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Adult Learning – Part 1

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Although theories of adult learning seemed to blossom in the 1960s, at least in the West, leading to learning designations such as formalinformal, and non-formal [1], self-directed [2], and andragogical [3], researchers confess that “historically, there have always been an interlocking of adult learning needs with the social contexts in which they occur.” [4] This suggests that ideas surrounding adult learning have, in fact, stretched across times and cultures offering a rich array of perspectives and purposes related to this field of study. From a biblical perspective, we recognize the clear connection to adult learning in Jesus’ and Paul’s visions for disciple making (Mt. 28:19-20; 2 Tim. 2:2). Today, adult learning stands as an umbrella discipline encompassing a wide range of connections to other learning fields and priorities. So, how might designers make sense of this broad spectrum of ideas in their desire to create learning pathways that are conducive to adult learners achieving contemporary educational outcomes? 

Horizon believes that learning designers should seek to maximize certain connections within the learning process while attending to the unique educational purposes undergirding these experiences. In these ways, designers can fit learning to the adult learners who are engaging in these opportunities. 

Making connections with contemporary learners

Designers need to better understand the learners in their courses helping them make tacit connections between themselves and the subjects being taught. 

  1. Connect outcomes with learner readiness, purposes, and priorities – Horizon encourages designers to envision learner readiness in terms of competencies and margin. Adult learning theories suggest that learning should be scaffolded so that learners are challenged to engage in learning that builds upon previously acquired knowledge and competencies. Moreover, learning should be designed to account for the learner’s margin [5], that is, the balance between the learner’s life load (family, work and ministry responsibilities) and her/his power to fulfill the learning expectations. So, what would you say is the margin in the lives of your learners? Horizon would also encourage you to take the time to explore the purposes and priorities that undergird your learners’ reasons for participating and their motivations for engaging in learning. These perspectives should inform the ways that you connect the learning outcomes with your learners’ educational goals. 
  2. Connect learning tasks with learner experience – First, designers should seek to leverage the prior experiences of the learner within the learning tasks. This helps to engender respect for the learner while encouraging the formation of new learning connections in the mind of the learner. Second, designers should seek to put themselves in the shoes of the learner who will be experiencing the learning process—a growing field of study referred to as learner experience (LX). Drawing from Don Norman’s thinking on user experience (UX), learning designers should design learning experiences that seek to maximize qualities that motivate engagement, such as those noted in Peter Morville’s UX honeycomb
  3. Connect learning activities with real-world settings – Adult learners are motivated to pursue learning outcomes that are explicitly tied to their lives, work, and ministries. Part of the designer’s work is to exploit these connections by integrating these real-world settings within the learning pathway. Horizon encourages designers to consider how learning tasks and assessments might be freed from simulation in the digital classroom and liberated to places of authentic practice within the learners’ lives. We recommend orienting learning around real-world domains such as complex contemporary problems, cultural and cross-cultural perspectives, and missional praxis within the learner’s local context. 

Making connections in changing contexts

  1. Connect learning to the contemporary world – Our world continues to change in significant ways impacting the very nature of the learning pathways we envision. Although the concept of the VUCA world is not new, the challenge associated with keeping online courses current is daunting. So, how might your learning design keep its fingers on the pulse of a changing world? One idea would be to design self-directed learning projects that require learners to explore and investigate these emerging realities in ways that connect with your learning goals. For example, an ethics course might require learners to find an ethical problem from a contemporary business setting around which they would be asked to generate a code of ethics and ethics training program that would remediate the problem. Learners would investigate resources that help them analyze the case and guide them in suggesting potential solutions, and then would present their findings and recommendations for faculty and colleague interaction and learning. 
  2. Connect learning processes to disciplinary competencies – As is true with the world, disciplinary understandings continue to change and develop over time. Horizon has found that it is in these spaces of development where disciplinary ways of thinking and behaving often provide fruitful places for design. Thus, on a basic level, we can ask questions like, “What does it mean to think and behave like a scientist? – or like an artist?” These kinds of questions help designers move beyond a design focus that gets exclusively caught up in the development of content. Instead, designers can begin to focus on specific skills and competencies that characterize a discipline, or the learning process that could enable learners to acquire these abilities and ways of thinking. In summary, adult learning encourages identifying learning processes that connect to the disciplines being studied, such as problem solving, or critical thinking, or adjudication, or working in teams, or identifying bias, etc. 

Making connections through learning theories.

Most, if not all, of the theories of learning depicted in this website intersect with theories on adult learning. As designers, you possess the opportunity to connect these learning theories to the learning tasks you design. How might you enable learners to leverage the ideas, practices, and relationships that inhabit these approaches to learning? 

Click here to read Part 2 of Adult Learning on learning design strategies.


[1] Johnstone, J.W.C. & Rivera, R.J. (1965). Volunteers for Learning: A Study of the Educational Pursuits of Adults, Hawthorne, New York: Aldine de Gruyer.

[2] Tough, A. (1967). Learning Without a Teacher. Educational Research Series, No. 3. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

[3] Knowles, M.S. (1968). Andragogy not pedagogy. Adult Leadership, 16(10) 350-352.

[4] Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd;3rd; ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p.6.

[5] McClusky, H.Y. (1970). An approach to a differential psychology of the adult potential. In S.M. Grabowski (Ed.), Adult learning and instruction (pp. 80-95). Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED045867.pdf.



Learner Experience (LX)
Adult Learning – Part 2