5 Principles for the Teacher of Adults

Professor talking to students in classroom
Tom Merton / Getty Images

Teaching adults often looks very different from teaching children. Adult educators can make assumptions of their adult students that they would not make of children because adults have had vastly different life experiences and come with their own unique sets of background knowledge. Andragogy, or the practice of teaching adults, studies the best methods and approaches for effective adult education.

Malcolm Knowles' Five Principles of Andragogy

Those teaching adults should understand and practice the five principles of andragogy espoused by Malcolm Knowles, a pioneer in the study of adult learning.

Knowles posited that adults learn best under the following circumstances:

  1. The learning is self-directed.
  2. The learning is experiential and utilizes background knowledge.
  3. The learning is relevant to current roles.
  4. The instruction is problem-centered.
  5. The students are motivated to learn.

By incorporating these five principles of andragogy into instruction, adult educators and learners alike will experience greater success in the classroom.

Self-Directed Learning

One of the most important differences between teaching children and teaching adults is the self-concept of adult learners. While young students tend to be dependent on their teachers to guide their learning and provide opportunities for application, adult learners are the opposite.

Adult learners are usually mature and self-confident enough to know how they learn best, what their areas of strength and weakness are, and how to go about learning. They don't require much help acquiring resources or developing goals for learning because, in most cases, they have done this before and already have reasons for being in school again. Adult educators need to grant their students plenty of space and be there to support rather than guide.

Another benefit of self-directed learning is that students can design their studies around their preferred learning style—visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Visual learners rely on pictures. They benefit from the use of graphs, diagrams, and illustrations. They learn best when they are shown what to do or what something looks like. Auditory learners listen carefully when they are learning and draw the majority of new knowledge through their ears. Things make the most sense to them when they are told how something should be. Tactile or kinesthetic learners need to physically do something to understand it. By performing something for themselves through a degree of trial and error, these learners will experience the most success.

Using Experiences as a Resource

Adult educators need to utilize each set of background knowledge in their classroom as a resource. No matter how old your adult learners are or what type of life they have led thus far, every one of your students will have acquired an extensive cache of experiences that you can draw on to make the most of what everyone brings to the table.

Rather than behaving as if the classroom should be a level playing field and ignoring irregular stores of background knowledge, use them to enrich instruction. Your students could be coming from vastly different walks of life. Some will be experts in an area that your whole class could benefit from learning about or will have experienced something very unfamiliar to the rest of your students.

The moments of authenticity and spontaneity that come from sharing with each other will prove to be some of the most powerful. Tap into the wealth of wisdom of your class as much as possible.

Relevance of Material

Adult students are most likely to want to learn about subjects that will have immediate pay-offs in their life, especially as it pertains to their social roles. As adults start to navigate marriage, parenthood, career positions, and other complex roles, they begin to orient themselves exclusively to them.

Adults have little use for material that is not relevant to the roles they already occupy and this is another reason for allowing students to play a part in designing their own curriculum. For example, some of your learners will want to learn about career advancement, but some, perhaps retirees or stay-at-home parents, will not need this information.

The job of adult educators is to get to know students well enough to be able to teach to their roles. Always keep in mind that your older students are there to accomplish something and probably have busy lives. The goal of adult education is to fit the needs of your students, who are more often than not opting to be there because they identified an area of need for themselves—ask and listen to them about what they want from this experience.

Problem-Centered Instruction

Adult learners do not desire to learn about material that doesn't fit into their lives and they do not usually want their learning to be abstract either. Adults are practiced, knowledgeable, and flexible learners that have a lot of problems to solve. Unlike young students, they do not usually need long to think about unfamiliar subjects before trying a skill out for themselves because they exercise their problem-solving skills every day and learn more each time.

Adult educators need to tailor their instruction to specific problems that their students face rather than approaching their teaching one subject at a time. Andragogy is about spending more time doing than learning and the quality of instruction is much more important than topic coverage.

Motivation to Learn

“When the student is ready, the teacher appears” is a Buddhist proverb that applies well to all areas of education. No matter how hard a teacher tries, learning only begins once a student is ready. For most adults, returning to school after several years can be intimidating and a certain degree of apprehension should be expected in adult learners. Getting past the initial uneasiness of adult learners can be a challenge.

However, many adult educators find that their students are eager to grow their knowledge. Adults that have chosen to go back to school are probably already motivated to learn or would not have made the choice to continue their education. The teacher's role in these cases is simply to encourage this motivation and help your students maintain positivity toward learning so they can move past any discomfort they may feel about their situation.

Listen carefully for teaching moments and take advantage of them. When a student says or does something that cues a new topic, be flexible and discuss it, even briefly, to show your students that their interests are important.