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Applying the 6 Key Adult Learning Principles to Yourself

Image from cover of The Adult Learner, 6th Edition

It’s been years since Malcolm Knowles, considered by many to be the “father of adult learning,” articulated a set of six principles – or “assumptions,” as he put it – about how adults tend to learn differently from children. While anyone who is serious about creating and facilitating effective adult learning experiences should already be familiar with these principles, I’m willing to bet that the average adult learner, to whom they apply, has never heard of either Knowles or his assumptions. I think it is worth knowing them, though, as a way to become more conscious of and deliberate in your own learning efforts.

So, in this post I offer an overview of Knowles’ six adult learning principles reframed for use by lifelong learners. 

1. Embrace “Why?”

First, Knowles argued that “Adults need to know why they need to learn.” Seems obvious enough, but consider for a minute that ever since you were a kid you have probably been told what to learn a great deal of the time. Few, if any, people asked you, and there is a decent chance you have fallen out of the habit of asking yourself at anything more than a superficial level.

Make “Why?” one of the most frequently used words in your vocabulary.

Use it to discover new learning opportunities.

And use “Why?” to shut down time wasters. If you can’t find a good answer, or at least a good potential answer to “Why do I need to learn that?” then turn your attention to something more clearly valuable.

2. Be the captain of your own ship

Knowles and his collaborators wrote that, “Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, for their own lives … they develop a deep psychological need to be seen by others as capable of self-direction.”

As already suggested by the previous point, traditional approaches to education often conflict directly with the “deep psychological need” Knowles identifies. Both in and out of school the paths we follow are very often determined by others. While following the directions of others is often appropriate earlier in life, it doesn’t give us a lot of practice for becoming successful self-directed learners.

Realizing the capacity you have for setting your own course and the amazing range of resources you have available to you for doing it is one of the true joys of becoming a conscious, dedicated lifelong learner.

3. Get into the arena

Knowles recognized that too many of those responsible for facilitating lifelong learning take the view, whether explicitly or implicitly, that the “learner’s experience is of little worth as a resource for learning; the experience that counts is that of the teacher, the textbook writer, and the audiovisual aids producer.”

Not so, Knowles argued: it is often the case that “the richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves.” Why? Because of the tremendous range and depth of experiences you have already accumulated. Because of the depth and range of experiences you are capable of acquiring as you become “captain of your own ship.”

To realize the full potential of this principle, however, you need to continually seek out new experiences that provide for rich learning opportunities – including connecting with others who have valuable experiences to share. You need to be “in the arena,” as Teddy Roosevelt famously said. But you also need to make sure you effectively mine and reflect upon your prior experiences to extract the full value from them.

4. Connect to who – and where – you are

As Knowles sees it, adult learners tend to rise to the occasion when it comes to learning. They “become ready to learn those things they need to know and be able to do in order to cope effectively with their real-life situations.”

A key implication of this perspective is that you, as a learner, can benefit from a relatively high degree of self awareness. What is it you would truly benefit from learning at any point in time? How can you connect your learning experiences or potential learning experiences to key aspects of your life and work? Are your learning experiences helping you achieve what you had hoped to achieve?

It is by finding these connections that we find our motivations. By continually connecting learning to our real-life experiences we also help ensure we will fully absorb and remember what we have learned.

5. Value learning, not information

It seems like everywhere you turn these days you find people preaching about the value of “content.” Certainly high-quality content is necessary for learning, but as Knowles saw it, “Adult learners tend to be life-centered (or task-centered, or problem-centered) rather than subject or content-centered.”

I’d argue we often have a perverse drive to ignore Knowles’ insight. I know I do, at least. I’m continually bouncing from one information source to the next, bookmarking this, tweeting that, saving yet another item to Instapaper. While there is nothing inherently bad about these activities, they ultimately have little value if I don’t actively connect them back to (see point #4 above) and apply them in my life. (See also the discussion of “elaboration” in “5 Power Tips for the Serious Lifelong Learner.”)

As effective lifelong learners and captains of our own ships, we often have to manage our own orientation to learning and be conscious that learning is less about content and more about how the learning experience fits into the context of our lives.

6. Seek meaning, not money

Knowles wrote that “Adults are typically more responsive to internal motivators (job satisfaction, self esteem, quality of life, etc.) than external motivators (promotions, higher salaries, etc.).”

This is a another insight that, even when we are conscious of it, we routinely fail to embrace. Knowles himself points to research suggesting that our “motivation is frequently blocked by such barriers as negative self-concept as a student, inaccessibility of opportunities or resources, time constraints, and programs that violate principles of adult learning.”

Again, a relatively high degree of consciousness and self awareness are needed. On the one hand, we need to understand our own motivations to the greatest extent possible. (I’d argue that all of the previous points contribute to this understanding.)

We also need to actively seek out resources that align with those motivations and not settle for experiences that do not. Certainly one of the most exiting aspects of being an active lifelong learner in our current age is the ability to find and access a tremendous range of learning resources with far fewer constraints than was ever the case before.

So, now that you have found and accessed this particular resource, I encourage you to take some time to reflect upon the points above and ask yourself:

  • Why might these be important to my lifelong learning practices?
  • How can I connect them into my current lifelong learning pursuits?
  • What questions do I have about these principles that I might want to explore further, and what steps might I take to do that?

And, of course, I also encourage you to comment and share your perspectives on Knowles’ points or any of the questions above.


P.S. – The Knowles’ quotes used here are from the Kindle version of The Adult Learner, 6th Edition by Malcolm Knowles, Elwood Holton III, and Richard Swanson.

About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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Leave a Comment:

Emmanuel Okai Ablakwah says

It will have been bad if i did not have the opportunity to read this.I am an adult offering an online course at U o People, reading it have given me a great knowledge of how to be a self direct learner.

Samuel says

Great article.

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