How to Teach Others

Principles of Adult Learning

All professions have certain principles upon which they build their work. Principles are the ways they understand the events and realities in their professional lives. Adult learning has basic principles as well. These principles (or rules) help learners and teachers understand how adults learn more clearly. They tell teachers the basic rules by which they can help learners learn more effectively.

If you do not apply these principles to the design, delivery and evaluation of your teaching, you will have no common ground with other teachers. You will not be able to understand why other teachers use their skills differently from you. You will not have a way to compare yourself to others who may have more experience and who may be more, or less, effective at teaching.

More importantly, if you do not understand and apply these principles, then you will probably be using teaching methods that are ineffective, or worse, destructive to your learners.

Too many adults have been turned off learning by attending learning programs that treated them in opposite ways to the principles described here.

Listed below are specific principles of adult learning:

Adults learn throughout their lives using different learning styles which change from situation to situation (e.g., prefer lectures to reading for an overview of a topic but prefer reading to listening for details).

Adults want learning to be meaningful in relation to their work, their families, their leisure, and their personal growth (however they wish to define it). They learn best when the topic is relevant to them now. For example, it is hard to get people interested in kitchen renovation techniques when they have no plans to renovate in the next five years.

Adults may choose to self-direct their learning, if they have the necessary skills to accomplish this, or they may choose to have their learning directed by trainers to help them acquire content and skills more quickly.

Adults learn through experience and reflection about their learning, together with the use of a wide variety of resources.

Children and adults both learn from experience, curiosity, benefit-oriented projects, and by constantly asking questions.

Learning can take place individually and within groups.

A trainer's respect for learning means an understanding that learning never stops for learners or trainers.

Adults learn most effectively when they are learning what they truly want to learn rather than what they think, or know, is expected of them by teachers.

Culture, politics, religion, the physical environment, and peer pressures all influence one's learning and the methods trainers use to assist learners.

Adults' physical (including disabilities, nutrition, eye sight, hearing), emotional, intellectual, biological and spiritual characteristics can help, or harm, their learning.

Learning can be mishandled by well meaning, but autocratic, trainers who use various methods, e.g., intimidation, negative behavioral techniques, or even discriminatory beliefs to socialize and harm one's development and sense of self-worth. Teachers must respect and build on their learners' previous experiences and present skills.

Exercise 2

Review the list above. Check off those principles you have applied in your past or present teaching. Circle those principles you do not apply in your teaching now. For beginning teachers, circle those principles you do not know how to apply yet.

Once you have reviewed the principles take three principles that you apply (or want to apply) in your teaching now. Write out concrete examples of how you incorporate them into your teaching. For example: "Learning can take place individually or within groups".

Concrete examples of applying these principles include: using written exercises to help people learn knowledge on their own; getting a group of four learners involved in debating a specific issue so they can learn arguments for both sides; having a learner teach a topic within class which allows them to learn on their own, but teach within a group.

Do the same for any three principles that you have circled. This may help you apply these principles into your next teaching project.

Principles you apply now                                 Concrete examples of or will apply how to apply them.

How to Teach Others

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Copyright © 1993, 1999, 2006 Harry van Bommel

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