Child learning and adult learning revisited

Rosa María Torres

Differences between child learning and adult learning have been long talked about, although generally in a superficial and rather simplistic manner, replicating prejudices and misconceptions about children, about adults, and about learning.

Learning itself continues to be little understood. Neuroscience begins to shed light on how the human brain works, but we are still far from understanding how human learning operates and at different ages.

There is however at this point a considerable body of knowledge confirming some basic facts, such as:

▸ learning is a lifelong process that starts at birth and even before we are born;
▸ learning is lifewide, meaning it occurs everywhere: home, community, nature, school, workplace, conventional and modern media, etc., and through many means: play, social interaction, reading, writing, observation, etc.
▸ before entering school children have learned some of the most important things in life (among them, language - the most complex learning of all);
▸ out-of-school and informal learning represent the biggest part of the lifelong learning experience of any individual;
▸ socio-economic and other external factors have enormous impact on learning;
▸ there are important individual differences vis a vis learning (interests, styles, rhythms, etc.);
▸ age is a key factor, not reduced to the child/adult distinction but related to the many life stages, from early childhood to late adulthood;
▸ there are not only differences but also many similarities between child and adult learning.

However, simplistic child/adult learning distinctions continue to be there. They are often presented in black and white, ignore new information and knowledge available, overgeneralize without reference to specific contexts and factors, encapsulate "learning" within school education, and characterize "child learning" according to traditional classroom practice. At the heart of such simplistic distinctions remains the assumption that child learning requires a teacher and is "teacher-focused", and that adult learning is "learner-focused" (and the concurrent distinction made by some authors between Pedagogy and Andragogy). A highly debatable position at this point in time.

In view of all this, I decided to take one such articles from the web, organize the text in three columns, and add my own comments in red (see table below).

The classical Pedagogy/Andragogy distinction developed in the 1960s-1970s by Malcolm Knowles (US educator) - see Knowles' six assumptions related to adult learning, as opposed to child learning - requires rethinking in light of the new knowledge available and within a Lifelong Learning framework.

I have never used the term Andragogy to refer to adult education/teaching/learning. Whenever possible, I prefer to speak of teaching and learning to refer to all ages, throughout life, in and out of school.

Today child and adult educators need exposure to the complexity of issues and to complex thinking around these issues so as to (a) acknowledge the need to continue learning and revisit some ideas long entrenched as "common sense", and (b) be able to take decisions that are better informed and better adjusted to the specific situations they face.

Learning and Teaching

1. Rely on others to decide what’s to be learned.
Not always or necessarily. It depends on what children: age, gender, socio-economic and cultural background, teaching and learning experience at home, in school, etc.
1. Decide for themselves what they want to learn.
Not always. It depends on what adults: age, gender, socio-economic and cultural background, educational level, etc.
1. The trainer therefore is not responsible for the participant’s learning but rather provides and directs the flow of information, allowing the participants to choose what they will learn.
Only if adult learners engaged are in fact educated and autonomous learners.
2. Accept information at face value.
Not necessarily. Same as 1.
2. Question information, need to validate.
Not necessarily. Same as 1.
2. Provide opportunities to test or practice or experience learning as is prepared to answer questions.
True for both children and adults.
3. Expect learned information to be useful in the future.
Not necessarily.
Many children (i.e. older children, the poor) would expect to learn something that they see useful and relevant now.
Expect information to be useful now.
Shows how the information or skill has relevance and real-world applications for participants.True for both children and adults.
Are clean slates with little or no experience.
Children are never clean slates. They have knowledge and experience no matter their age.
Are full slates with lots of experience.
No one is ever a full slate. Adult learners may have no experience (knowledge and skills) in some specific areas.
Draws upon and builds on participant’s knowledge and experience.
True for both children and adults.
Have limited ability to be a resources to classmates.
Children have great abilities to help others, not only peers but also young people and adults.
Significant ability to serve as resource to others.
Allows, encourages and facilitates break-out sessions and exercises for groups discussions, interactions and team dynamics.
True for both children and adults.
Are content-centered.
If given the chance, they also enjoy problem-solving and are interested in understanding the methodology and the process.
Are process or problem-centered.
Many adults are also keen on information and content. It also depends on the content taught.
Facilitates exercises, games and activities to help participants solve a problem or understand a process.
True for both children and adults.
Are passively involved in learning.
Because the school system often sets such rules. Children prefer to engage actively in learning.
Learning requires active involvement.
Are actively involved in learning.
Not necessarily, not always. Very often adults are also passive learners, conditioned by conventional education and training practices in and out of the school system.
Resists “dumping” information on the group, but rather partners with participants in a collaborative effort  to achieve desired outcomes.
True for both children and adults.
Learn best in an authoritative environment.
Not generalizable.
If given the chance, children enjoy learning in flexible, non-fear environments.
Learn best in a collaborative environment.
Not generalizable.
Many adult learners prefer more structured, authoritative environments.
Is responsible for the best environment for learning.
True for both children and adults.
Are motivated by external rewards: grades, advancement, avoidance of punishment.
Children may be also internally motivated - the best way to learn.
Are motivated internally: self-esteem, curiosity, love of learning, self-improvement.
Adults are often also externally motivated. (Teacher training is often a typical example of institutionalized externally motivated learning).
Employs active, participative methods to engage the participants, keep their interest, and enhance the likelihood that they will learn, retain and use new information and skills.
True for both children and adults.

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