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Quality learning environments: What makes adult learning different?

Simon Broek’s latest blog post looks at what makes a quality learning environment for adults

 

 

When thinking about what constitutes a quality learning environment for adults, it is useful to start with asking, what makes adult learning different from the learning of young people?

Picture yourself as a young pupil in school and compare that with how you would like to be treated as an adult learner: as an adult, most probably you won’t accept the teacher reading from a textbook, or ask you whether you did your homework or follow the same pace as all your fellow pupils. That is if you even like being treated as a learner at all – you could be fed up with learning as a result of these previous experiences as a child.

You would probably like to be treated more as an equal, as someone who brings in life experience and someone who learns for a specific (your own) purpose. This requires the adult learning professional to construct a different learning environment: one that is more active.

In the figure below traditional learning approaches and active learning approaches are described.

Traditional learning approaches

Active learning approaches

  • Learning is basically a steady accumulation of discrete entities of knowledge and skills that can be presented to learners.
  • There is one best way of learning.
  • Learning is essentially an individual activity.
  • Learning that is non-transparent or tacit is inferior.
  • Learning centres on the stable and enduring – facts and proven evidence.
  • Learning is replicable.

 

  • People build up their own meanings, based on what they already know and how they see the world around them.
  • Different people give different interpretations to the same thing, may retain different aspects and may act differently on the basis of the same information.
  • There are many ways through which people can learn without someone else passing on pieces of expert knowledge.
  • Learning is a social activity and a lot of learning is tacit.
  • Learning is dynamic and context-bound and, therefore, good learning depends on meaningful learning environments.

 

Literature does not provide a definitive and complete answer on the question what can be considered as a quality learning environment for adult learners and to facilitate this more active learning approach. However, there are many (European) studies providing some indications of elements or criteria that are associated with the quality learning environment.

Based on these studies, one could conclude that to establish a quality learning environment;

  • It should be motivational for the learners,
  • It should be rich and reflective,
  • The provision should be tailor made, learner centred and attuned to the specific learning needs of the adult learning.
  • The provision should respect the background of the adult learner and the knowledge and experience of the adult learner should be used as resource in the learning process.
  • The provision should be offered in a flexible manner in terms of duration, time, and place.
  • The learning should be both relevant for the adult learner and – potentially – other stakeholders (e.g. employers, societal organisations).

Coming back to comparing your time in school and how you would like to treated as adult learner: would you not have liked an activated learning environment when you were young as well?

Of course you would!

This raises the question what initial education could learn from adult learning: should all learning resemble quality adult learning?

___________________

Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.

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