How Adult Professionals Learn

Interestingly, long-standing research establishes that adults learn pretty much the way children learn.  Lyons and Parnell (2001) suggested that, “Adults, like children, bring their knowledge, beliefs, perceptions, and assumptions to new experiences and construct new knowledge or refine previous understanding to gain meaning.”  It is our job as instructional coaches and leaders to work with teachers on making sense of all that is affecting their teaching and their students.

Friend and Cook (2000) identified seven fundamental characteristics of adult learners, which included the following:

  • Adult learners bring with them various amounts of skills, prior knowledge, experience, and ideas, beliefs, values, and passions about learning (developed after years of success – or perhaps failure – in their adult lives).
  • Adults are goal oriented.  They generally have a set of goals and/or issues they are facing at a particular time, and they want to resolve them now.
  • Adult are more likely to be flexible learners, because they have had to adapt to many different learning contexts, teaching approaches, and teacher personalities.
  • Adults have high expectations.  Teachers know what they want from professional development sessions and expect to get it.  They have worked with many different kinds of children and families and have developed a sense of good or poor learning contexts.
  • Adults have many commitments – and many demands – affecting their time.
  • Adults are generally motivated to learn.  Teachers are accountable for their students’ learning and are motivated to try new teaching approaches and techniques that might improve their practices.

In instructional coaching, it is imperative to play to one’s audience – particularly in professional development scenarios.  Assisting educators in discovering their hidden abilities is our essential resource – and requires diplomacy.

In working with teachers, it helps to look closely at the research and findings of experts like Dan Goleman and Howard Gardner – particularly in regard to higher-order thinking skills and questioning.

Goleman’s work in Emotional Intelligence provided keen insight into the distinction between intellectual ability and the ability to persuade, teach and lead.  Goleman’s work can serve as a readiness gauge that assists in determining the pace and rigor that would work best with individuals being coached.

Gardner’s work in Multiple Intelligences provided insight into learning styles, and is a useful resource in calibrating methods to engage with – and connect with – teachers with whom you work.

Some examples of the  multiple learning styles you may come across among teachers you coach might include:

Visual-Spatial – Think in terms of physical space; effective tools include models, graphics, charts, photographs, drawings, 3-D modeling, video, videoconferencing, television, multimedia, texts with pictures/charts/graphs.

Bodily-kinesthetic – Keen level of body awareness.  They favor movement, making things, touching.  They often communicate better through body language and learn quickly through physical activity, hands-on learning, acting out and role playing.  Tools they prefer include equipment and tangible objects.

Musical – Rhythm and sound sensitivity; preferred tools often include musical instruments and electronics of any sort through which music can be played.  Also favor multimedia venues.

Interpersonal – Gain critical energy through interacting and connecting with others.  Individuals most responsive to interpersonal actions generally learn fastest through relationship-building.  Often are most receptive to group activities, seminars, and open dialogue.  Technology most relied upon – unsurprisingly – include telephone, audio conferencing, video conferencing, writing, computer conferencing, and email.

Intrapersonal – Independent learners who often tend to shy away from others.  Their preferred learning options include independent study and introspection.  In lieu of interpersonal interaction, their predilection is for books, creative materials, diaries and journals, privacy and time.

Linguistic – Some learners have highly developed auditory skills and often think in words over other processing images.  Preferred tools for linguistic-dominant learners often include computers, electronic and other games, multimedia, books, tape recorders, and lecture-presentations.

Logical-Mathematical – “Concepts before details.”  Logical-mathematical learners tend to think more conceptually, abstractly and theoretically than others.  Generally, there is a preference for experimental learning over tangible efforts.

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