Navigating the complex world of Adult Learning Theory

Adult learning theory is a fascinating field but far from an exact science.  We have much to learn about learning.

In their book, Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, authors Sharan Merriam, Rosemary Caffarella, and Lisa Baumgartner identified five basic categories through which adult learning theory can be considered.  By analyzing these five orientations of adult learning, we can more readily recognize various theories and methods that support effective training design.  Following is a very brief overview of these five orientations and how we can apply them to our training programs.  

Behaviorist Orientation suggests that learning results only from the influence of one’s environment.  If an organization wants to see behavioral change, the environment must be modified to encourage, support and reinforce that desired behavior.    

The legitimacy of this theory can be seen in cultural change initiatives.  Organizations can present customer service and ethics training ad nauseam and still fail to see any change in behavior unless the environment is altered to motivate and support the wanted behaviors.

Humanist Orientation theorizes that most people want to learn and will learn if they see learning as fulfilling.  This model relies on the learners’ internal motivational drive rather than on the environment surrounding them. 

Self-directed learning and individual staff development are methods that support this orientation to learning.  This theory calls to mind staff members who are agile and principled, allowing them to learn and grow regardless of their environment.

Cognitivist Orientation is much more complicated.  It focuses on the internal structures of the brain and how neuroscience plays a role in the learning that takes place.  This theory proposes that in order get new knowledge to stick, one must have a healthy brain and be able to link the new information to preexisting knowledge.  This connection with old and new knowledge acts as a bridge to effective learning.

For example, even if a trainer introduces a capable learner to a computer program but that learner has no experience with a computer keyboard, the link to prior knowledge will be absent and the learning will be minimal.  Additionally, cognitive ability can be impeded by distractions.  Either of these issues can hinder the learning process.  Tapping into prior knowledge during training and providing an engaging training environment will generate the active thinking necessary to form meaningful memory.

Social Cognitive Orientation combines the first three orientations, suggesting that people cognitively engage when they watch and interact with each other.  However, the outcomes can be dependent upon the learner’s history of experiences and their locus of control.  In other words, do they usually feel like they are in control and the primary driver of their destiny, or do they usually feel like they are at the mercy of their environment?  Do they hold themselves accountable, or do they often view themselves as victims?

Mentoring can be a key component to successful learning in this realm.  Effective mentoring provides personal interaction and relationship building while introducing new information.  However, the mentee must have an internal locus of control in order to be accountable enough to develop cognitive engagement with the mentor and achieve growth.

Constructivist Orientation suggests that people learn by constructing new ideas through shared dialogue and reflection.  This theory also dovetails into the other orientations but focuses more on the importance of active inquiry and transformation. 

Leadership development programs utilize this orientation as issues are discussed, ideas are exchanged, and perspectives are altered.  As a result, leaders can construct a deeper understanding of their challenges and produce a healthier environment in which to formulate and realize their goals.   

So, how does one know which orientation to apply to their training and development programs?  The answer isn’t a simple one since all of these theories converge at some point.  To that end, a holistic approach is often best. 

As always, the question of training begins with “Why?”  Why does a perceived need for training exist?  The answer also requires “What?”  What is the desired outcome?  Once you have an understanding of why you think you need training and what you hope to achieve, then – and only then – can you begin to consider the orientation needs of your affected learners. 

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