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Last Updated on January 29, 2021

How to Apply the Adult Learning Theory to Learn Faster

How to Apply the Adult Learning Theory to Learn Faster

Each day provides us with an opportunity to learn. However, as we grow and transition from a child to an adult, our ability to grasp things and absorb concepts goes through a radical shift. This is because we, as adults, get inspired by our previous experiences, surroundings, company, and other factors, which in turn, play an important role in the entire adult learning process.

In this article, you will learn about the Adult Learning Theory, and how you can apply it to learn faster.

What Is Adult Learning Theory?

Adult Learning Theory is a field of research that studies various reasons behind the differences between the way adults and kids learn. It suggests ways through which adult learning could be made more effective.

According to the US Department of Education, there are various adult learning theories in the research literature, including:[1]

Andragogy

Andragogy is a theory related to educating adult learners. This theory was developed by educator Malcolm Knowles in the 1950s.

It is based on five assumptions and four principles of adult learning that work in harmony to promote self-directed learning.

The five assumptions include:

  • Self-concept
  • Adult learner experience
  • Readiness to learn
  • Orientation to learning
  • Motivation to learn

And the four principles of Andragogy are:

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  • Adults should take part in the planning and evaluation of their learning instructions.
  • Experience serves as the foundation of learning.
  • Adults are inclined towards learning subjects that have an immediate impact on their job and career.
  • Adult learning is not content-centered, but problem-centered.

The Adult Learning Theory - Andragogy principles

    This theory emphasizes the importance of adults’ experiences[2]. These experiences will serve as the foundation for future learning experiences. The theory also focuses on the importance of problem-centered learning, which is relevant to the adult learners as much of their work often involves problem solving.

    Transformational Learning

    Developed by socialist and professor, Jack Mezirow, Transformational Learning is a theory that focuses on the meaning of the learning experiences.[3] The theory consists of 10 steps, and each step reflects on the experiences of an adult learner at various levels:

    1. Experiencing a disorienting dilemma
    2. Undergoing self-examination
    3. Critically assessing assumptions
    4. Recognizing a connection between one’s discontent and the process of transformation
    5. Exploring options for new roles, relationships, and actions
    6. Planning a course of action
    7. Acquiring knowledge or skills for implementing one’s plans
    8. Trying new roles on a provisional basis
    9. Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
    10. Integrating the changes into one’s life

    Experiential Learning

    Experiential learning theory was developed by David Kolb. It focuses on learning through reflection and experience. This theory states that adults can learn through their experiences without needing a teacher.

    How Do Adults and Children Learn Differently?

    Adults learn differently when compared to children. There are various factors that play an important role in adult learning, including:

    Adults Get Inspired From Their Wealth of Experience

    We, as adults, have seen the world and find internal motivation though that life experience. We have a network of friends, relatives, colleagues, neighbors, and each of these individuals leave an impact on the learning experience of adults. As a result, we are able to relate our learning to our past experiences.

    Adults Need Better Opportunities to Self-Reflect on Their Learning

    When compared to children who behave socially in classroom settings, adults are not as vocal about their learning experience. Therefore, we need to seek better learning opportunities so that we can interact, self-reflect, and retain the information.

    Adults Are Not Good at Taking Directions Without Knowing the Motive

    Teaching children is easy, as they tend to follow instructions and learn things related to their distant future without questioning why.

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    However, this is not the case with adults. We won’t retain the information provided until and unless we find it suitable and relevant to our end-goals.

    Adults Have a Predetermined Idea About Learning Styles

    Although children are open to exploring new styles of learning, adults have stringent requirements. As adults, we prefer learning in a certain way irrespective of how conducive it might be for our needs.

    To overcome our learning behavior and retain the information learned, it is necessary to try varied learning styles and analyze what works best for ourselves.

    Adults Are Sensitive Toward Failures

    Most of the time, adults are not receptive to failures, and this restricts them more. Unlike children, they are not willing to experiment due to social filters.

    To stay interested in the learning process, try to build the information on small pieces and gradually support it with extra learning.

    Adult Learning Habits Are Inspired by Their Immediate Relevance

    Children engage in education with the sole motive of learning things, and the implementation comes after. A fifth-grader who has not decided their career path won’t know that their biology lessons will play an important role in his career as a doctor.

    On the other hand, adults have a defined career path, and more often than not, our learning is inspired by its immediate, real world impact on our career, daily life, and so on.

    How to Benefit from the Adult Learning Theory to Learn Effectively

    As is evident, the ways in which adults learn is entirely different from the ways in which children learn. However, you can leverage your needs to connect with experience to learn effectively and effortlessly. Here is how you can do that:

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    1. Make the Best Use of Technology

    Adults like learning on their own. Thus, making the right use of technology could be your best bet here. Choose to learn in a format that is easy to navigate, doesn’t provide redundant information, and encourages you to learn more.

    YouTube, for instance, keeps you hooked for hours, as it allows you to browse various topics and provides you with relevant suggestions based on your likings. This keeps your interest alive.

    2. Choose Visual-Based Learning

    A study conducted by UC Santa Barbara revealed that adding complementary visuals to text provides an 89 percent advantage of learning outcomes.[4] This works particularly well when you have limited information on the topic and are learning it from scratch.

    However, striking the right balance is the key here. Too many visuals can prove to be overwhelming and might also hamper your learning experience.

    3. Use Audio

    If you have encountered a complex issue and are finding it tough to learn and grasp its concepts, making use of audio descriptions can help.

    Audio clips explain the concept better, help in segregating the two related topics, and are also convenient in highlighting important points.

    4. Get Actively Involved in the Learning

    Although theoretical exercises can be interesting, adults learn best when they are involved in the learning.

    Instead of simply memorizing facts and figures, you can learn effectively by getting involved in role-playing activities. Look for opportunities where you can implement your learning. This will help you in bridging the gap between the theoretical and practical concepts.

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    Practicing and doing practical experiments not only helps you in learning better, but it also helps you in retaining your knowledge.

    5. Exercise a Bit of Ownership

    What makes adult learning significantly different to the way kids absorb information is the fact that kids like to follow the instructions provided. However, this is not the case with adults, who like to exercise a bit of control over their educational experience.

    This is perhaps why you will feel more comfortable while learning from online courses, as they allow you to learn at your own pace and in the comfort of your home.

    6. Make Use of Supplementary Materials

    It is essential to judge your requirements well. While some people might find learning by listening highly effective, there are others who like to take notes and review the written material afterward.

    Our learning needs vary greatly based on our personal preferences and learning habits, and this must be taken into account.

    Final Thoughts

    Although all the factors that we mentioned above might not be applicable to everyone, it will not be wrong to say that a large spectrum of people encounters similar experiences when it comes to adult learning.

    To make your learning experience all the more pleasurable and unforgettable, understand your requirements, analyze what works for you and what doesn’t, and take the right steps!

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    Featured photo credit: Avel Chuklanov via unsplash.com

    Reference

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    Leon Ho

    Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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    Published on March 1, 2021

    What Is Double Loop Learning And How Is It Valuable?

    What Is Double Loop Learning And How Is It Valuable?

    As someone on the Millennial/Generation X cusp, one of my first memories of a news story was the devastating crash of the Challenger space shuttle. I couldn’t process the severity or the specifics of the event at the time, but looking back, the Challenger explosion represents a heartbreaking example of what can happen when systems fail.

    A part of the shuttle known as the O-ring was faulty. People from NASA knew about it well before the disaster, but NASA employees either ignored the problem—writing it off as not that bad—or were ignored when they tried to alert higher-ups about the issue.[1] This is a tragic example of single-loop learning where organizations focus on what they’re doing without reflecting on how or why they’re doing it, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

    Single and Double-Loop Learning

    Chris Argyris describes the difference between single and double-loop learning with a metaphor. A thermostat that turns on and off when it senses a pre-set temperature is akin to single-loop learning. The thermostat being able to reflect on whether or not it should be set to that temperature in the first place would be more like double-loop learning.[2]

    Imagine the difference if NASA would have encouraged and addressed employees’ questions about how they were doing, what they were doing, and whether or not they should be doing it at all—you’ll start to see how an extra layer of questioning and critical thought can help organizations thrive.

    Single Loop Learning

    Single-loop learning is when planning leads to action, which leads to reflection on those actions and then back to planning, action, and more reflection. Now, you might think that because reflection is involved, single-loop learning would be an effective organizational model. However, because there isn’t room for critical questions that ask why actions are being taken, problems begin to bubble up.

    The Double Bind

    When organizations are operating in single-loop learning, they get stuck in what Argyris calls the Double Bind. Because there’s no value placed on questioning why the team is doing something, team members are either punished for speaking up or punished for not speaking up if something goes wrong down the line.

    Primary Inhibiting Loop

    When an organization is stuck in single-loop learning, the double bind leads to what Argyris calls the primary inhibiting loop. Real learning and growth are inhibited because team members withhold information from each other. This withholding leads to distrust and is difficult to remedy because even if employees attempt to become more forthcoming, lack of trust sours interactions.

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    Secondary Inhibiting Loop

    Because information is being withheld, team members play unconscious games (not the fun kind) to protect each other’s feelings. For example, I might try to distract my colleagues from worrying about a problem in our plan by shifting the focus to another project we’re working on that’s going better.

    When you’re stuck in single-loop learning, the organization does whatever it can to continue taking action after action instead of stopping to truly reassess the bigger picture. This leads team members to hide information from each other, which causes distrust and behaviors that try to mask flaws in the organization’s structures and systems.

    Double Loop Learning in Organizations

    A common misconception is that the opposite of single-loop learning involves focusing primarily on people’s feelings and allowing employees to manage themselves. However, the solution for single-loop learning is not about doing the opposite. It’s about adding an extra later of critical analysis—double-loop learning.

    With double-loop learning, questioning why the organization is doing what it’s doing is an organizational value. Instead of moving from planning to action to reflection and back to planning, in double-loop learning, people are encouraged to reflect on why they’re doing what they’re doing. This can help the organization take a step back and reconsider what’s best for all stakeholders instead of being stuck acting and reacting.

    Ultimately, double-loop learning gives team members the time, space, and systems to ask tough questions and have them addressed in meaningful ways.

    Let’s think back to the Challenger disaster. If NASA had created an organization that uses double-loop learning, employees wouldn’t have felt compelled to stay silent, and the employees who did speak up would have influenced the process enough to reconsider the timeline and develop a solution for the O-ring problem.

    Single-loop learning is like a train with no breaks. Double-loop learning provides the extra layer of critical thought that allows the organization to stop and pivot when that’s what’s required.

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    Think back to Argyris’ thermostat metaphor. Instead of just reacting—turning on and off when it detects a certain temperature—double-loop learning invites the thermostat to reconsider why it’s doing what it’s doing and how it might do it better.

    How to Shift to Double Loop Learning

    So, how can organizations shift from single to double-loop learning?

    1. Stakeholders Must Level With Each Other

    The first step to shifting from single to double-loop learning is for all stakeholders to sit down and talk openly about their expectations, values, and goals. These sessions should be led by organizational experts to ensure that old single-loop learning habits of distrust, withholding, and game-playing don’t keep people stuck in single-loop learning.

    One of the keys to team members leveling with each other is listening. Focus on creating an environment where everyone can speak up without fear of judgment or punishment.

    2. Create Benchmarks for Lasting Growth and Change

    Old habits die hard, and single-loop learning is no different. If systems, check-ins, benchmarks, and periodic times to reflect and reset aren’t put into place, old habits of withholding and mistrust will likely creep back in. You can guard against this by making it a norm to measure, assess, and improve how new double-loop learning systems are being implemented over time.

    3. Reward Risk-Taking and Critical Feedback

    Double-loop learning requires squeaky wheels. You have to create a culture that rewards criticism, risk-taking, and reflecting on the system as a whole and the reasons the organization does what it does. Think big picture stuff.

    This is about walking the walk. It’s one thing to tell employees to speak up and give their feedback, it’s another thing entirely to have systems in place that make employees feel safe enough to do so.

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    Kimberly Scott’s Radical Candor comes to mind as one way to start shifting to a more open and critical environment. Radical Candor is a system that incentivizes employees and managers to start speaking up about things they used to sweep under the rug. It’s a roadmap and a way to assess and improve open and reflective feedback between all stakeholders.

    Double Loop Learning for Individuals

    Double-loop learning isn’t only for organizations. You can also apply Argyris’ ideas to your learning.[3]

    Here’s how that might look:

    1. Level With Yourself and Seek Accountability

    Instead of being stuck in a single-loop learning cycle, break out by adding another layer of critical reflection. Why are you learning what you’re learning? Is it important? Is there another way? Think big picture again.

    Become clear on what you want to learn and how you’re currently trying to learn it. Then, open yourself up to others to keep yourself accountable. Leave the door open to completely shift major details about your learning goals.

    2. Create Benchmarks and Don’t Put Your Head in the Sand

    Just as with organizations, individuals also need to create goals and continuously reflect on whether or not they’re moving toward double-loop learning. Schedule times to meet with the people keeping you accountable for your learning plan. Then, ask yourself whether or not your learning goals still make sense.

    Ask big picture questions. Are you in the right environment to learn? Is your learning plan working? Do you need to change course altogether or shift your goals entirely? If it’s double-loop learning, you can’t be afraid to ask questions about why you’re doing what you’re doing and change course when the need arises.

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    3. Value Risk-Taking and Accept Criticism

    You’re also going to need to shift your mindset from simply learning and reflecting to accepting criticism, being critical of yourself as a learner, and taking risks and experiencing discomfort as you ask big questions and make drastic alterations to your learning plan over time.

    Instead of concerning yourself with grades and GPAs, double-loop learning would mean you’re allowing yourself time to step back and analyze why you’re learning what you’re learning, if there’s a better way, and even whether or not you should be on that learning trajectory in the first place.

    Final Thoughts

    Think back to the thermostat example. Doing homework, handing it in, and then receiving a grade is single-loop learning. Thinking about why you’re doing any of that and making appropriate changes that align with your learning goals shifts you into double-loop learning, and that’s a great way to see the bigger picture and get the best results.

    Learning and reflection are two of the most important things when it comes to organizational or personal development. This is why double-loop learning is key if you want yourself or your organization to succeed.

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    Featured photo credit: Cherrydeck via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] NPR: Challenger: What Went Wrong
    [2] Harvard Business Review: Double Loop Learning in Organizations
    [3] Journal of Advanced Learning: The role of reflection in single and double-loop learning

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