Student Agency Through Adult Learning Theory

One of innovative education’s prime tenets is to create student agency through teaching students to take responsibility of their own learning. Considering that students are formally educated at the most through the first 25 years of their lives it is critical that students not only learn how to self-educate be also be given an appreciation of life-long learning which will sustain such education. This process should start in preschool and be a part of any curriculum plan throughout the student’s entire formal education.

At its essence all education is adult education. Education, at its core, is adults teaching children and adults teaching one another and adults teaching the upcoming generation (Fox, 2006). As John Dewey (1913) said, “education must be reconceived, not as merely a preparation for maturity (whence our absurd idea that it should stop after adolescence), but as a continuous growth of the mind and a continuous illumination of life.” The European Union has embraced the concept of the “lifelong learner” since 2001, when it was defined broadly as all activities undertaken throughout life with the aim of improving knowledge, skills, and competence within a personal, civic, social, and/or employment-related perspective. (p. 31)

Johnson, et al (2014) stated that keeping education relevant means policy makers and key stakeholders must come to an agreement on what skills can or should be fostered in school environments. This requires an overarching vision that addresses the fundamental purpose of K-12 as it relates to the learner and their path from childhood to adulthood. The notion that learning happens from pre-school years to post-retirement is integral to understanding European perspectives about the importance of education as it happens in formal, informal, and non-formal settings (p. 145). The focus on lifelong learning has driven the push for individualized learning pathways and generated attention around values that are necessary for social integration. School leaders searching for ways to foster communication, collaboration, and critical-thinking skills have suggested both new approaches and the repurposing of familiar ones. (p. 146).

In a recent study by the non-profit Digital Promise “Designing for Adult Learners: 5 Key Principles drawn from Adult Learning Theory” examines ideas to increase the viability of adult learning. It is insightful to look at these proposals to see how they could also promote K-12 student agency to encourage life-long learning. As content developers seek to capitalize on digital learning opportunities for underserved adult learners by considering ways to design products that will best fit how adults learn; these same entities could be modifying into products to promote K-12 student self-learning techniques. Research about adults and K-12 students as learners can inform the design of effective digital learning experiences for both groups.

Although from all adults learning programs there is not one universal principle that can be applied to designing for adult learners, the design principles outlined here are based on five of the prevailing theories about how adults learn:

• Andragogy,
• Experiential learning,
• Self-directed learning,
• Transformational learning, and
• Neuroscience

Andragogy (see: How We Learn and Think: Learning Theories), a theory born in the late 1970s, is a hybrid objective/subjective learning theory, which applies to any form of adult learning and has been used extensively in the design of organizational training programs (especially for “soft skill” domains such as management development). It is instruction for adults which needs to focus more on the process and less on the content being taught. Strategies such as case studies, role playing, simulations, and self-evaluation are most useful. Instructors adopt a role of facilitator or resource rather than lecturer or teacher (Knowles, 1980).

At the heart of all of theories about how adults learn is the notion of experience. This concept is the basis of Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky’s concept of constructivism which is the foundation of personalized learning. Andragogy acknowledges that adults bring a wealth of experience to their learning and use this experience as a base when they learn (Knowles, 1984). Just as Andragogy holds that learning is successful when adults can make connections between their past experience and new information they are learning (Mackeracher, 2004) or when they see how learning is relevant to them and their lives (Knowles, 1984); so too does constructivism hold that K-12 education should be personalized to take advantage of the motivational element produced when a student can focus on learning about subject matter that interests them.

In some cases, explaining why the information will help them in their current or future work and/or studies can make the connection (Knowles, 1980). Also helpful is finding ways for both entities to “do” something with their new knowledge. The more practical and authentic that “do” the better (Reder, 2009). Example would be, authentic problem solving activities, role-playing, simulations of real life situations, case studies, and games (Knowles, 1984). Additionally, there is no one typical adult learner or K-12 student experience to rely on — learners have varied educational backgrounds, employment/learning history, travel experiences, ethnic backgrounds, family situations and the like (Merriam, et al., 2014). So when designing authentic activities, it is important to include a variety of perspectives and examples so students will find something they can relate to and connect with.

Because their learning is rooted in experience, adults are practical and naturally oriented to solving problems in their lives (Knowles, 1984). Although not as extensive as adults, problem solving is a constant challenge for children of all ages including preschoolers. In addition, we know from neuroscience that the brain’s plasticity continues to change and grow throughout adulthood (Mackeracher, 2004), and that learning centered on problem solving helps make necessary connections for such growth (Merriam, et al., 2014).

The key is to structure problems on what the learner encounters in work/life situations and then help them practice strategies to solve them (Reder, 2009). A good example comes from Pine Technical College in Minnesota, where a small technology group developed a game for students who want to work in the medical profession. The game is based on realistic situations, and is used to train students for work in hospitals and clinics. After creating an avatar, students encounter a series of problems that emphasize skill development, such as how to deal with death and sickness, how to talk to patients, and how to engage family members of patients. Ultimately, the more learners can practice in authentic situations and apply what they learn immediately, the more likely they are to develop new skills (Merriam, et al., 2014).

From a brain science perspective, it’s also important to include problems that involve both sides of the brain’s learning centers. Specifically, learning activities that draw on the subjective creative strengths of the right side of the brain and the more objective verbal and analytical strengths of the left side are most effective (Zull, 2011). So, incorporating multiple approaches and pathways to solutions in games and activities is a good strategy to help students use both sides of their brains when solving problem (Fenwick, 2008). Further, finding ways to incorporate assessments and feedback loops (see: Double Loop Learning in Innovation Methodological Learning Theories) within the problem-solving environment helps students monitor their learning (Merriam, et al., 2014).

Games and simulations can be designed to provide opportunities for instant and continuous feedback. In the medical simulation game mentioned above, students work through each challenge and get feedback on their approach and choices. If their avatar’s approach to engaging family members is not the best choice, they will experience something similar to what they would in real life – a family member will get angry or emotional, or display an inability to effectively deal with the situation. Students try again until the family member avatar engages in the desired behavior.

Covington (1989) observed that, research with adults does suggest that intense skill training can increase the quality of entrepreneurial activities, and for at least several years after instruction (Aronoff & Litwin, 1966; McClelland & Winter, 1969). Typically such training involves using problem-solving games to teach realistic risk appraisal. For example, in the “business game” (Litwin & Ciarlo, 1961) players calculate how many toy rockets they can assemble in a given amount of time. If players overestimate how much they can accomplish and buy too many parts, they will lose money. But if too few parts are requisitioned, players will end up with time on their hands.

If realistic goal-setting can be encouraged in adults, then why can’t it also be encouraged in children? Given the importance of this question, it is surprising that more is not known about the answer. However, what little evidence we do have is promising (McClelland, 1972). It suggests that positive changes are possible, not only in those behaviors associated with a success orientation such as realistic goal setting (p. 52) and independence of judgment, but also in improved school grades and reductions in absenteeism and dropout rates (de Charms, 1968, 1972; Ryals, 1969).

“At the heart of adult learning is engaging in, reflecting upon, and making meaning of our experiences” (Merriam, et al., 2014, p. 104). According to Experiential Learning Theory (see: Innovation Methodological Learning Theories), time and space for reflection helps learners absorb and make sense of the experience (Kolb, 1984). A quick discussion about an activity with a peer or a coach can help adult learners crystalize ideas and thoughts.

For example, Chicago-based Instituto del Progreso Latino uses a blended learning model (part in class learning, and part online learning) in their Cyber ESL program, and incorporates a one-on-one coaching session for students via Skype. They have found that asking questions and talking about what they are learning and practicing during the week makes a big difference in students’ confidence as they progress. Strategies like this also give students an opportunity to process new information in smaller chunks (see: Information Processing Theory, in Innovation Methodological Learning Theories), which raises the likelihood that the information will stick (Sharan, 1994).

Other examples of activities that can be used for regular reflection include:

• Journaling
• Mind mapping visualizations
• Peer coaching
• Role-playing and
• Discussion groups

And, tying those opportunities for reflection to learners’ everyday lives and experiences helps them make sense of the experience.

Providing opportunities to control their own learning Self-directed Learning Theory (see: How We Learn and Think – Learning Theories) posits that adults can and should be active participants in their own learning (Knowles, 1980). For some students, particularly low-skilled students, this means having the option to control the pace of their learning by replaying a video, doing more practice before moving on, or choosing the order in which they do things (Merriam, et al., 2014).

Cell-Ed, a cell phone based language and literacy program, is one example of a program that allows students to control the pace and trajectory of their learning. Students call in to listen to short lessons, and then receive and send texts through the week to practice what they have learned. Because they have access anytime, anywhere, students can choose when to call in, when to do the practice, whether to repeat practice, and when to ask for help from their “text” coaches. Cell-Ed has found that students (p. 4) are completing lessons at a faster pace than they would in a traditional classroom. But theorists also suggest that self-directed learning means taking control of one’s own learning at a broader level. In particular, students who are able to:

• Set goals
• Create plans to meet their goals, and
• Monitor their own progress

are more likely to persist in learning and ultimately achieve positive outcomes (Caffarella, et al, 1993).

While low-skilled learners often struggle with these tasks because they lack confidence in their learning, (Merriam, et al., 2014) research has shown that with help and guidance, they can develop the skills for goal setting, planning, and persisting in their efforts. Some key methods to guide students in directing their learning include providing pre-tests like the ones found in the math products Aleks and EdReady, so students understand what they know and what they need to learn (Costa, et al, 2004).

Another example of a tool for planning and setting goals is a program called myPlace Online, developed by the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy in Philadelphia. This program includes:

• A short introductory module that helps students learn basic computer skills and study skills
• It then leads them through the process of creating their own learning plan
• Including setting career goals and planning the courses they need to achieve those goals

Program directors report increased retention and program completion among students who use myPlace Online.

Some experiences can change the way people think about themselves and their world. This kind of learning often involves a shift in consciousness in response to an “ah-ha” moment or “triggering” event (Mezirow, 1997). Such transformative moments can improve learners’ motivation and confidence as they try out new ideas and perspectives (Taylor, 2008). While on the surface the notion seems a bit abstract, educators from the Transformative Learning Theory (see: How We Learn and Think – Learning Theories), perspective recommend creating an environment in which students open their minds to new possibilities about their lives and futures. To do this, it is first important to create trust. If students feel comfortable they will be more likely to share their thoughts, ask questions, and be open to probing or opposing views (Henderson, 2010).

This can be tricky in a non-classroom situation, but finding ways to make the experience more personal (using video conferencing or one-to-one coaching with a tool such as Skype) can help. Next, educators should find ways to facilitate a “trigger” event. Look for ways to get students to stop, pause and consider something that differs from their current thinking or world view (Henderson, 2010). Trigger event (Dirkx, et al, 2009) opportunities can be introduced by:

• Reading news articles
• Working with simulations
• Participating in team projects
• Conducting research, and
• Discussing videos

This is where students are presented with alternative viewpoints. As a final step, it is important for learners to reflect on these new viewpoints, and take some kind of action, which will help crystalize the transformation (Henderson, 2010). For example:

• Publishing a paper
• Producing a video or photo essay
• Developing a new goal
• Researching a new career, or
• Joining a professional organization

Not all students will have a transformative learning experience, they need challenges to solve, and transformative learning experiences to help stimulate growth (p. 5) but researchers argue that for some adult learners, this type of learning can make the difference between success and failure (Merriam, et al., 2014)

Neuroscience points to several considerations for entrepreneurs interested designing for adult learners:

• Base curriculum and interactions on real world, authentic situations that learners are familiar with, and/ or will encounter in the job market
• Help learners “do” something with new information, whether it is in the context of a simulation, or a real world problems to solve
• Create opportunities for regular and periodic reflection throughout the learning experience — including self-reflection, group reflection, and peer reflection
• Design ways for students to control the pace of their learning, such as the ability to pause, repeat or control the order of material, or access learning material anytime, anywhere
• Facilitate self-directed learning via self-assessments, and tools for planning and goal setting
• Incorporate ways for students to interact with alternative points of view, either via projects and activities, or through collaborations with others who have diverse views and experiences

At first glance, much of what is outlined here seems familiar, especially with experience in K-12 educational technology. It is important not to consider adult learning separate from K-12 student instruction. Humans learn at different times and in different ways (see: Multiple Intelligences in Innovation Methodological Learning Theories) so it’s important to focus on both the child as well as the adult piece of the puzzle.

Although these adult learning theories converge around mostly tapping into the experiences of adults as they learn many also apply to the varied experiences youth learning. So providing an authentic, balanced level application of information is vital:

• Appropriate adult and child-oriented scenarios
• Age appropriate abstract problems, and
• Focused problem sets

Second, many adults, unlike most children, haven’t been taught that their brain is still growing and changing. They need challenges to solve and transform learning experiences to help stimulate growth.

And finally, because low-skilled adults are adults, we tend to think that they can take the ball and run with it. But many low-skilled learners like young learners have had negative experiences with learning in the past, and haven’t developed some of the skills needed to direct their own learning. In addition, many lack confidence in their ability to take charge of their own learning. Providing support, feedback, guidance, and coaching along the way is key to both adult and child learning success.

Just like the fact that millions of American adults, millions of children are in need of new learning opportunities to help them improve their quality of life and build skills needed for success in today and tomorrow’s workforce. Technology products can help meet these needs by providing anytime, anywhere learning, and giving adults and children flexibility and control to learn at their own pace.

Product designers who create new technology products tailored to adults’ unique learning preferences will have the best chance of meeting one of our nation’s greatest needs — while at the same time adapting child learning tools that encourage Andragogic filtered pedagogical methodology and curriculum.