CYC-Online 60 JANUARY 2004
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adult education

How adults learn

J. Muller

The theories of lifelong education and of life-span development may have been the most important theoretical contributions to adult education in recent years. We now know that not only children can learn. In a man's life-span there is no division between a period of learning and application of what has been learned earlier. Learning and application are interwoven, both continue and both reinforce each other. However, the way adults learn is different from the way learn. What does it mean to be an adult learner? What are the characteristics of an adult learner?

1.1. Who is an adult? The meaning of adulthood

Rogers distinguishes three main clusters of ideas within any of adulthood:

According to Rogers adult learners

1.2. Characteristics of adult learning
Education of children is compulsory, formal and standardized. Adult learning is voluntary and intentional. The aim of adult education is the independent self-directed learner. Adults tend to resist a learning process which is incongruent with their self-concept as autonomous individuals and does not correspond to their needs and interests.

Adult learning is learner-centered
What children learn in school should be useful to them “but later in life. Child learning is subject-centered. Adult learning is learner-centered. Adults focus on direct application. Given their daily obligations in job, profession, family and community they learn to cope with the pressures and problems of life they are facing. In consequence the adult educator's concern is not only and not even primarily the logical development of a subject matter but the needs and interests of the learners. “Andragogy (adult education) calls for program builders and teachers who are person-centered, who don’t teach subject matter but rather help persons learn" (Knowles). However, the interests of adults are their real needs. Or the solutions learners have in mind do not solve their problems. The adult educator often has to enter into a “needs negotiation" (Bhola) with learners when teaching new needs about boiled water or a balanced diet, about clean surroundings, preventive health practices or small families. In the dialectical process of needs negotiation the needs as felt by the learners and the needs as seen by the adult educators must be brought together to reach a consensus on the “real" needs. These real needs must correspond to the experience of adult learners. If an adult gets the impression that his experience is not being valued he feels rejected as a person. New learnings take on meaning as adults are able to relate them to their life experience. Experienced adult educators, therefore, build into the design of their learning experiences provision for the learners to plan and rehearse how they are going to apply their learnings in their day-to-day lives or duties and combine training with transfer and application. A workshop then really can become a workplace where educational materials are produced or evaluation studies are designed.

Adult learning is social learning
According to Knox's proficiency theory the learning needs for an adult arise from life situations and interpersonal communication. Social expectation motivates and empowers an adult to search for more knowledge, better proficiency and more suitable performance. Adult learning is based on experience, on the learners” own experience and on the experience of others. Learning settings of adults usually have a participatory and collaborative element. Adults prefer to meet as equals in small groups to explore issues and concerns and then to take common action as a result of dialogue and inter-learning by discourse. The group becomes the “learning co-operative". The group provides the opportunity for inter-learning. Within the group the teacher as well as the other group members play the role of facilitators. All group members become “co-agents" (Bhola) in learning.

The absence of formal accreditation or certification facilitates collaboration not only on a specific product or outcome but even in structuring and restructuring the learning process according to the needs and interests of the group. The learning process becomes as important as the learning outcome, and a balance between both is often difficult to maintain. How much freedom can actually be given to the adult learner in choice of content and method?

Adult learning is active learning
Adult learning is life-centered. It is learning by doing, by application and experience, and if need be by trail and error. Adults do not simply receive knowledge created by outsiders, but should examine their own reality themselves and make assertions about it. “Praxis" is the focus of effective adult learning and praxis means analysis and examination of reality in order to transform it. Adult learning is a continuous process of investigation and exploration followed by action grounded in this exploration, followed by reflection on this action, leading to further investigation and so on. The principle is testing not “banking" (P. Freire) of knowledge. Exploration of new ideas, skills and knowledge take place in the context of the learners” experience. In settings where skills are being learned, learners become acquainted with skills, apply these in real life settings, redefine hoe these skills may be altered by context, re-apply these in other settings and so on. Adults interpret ideas, skills and knowledge through the medium of their life-experience and test them in real life settings. To make the learner self-directed is the purpose of adult education. But the self-directed learner is neither the one who can retrieve information or locate resources nor the one who emerges in group dynamics. The “inner-directed, self-operating learner" (R. Kidd) is the one who reflects critically on his own assumptions and is keen to find alternative and better solutions.

Adult learning means acquiring knowledge and competence
The learning process contributes largely to the success of learning. But learning is more than just the learning process. A participative learning process which fails to assist the learners in acquiring knowledge and competence is a failure. A participative learning process may take more time because it means active involvement of everybody, discussing all the pro's and con's, nevertheless it must lead to concrete results combining commitment with competence. Education is, as Brookfield points out a “ transactional encounters". That means that the sole responsibility for determining curricula or for selecting appropriate methods does not rest either with the educator or with the learner. If the first obtains, then we have an authoritarian style and a one-way transmission of knowledge and skills. If curricula, methods and evaluative criteria become predetermined solely by what learners say they want, then the “cafeteria approach" governs the educational process. Accepting the felt needs rationale without any further inquiry and needs negotiation means that the facilitator has abandoned responsibility for the learning process and the achievement of learning aims and objectives. Successful learning especially in workshop settings means to keep the balance between the learning process and the learning outcome so that the results justify the efforts and if they are not excellent they should be at least and always “good enough".

2. Principles of participatory training
The training model presented in this handbook is based on participation. The principles of participatory training (Shrivastave and Tandon explain these principle in greater detail) reflect how adults learn.

Participatory training is life-centered
What is learned must be applicable to real life situations. A workshop programme, therefore, must provide opportunity and assist adult learners to apply what has been learned to life situations and job requirements.

Participatory training is learner-centred
A workshop programme arises out of the needs of participants as articulated by them and negotiated with them. These “needs-negotiations" are necessary to keep the balance between the interests and needs as voiced by the learners and the state-of-the-art of the subject matter which learners have to become familiar with in order to acquire knowledge and competence and to get the feeling of success and achievement. However, participants should always maintain control of the training process and influence upon the methods used.

Participatory training is flexible
The teaching-learning process, while not losing track of the objectives and the subject matter, should always take into consideration the problems participants are facing and the learning progress, they are making. The programme schedule must be open and leave room for repetition and the unforeseen. Tue final programme of a workshop evolves as the workshop goes on.

Participatory training is comprehensive with focus on awareness, as well as on knowledge and skills
This combined focus makes the choice of training methods complex. Awareness-raising, is most aptly achieved through a dialogue between facilitator and learner. Knowledge-acquisition is most effectively done through lecture-discussions or-readings based on handbooks and carefully selected reference material. Learning new skills or sharpening existing ones demands giving opportunity to practice within a workshop, be it in groups (with peer review) or individually under guidance by the facilitator.

Participatory training is learning through the experiences of learners
Learners come with their experiences and make new ones during the training process. It is important that learners (and resource persons) report on their experiences and share their experiences to find appropriate solutions. Thus a workshop becomes a “learning cooperatives."

Participatory training is based on mutual respect
Learners always need a opportunity to first unlearn and then relearn. Both processes imply a deficiency and can be highly threatening to a person. In order to accept criticism, learners must feel accepted as they are, must be encouraged to run risks and to accept support. The atmosphere in a workshop must be such that participants enjoy learning and feel comfortable and confident that, whatever happens in training, will not be used against them.

In participatory training trainers are a team of facilitators
In participatory training the trainers' behaviour and value system is as important as his professional knowledge and his teaching abilities. In workshop settings trainers should work as a team of facilitators, open to self-criticism, ready to support each other without becoming defensive against participants. The team of facilitators should be present throughout a workshop from its beginning to the end.

The venue is of great influence on the learning process
The venue should facilitate an uninterrupted learning process. It should be outside major towns, where participants, free from daily obligations, can exchange their experiences and cooperate in finding solutions. It will usually be a residential setting so that the learning co-operative becomes a captive audience.

Participatory training is based on feedback
Nobody is perfect! Feedback is necessary not only to adapt an ongoing workshop programme to the learning needs and progress of participants but also to learn from past workshop experiences in order to prove future programmes. This can be done by appropriate methods of internal evaluation be it formative during the workshop or summative at its end.

3. The Action Training Model (ATM).
A model to combine principles of adult education and participatory training with production
The Action Training Model is meant to train adult educators. It takes into consideration how adults learn and is based on the principles of participatory training.

3.1. The emergence of the model
The Action Training Model (ATM) grew out of the need to assist adult educators and development workers to cope with specific tasks for which they had no specific training, e.g. to do systematic evaluations, to produce reading materials for new readers coining out of literacy programmes or to produce distance education materials for untrained teachers or literacy workers. In contrast to the well known “all-talk seminars and no-work-workshops" the Action Training Model combines training with action and production. In a workshop setting participants get the necessary know-how to elaborate a concrete product, be it an evaluation report or a distance education unit – and they do it. They do the “real thing" not just an assignment for the wake of training. The skills learned are acquired within the framework of production. As this is not feasible within a two weeks training setting of a workshop, the model combines collective training in a sequence of workshops with individual work under guidance at the place of work, or in the field.

This combination of inter-learning and cooperating in workshop, settings on the one hand with individual work under guidance at the place or work on the other is the essence of the Action Training Model. It should be noted, that the Action Training Model does not imply to specifically “go to the field" as it is the case in operational seminars. The “field" is the learner’s usual place of work and nothing else. Te go to this field is not an extra (and artificial) activity. It is the learner’s job.
The model makes some important assumptions about delivery and design of training (Bhola).

3.2. Assumptions about the delivery of training
The ATM is a model of in-service and block-release training for , middle level technical personnel based on workshops of about two weeks duration combined with individual work under guidance on a concrete task be it an evaluation unit to be conducted or a distance education unit or a booklet for new” readers to be written”. The assumption here is that adults who are at work cannot spare much time for time for long-term training courses and that training for this group must be practical and tailor-made to assist them in fulfilling their daily duties. In a first workshop of about two to three weeks duration participants get a systematic introduction to the subject matter e.g. evaluation or the writing of distance education materials and they elaborate an evaluation proposal or draft a distance education unit.

After the first workshop they go back to their places of work and collect data in the field or develop instruments to test their units or booklets. They do this under guidance of experienced resource persons. A few months later they come for a second workshop, a “mid-term panel", and present their data collections or tested distance education units. They get information on data organization and analysis and they organize and analyse their data or they get feedback from peers and resource persons on their test instruments and how to use them. After the mid-term panel participants write their evaluation reports or test their units. In a third workshop they present their evaluation reports for discussion or their distance education units for further review refinement and editing. Thus, participants can follow a training course of up to one years duration without being absent from their places of work for more than five to six weeks. The time in-between the-workshops is filled with work on a concrete project. However, to finalise the project means longterm commitment both by the participants themselves, by the group of resource persons who have to assist participants, and by the institutions participants come from who have to give all necessary support.

3.3. Assumptions in design of training
The training design is based on the principles of adult learning and participatory training.

The model combines training and action
All training takes place in the work context of participants. Each participant is working on a concrete task, an evaluation proposal, a unit of a distance education course or a booklet for new readers.

He/she gets familiar with subject matter immediate application of what has been taught in lecture-discussions. All learning is active learning, is learning by doing.

The model is learner-centred
Participants are being confronted with problems they face in their daily work situations and they get guidance on how to solve some of these problems. Their experience becomes a learning tool, their needs the focus of learning process. With whatever background and whatever intentions participants come “participants in workshops are not just there to be taught; they are the greatest resource in the learning co-operative.

Multiple” contexts and settings for learning, including discussions, individually guided instruction, and group work with peer review allow appropriate connections between learning task requirements, learning needs and styles of participants.

The model is based on systematic learning
Participants become familiar with the subject matter by through it systematically and a concrete task step by step. To facilitate this process special handbooks are developed by the facilitators. These handbooks guide the participant through all the necessary steps and give a complete overview on the subject matter including some theoretical background so that the actual workshop programme can make some selective choices in presentation of the subject matter by focusing on certain aspects and specific needs of participants.

The model is flexible and based on active involvement of all participants
All participants are actively involved in planning, executing and evaluating their own learning process. The first workshop begins with an analysis of needs and interests of participants followed by a process of “needs negotiation" to harmonize interests and needs as voiced by participants with the state-of-the-art of the subject matter and the requirements of a structured and systemic learning process. While the topics to be dealt with are defined to some extent by the state-of-the-art of the subject matter, the programme schedule is kept open and flexible. The schedule is being developed in a daily process of adaptation of what has to be learned to progress of the learning process and difficulties participants face. The curriculum of each workshop is being “re-invented" in the actual teaching-learning process. This re-invention does not only validate curriculum choices but also aids participants to claim ownership of the programme. To re-invent the workshop programme is the task of the steering committee in which all faculty members and a number of delegates from the learners cooperate to review the programme of the day and to plan for the following day.

The model is based on social learning
The learning process does not only have a participatory element, it has a collaborative element as well. Participants work together in groups, they get assistance and feedback from the group. Resource persons who take part in the entire workshop (and don’t turn up for specific sessions only) work as a team, they consult with each other, they practice team-teaching and they are “at the disposal of participants" whenever needed to assist them in completing their tasks. The social architecture of the workshop develops a cohesive community of learners, a “learning co-operative" who can stand the “pressure-cooker effect" of (sometimes) a fifty to sixty hours week of work on a specific task.

The model aims at successful learning
Participants get all possible assistance individually and as a group within and outside workshop settings to complete their tasks. A system of continuous feedback from participants has been developed through the steering committee, through reporting back sessions on groupwork in plenary, through individual guidance by resource persons, through critical review of the products of participants by peers and by resource persons. This feedback system combined with summative evaluation of each workshop is an, essential element of continuous programme review and improvement.

It is not only a reliable test instrument of what each participant has learned and achieved. It contributes considerably to the success of the learning process.

The Action Training Model is applicable in a variety of settings in formal training within universities and specialized training institutions and in non formal settings for staff development in education, health, business, government and the like. It is a challenge to the “all-talk seminars" and “no-work workshops". For the learners as well as for the team of resource persons who have accepted this challenge, it can be an experience of high satisfaction.

H. S Bhola, Training Evaluators in the Third World: Implementation of the Action Training Model (ATM) In Kenya. Evaluation and Program Planning, Vol.12, pp. 249-258, Pergamon Press, Oxford, New York 1989
James Roby Kidd, How Adults Learn, Association Press, New York 1975 rev.
Malcolm S. Knowles, The Modern Praxis of Adult Education. Andragogy versus Pedagogy. Association Press, New York 1976
A. B. Knox, Adult Development and Learning. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, London 1977
Alan Rogers, Teaching Adults. Open University Press, Milton Keynes, Philadelphia 1986
Om Shrivastava and Rajesh Tandon (eds.), Participatory Training for Rural Development. Society for Participatory Research in Asia. 45, Sainik Farm, Khanpur, New Delhi 1982.

This feature: Muller, J. (1993) The action training model and its educational foundations. Adult education and development p. 239-253

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