Learning about adult education with the research and experience documented by, mostly, the grandfather of andragogy, Malcolm Knowles, I am discovering wonderful new connections and a new perspective on early childhood education. It is a conclusion I have seen other educators come to so it isn't a surprise to some of you but the bottom line is: education remains pretty much the same between young children and adults - it's the context and types of experience that separate the two groups. So in this article I will refrain from separating the two into subgroups and tell you how the things they have in common can be identified in the learning environment.
1. Learners are internally motivated and self-directed.
The party line is that children in the early stages of school need to be bribed to do what they are told for a couple different reasons: they are too young to think in the abstract so they need the concrete immediate gratification of an external reward and the ever-classic, "because that's the way the real world works". That's baloney on two levels: young children can be socially savvy long before they can "think" abstractly and getting an external reward may be "rewarding" but it generally isn't the core reason why we do a job [for example]. For example, adults may stay in a job to pay the bills, but it is the inability to pay the bills that motivates them to stay in a dead-end job, not the pay from the dead-end job. Children too, will get bored with a task unless they are given a reward - but then it is more likely that they will continue on because of the value from the reward, not for the reward itself. In other words, for the five extra minutes of recess, not the recess - they'd get that anyway.
2. Learners bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences.
Here is one of the clearest differences between the theories of Knowles and my education and experience with the two populations and that is, they both have diverse experiences and various levels of knowledge to bring to their learning - it is one of the tenets of Piagetian cognitive development. Children construct their knowledge on the basis of previous knowledge - therefore, the assumption that young children don't have a wealth of experiences from which to draw is just not accurate. Is it as much as a grown adult? Probably not - but it never surprises me when I do an introduction to a lesson with 6 year olds and one or two of them have some previous experience with the topic and to not acknowledge and value that schema just isn't respectful of the young learner. A similar approach is taken with adult learners - for me to ignore the idea that they have some degree of knowledge about the topic is just not respectful to the learner.
3. Learners are goal oriented.
Approaches like discovery learning or emergent curriculum illustrate the idea that children will just dive into learning when they are curious and we aren't exactly sure where it might head. But I say, even under those conditions, the learner is still trying to reach a goal, even if that goal is simple understanding.
Ever seen a four-year old constructing a building? Goal-oriented if I have ever seen a goal orientation. The young learner does have the flittering quality. In other words, sometimes their attention can be diverted to another activity - maybe one with more novelty or with the brightest colors, but when a child is engaged and discovering - it is difficult to pry them away. For the adult learner, it is more about what they will expend their mental energy diving in to and less about the pure curiosity about the activity/concept/item. That is where principle number 4 comes in but all learners like to set goals for themselves - sometimes it can be difficult for them to verbalize what goal they are trying to reach but when they get there, they know. That is what Jonathan Kozol might refer to as, "a golden nugget." It is the gift for us from the learner that emerges from reaching their goal - no matter how circuitous the route they took to get there. Our patience as teachers can be so rewarding when learners reach their goal.
4. Learners are relevancy oriented.
All learners want to know the meaningfulness of the object of their inquiry. I think sometimes children are just seen as these endless sources of inquiry where they have no boundaries and little direction. I disagree. Bandura's Bobo doll experiment led some to the conclusion that even when children are given role models, they extend the learning to new and novel approaches to the learning. The relevance of their learning might be a universal approach to understanding the world around them but the curiosity that I have witnessed in adults learning, for example, psychology for the first time is very similar to the search for relevance that goes on in a child's brain. Adults are just more likely to say, "What does this have to do with cooking?" But, remember when you were a child or if you have had or dealt with a three-four year old, the word, "why?" becomes a mantra. That's the toddler's equivalent to, "Why do we need to know this?" Their search for relevance is no less important and we as early educators will do well to remember to tell our young learners the reason why we are learning something.
5. Learners are practical.
Recently, I have been reading a lot about atheism and the quest for understanding the nature of God and its existence. In my readings, I came across something I first learned about in the Jodie Foster movie, Contact. In the film, the Matthew McConaghey character talks about Occam's Razor. The basic concept is that when there is a simple answer, you don't have to go any further in explaining. For example, if someone is kind to other people - you can explain it by saying the person is kind to others. You don't have to go further and attribute it to the person's faith in God/Allah/Buddha/etc. So, Occam's Razor in the land of practicality for learners. All learners want to see the connection between what they already know and what they are learning. Given the time and resources (or at least availability of resources), the learner will provide their own path. But it will be a simple answer and most learners will stop there and move on to the next level of understanding identified by Vygotsky or Bloom's taxonomy. It came up in a discussion of God and philosophy in a psychology group. One of the learners wanted to know if people would be good without a book to guide them. The discussion centered around the humanist philosophy and whether people are born good. We discussed it and one of the ideas floated was from a behaviorist perspective. If a person is rewarded for certain behaviors and punished for others - if those behaviors fall under "good" behavior toward others as opposed to "bad" behavior - then, no, we don't need a book. We don't need to delve deeper - and that is what is often so striking about young learners. Their discoveries and conclusions come with an honest and forthright explanation. If someone is nice, they are nice. Period. That, as Robert Sternberg might point out, is true intelligence. If one can come to a practical conclusion/solution - then that is the best one and digging deeper isn't always necessary.
6. Learners like to be respected.
All learners like to be respected. I think sometimes I fall just to the right of this idea. Children aren't "little adults" in the Victorian sense of the word but I think they are people first and children second. In addition, I think adult learners can be vulnerable, frightened and hesitant but by acknowledging and valuing their opinions, ideas and thoughts, they will feel respected and continue to learn, participate and risk. I think that what is lost in the previous five principles of adult learning is relationship. I would place it under this heading. Learners need to feel valued and this includes having a positive rapport with the teacher. I have heard instructors criticize and insult learners in the faculty room and then believe that those feelings can't be felt by the learner. Microexpressions are those non-verbal facial behaviors triggered, as Paul Eckman theorizes, by your true, hidden feelings. I happen to agree that, without a sincere respect and value for the learner, your true feelings creep in and affect your relationship with the learner and thus, negatively influence the teacher-learner relationship. But being honest and forthright with the learner is part of being respectful. Just as you wouldn't come right out and tell a six year old that they are a jerk and you don't like them much - so you wouldn't tell a 36 year old the same thing. You may feel it - but respect means putting that away and realizing they look up to you for guidance and facilitation and care, to some degree, for their risk taking and vulnerability.
The six principles of andragogy set by Malcolm Knowles has been used to create curriculum, drive instruction and forge policy. But I believe a much simpler approach can be used with adults that echoes the strategies used by primary grade teachers. All six of the principles apply to either group of learners and, here is the sensitive part, both need it done with care and vigilance about how they affect the learner.
I have come to find that my natural instinct with young learners, is most valuable in my adult classes. Alfie Kohn suggested in his book, Feel-Bad Education, that all teachers should pose this question to their learners: "No matter how poorly I do on a test, or project or assignment. I know that _________________ still cares about me." When I confidentially posed this question to my adult learners, 3 of my 26 respondents did not identify a faculty member. Significant finding? Maybe not empirically but it makes me wonder. Can adult education be as affectively oriented toward the mental well-being and development of a positive opinion of learning that is the perspective in early childhood? Conversely, can we remember in early childhood, that it is about developing a love for learning in general, not a goal oriented approach to learning a curriculum for the sake of passing standardized tests measuring proficiency in a core curriculum?