Supporting Adult Learners

Respecting Adult Learners is the Foundation for Effective Coaching Practices
Published: 28 May 2020
a childcare coach helps a student at a desk
an adult works at a home office desk with a notebook and laptop

Working with adult learners requires a unique approach. In order to have a significant impact on teachers’ practice, you must include principles of adult learning into your coaching or leadership approach. Understanding adult learning theory helps you prepare for the complexity and challenges of working with adult learners. Malcom Knowles identified several principles of adult learning that can be embedded into your mentorship interactions and practices.

Guidance on ways to support adult learning principles through your interactions and the environment are embedded throughout the Virtual Lab School. The figure below also connects specific lessons, activities, and resources within the VLS to each of the key adult learning principles.

Characteristics of Adult Learners

Adult learners have a well-established sense of self.

For the coaching relationship to be successful, you must respect the learner as an equal and encourage them to share their opinions, experience, and knowledge. Adults approach learning with biases, preset ideas, and socialized understandings. A coach or trainer must prepare for the possibility that the learner may challenge or dismiss ideas and practices that do not align well with their sense of self.

Adult learners bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences.

Adults have a more complex set of life experiences than children and they apply this existing knowledge to their new learning experiences. As a coach, trainer, or program manager, you must create safe spaces where adults can share their own experiences relative to the knowledge, practices, and skills you provide.

Adult learners are internally motivated and self-directed.

Coaches and managers need to consider the motivational factors that influence the learner. You can better shape the coaching experience if you understand what they want to learn more about and what the learning will help them accomplish. Adult learners resist learning when information or ideas are imposed upon them. As a coach, trainer, or program manager, you must give staff some control over what they learn.

Adult learners are goal oriented.

Adult learners become ready to learn when learning experiences are linked to personal or professional goals. Coaches and administrators should identify goals with staff members and show them how content and activities will help them achieve their goals.

Adults learners are relevancy oriented.

Coaches and program managers need to demonstrate how the learning content relates to staff’s work. Emphasizing how the tasks, training, or experiences you are asking them to complete will practically influence their professional life can be a powerful motivator for adult learners

Adult learners are practical.

Adult learners want to focus on learning experiences that help them solve current challenges in their work. Coaches and trainers can provide information and activities that are hands-on and explicitly illustrate how the information will be useful in the classroom.