The challenge of working with adult learners

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For many educational leaders, working with adults needs to be given greater consideration when planning change initiatives or designing professional growth and development opportunities. In workshops that I have led on developing collaborative teams, a major area of focus has been on understanding adults as learners. Coaching, teaching and leading adults is different to teaching students. While many of the points below could be applied to working with our school students, there are both subtle and more noticeable differences to working with adults that must be acknowledged and addressed.

  1. Many adults want self-direction and autonomy: This is a ‘right’ that comes with being an adult. Good leaders are able to strike a balance between getting their teachers to focus on the right work while giving teachers the opportunity for self-directed learning and decision-making.
  2. Adults have set habits that have been established over time: The saying that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks is just not true, it may just take longer. Good leaders persevere when working with adult learners, their habits are more difficult to challenge. For example, how do leaders in your school address staff members who are continually late to meetings?
  3. Some adults wish to avoid tests at all costs: Take adults too far out of their comfort zone they will fight to preserve the status quo and recruit others in support of their cause. Leaders must create a safe and supportive environment for adult learning to take place yet provide challenge at the same time.
  4. Most Adults are proud and do not wish to feel threatened: Teachers are very self-conscious of their skills in relation to other teachers and do not want to lose face. They are, therefore, less likely to take a risk with their learning. Additionally, adults expect to be treated respectfully even though they may not treat you, as the leader, in that way.
  5. All adults have attitudes to learning shaped by a vast array of previous experiences: You could be the greatest leader and coach there is but if a person has been scarred by bad experiences of learning then it will be a challenge just to gain their trust.
  6. Many adults want their experience respected: This is a real problem in teaching, as pay scales are tied to experience. Unfortunately, all too often, experience is mistaken for expertise. Effective leaders are able to appreciate a teacher’s experience and opinion without allowing it to divert the overall goal of the learning.
  7. Many adults want to learn on a need to know basis: If the immediate interest is not there or a passion of learning is not burning, then adults are less likely to engage with professional learning.
  8. Many adults do not like being told what to do: Similar to the first point but particularly apt when considering change initiatives; adults must ‘buy in’. Good leaders spend lots of time explaining the purpose and, in particular, focusing on the “why?”

As mentioned previously, many of these behaviours can be observed in our students, though for adults it’s more a case that the attitudes and behaviours have had more opportunity to become more pronounced over time as engrained personal habits and preferences. Along with that comes the equal footing that we have in schools and all other organisations. Whilst there are school leaders and school teachers, we are all adults. Subsequently there is a very strong need for teachers to feel appreciated and respected by those who lead them, which must be addressed if learning or change is to take place.

photo credit: venspired via photopin cc

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