Good morning! I find it interesting that the one thing I get asked about the most is adult learning. It is also the hardest thing for me to respond to, because the field is so vast and there are so many approaches. So tackling adult learning as a discrete topic in a Coaching Letter is daunting. Not to mention: there are recipients of this Coaching Letter who know an awful lot more about the field than I do. Nevertheless, I know that there is a general need for a short piece on adult learning, so here’s my best shot. I know it’s not that short and that it is pretty dense.

I think everyone involved in professional learning is familiar with some common ideas about adult learning. The field of adult learning is most closely associated with Malcolm Knowles, who coined the term “andragogy”; this distinguishes adults as a separate class of learners from children, which I’m not sure I buy completely. Not because I don’t think that there’s a difference, but because the kinds of learning experiences that are good for adults are also good for children. For example, here’s a summary of what’s frequently promoted when it comes to adult learning:

  1. Adults learn best when the topic is immediately relevant
  2. Adults need to know the purpose for learning something
  3. Adults learn through experience
  4. Adults approach learning as problem-solving

The typical distinction that is made is that adult learning should focus more on process than content, but I don’t buy that either, first because it seems to suggest that the function of pedagogy is to pump knowledge into children when we know that successful learners, even very young ones, are highly metacognitive and process-oriented, and that list of four elements/features/essentials of adult learning apply to school-age students as well; and second, because this list is also not terribly respectful of adult learners—personally, I would be insulted and patronized if I thought that you thought that the only hook for me is that the topic is immediately relevant to me and that I’m not interested in content or theory. But perhaps that explains why so many leaders are reluctant to ask people to read anything longer than a page—because they assume that adult learners are not interested in the abstract or the theoretical?
Better, perhaps, and conducive to a deeper conversation about adult learning, if we go back to Knowles’ initial four propositions about adult learning:

  • As a person matures, self-concept moves from that of a dependent personality toward a self-directing human being.
  • An adult accumulates a growing reservoir of experience, which is a rich resource for learning.
  • The readiness of an adult to learn is closely related to the developmental tasks of his or her social role.
  • There is a change in time perspective as people mature—from future application of knowledge to immediacy of application.  Thus, an adult is more problem- centered than subject-centered in learning.

I think the big take-away here is not that adults are not interested in content or theory, but that professionals are more interested in problem-solving and appreciate the utility of content and theory when they shed light on their problem of practice. They do not value being presented with information that is presumed to be useful and/or relevant to them, especially when it is isolated from their practice. And this approach is not ego-centric—it is actually more efficient and effective.

Several authors have made the case that teachers a) working together in collaborative groups in order to b) research their own practice is the most powerful form of professional learning. So let’s just stick with that as our framework, OK? For both professional learning and adult learning—just to be clear.

This article by Dylan Wiliam in Educational Leadership called “Changing Classroom Practice” provides a template for setting up teacher-centered communities of practice or teacher learning communities. His focus is on implementing classroom formative assessment, so the first section is about that research. But the suggestions about teacher learning are not specific to formative assessment.

This article by Tony Bryk and his colleagues is also about networks of practice—pay particular attention to the mistake of treating wicked problems as though they are tame problems, which is what a facilitation approach to professional learning tends to do.

I really love this article in the most recent HBR: “Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration.” (The theme of the issue is collaboration, and remember that if you register on the website you get access to six free articles a month.) The author makes the point that collaboration in organizations is frequently a stated value, but not enough is done to enact it. It advocates that collaboration is a set of skills that need to be taught and practiced (Amen) and the first of those is how to listen (Hallelujah). If you’re going to choose any link from this CL to follow, or any reading for your team to study in more depth, pick this one.

So, much as I appreciate the richness of HGSE’s Usable Knowledge newsletter, this issue, called “The Right Way to Lead Teacher Learning”, is mistitled. It’s about facilitation, and while I think that this is important, and I spend a sizeable chunk of my professional life facilitating, I would not say that that is the same thing as leading learning. Facilitation/presenting is to problem-centered adult learning as teacher lecture is to next-gen science standards. You can do it well, it can be effective under limited circumstances, but it ultimately will not get you all the outcomes that you want and may actually be counter-productive.

There are books that anyone interested in this field should read, even though they are not explicitly labeled as being about adult learning—although they are definitely about adult learning. One, Change Leadership, was co-authored by my brilliant colleague Richard Lemons, who is much more expert in the field of adult learning theory than I am. Also, I am a huge fan of the work of Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, separately and in combination. I highly recommend Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner, Argyris and Schön Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness, and David Kolb’s Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. I think you should read Learning as Transformation by Mezirow and Associates in lieu of Malcolm Knowles. And then you should read Rethinking Expertise by Collins and Evans, and Cultivating Communities of Practice by Wenger, McDermott and Snyder.

Shifting to a more problem-centered approach to professional learning is a challenge to leaders because it represents giving up control. So I would like to also point out that ceding power over professional learning in an organization need not also mean de-coupling. I am not talking about relaxing all parameters and letting everyone work on what they want to work on. Those of you who have worked with us directly know that this is far from our stance. We are usually the ones advocating for tighter coupling, especially around strategy for improving classroom practice. We preach constantly that schools and districts should operate from a shared understanding of high quality instruction that is deeply specified, narrowly framed and tightly delimited, and that everything else that happens should be aligned to that vision—this is what we mean by coherence. Along with that, we advocate that, to the extent reasonable, members of the organization should be focused on the same problem of practice. I don’t believe that “choice” is all that it’s cracked up to be, and that it is not synonymous with “agency”.

Finally, I want to close the loop between what’s in this Coaching Letter and Coaching Letter #94. CL #94 is about continuous improvement and how that is dependent on learning through doing. Can I just point out that this CL is really about the same thing, except comes at it from the other direction? Adult learning = learning by doing = continuous improvement. The Bryk article that I couldn’t find for CL #94 is this: Breaking the Cycle of Failed School Reforms. And it covers much of the same material as the Bryk article referenced above. This is not coincidence.

As always, please let me know if you have any feedback on this Coaching Letter, or if there is anything else I can do for you. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Cell: 860-576-9410
Twitter: @IsobelTX
Coaching Letter:

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