Adult Learning Theories

When planning to run a LIVE2WORK workshop, facilitators should recognise the benefits of the concepts of adult learning theories and incorporate these into their teaching style. Our workshops are set out to respond to end users’ needs and contribute to the achievement of professional goals, by guiding them in making the correct choices when it comes to tools and materials needed to fulfil their goals. We therefore need to keep in mind, that the adult learner needs to:

  • know why the workshop is important to their learning and professional situation;
  • be able to tap into prior knowledge and experiences;
  • and apply the new knowledge to their professional situations.

This section will introduce adult learning theories that can be used to work with motivation of end users, and to ensure that the workshop provides end users with the best possible learning outcomes. This includes:

Andragogy; Making Experience Relevant

  1. Self-direction – Adults feel the need to take responsibility for their lives and decisions, therefore the workshop facilitator needs to focus on:
  • self-assessment
  • a peer relationship with the instructor
  • multiple options
  • and initial, yet subtle support
  1. Practical and results-oriented – Adult learners are usually practically oriented and therefore the facilitator needs to:
  • focus more on practice rather than theory
  • provide information that can be applied directly to their professional needs
  • Adults can be more interested in learning about topics that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.
  • focus on learnings that will directly improve their skills, facilitate work, boost confidence
  • cover individual needs
  • utilitarian content
  • Adult learning is problem-centred (Kearsley, 2010) focused around the challenges they face in their jobs rather than content-oriented.
  1. Resistant to change – The facilitator needs to keep in mind that:
  • experience and maturity lead to inflexibility and inhibits learning
  • the “why” behind the change/new concept is vital –
  • create a connection between the new concept/idea with existing ones (i.e. base new information on previous experience)
  • and promote a need for exploration (ask questions that promote curiosity, how can we use this in real life?)
  1. New knowledge is built on previous knowledge. – The use of personal experience as a resource will:
  • Help end users make use of prior knowledge and skills to validate new learning by testing them in their work, through discussions with others, and by building on past experience.
  • Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities.
  • Crucial to create a workshop with adults that have similar professional experience levels
  1. Slower learning – Adults learn at a slower pace. The facilitator therefore needs to keep in mind that:
  • Although learning takes place at a slower pace, the learning that takes place is deeper. This means that the learner masters the content
  • The adult learner is able to navigate knowledge and skills to unprecedented personal levels
  1. Attendance is a personal choice – more often learning in adulthood is voluntary. This means:
  • Motivation comes from within (also intrinsic motivation)
  • Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction
  • Focus is on improving job skills and achieving professional growth
  • Personal choice is the driving motivation behind learning
  • Important to present material that will question conventional wisdom and stimulate the mind
  • The activities should reflect some of the realities and challenges that the end users are facing in their professional lives
  1. High expectations – Adult learners can expect a lot from a workshop. Therefore, the LIVE2WORK workshop facilitator needs to make sure:
  • Workshop content is useful and relevant to the end users’ working life
  • The workshop will have immediate results – learning can be applied the moment the end user returns to his/her practice or work
  • The workshop maximizes the end users’ advantages, meets their individual needs and addresses all the learning challenges

Andragogy is a term associated with adult education introduced by the American educator, Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997). When teaching adults, one needs to keep in mind that the role of the teacher is that of a facilitator and guide, rather than that of a teacher in the traditional sense.

The reasons for this being, adults are self-directed human beings, rather than dependent personalities who have accumulated experiences and resources to draw from. So, their readiness to learn has become oriented around the developmental tasks of their social roles. A facilitator uses his or her knowledge of how adults learn to create an environment that enables the participant to make use of prior knowledge and learning styles. In this way, the facilitator appears to guide the adult learner, by encouraging participants to share knowledge with each other.

Based on the six assumptions underlying andragogy, theorised by Knowles Figure 3.4. The “teacher” in the role of the “workshop facilitator” needs his or her end users to realise that they are lacking some knowledge in order to successfully complete a task or achieve something in life.

When the end user has acknowledged this gap in knowledge, it will help him or her to become more self-directed and independent in his or her learning.

Unlike children, adults typically like to choose what they want to learn, and how they wish to acquire the new knowledge. This means that the workshop facilitator ought to provide the adult learner with more choices and a collaborative learning environment. Motivation can therefore be generated by basing course content on the previous experience of end users. The adult learner can then make use of this experience to base new learnings and concepts. This also helps to create a dynamic learning environment, where debates, discussions and collaboration are central aspects. We can achieve this in the LIVE2WORK workshop, by making use of cases, and group discussions, and trying the workshop activities in groups.

What an adult is willing to learn, depends on what he or she feels that he or she needs to know, in order to be able to perform different tasks or to deal with different life situations. A problem-centred focus can therefore be beneficial, in the sense that it helps the end user see the immediate application of the learning, and subsequently leads the way to self-direction and internal motivation. Since the strongest motivation is internal, the workshop content should be focused around the following motivational factors:

  • improving self-esteem of the end user
  • improving overall quality of life for the end user (herein also work-life)
  • opportunities for the end user to experience self-actualisation

Figure 9 Steps to motivational learning – Based on Knowles’ six assumptions related to the motivation of adult learning

A matured person’s motivation to learn is internal.[1] Once an individual defines him/herself as an adult, the person no longer identifies him/herself as being a full-time learner but sees himself more as a producer or doer. The adult’s main source of self-fulfilment now derives from performance (i.e. as employee, husband, wife, or parent, etc). The adult’s self-concept becomes that of a self-directing personality, making own decisions, and facing the consequences of these. This also means, that the adult has a deep need to be perceived by others as being self-directing (i.e. takes initiative without help of others).

When teaching adults, it is therefore of utmost importance that they feel that they are met with respect, are given opportunities to make their own decisions, and to be seen as unique human beings.[2]

[1] Knowles 1984:12,



Experiential Learning; Experience, Reflection, Conceptualisation, Experimentation

David Kolb published his learning styles model in 1984 from which he developed his learning style inventory. Kolb’s experiential learning theory works on two levels: a four-stage cycle of learning and four separate learning styles.[1] The central elements of his theories explain how a person learns through discovery and experience. He identifies a perspective on the “learning process” by introducing the Experiential Learning theory “ELT” and points out that the experience of the adult learner plays a highly central role in one’s learning process and how different types of persons learn through discovery and experience. ELT presents a holistic model of the learning process, which emphasises that experience plays a very central role in the learning process of the adult learner.

The 4 types of learners are; the pragmatist, the reflector, the theorist and the activist.

Figure 10 Based on Kolb’s Learning Cycle (1984)

The four types of learners. Who are they, and how can the facilitator work with them:

The pragmatist

  • These are people who like to think and do.
  • This type of end user wants to know how to put what has been learned into practice in the real world.
  • When working with this learner type, the facilitator can focus on specific tasks and provide the opportunity to experiment with theories, ideas, and techniques.
  • With this type of end users, you should ensure that there is enough time to think about how what they’ve done relates to reality.

The reflector

  • These are people who like to feel and watch.
  • This type of end user prefers to observe and think about what is happening.
  • When working with this type of end user, the facilitator can ensure that there are opportunities to observe from the side-lines and collect data (i.e. taking notes).
  • With these types of end users, the facilitator should make time and space taking the experiences they’ve perceived and working toward an appropriate conclusion.

The theorist

  • These are the people who like to think and watch.
  • This type of end user seeks to understand the theory behind the action.
  • You can work with this type of end user by allowing them to follow models and read up on facts to better engage in their own learning.
  • With these types of end users, you can include tasks that involve reading stories and quotes, and providing as much background information as possible.

The activist

  • These are the people who like to feel and do
  • This type of end user is typically open minded, and doesn’t come into a situation with biases or pre-conceived ideas
  • When working with this learner type, the facilitator can focus on tasks that are focused on action and experience
  • With these types of end users, you can work with brainstorming, group discussions and problem-solving sessions

According to Kolb, adult learning takes place in four stages:

There is the Concrete Experience, which means that learning takes place through some sort of physical action, creating powerful experiences, or activities involving emotional response. This is where the pragmatist learner is most comfortable.

Reflective Observation means, that the end user engages in some sort of reflection upon the Concrete Experience. So, upon having been through an activity, it’s essential for the learning process, that it is followed up by a reflection stage. This can also mean that there needs to be time for activities involving observation, demonstrations, and cases. This is where the reflector learner is most comfortable.

Abstract Conceptualisation means the decoding of the abstract concepts, which have surfaced after reflections. Here, learner generalises and understands how some of these experiences fit in with their own professional reality. This is where the theorist learner is most comfortable.

Active Experimentation includes activities, which allow active participation. These would mostly be hands-on activities, like trying out the tools on their own, or doing role-plays, where they envisage a scenario of carrying out an activity with their own target groups. This is where the activist learner is most comfortable.

A good LIVE2WORK workshop is achieved by ensuring that content is presented through these four stages, accommodating all four learner needs.



Transformational Learning; The Importance of AHA! Moments

Figure 11 Transformational learning – Based on Transformational Learning Theory (Mezirow, 1990)

Transformational learning is essential when working with adult learners as it is based on the idea, that the role of the facilitator outweighs the delivery of information. Rather than solely placing focus on the content, the facilitator places more importance on helping end users be able to think critically, set goals, and reflect over the situation.

Transformational learning means to bring about a change in the learners’ actions and create “AHA! moments”. A more traditional way of running a workshop might be based on this model:

  • a new topic is presented,
  • something new is learned, but the learner’s epistemological system does not change its fundamental form or function. (epistemology is the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, belief and justification. It also deals with the means of production of knowledge, as well as scepticism about different knowledge claims.)

The LIVE2WORK facilitator, does not necessarily present all possible angles of the topic, to then test the extent to which that knowledge has been acquired. We wish to steer clear from this simple learning model. To achieve this, we can adopt transformational learning as our approach to running a workshop. Transformational Learning has a very close resemblance to personal development. That, which has been learned, transforms the individual, and the individual develops because of this learning.

Transformational learning takes place via the following steps:

  1. The individual realises that he/she has a dilemma, or a task that is difficult to solve. This means that the end user acknowledges that there is a need for change. Being aware of this need makes the end user open to acquire this new knowledge. The individual is curious, and ready to take the new information on-board.
  2. The content of the workshop needs to be obviously relevant to the end user’s context. This means that the workshop should aim at the specific context of the end users. If they work solely with refugees, then the content needs to focus primarily on these aspects of the tools. It is also necessary to give a clear picture of the end results from the beginning of the workshop. This will help the individual with the “what’s in it for me” question, and satisfy him or her, that this will have relevance.
  3. Make sure to see your learners as rational, able professionals, and create opportunities for them to reflect critically on issues, beliefs, and attitudes.

This is how making use of the Genie activity in the beginning of the workshop can be helpful, but also appreciative inquiries, and the use of case studies can play an important role in creating the AHA! moments for the end users.