Adult Brains and Adult Learning

For the past ten years, I have had a particular interest in andragogy - learning strategies focused on adults, as opposed to pedagogy. My interest began when I was working in designing online courses for adult learners. But, part of my interest is also personal - especially when I see articles with titles like "How to Train the Aging Brain" which was in The New York Times last week.

Like the author of that piece, Barbara Strauch (The New York Times’s health editor), I'm not all that happy with my aging brain's performance.

Strauch has a book coming out this spring called The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain. The article hints at some of her research and it should be of interest educators who work with adults and educators with aging brains.

Though the brain at middle age isn't as sharp as it might have once been, it actually gets better at some things, like recognizing the central idea, the big picture.

Many theories about the brain have been overturned. We do not lose 40 percent of our brain cells, as was once believed. And, when the brain and body in good shape, the brain continues to build pathways that us recognize patterns faster than a younger brain.

The plasticity of the brain continues longer than was once believed allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding.

What can educators do to take advantage of these new findings? One way is to challenge the assumptions adult learners have accumulated in their brain full of well-connected pathways. Having learners confront thoughts that are contrary to their own is a good way to "jiggle their synapses a bit."

Reading about andragogy will surely lead you to Alexander Kapp, who introduced the term in 1833, and to Malcolm Knowles in the 1980s who has worked to develop a theory specifically for adult learning.

If you have taught children and taught adults too, you will have observed some differences in adults who are more self-directed and who expect to take responsibility for decisions. There is a definite contrast between self-directed adult education and the 'taught' education we use with children.

Anyone who teaches their evening class full of adult learners in the same way as their morning section full of "traditional" undergrads is doing a disservice to at least one group of students.

- Adults need to know why they need to learn something
- Adults need to learn experientially
- They approach learning as problem-solving
- and they learn best when the topic is of immediate value

For adult learner, we need to focus more more on the process and less on the content being taught. That is why case studies, role playing, simulations, and self-evaluation works better with adult students.

Though we have all heard for the past 20 years that instructors need to be more of a facilitator or resource rather than be a lecturer or grader, that is more important for adult learning situations.

It is also being found that teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, though acquiring new information is still important. Encountering new information that challenges our existing perceptions stretches the brain. That includes learning a new language like French or a new programming language, a new way to create a video file or working in an online virtual learning environment for the first time.

New learning and information that comes connected to older learning has an "overlay of complexity" that didn't exist before. Jack Mezirow (Columbia Teachers College), after 30 years of working with adult learners, proposed that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a “disorienting dilemma,” or something that “helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired.”

Like Strauch says in her article, I not only "forget whole books, but movies I just saw, breakfasts I just ate, and the names oh, the names are awful." I'm interested in doing a better job teaching my adult students. I'm also interested in keeping my own brain as sharp as possible.

"Memory is a process, not a repository." - Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

Books on andragogy by Malcolm Knowles
The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy
Making of an Adult Educator: An Autobiographical Journey


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