notion that medieval parents were detached from their young children since the children were so likely to die) have since been refuted, his central idea - that childhood is a social construct that has changed over time - is generally accepted.  Moreover, neuroscience has since provided evidence that children's brains function differently from those of adults, and that, consequently, they have different ways of learning and different learning needs (although what those ways and needs consist of is often avidly contested).  All this is taking place even as some children, at least, are imputed to have the same responsibility, autonomy, and moral capacity as adults.

     I raise these points in returning to look at assignment for the first week of the course Adult Learning, in which our class members were asked to post an image which to us embodies the differences in learning between adults and children (my semi-tongue-in-cheek contribution is above).

     There is by no means universal agreement on what the differences between adults and children as learners might be.  Malcolm Knowles, who first codified (some say popularized) the idea of specific attributes of adult learners from the 1950s on in the United States, remains influential in adult education and training circles, although he modified his ideas in the 1980s and allowed the differences might not be as strict as he once supposed.  

     One might argue that some of the differences he points out are related more to the structures of children's formal education, and to a particular kind of teaching style then prevalent, than to innate characteristics of children or adults as learners.  For example, Knowles's contention that adults choose what they will learn based on their own needs and goals, while children acceptingly learn whatever they are taught, may be true when children are enrolled in traditional schools.  But the unschooling movement has argued that children are naturally independent, self-directed learners when freed from the structures (or strictures) that characterize(d) most formal K-12 educational milieux. 

     This sets the context for "Teaching Adults:  Is is Different?" , Susan Imel's 1989 article that synthesizes several studies from the 1980s on the topic of adult learning.  While scholarship and research on adult learning have advanced since then, it is still a useful place to start.  

Imel examines some of adult learning theorist Malcolm Knowles’ assumptions, and concludes,

“Is teaching adults different? Based on the literature discussed here, the answer is both yes and no. Although teachers perceive adults as being different, these perceptions do not automatically translate into differences in approaches to teaching."

The author then turns the question on its head:

"Perhaps a better way to frame the question is to ask 'Should teaching adults be different?' "

She continues, "According to Darkenwald and Beder (1982), 'the real issue is not whether learner-centered methods are universally applied by teachers of adults, but rather for what purposes and under what conditions such methods, and others are most appropriate and effective and in fact used by teachers (p. 153).'"

     I'm not sure I agree with that assessment of what the "real" issue is.  The author never really answers the question, focusing instead on whether or not teachers teach adults differently than children in different situations, rather than whether or not they should.  The author does note, however, that “master” teachers tend to be less directive and more student-centered,  regardless of whether they teach adults or children.

      Imel maintains, “The andragogical or learner-centered approach is not appropriate in all adult education settings (Feuer and Geber 1988). The decision about which approach to use is contextual and is based upon such things as the goals of the learners, the material to be covered, and so forth..." and also notes that teachers may not have had training or the opportunity to practice learner-centered teaching.

     Imel thus focuses on whether or not teachers teach adults differently than they teach children, and ultimately sidesteps the question of whether adults and children have distinctive characteristics as learners.  At the time, the author may not have been able to gather conclusive evidence in the literature on whether adults learn differently from children.  

     In any case, what we now know about brain functioning (for example, this 2009 Stanford University study) leads us to conclude that there may well be significant differences in how children learn compared to how adults learn; but the move toward learner-centered approaches has also shown us that children can be a lot more proactive about their own learning than may have been believed in the recent past.

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