Andragogy: No, It’s Not an Illness…

Andragogy_Adult_LearningAndragogy.  A theory of adult learning around which I’ve structured an entire graduate course that I’m currently teaching, and an approach that I fully embrace.  Even so, I struggle sometimes between my support for the theory and implementation of its concepts in practice.

For those unfamiliar with the core principles of andragogy, they include:

  • Learner’s Need to Know
  • Self-Concept of the Learner
  • Prior Experience of the Learner
  • Readiness to Learn
  • Orientation to Learning
  • Motivation to Learn

pedagogy-andragogyThink of it as contrasted to the traditional teaching model with which most of us grew up, pedagogy.  The pedagogical approach embraces the “instructor as expert” idea where learning is essentially a transfer of knowledge, skills, or ideas as deemed necessary by the instructor.  It’s a paternalistic, directive learning model that fits well in our “teach to the standards” K-12 educational system (which is not to say it’s effective, just that given our propensity at that level toward standardization, it’s what’s been adopted).

My adult learner grad students seem to love andragogy, as well.  In fact, they fully embrace it and simply light up when it’s introduced in their Adult Learning in Organizations course.  So, where’s the rub, you might be wondering….

Well, there are two primary areas of tension for me.

1)   Ultimately, there’s tension in the balance between flexibility in approach (to account for individual learning preferences and styles) and the need to achieve collective learning objectives.  Students grasp onto the idea of customized learning approaches, sometimes to the detriment of understanding the community benefits of reaching overarching educational goals for an entire class.

2)   The idea of self-concept must include an acceptance and true understand of self-direction.  Put simply, self-concept does not merely mean customized, individual focus to learning.  It must also embrace a heightened sense of accountability and responsibility for one’s own learning.

Many students do understand this joint concept, and when they do, my role as facilitator of adult learning is (not to overstate) a truly joyous role!  Their realization fuels my passion and excitement to continue challenging them and building upon our joint learning.  Quite literally, such an embrace by students heightens both my sense of purpose as their “professor” and drives me further and further down the road of professional growth and discovery.

spoon-fedAlternatively, some adult learners are so inculcated by pedagogy that while they are excited by the theory in general, they struggle with the realities of self-direction.  To put it plainly, they’re simply not used to driving their own learning.  Too often, when the going gets tough, their ingrained inclination is to fall back on pedagogy, expecting to be spoon-fed facts instead of seeking knowledge on their own.

That’s not to say that we, as facilitators of adult learners, ought to have “an out” when it comes to providing direction or “facts” to our students.  We don’t.  But if we are to truly practice what we preach, how we spoon-feed should be primarily through inquiry and supportive encouragement.

In my adult learning class, I recently received a request to provide an outline of the weekly reading in PowerPoint format.  Honestly, I probably won’t do that.  For starters, an outline of what’s in the text is something the individual students can create themselves, and I fear providing it will do more to facilitate a lack of actual reading than the provision of additional insight.  Instead, I’d prefer saving my time and energy for helping provide clarification where needed (guided by the insights and contributions of learners in the discussions), providing additional resources and thought-provoking avenues for considering the topics of the week, and in providing more customized, i.e., andragogical, mentoring to these talented graduate students.

But, again, that’s not the model many of my adult learners, even at the graduate level, have experienced before, and with change, there is often a level of discomfort.

lightbulbsIn and of itself, embracing a level of discomfort should bring comfort in learning.  After all, if we remain comfortable at all times, we’re probably not stretching ourselves beyond what we already know.  So my message to my students over the past several weeks has been one of stubborn empathy.  Yes, they’re likely uncomfortable (particularly those who are just starting their graduate school careers).  And no, I won’t change my approach simply to ease their discomfort.  But the discomfort will fade, and in it’s place, it’s my hope that a lightbulb will shine brightly on new perspectives, new insights, and, yes, new challenges.

That, I believe, is the essence of Andragogy.

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