Published on 2013/01/24

Andragogy and Pedagogy: Similarities in Teaching Adults and K-12 Students

Andragogy and Pedagogy: Similarities in Teaching Adults and K-12 Students
While the resources used to teach adults and children differ significantly, the principles of meaningfulness and personalized learning must be present when teaching both groups.

Teaching and Learning

Learning, as a phenomenon, is not restricted to the classroom but happens everywhere. I am using the wide definition of teaching as any interaction between the teacher and the students, and the broadest definition of learning as “any process that in living organisms leads to permanent capacity change“(Illeris, 2007, 3)[1].

If teaching is seen as imparting or transmitting knowledge into students, then one could easily argue how different it is to teach adults or graduate students than students in K-12 system, simply because of the quality and amount of knowledge among student population. However, when teaching is seen primarily as an attempt to empower students to learn autonomously by providing support, feedback and resources for that learning, there is not a big difference in teaching adults or kids, apart from the obvious: chosen materials and age appropriate activities.

Formal education can be seen as an intervention to the natural learning process in order to ensure cultural progression and having productive members for the society in the future. Education is built of two basic components, teaching and learning. Therefore interactions between the teacher and student are the basic fabric of education. Ideally these two components are well balanced and complement each other, providing effective teaching results with meaningful learning experiences.  In less than ideal situations the balance between teaching and learning is missing: learning turns out to be a measured product, or externalized performance of the student, instead of the growth process is should be.

Transformative Learning

Deep learning happens in the same way in children and adults: student finds learning material interesting and becomes engaged beyond the minimum requirement to complete the task. This presents the need for learning environment to be emotionally safe and supportive in order to encourage additional exploration. We might connect this need of support with children, but in my experience many adult students are more fearful towards open-ended questions and tasks – simply because they have been conditioned to think there is a single one correct answer. Children don’t suffer as much from this mental block before they have been taught to do so.

Our knowledge and beliefs are references to the life we live, so living and learning cannot be separated from each other, no matter whether you are focusing on pedagogy or andragogy. Concept development begins in early childhood, which means K-12 students have already fairly well established worldviews and beliefs that sometimes get in the way of learning, just like adult students do get tangled in the dissonance their own thoughts or opinions create with the learning materials.

Simply measuring up to a performance standard, or creating a product (essay, project, worksheet, etc.) asked by the teacher shouldn’t be the end result of learning. Outcomes should be seen as new configurations of students’ own knowledge, instead of superficial external measures. Transformative learning is “a rational, metacognitive process of reassessing reasons that support problematic meaning perspectives or frames of reference” (Mezirov, 2009)[2]. To be effective our educational systems must provide opportunities for this reflection and promote deep learning that produces creative/critical thinkers.

Conclusion: even though there are apparent differences between children and adults as students, the same basic principles of meaningfulness and personalized learning must be present for both groups to prevent potentially transformative learning from turning to an externalized performance.

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[1] Illeris, K. (2007). How We Learn: Learning and non-learning in school and beyond.  London/New York: Routledge.

[2] Mezirov, J. (2009).  An overview on transformative learning.  In Illeris, K. (Ed.) Contemporary Theories of Learning (90-105). London/New York: Routledge.

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Readers Comments

Ian Richardson 2013/01/24 at 9:17 am

Well said, Ms. Smith. Unfortunately, I think it would be difficult in our current culture to create the safe learning environments of which you speak. Our entire education system is built on the notion of conditioning individuals not to be too inquisitive. You say that children tend to be more open to uncertainty and questioning, and with that I fully agree. However, individuals are conditioned from a young age that there is but one right answer for each question, so that, by the time they reach adulthood, they’re of the belief that this is “the way the world works.” It’s difficult to change at that point.

I see this type of attitude in many adult education programs, where their focus appears to be on making students job ready, not necessarily on making them critical/creative thinkers (which is regarded as separate from job readiness). It would seem, then, that any efforts to create a safe and supportive learning environment need to be targeted at the K-12 level.

    Nina Smith 2013/01/24 at 11:18 pm

    Thank you! I agree that creating safe learning environments should start early, already in pre-K. Yet, it is entirely possible to start shaping adult/higher education towards more open ended practice, if we wanted to do so – and I think we should want that very much, because thinking and problem solving skills are increasingly important for good work performance.

Belinda Chang 2013/01/24 at 3:41 pm

I agree that young learners seem more open than adult learners to exploring new ideas. With that in mind, I wonder what type of “unlearning” adult students need to do when they re-enter the education system. I think that, to address this issue, there needs to be more than an environmental change, for a safe learning space doesn’t guarantee more engaged adult students. Adult learners need to, in a sense, be trained in a new way of thinking. Does anyone have any specific strategies for doing this that they would be able to share?

Nina Smith 2013/01/24 at 11:39 pm

Thank you! Children certainly are more open for new ideas in learning: the only thing they need is to be unleashed and they will spring to exploring.
For adult learners I have found transparency to work very well as a gate opener into more meaningful learning, so I often ask what is their own motivation for studying: extrinsic (to get a degree/certification and maybe better job) or intrinsic (to learn more) – and most often it is a combination of these.
Explaining that I am there solely to support their learning and to openly discussing my administrative role helps students to understand that I am not attempting to use unnecessary power or control over them.
Also verbalizing the fact that some people find open-ended assignments scary helps adult students to understand they are not alone with that feeling and can take the challenge of reflecting upon their own learning.
I tend to simplify the learning and self-reflection tools into three questions to be asked from yourself: 1.What went well today and why? 2.What could be improved and how? 3.What do I want to change in my learning/teaching? (my students are teachers).
Feeling empowered engages people to learn.

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