tearing down strawmen

16 06 2006

i believe that one of the key factors in when and how workers’ attitude and motivation regarding workplace learning will shift from ambivalence to enthusiasm will occur when both learning and development professionals and line busines managers both change their paradigm of how adult learners learn.  this includes understanding informal learning, social networks, and performance development.  this post will look at a major concept in education that i believe must be overthrown before this paradigmic change can occur.

the concept that adults learn radically different from children must torn down!

in his book, the modern practice of adult education (the current edition is entitled the adult learner), malcolm knowles sets adult learning up as dichotomous with child learning.  charts like the one below can be found in websites from around the globe (a google search on "pedagogy vs. andragogy" and variants produced 1254 results). it’s easily one of the best know models in education.

the following chart is typical of these charts.  knowles even went as far as to characterize the andragogic side of the pairings as "good" versus the "bad" pedagogical attributes.  he backed away from the good/bad characterization in the book’s second edition, but the damage was already done.  this characterization of the radically different ways of learning is among the most accepted tenents in education.

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attributes of children’s learning (pedagogy) versus adult learning (andragogy)
mandatory attendance
voluntary attendance
subject centered
problem centered
dependant learner
independent learners
inexperienced learner
experienced learner
teacher prescribed content
learner prescribed content
learners grouped by age/ability
learners grouped by interest/need
learning for the future
learning for the now
learners subordinate to teacher
learners equal to the teacher
rigid, traditional structure
flexible, alternative structure
passive learners
active learners


with these dichotomies intrenched in our thinking, we continually fall in to the same old habits when it comes to instructional design and facilitation.  Instead assuming that  "adults won’t play games in class"; we should be determining what types of "games" are stimulating to adults and when would they be considered relevant and worthwhile.  Many consider simulations to be quite game like, yet well crafted simulations have been wildly successful with adults.

you might argue that knowles actually
was talking about instructional methodologies and that these tenets should be
read only with regard to instructional design for formal settings.  there are
two arguments against this position.

  1. the vast majority of the current presentation of these attributes is as
    children’s learning versus adult learning.  i did not find one example of this dichotomy being presented as “methods
    for teaching children in a school setting vs. methods for teaching adults in a formal educational setting.”  no matter
    what knowles’ intent was, the current interpretation should be debunked.
  2. some of these tenets are false even in light of
    the methodology argument. this is the
    argument that knowles acquiesced to in the second edition of the modern practice of adult education and
    has been borne out in new evidence uncovered in brain sciences, evolutionary psychology, genetic studies and
    the cognitive science research.

one method for invalidating a theory is to demonstrate examples in which the theory does not hold to be true.  this is the method i’ll use to bring this misconceived theory of adult learning to it’s knees.  let’s run through each of the pairings one at a time.

mandatory attendance vs. voluntary attendance

this is clearly not the case even at the methodology level
of the argument. adults are regularly
required to attend legal compliance training (sexual harassment, violence in
the workplace, etc.), adults are often required to attend remedial education
programs by the courts, and professionals in a wide variety of fields are
required to attend continuing education courses to maintain their licenses and
certifications.  clearly pre-school aged children are not compelled by an external authority to learn each day – but they do.  and to believe that the only learning that happens in a school is what is taught between the opening and closing bells is simply being naive.

conclusion: obviously,
attendance policies have very little to do with how humans learn at any age

dependant learners vs. independent learners

this pairing regards children as dependent upon their
instructor to structure their learning experiences and maintains that adults
structure their own learning. clearly,
children in the most dynamic stages of human learning are seldom guided in
their learning.  play and exploration are
the means by which they rapidly gather and assimilate information into
knowledge. when they get confused, they will defer to an "expert" – usually a parent, a caregiver, or any kid who is older than they are.  on the other side of the pair, in this time of too much to do in too little time, our learners and their managers are demanding that we stop wasting their time and deliver the content they need.  or better yet, let them connect with the "expert" directly.  then they’ll have a resource they can turn to when it’s needed.

the shared experiences of parent
and child, tradesperson and novice, teacher and student are all examples of
learning through collaborative activities. such collaboration is invaluable by
making accessible to learners what they might not be able to learn alone. (billett, 2001, p. 19)

conclusion: the reality
is that all learners are at times dependent in their learning and at other
times independent. the variable is not  age but  rather a factor of experience  and expertise.


inexperienced learner vs. experienced learner

this pairing again proves to be wrong on both sides of the discussion. even newborn babies are not blank slates; they are born with numerous genetically encoded experiences upon which they build. as to adults being experienced learners the point can be argued on two levels.

  1. adults have experiences upon which they build their learning. but sometimes their experience has little to contribute to a new learning situation. for instance, an american decides to learn chinese. while she is extremely articulate in english, there is very little that her proficiency in english can contribute to the acquisition of chinese as a second language.
  2. adults have experience as learners in general and have strategies which they can utilize in learning anything. while this is true, it would be false to imply that children do not utilize metacognitive tools in their learning. we know that children can predict or group from a very young age. adults just have
    more sophisticated tools. It doesn’t mean they learn differently. would you say a novice web designer isn’t a web programmer because they don’t yet understand how to encode cascading style sheets or to use layers in xml documents?

conclusion: again, we find that both children and adults learn as experienced and non-experienced
learners depending upon the context.

teacher prescribed content vs. learner prescribed content

the argument is identical to the previous. there is clear evidence that even babies make choices to direct their own learning.  babies choose what person(s) to tune into to
gather new lexical content.  invalidating the adult side of the dichotomy is the fact that adults in a sexual harassment sensitization workshop seldom get to choose either the content or their attendance requirement.

 conclusion: Both children and adults have varying degrees of control over the content they learn.


learners grouped by age/abilities vs. learners grouped by interest/needs

while it is true that formal school settings do tend to group children by age (primarily) and abilities even that is not uniform (i.e., home school settings, multi-grade rural schools). outside of school, most children are learning from parents, neighbors, coaches, siblings who are clearly not in the same age group. similarly, while it is true that in most formal learning settings the content of a class, workshop or training session is the reason the adult learn is present (thus guaranteeing all are
present for the same interest or need), adults most often will consult with friends and colleagues to learn (i.e., relationship advice from a best friend, getting a recap on what happened a meeting you missed).

 conclusion: how learners may be grouped in a given learning situation is determined by the situation more often than by the age or
ability of the learners.

learning for the future vs. learning for the now

the behavior of very young children seems to belie the statement that they only learn for the future. we know from observation of three month olds that they understand causation at a very basic level and that babies at a year old understand the difference between psychological and physical causality. (gopnik: 1999) p.74. we also know that predictive capabilities exist and are used in very young babies. (gopnik: 1999) on the other hand, adults regularly learn things which they have no real application for in the present, but sense that they might find it helpful in the future. Examples include my having a conversation with a fellow dog owner in the park about a particularly humane dog kennel because at some point in the future I might need to kennel my dog while traveling. or a couple looking at homes in a suburb with exceptional schools and learning about mortgage lending even though they don’t yet have children nor can they afford to buy such a home today.

conclusion: whether learning occurs for immediate application or for future use depends on situational variables not the learning capabilities a child or an adult.

learners subordinate to teacher vs. learners equal to teacher

this pair is clearly one which, to be valid, requires the
perspective of looking at only formal settings. clearly, children can be very independent in their choices regarding learning. children in their “terrible twos” are testing boundaries and regularly making choices that their “teachers” would not advocate. (Gopnik: 1999). adults often place themselves in positions of subordination in order to learn from a particular master (i.e., academic research assistants, carpentry
apprentices, medical interns). 

 conclusion:  Again, the role between teacher and learner is situational not age

rigid, traditional structure vs. flexible, alternative structure

this is clearly referring to schooling models. all humans use structure upon which to build our knowledge. knowledge that is related to what we already know is the most like to be retained into long-term memory. the structure of an intervention, or even portions of an intervention, will vary with the instructional need at that point in the learning.   

conclusion: Again,
the role between teacher and learner is situational.

passive learners vs. active learners

that children are passive learners is absurd.  all one has to do is look any home where a toddler abides to realize that exploratory learning is a huge part of their
repertoire. cabinets have safety latches, stairs are gated, and everything that is breakable is at least three feet off the floor. heir ability, and seeming preference, to learn using all five senses is one of those
characteristics that make them so gosh-darn-cute. passive. not even close.

learning described as ‘spectacular’ occurs in children between their first and fifth years (bransford et al. 1985, cited in pea 1987). the language and social skills learnt during these years provide a basis for children to participate successfully in schooling. yet this spectacular
learning is not a product of direct teaching. instead, it takes place through children’s engagement in tasks, accessing indirect guidance and independent problem-solving. rather than needing to be constantly taught by others, individuals are continuously and actively engaged in the process of learning. having access to direct instruction provided by teachers is not a necessary condition for structured and focused learning to occur. (billett: 2001, p. 18)

as to adults being active learners it is true that they can
be very take charge about their learning. even belligerent if they feel their time is being wasted.  adults also can exhibit apparently dependent behavior when it comes to learning. ‘if it’s important, they’ll let us know’ attitudes abound in some workplaces.  evidence of truly passive approaches to
learning are not immediately evident. Perhaps traditional military boot-camp training is passive, but even
there the military has moved to more contemporary learning models.

conclusion: it would seem that through our lifespan we strive for more control over our ability to direct our learning sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. but the human default from birth is one of active control.


what’s the upside of pedagogy vs. andragogy going down?

what does it mean that these dichotomies aren’t the defining rubric between children and adults?  on a tactical level, whether knowles’ pedagogy vs. andragogy model holds to be accurate or not doesn’t seem to be a big issue.  however, on the strategic and conceptual levels the removal of this model could be a lynch pin in the effort to change learning and development to be truly responsive to enterprise needs.

on the strategic level, removing this model makes it much more simple to explain why simulations work.   learning through play, exploration, and examination become norms for adult learners rather than inappropriate.  but the caveat is they must be adult activities tied closely to the day-to-day work of the learners. 

As children everything we learn is embedded in the environment – at our fingertips.  as we mature into adulthood we are taught to keep the object of our learning at a distance so we can examine it.

on the conceptual level it allows us to acknowledge and re-integrate learning skills like risk taking, using our intuition, and regular use of our imagination into our repertoire of skills.  skills that were drilled out of us as we went through our schooling, because they were deemed to be childish and frivolous ways of thinking.  skills that are built into us by thousands of years of evolutionary development

accepting that learning like children can open up potential directions and expand capabilities well beyond our expectations.  some examples in closing:

– we expect executives to know how to modulate their message and delivery to match the audience’s ability to receive the message.  my niece can do that with both hands tied behind her back.

– you’ve just found out you’re surviving the merger related layoffs, but you have to let go of half your staff, integrate the survivors from the other company and your productivity metric for this quarter was raised by 5%.  as you listen to the ceo talk about resilience and strategic mission, you reach for the secret bottle of mylanta you keep in your desk.  heck, my neighbor’s kid who just missed the cut for the basketball team, had one of the two girls-i-like-who-like-me dump him yesterday, and was warned by the principal that his grade card with the two d’s better be returned signed by his parents by friday is out there on the basketball court showin’ off for the new girl-i-like-who-likes-me who said yes to a date on friday and talking about where he’s going to play college ball when he graduates.



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