Author: Douglas Richardson, Paramedic, BS-PSM
Just as kids are not simply little adults, we need to remember that adults are not just big kids, especially when it comes to teaching. In his book, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, Professor Malcolm Knowles compares and contrasts adult and child learners, offering strategies on how to most effectively teach adult learners. Investigating these differences will help us become more effective teachers with more engaged students.
Child vs. Adult Learners
The very core of Professor Knowles’ theory is the concept that adults and children learn very differently and that you must recognize, appreciate, and accommodate those differences. The differences are not black and white but rather exist on a continuum with overlapping attributes. Here is the breakdown:
|Characteristics of Adult and Child Learners*|
· Dependent upon others for their support and care
· Not dependent upon others for support or care
· Perceive themselves as students first rather than some other description
· Rarely see their primary role as that of a student; it is secondary at best
· Alike in terms of age, background, and intelligence
· Varied ages, backgrounds, and intelligence
· Have a limited amount of experience to draw upon
· Have a large pool of experience to draw upon to frame ideas and concepts
· Extrinsically motivated by grades, parental approval, teacher praise, etc.
· Intrinsically motivated by feelings of worth, self-esteem, and sense of achievement
|*The difference between a child learner and an adult learner is whether the individual is a full-time student (child learner) or something other than a full-time student (an adult learner) (Cave, LeMaster, & White, 2006).|
How to Provide Real-World Learning for Adult Learners
Any theory of learning must be applicable to the real world, particularly those geared toward adults. Knowles’ Model of Human Learning gives us how-to strategies for successfully making your teaching applicable to adult learners in the real world:
- Provide an environment that is conducive to learning, one that is not necessarily a traditional school setting but rather a circle or U-shape of students.
- Involve your adult learners in their own education, including the creation of lesson plans, analyzation of student needs, and design of course objectives.
- Give opportunities to use the new skills or knowledge that they learn immediately after learning. This could be through skills demonstrations, role-playing, or simulations.
- Call on adult learners to share and use their pools of life and work experience.
- Involve learners in how the educational experience will be evaluated. Grades are often unimportant to adult learners; what is more important is how competent they feel with their newly acquired skills and knowledge (Parvensky, 1995).
Understanding Knowles’ Model of Human Learning is beneficial to anyone who is involved in teaching adults—understanding how adult learners are different from traditional students makes us more effective teachers of adult students as well as more humble.
As teachers, it is a privilege to teach adults and learn from the wealth of varied skills, experience, and opinions represented there. As Dr. Knowles states, “None but the humble become good teachers of adults. In an adult class, the student’s experience counts for as much as the teacher’s knowledge. Both are exchangeable at par. Indeed, in some of the best adult classes, it is sometimes difficult to discover who is learning most, the teacher or the students.”
Douglas began his career in public safety as a paid-on-call firefighter with the Havana City Fire Department in Illinois. He attended EMT-Basic training in 1992 at Spoon River College where he is now an adjunct professor of prehospital medicine. He has had his paramedic license since 1994 and has been a lead instructor since 1999. During his career with the fire service, Douglas was an instructor with the Illinois Fire Service Institute specializing in rescue disciplines. He retired as a captain after serving for 20 years. While with the fire department, Douglas also worked full-time for Mason County EMS, an ALS ambulance service in downstate Illinois, as the EMS educator. Douglas received his bachelor’s degree in public safety management from Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio, and is working on his master’s in public safety administration through Lewis University.