Children and adults learn in different ways. But research shows that one learning principle kids and adults have in common is our need to build upon prior knowledge. Although prior knowledge helps individuals of all ages learn, the techniques and expectations are very different for adults than children.
Let’s look at one of the most fundamental skills we build: learning language. Learning to read doesn’t just typically start in kindergarten. Exposure to language starts inside the womb. In a fascinating New York Times profile on Harvard cognitive psychologist Elizabeth S. Spelke, the writer describes a study involving infants and social intelligence. They found that infants just a few weeks old prefer people who use speech patterns they’re already familiar with, including languages, accents, and intonations.
Dr. Spelke suggest that language is the secret ingredient, and it can be used “to combine anything with anything.” Language is the “cognitive catalyst that allows our numeric, architectonic and social modules to join forces, swap ideas, and take us to far horizons.”
This building-upon-prior-knowledge principle isn’t new. Jean Piaget pioneered research on the importance of childhood learning and theorized that cognitive development occurs in stages. Obviously, as we age, we have a vastly larger number of experiences to reference. That’s one of the major differences between how grown-ups and kids learn new information.
Another important difference is that adults are more receptive to learning new information if they understand its direct application and value the content. Children, on the other hand, are more likely to soak up what they’re learning regardless of the purpose of the information or how applicable it seems. (Hence our assumption that their noggins are sponges.) The information still needs to be appealing in order to “stick” or avoid boredom, though, which is of course means different things depending on where they are in their cognitive development.
- Self-concept: Adults are less dependent and more self-directed learners than children.
- Experience: Adults have a larger well of experience to draw from.
- Readiness to learn: Adults’ readiness to learn is more closely tied to developmental social tasks.
- Orientation to learn: Immediate application of knowledge is very important to adult learners.
- Motivation to learn: Motivation is more internal for adults.
At IdeaLearning Group, we incorporate these principles into all our programs for adult learners. We call our first phase “Ready, Set, Learn,” which is where we prime the learning pump by assessing where our learners are in their development and identifying the gaps that we need to address in our program.
What strategies do you embrace in working with adults or young learners?