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What We Know About How Adults Learn


We often talk about principles of adult learning (andragogy popularised through the work of Malcolm Knowles), but there are a few other things we now know that can help us provide more meaningful, flexible and impactful solutions to developing workers and helping them perform in the workplace.

These six points were developed by Jay Cross, the international informal learning expert, and serve as reference points to help you identify and plan development opportunities.

Consider how you might use each of these to guide you as you develop practical solutions in your plan to implement the 70:20:10 framework.

1. People learn more about their work informally than formally

Most learning happens on the job, through challenging experiences and through others. This learning happens every day, but is often left to chance.

There are opportunities for the learning function to identify ways to make informal or workplace learning intentional – building the scaffold that ensures workplace experiences are positive and impactful.

2. ‘Novices’ will learn a greater proportion formally

Structured learning is an important aspect of development. 70:20:10 recognises the importance of formal development and reinforces the need to contextualise to meet the needs of each specific situation.

Novices by their nature are new to tasks and/or the broader environment. Structured learning can provide a positive foundation for building knowledge, skills and mindsets required to perform. 

The opportunity for the learning function is to balance the requirement for formal development with social and experiential learning. Explore ways to add, embed and extract learning with work to support workplace performance. Consider options for flexible delivery that engage workers and support improved speed to productivity.

3. ‘Veterans’ will rely more on informal learning

One characteristic of high performing individuals is that they are likely to have mastered the basics as a result of structured development and workplace experience. Social and experiential learning are the keys to helping them perform and improve.

Solutions that embed learning in the workflow can be used to help solve workplace problems. A focus on extracting learning from work can also support continuous improvement. Collaborative approaches allow knowledge to be built and shared on a continual basis.

4. Formal works best with explicit

Knowledge that can easily be codified within documents and relates to core concepts is best suited to formal learning.

There are opportunities for the learning function to create flexible means for workers to understand core concepts and to link them more closely with the workplace context and tasks. This may involve the provision of short eLearning modules, checklists, job aids, guides and other tools.

5. Informal works best with tacit

Knowledge workers deal with complex problems in an environment of constant change. The dynamic nature of the modern workplace means much of what workers need to do cannot be easily documented or kept up to date and may be difficult to explain. In these environments, workers need to learn by watching and doing, with support from colleagues.

There are opportunities for the learning function to provide scaffolding to support knowledge sharing, workplace coaching and opportunities to practice – embedding learning in the workflow and extracting learning from work. 

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1 comment

Malcolm Knowles was the first to theorise how adults learn. His theory included the following five assumptions of how and why adults learn:

  1. Self-concept. As a person matures their self-concept moves from being dependent towards being self-directed. Although some argue that children also are self-directed at some point.
  2. Adult learner experience. An adult learner accumulates experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
  3. Readiness to learn. A person’s readiness to learn becomes oriented in their social roles.
  4. Orientation to learning. As a person matures his/her time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly his/her orientation towards learning moves from subject-centeredness to problem centeredness.
  5. Motivation to learn. As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal.

Through other philosophical and scientific disciplines, I have discovered we are a whole being: our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing also affects how we learn as adults.  If any one of these is out of balance it may cause an adult learner to lose site of what they want or need to learn.

Further Jay Cross also outlines how the original context is important to learners i.e. matching the kind of knowledge and skills development required for the right learning activity.

  • Experiential learning: observing and doing with support, where knowledge and practice maybe “tacit” i.e. hidden
  • Formal learning: codified into documents where the knowledge and practice are “explicit” i.e. clearly documented.

Ways of ensuring an adult learner has the best learning experience, whether in the workplace or formal, is to ensure best practice and outcomes. Some thoughts to achieve this are:

  • Solve genuine problems, not have mock ups. Do some research to find out ‘real world’ problems for your adult learners. Or better still make the learning in the workplace.
  • Story Telling. This is a powerful instructional tool if it is purposeful and relatable.
  • Practice. Time to practice, interact and discuss a new application/strategy/knowledge gives adults a purpose for their training.
  • Link new knowledge to previous knowledge. Adult learners need to understand what they know and have a clear vision of what should be achieved.
  • Give feedback. Make sure you have good performance measures.
  • Have multi-channel learning styles.
  • Address practical problems with useful and immediate application.