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Ever thought of teaching adults instead of children?

November 2017

Had enough of the headaches and the hassles?  

The disinterest in your wonderfully-planned lessons? 

Crave a bit more response from your students?  

And to finally be appreciated?

Perhaps you should consider teaching adults instead of children! 

But apart from the adulation, which would surely follow, what is it that makes adult students unique?


They want to be there!   In most cases, adults have chosen, voluntarily, to attend a class, often paying out of their own pockets to do so. Music to the ears of anyone who has ever tried to cram French vocabulary into disinterested young ears. However, enthusiasm can wane, and it is the job of the teacher to keep it buoyant. Not always an easy task! There are also other factors, which come into play, as we shall see. 

Because they are there out of choice, they have a clear idea of what it is they want to achieve. This can be positive, provided what they want to achieve is achievable and the teacher is aware of it early on. There can of course be problems if that’s not the case, or indeed if the different students in the class all have slightly different agendas.  


Adult students bring a lot of experience with them, some of which is not only useful, but essential to the success of the course. Teachers ignore this at their peril. When this experience is devalued or ignored by the teacher, this implies a rejection of the person, not just the experience. We must draw on this experience and use it to teach them by.


Adults are much more prone to anxieties, real or otherwise, than are children. They maybe lack confidence or are simply shy about showing themselves up in front of their peers. Many adult students are respected in their various workplaces for being competent individuals. They do not want to risk showing themselves up as being otherwise in a situation where they feel rather exposed.


Whereas anxieties can be worked on and overcome, some factors that come with the natural process of ageing are not so easily dealt with. As we get older, our short-term memory faculty becomes less efficient and more easily disturbed. This means that adults cannot cope well with the rote learning that is still very much part of the standard schooling of children. The teacher therefore has to tailor his/her teaching techniques to ensure that learning is done through different activities, rather than relying on memory.


Because of their previous educational experience, as well as their life experience, students come with set expectations of how the class should be run. Some will want it to be run just like it was at school, and will want to become “passive” learners once again.   Others will want quite the opposite. They will also potentially be more critical of the teacher and questioning of what is being asked of them, unlike children, who just accept things as they are.

Other Priorities 

Adult students have many other priorities in life. They often arrive for their evening class after a hard-day’s work, worrying about family commitments or having skipped dinner. In addition, compared to children, they have far less contact time, with evening classes typically running once a week for a couple of hours. The teacher must make all the more effort to “rouse” them and engage them in the learning activity.

Pre-existing knowledge or attitudes 

Adult students often know a good deal about what they are studying, often more than they think they know. They have already invested emotional capital in acquiring this knowledge and experience, and they will not want to let go of it lightly.   This may be the actual subject material, which has been learnt incorrectly, or it could be the student’s attitude towards how it should best be taught (perhaps grounded in the student’s school-time experience, good or bad) or perhaps even prejudices based on gender, social class, accent etc.

To grapple with this problem of the pre-existent knowledge or attitudes, we need to grapple with the notion of unlearning. It is sometimes said that for adults, the process of unlearning is as important as the process of learning. The teacher of adults therefore has twice the job to do as that of children, who are still, to a great extent, blank pieces of paper for the teacher to write on.

Group Composition 

Bearing in mind that most adult education is conducted in groups, there are additional differences between the teaching of adults and the teaching of school children.

For a start, there is a wide disparity of ages, experiences and motivations. Some are more “adult” than others, with some wanting to be independent, others wanting the teacher to tell them what to do. As adulthood is not a stable plateau upon which we rest having reached it, i.e. we are all continuously growing and developing, at any one time a group of students will consist of adults growing and developing in different directions and at a different pace.    

Some bring a good deal of experience and knowledge, others bring less; some will want to use this material to help the learning process, others will be more reticent. And as we’ve already noted, they have a wide range of intentions and needs, some specific, some more general and related to the subject-matter under discussion, and others unknown even to themselves.

Because adults come from “real” lives, they all have outside interests and relationships and beliefs and prejudices, which will compete with their learning and will blinker their learning.

By now, they have also all acquired their own way of learning, which vary considerably the one from the other, with each student needing something specific from the same teacher.

Taken together, all of these factors certainly show adult students to be in a different category.   Does it necessarily mean they need to be taught in a different way? One might assume yes, but in order to see how they ought to be taught, let us look at an adult’s natural learning process in life, for example, if an adult has to learn to use a new washing machine or assemble a DIY chest of drawers.

How Adults Learn Naturally 

There are four main characteristics about these self-directed learning activities that are relevant. If I may use excerpts from a book I read as part of my teacher training, “Teaching Adults” by A. Rogers, these are as follows:

  • They normally consist of episodes, as opposed to being a continuous learning process and come to a natural conclusion once the original objective has been reached.

  • The goal is usually a specific task relating to an immediate problem which needs to be resolved. This means:-

    • We do not tend to approach a learning situation academically. We are not so concerned with a subject, but rather to resolve a specific issue.

    • There is not normally a systematic approach to learning

    • The learners do not on the whole draw on compartmentalized knowledge such as was learned at school

    • Such episodes are aimed at immediate rather than future application

  • Each person uses his or her own learning style but a range of strategies are used more commonly by adults than by other learners

    • They employ analogical thinking and trial and error

    • Adults tend to rely more on the creation of meaningful wholes in order to master new material.

    • They also rely less on memory and rote learning to retain what has been learnt.

    • Like younger people adults also have the ability and need to learn by imitation.

  •  Because these types of learning are targeted at specific goals, there is not much interest in overall principles. What is remembered is the way to cope with the situation at hand, not the general principle.

 So, if this is how adults naturally learn, surely we can use this information to modify our teaching strategies appropriately and so develop a specific teaching methodology?

Andragogy versus Pedagogy Traditional teaching in our culture has been that of children and this is referred to as pedagogy. It is only in more recent years that

much theoretical thought has been dedicated to the teaching of adults, which has led to the term “andragogy” and with it a return to the process of active inquiry.

So how exactly do the two methodologies differ?

The Need to Know

Whereas children only need to know that they must learn what the teacher teaches them, adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.

The learners’ self-concept

In pedagogy, the learner is very much dependent on the teacher.   Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions. Once they have arrived at that self-concept, they develop a deep psychological need to be seen by others as being capable of self-direction. They need to be treated by others accordingly.

The role of the learners’ experience

With children, the learner’s experience is of lesser worth as a resource for learning. Adults come into an educational activity with both a greater volume and a different quality of experience from youths. For many kinds of learning the richest resource for learning is to be bound in the adult learners themselves. And we have already seen how crucial it is to value the experience of adult students.

Readiness to learn

Children are ready to learn what they teacher tells them they must learn. Adults become ready to learn those things they need to know and be able to do in order to cope effectively with their real-life situations.   It has to be relevant for them to be able to learn.  

Orientation to learning

In contrast to children’s and youths’ subject-centred orientation to learning, adults are life-centred (or task-centred or problem-centred) in their orientation to learning.


Children are mostly motivated by external factors. For adults, while responsive to some external motivators, the most potent motivators are internal pressures.  

In short, pedagogy believes in the teacher-centred role of instruction, imparting knowledge to a passive audience whereas andragogy encourages the student to take control of his own learning in a mature, responsible way. Whereas andragogy normally refers to the teaching of adults and pedagogy the teaching of children, aspects of both methodologies can be effectively transferred across the boundaries, and indeed this has already happened: in school classrooms there has been a trend for some time now of encouraging children to be increasingly autonomous, Conversely, adults may sometimes benefit from a partial pedagogical approach where the subject area is completely new to them and they need to depend on the teacher’s knowledge, at least to get them started.


The vast amount of research that has been done on this subject would indeed indicate that adults require different teaching techniques to learn effectively. Even though a group of adults can consist of many differences as we have seen, despite this, or perhaps because of it, they can still be regarded as a specific student “body”, needing to be taught in a different manner to a relatively uniform class of school children. Of course, there will be certain techniques that could be applied in both situations, but perhaps with a different emphasis and a different attitude/objective on the part of the teacher. There is no hard and fast rule, but when looking at adult students, to teach them effectively it will be shown it is important to bear in mind a set of assumptions about who they are and how they learn. A. Rogers sums these up in “Teaching Adults”: “In brief, adults learn best when they do not have to reply on memorising but can learn through activity at their own pace with material that seems relevant to their daily lives, and use their own experience.”

So, which would you now rather teach – children or adults?



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