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How Adults Learn

Adults are by nature conservative and cautious. This calls for a lot of creativity and innovation in our approach to preparing learning programs for them, and thus we must be aware of these conservative and cautious tendencies as we guide them through their learning processes.

This write up explores adult learning. I attempt to explain as per my understanding some of the major factors which affect how adults learn. I hope it increases our awareness of how we, as individuals, learn best. We can then use this knowledge to ensure that our training or presentation sessions are as effective as possible.

Learning has been defined by Kim as the process of ‘increasing one’s capacity to take action’. Thus it should be distinguished from training: ‘Learning is the process by which a person acquires new knowledge, skills and capabilities whereas training is one of several responses an organization can take to promote learning’.

Argyris points out that: ‘Learning is not simply having a new insight or a new idea. Learning occurs when we take effective action, when we detect and correct error. How do you know when you know something? When you can produce what it is you claim to know?’

It is imperative that we understand how as individuals we learn. In my little training experience with JCI, there is a learning exercise those who intend to be trainers are often called upon to do which distinguished our learning style when using the Kolb’s learning cycle. Though subjective, the exercise deepens ones understanding about how adults learn.

Personally, I am a Pragmatist; I like sharing ideas, testing new theories to see if they work. But again there are moments when my learning is influenced by the other learning styles. This somehow validates the assertion that learning is complex and touches things such as knowledge, skills, insights, beliefs, values, attitudes and habits which are influenced by more than one learning style.

Many scholars have advanced interesting dogma on this topic. David Kolb created arguably the most efficient theory on adult learning styles. Wenger and Snyder believed that learning required a lot of social interaction. Reinforcement theory expresses the belief that changes in behaviour take place as a result of an individual’s response to events and their consequences. Cognitive learning theory expresses the belief that learning involves gaining knowledge and understanding by absorbing information in the form of principles, concepts and facts and then internalizing it.

In our attempt to understand the learning styles, let’s be reminded that none is good or bad or best. Different situations may trigger in us one or more learning styles. Now let’s understand these learning styles.

Learning Styles: Learning is a continuous and life-long process, constantly progressing through four distinct and mutually supportive stages. 

Activists: Concrete Experience: Activists learn best from constant exposure to new experiences. They like to involve themselves in immediate experiences and are enthusiastic about anything new. They learn least well from activities that require them to take a passive role.

Reflectors: Reflective Observation: Reflectors learn best from activities that allow them time and space to ponder an experience and assimilate information before making a considered judgment. They often spend a good deal of time listening and observing. They learn least well from activities that require rapid action with little time for planning.

Theorists: Abstract Conceptualization: Theorists learn best from activities that allow them to integrate observations into logically sound theories. They learn least from situations that they are unable to research in depth. They assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories. They tend to be perfectionists who won’t rest easy until things are tidy and fit into a rational scheme. They like to analyze and synthesize.

Pragmatists: Active Experimentation: Pragmatists learn best from activities that have clear practical value. They learn least from situations where learning is not related to an immediate purpose. Pragmatists are keen on trying out ideas, theories and techniques to see if they work in practice. They positively search out new ideas and take the first opportunity to experiment with applications.

Every learning experience should effect a change, a transformation within us; well if we let it. For us to broaden our chances of learning, I recommend we incorporate all four learning styles mentioned above. It may require a lot of flexibility and as adults we may not find it easy leaving our zones of comfort. But, to me it’s the only way.

In closing, the key to effective learning is being competent with each learning style when it is appropriate. For this to be effective, we must be situated within an organizational environment in which learning is regarded as important. We must find time to learn, like my colleague Olivier BILOCK keeps saying, “We should never stop learning”.

  1. June 30, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Could use more views

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