Motivation and the Principles of Adult Learning

Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own sake. Instructors must tell participants explicitly how the lesson will be useful to them on the job.

Adult learners are motivated by an immediacy of application.

Adults learn best when convinced of the need for knowing the information.

One of the things people in our field do a lot is talk about "principles of adult learning." We may or may not make reference to Malcolm Knowles (or John Dewey or Carl Rogers or Someone Else), and we may or may not make reference to a text like The Modern Practice of Adult Education or The Adult Learner (both by Knowles, and both open beside me as I write this), but we nonetheless talk about these Principles - with a proper, capital P.

This is an interesting behavior because, of course, these capital-P Principles don't really exist.

Yes, if you poke about in Dorothy Mackeracher's Making Sense of Adult Learning or J.R. Kidd's How Adults Learn, you will find extended discussions and aphorisms and diagrams (never quite explicitly) referencing these principles. You can take an undergraduate course about them (ED 4102 Transition to Adulthood) at UNB in Fredericton, and then study them again as you earn your Master of Adult Education at St.FX in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

But there is not one set of adult learning principles. There is no single, agreed upon list, no definitive skeleton of taunt phrases, upon which one could hang a well designed adult learning program. Instead there are lists of four (link), five (link, link, link), six (link, link, link), seven (link, link), eight (link), ten (link, link) or even fifteen (link) principles - the number varies even when the cited sources don't - which are generally reliable and in general terms point to Knowles' early push for the formal recognition of androgyny (presumably because it was too late to reform pedagogy).

There's a good reason for this variety. Adults don't all learn in the same way. Worse, the same adults seem to approach learning with different preferences depending on things like the nature of the task, the social context, the end goal, and so on.

There's also good reason for our acting like a list of capital-P principles exists. An official sounding list is a comfort when we're being asked if we are properly scientific, effective, economical and serious - usually by people who are none of those things, and who only want to limit the flow of public resources toward the poor or left-wing social undertakings.

Curiously, our claim to serious, rigorous, scientist-ness has allowed the University - that pinnacle of ineffective pedagogy and compulsive schooling - to claim the authority to certify us in our androgenic work (for a fee - please see your student loans officer).

However... none of that is what I wanted to talk to you about. Not directly. Instead, I wanted to share something odd that happened to me.

Up top, I quoted three variants of the same principle: adults learn best when the learning is useful and timely in a pragmatic sense.

I've always thought that was, um... not quite right.

I appear to have learned a great deal of history (for example) even though it has not been useful. Why did I learn it? Well, it was "interesting" (whatever that may mean). I know people who enjoy learning about the birds at their feeders. I know others who enjoy learning about the difference between the fictitious spaceships portrayed in Star Trek films. Are these examples of useful learning? Unlikely. Has the learning process been "effective" (whatever that may mean)? Apparently. Well, then, is it somehow not really "adult"? Is it immature learning? Of course not - don't be offensive.

Anyway, here's my story:

As you know, I have been messing about - "messing about" is what me and the Water Rat call learning when there's nobody to judge us - with this video tool. One day, I confess, I spent the better part of eight hours learning how to make a better 30 sec. video. (Not all at once - but off and on, around some other tasks and housework and such.) It wasn't hard, or easy - just sort of long... a longish, trial and error process, which I quite enjoyed.

Sometime toward the end of all that, I decided to go over and tweak some blog settings. I'm talking about Google's Blogger tool here. I needed to fix the colours and a lay-out problem with the QLNB Bookwagon blog.

This wasn't a big deal. I'd spent previous hours and hours playing with Blogger's settings and widgets, knew exactly what I was going to do, and expected it would take about 20 minutes.

However, the Blogger "desktop" (the page where we tweak our blogs) had been redesigned. When I landed, I saw none of the familiar tools or tabs.

And here's the thing - I was angry.

But why?

It was another learning opportunity. It was another web-based learning opportunity. I already had a store of knowledge, experience and positive associations to draw upon. And, it would have had "an immediacy of application" as they say in Saskatchewan.

So why angry?

Like, how irrational is that?

I spent the next two days thinking about that. I also figured out how to use the new Blogger desktop, but that was far less, um... engaging than my puzzlement about my reaction to that opportunity for learning.

I've decided, tentatively, that what I was reacting to was a sense of obstruction. I didn't want to re-learn how to tweak the blog settings. I needed to, but I didn't want to. So, I was being forced, right then, to learn something useful that I did not wish to learn, in order to reach my goal.

Okay. I'm sure this all pretty interesting - Wendell's moaning self-reflection of the week - but there's a bigger thing I got to thinking about. And this is what I wanted to say:

How angry are the people who come into our classes - literacy, essential skills, GED prep, whatever - if they are being forced to learn stuff they don't want to learn, in order to get a job or receive social benefits or do or be something they want?

I'm thinking one adult learning principle is that adults don't learn effectively when they're feeling obstructed, cornered or put upon.

Or, maybe that's just me.

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