Research indicates some interesting principles on adult learning (Andragogy). The following is the second of a series on the topic and the way in which the Academy approaches this issue in practice with its adult students.

The Academy’s students are typically between 25 and 35 and are fully employed. They follow a part-time, open distance, undergraduate programme.

Life experience has enabled adults to experience life and they therefore have a well-developed cognitive map of the world.

This is unfortunately not necessarily good for education as new information conflicts with what we, especially as adults, already know and believe. In practical terms, experience may very well translate into resistance to change.

Adult learning will therefore mostly require a certain measure of unlearning and this is the reason why adult learning is more difficult and why it often takes longer.

It should also be remembered that experience becomes the source of a person’s self-identity and dignity. New information therefore challenges the self-identity and the adult student may feel that his/her self-identity is undermined and is therefore unable to assimilate the learning. This is especially important to remember when working with adults who have little formal education, because they have little to sustain their dignity over their experience. Many of our students fit exactly into this category and we are very careful not to offend.

In a now famous article[1] about adult education and MBAs, the management guru, Henry Mintzberg refers to this phenomenon when he states that students need to suspend their disbeliefs so they can learn.

He goes further and states that the ongoing effects of an educational programme should have impact beyond the recipient and that the entire organisation should benefit. Education is not simply about individual or personal learning. If learning is not assimilated into the workplace, the adult student may become rather frustrated and feel boxed-in, unable to share the benefit of their new learning, which will further reinforce the difficulty of unlearning.

According to Mintzberg the individual has an “obligation to diffuse his or her learning into the organization. The impact of this can range from the simple and straightforward to the rather elaborate. Participants can share interesting readings with their colleagues, brief them on classroom sessions, even run miniature replications of what they have experienced. More broadly, participants can set out to change their organizations on the basis of what they learned in the program.” He adds the cautionary note: “as unobtrusively as possible, to render change naturally.”

The Academy supports this integrated approach to learning that will benefit both the student and the organisation. Learning is already more difficult for adults and employers who do not integrate this as organisational learning and development. A lack of integration makes the process even more difficult and creates what we call the sandbag effect for the adult student, effectively weighing them down and inhibiting progress.

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[1]  Summer 2004, Opinion & Analysis July 15, 2004 Jonathan Gosling and Henry Mintzberg