Adult Learning Theory and Practice

Perspectives on adult learning have changed dramatically over the decades.  Adult learning has been viewed as a process of being freed from the oppression of being illiterate, a means of gaining knowledge and skills, a way to satisfy learner needs, and a process of critical self-reflection that can lead to transformation (Cranton, P., 1994).  Fundamental to adult learning theory is the realization that individuals must experience a felt need to change or to learn before change can take place.  Lewin (1997) postulated that individuals must experience an "unfreezing" of old attitudes and beliefs before they can consider new ones.  This tenet is challenging to learning systems that insist on imposing agenda without concern for individual readiness.

Likewise, Nyswander (1956) articulated the principal of relevance where meeting people where they are, is perhaps the most fundamental tenet of health education practice.  Ironically, much of our Western education system ignores relevance of the learning experience to the training participants.  Instead our system generalizes training content and pedagogy and then imposes those generalizations on the training participants.

One other significant theory of adult learning is the importance of participation and experience.  Adults simply learn better when they can experience the learning or have the opportunity to place the learning in their experience.  Theory holds that teaching principles and methodology for adult learners should be grounded in the learners' experiences, and true learning takes place when applied to experience (Knowles, 1980, 1984). In fact, noted adult educator Eduard Lindeman states that the purpose of adult education is to give meaning to experience.  In fact, he states, "experience is the adult learner's living textbook" (Lindeman, 1989, p. 7), and adult education is "a continuing process of evaluating experience" (p. 85).  It is through this continual process of evaluating experiences that a method of awareness where one learns to become alert in the discovery of meanings is developed.  With health viewed as a resource originating from people within their social context rather than from the healthcare system, participation is seen as critical to ensure cultural sensitivity of programs, to facilitate sustainability of change efforts, and to enhance health in its own right (Jewkes & Murcott, 1998). 

These three fundamental approaches to adult learning can transform the learning experience from the traditional Western model focused on the accumulation of knowledge to an adult life-changing event that helps people become empowered to create social change.  The goal of adult education is two-fold: personal self-improvement in the short term with a long-term view of changing the social order.  "Changing individuals in continuous adjustment to changing social functions - this is the bilateral though unified purpose of adult learning" (Lindeman, 1989, p.166)