Are adult learners different from young learners?

I’m currently participating in a training course for IB educators to become officially recognised IB Workshop Leaders. Learning with and from passionate, knowledgeable and driven educators, with diverse backgrounds and experiences, is proving to be engaging and exciting. I’m enjoying the challenge of being pushed to think about learning in a different context.

I notice again and again, that the issues discussed, the tips the leaders offer, the problems we grapple with and the strategies shared all apply just as much in teaching and learning at school as they do in running adult workshops.

We reflect individually on the conditions that support and hinder our own learning, and then share in groups. There’s much commonality… and difference, of course, and the leaders point out that all these are considerations to bear in mind when running workshops for other adults.

These are some of the factors that come up in the conversation:

(Notice anything?)

As adult learners, we value…

  • Opportunities to interact with other learners.
  • A sense of  learning something new.
  • Enough time to talk, reflect and construct meaning.
  • An interesting presenter, aware of participants’ needs.
  • Engaging and provocative issues to grapple with.
  • A range of perspectives.
  • A clear purpose.
  • A variety of presentation styles.
  • A safe environment in which to try out our ideas.
As adult learners, we don’t enjoy…
  • Being passive while a presenter lectures.
  • PowerPoints with too many words.
  • Lack of internet access.
  • An overcrowded agenda.
  • Physical needs not being met
  • Not enough time to reflect and internalise.
  • Lack of support and follow-up.

We’re asked to examine a list of the characteristics of adult learners and consider the implications that these have for us as workshop leaders. It’s true we need to be aware that adults have accumulated a (longer) lifetime of knowledge and experiences that might affect our learning. Adults might come to the new learning with more preconceived ideas, stronger opinions and possibly a resistance to change. But as I work my way through the list, I’m struck again by the fact that learning is learning and there is not much difference between the way adults learn and the way children do. Before I’m criticised (yet again!) for my tendency to oversimplify, let me clarify that I am not comparing the natural curiosity and exploration of toddlers to adults studying for a PhD. (Or am I?) I’m sharing my beliefs about the ways learning works.

As an educator who thinks deeply about learning, I have spent a great deal of time over the years considering almost all the things on this list in the context of student learning. How much will I need to adjust my practice when working with adults?

These are my school’s articulated learning principles: (If you read this blog regularly, you’ll have seen these beliefs referred to repeatedly!)

Everyone has the potential to learn.

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning occurs by acquiring skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to other contexts.
  • Learning is active and social and best takes place through collaboration and interaction.
  • Learning takes place when we feel secure, valued and are able to take risks.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, and requires learners to take ownership of their learning.

It seems to me that if I bear these in mind, as I always need to do in learning situations, facilitating adult workshops will not be all that different from teaching in a classroom.

IB Workshop Leader Training Day #2

27 thoughts on “Are adult learners different from young learners?

  1. There is a word for “adult learning strategies”, but I never remember it. I always remember the work Pedagogy…but Andragogy…strategies that work for learners, work at all ages…they might look a bit different (i.e. the concepts/content being explored), but just as you say Edna, “facilitating adult workshops will not be all that different from teaching in a classroom”…if we are well prepared and bring passion to our participants while allowing them to take ownership of their own learning, it will be ‘like another classroom’.

    Have fun planning your inquiry that should be coming up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Dan

      I’ve met some people from your school… now I need to meet you!
      I like this line :’ if we are well prepared and bring passion to our participants while allowing them to take ownership of their own learning…’ because that’s how all teaching and learning should look!


  2. Hi Ms. Sackson! I am a student at the University of South Alabama, and I was assigned to your blog by Dr. Strange for EDM310. I must say that I really enjoyed this post about the difference in adult learners. It was very interesting to me because I myself am an adult student. Although I am a younger adult, I can definitely tell a difference in the way I approach my classes now as opposed to when I was in school many years ago. After being in the workforce for several years, I personally appreciate the opportunity to learn more now than I did when I was younger. I still technically learn the same way, but I feel I have a different outlook on it. I am really enjoying your blog and look forward to reading more. I am just getting started, but I would love for you to check out my blog as well. Courtney’s Blog
    Thank you, Courtney Hieronymus


    1. Hi Courtney

      If you become a regular reader of my blog, you will notice that I have a tendency to simplify things. It’s way to a) distil the essence of what I am thinking and b) express ideas clearly and briefly in a way that’s quick and easy for others to read c) provoke thoughtful responses.

      I realise that there are difference between the ways adults and children approach learning. I’m drawing people’s attention to the ways in which they are similar

      Good luck with your studies. I plan to visit your blog.


  3. In the context of adult workshops, I think you’re absolutely right to highlight the parallels with your classroom Edna. Given the nature, backgrounds and expectations of all players in those environments, there is much about the learners and the learning one would expect to be the same. Although it’s hardly pertinent to the circumstances with which you’re currently involved, I wonder whether your observations would still hold if the learners weren’t the ‘teacher subset’ of adults as a whole, but adults in general.

    I guess I’m asking are teachers as learners different from learners in general?


    1. Thanks, Ian. As always, your response is thoughtful and provocative and I’ll mull about it!
      Maybe teacher learners are more aware of how learning can best take place because they think about it so much 🙂


  4. Excellent post as always, the one thing that popped into my head when reading the post was ACTION. Have you considered the difference between adults and children in relation to learning is action? Students/children turn learning into knowledge and facts to recall especially if the teacher doesn’t give students time or opportunity to take action, while adults just like the people in the WSL PD would more than likely turn their learning into action.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Erwin. If you shift the idea of learning away from just recall of facts to true understanding, then I think children are just as likely to act as a result of their new understandings as adults are. If the learning is skill based, likewise.


  5. I’d add one more item to your lists which is most often enunciated by adult learners: they value teachers who know from experience what they are talking about, whose knowledge is not limited to what they read somewhere.

    A teacher who tells other teachers about how to teach speaks from a base of personal experience. The same teacher telling other teachers about how the the concept of wifnoggery is used in retailing but who has never worked in retailing is on less firm ground. The students will know it, even if the teacher doesn’t.


    1. That’s not unique to adult learners. Children too value teachers who know stuff. Older kids can certainly see through teachers who pretend they know more than they do.


  6. Reading your blog makes me want to meet you for coffee and chat! You are SOOO right here. I think about this all the time. Watch a group of educators “shut down” when viewing PowerPoint slides. People don’t often realize that they ask the same of their students. Learning is active and built on natural, engaging curiousity. WIthout that component, it’s just not great learning. This is a great comparison you have made here. Thank you!


    1. I feel the same about yours 🙂

      It depends, I think, on how people view students learning. One participant said adults are less compliant. Why should kids be compliant for that matter? What does compliance have to do with learning? We aren’t talking about ‘class management’ here…


  7. Linda Arogani Makes an important point.

    Students ” value teachers who know from experience what they are talking about, whose knowledge is not limited to what they read somewhere.

    “A teacher who tells other teachers about how to teach speaks from a base of personal experience.”

    This works in any skill program. If a teacher can not write well, they should not be teaching writing. If they don’t have lots of printing experience, they should not teach printing. For the teachers who are teaching critical thinking and life long learning, it is critical they practice critical thinking and are life long learners.

    The reason is simple. When an unexpected question arises in a classroom some one who has practice can find just the right question in response to move learning forward. If one tries to trigger learning in a subject that has only been learned from books, the questions tend to be mechanical. Mechanical answers and more important questions dampen the love of learning.


    1. Hi Michael

      What you say applies equally whether the learners are kids are adults. You’re talking about good teaching and authentic learning… irrespective of age of learners.


  8. I think you make valid points Edna – very exciting. I would also add the importance of feedback and feed forward. Both student learners and adult learners value knowing they are on the right track and how to improve. Enjoy WSL training!


  9. I fully agree with what you’ve said here!

    I wonder too, if there’s another, perhaps neurological angle to the thing.
    I teach my son language, among other things, while (re)learning it myself!
    And, I have noticed subtle differences in the ways we absorb stuff.
    While he takes ’em in as new entities and nuggets to remember and reuse, I seem to look for associations in another context, literally looking for “which box from the set of boxes already placed in my brain do I place this new input”..

    So, I guess one permanently loses the ability to assimilate knowledge from an open space into a blank canvas, the moment he/she as an adult draws up a grid in it and only looks for associations from the incoming-stranger to the familiar-grid.

    How I miss my childhood..!


    1. Hi Raj!

      I’m not sure if the difference is because of age or just because everyone learns in different ways. Some people use associations, others don’t… but I think learning works best when some kinds of connections are being made. Adult learners might have more prior knowledge and experience with which to make those connections, but children are not a blank slate! A kid of your son’s age has plenty of existing knowledge and understanding with which to connect the new!


  10. My name is Jamie Cunningham and I am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I have really enjoyed reading your blog. I read the post 10 tips for any Teachers and I really enjoyed it. I found the post “Are Adult Learners different from Young learners” interesting as well. I am an Adult Learner and I feel that I am still the same way as I was when I was young. When I was younger I hated sitting in a class room listening to a teacher read something that I can read on my own time. I felt like class time was a waste. I agree with you that age is not what makes it so different it’s just that everyone learns in different ways. I plan to post comments about your post on my blog tonight feel free to check it out Jamie Cunningham’s blog Thanks


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