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To:            Donna Shea, Instructor, et all

From:        Philip Fournier

Date:        Thursday, August 11, 2005

Subject:   WR1 Adult Learning Environments



Both articles are obviously written by those who value education and see that education is a life-long and rewarding process.  The one author has strong words for those who give up on education.  “We either continue to learn throughout our lives, or we allow our skills and knowledge to quickly slide into obsolescence.”  Both articles are a testament to the value of adults continuing the education process throughout their lives.


I found the document “Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective Adult learning Programs” to be a bit simplistic in its approach.  The rather all-inclusive statement “adult students grew significantly only in one type of learning environment” seems on the face of it to be an exaggeration.  The other article is more broad-minded in its outlook, identifying five patterns of learning (or more accurately reasons for learning) among adults, rather than more narrowly classifying exactly what constitutes an effective adult learning program as in “Seven Characteristics.”  This is not to say I disagree with the “Seven Characteristics.”  I am only observing that I think the approach is too narrow, and frankly to me does not bear the marks of a four year study.  Nevertheless, at least some of the seven hit home to me as indeed reflecting a quality adult education environment.


I appreciated the first characteristic in particular “where individual needs and uniqueness are honored, where abilities and life achievements are acknowledged and respected.”  In my many years of teaching, I have routinely had a few senior citizens in my classes, though they have never made up the majority of the students.  I was never taught the above axiom, but still I sensed in my heart that I needed to treat these older folks with respect for their life achievements, even though I might know quite a lot more about the new technology I was attempting to pass along to them.  I sensed that the adults (all of my students are theoretically adults as I teach in a post-high school environment, but many are young people, while the older ones I’ll call adults) felt somewhat threatened by their lack of a grasp of basic computer skills.  I felt I needed to find ways to lesson their feelings of inadequacy in this area so they would feel comfortable.  I would do this by engaging them in discussions about old technology which they would often know about, and the younger ones would not.  Though it was not necessarily completely relevant to the topic at hand, I would try to draw parallels between the old and the new, giving credit to the adults for their contribution of what I like to call “obsolete knowledge.”  It helps that I count myself among the “mature adults” though since I have been teaching for seventeen years, I wasn’t always in that category.


The above comment fits in nicely with pattern number 5 as expressed in “Implications”.  “Adult learners tend to appreciate – and continue learning – in courses where they feel they have a significant contribution to make to the discussion, and that their contributions are acknowledged and appreciated by the group as a whole.”  The idea and the challenge is to integrate the two groups, the young people and the adults, in an environment that is mutually beneficial.  I can’t say I have always succeeded in this attempt, but have always had a sense that it was necessary.  It is nice to read in these two papers a confirmation of my efforts in times past.


Number six of “Characteristics” is basically saying the adults learn better in the psychomotor domain.  For those of us in vocational education, this seems like a given for all of our students, not just the older ones.  Pattern two of “Implications” suggests something similar, i.e., that adults are more interested in applied knowledge rather than purely theoretical knowledge.  Once again, this is pretty much a given for vocational education.  Our goal is applied knowledge almost exclusively. 


Number five of “Characteristics” regards pacing, setting a standard of learning just a comfortable margin beyond where the learner is currently at.  I have no objection to the idea; however, in practice this is not always in the realm of possibility.  Students, both young ones and adults, enroll in classes for which they may or may not be fully prepared.  While being able to “pace” would be a nice luxury, mostly we do the best we can to balance the advanced students with the less advanced, hoping to allow the more skilled to learn by teaching others.  It takes a talented instructor to do this when the more skilled is the very young and the less skilled is a mature adult, also know as an “old fart.”  (Couldn’t resist that one, since I call myself that often.)


In conclusion, these two different papers addressed some issues that I have known and applied intuitively but it is nice to have confirmation that I was on the right track all along.