In commenting on a recent post titled “I hate it when presenters do that,” I highlighted the following passage from the 6th edition of Malcom Knowles’ classic The Adult Learner:
…by and large, the adults we work with have not learned to be self-directing inquirers; they have been conditioned to be dependent on teachers to teach them. And so they often experience a form of culture shock when first exposed to truly adult educational programs.
As readers here may know, The Adult Learner, is one of the foundational texts of andragogy, a model of adult learning that stands in contrast to (or, perhaps more accurately, in a continuum with) pedagogy, the traditional model for childhood learning. It is built upon a set of key assumption about how and why adults learn:
- Adults need to know why they need to learn.
- Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions – they have a psychological need to be seen by others as capable of self-direction.
- Experience is often the best foundation for adult learning activities – often the “richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves.” 
- Adults tend to be most interested in learning that has immediate relevance to their jobs or personal lives.
- Adult learners tend to be life-centered (or task-centered, or problem-centered) rather than subject or content-centered.
- Adults are typically more responsive to internal motivators (job satisfaction, self esteem, quality of life, etc.) than external motivators (promotions, higher salaries, etc.).
I plan to come back to a number of these in future posts, but the one I’ll emphasize here is #2: self-concept. Knowles first introduced his concept of andragogy in 1970, but it was not until 1995  – two years before he died – that he added the step of “preparing the learner” to his andragogical process. This was largely a response to issues he saw with “self-concept.” Here’s a relevant passage from the discussion of self concept in The Adult Learner:
The minute adults walk into an activity labeled “education,” or “training,” or anything synonymous, they hark back to their conditioning in previous school experience, put on their dunce hats of dependency, fold their arms, sit back, and say “teach me.” This assumption of required dependency and the facilitator’s subsequent treatment of adult students as children creates a conflict within them between their intellectual model – learner equals dependent – and the deeper, perhaps subconscious, psychological need to be self-directing. And the typical method of dealing with psychological conflict is to try to flee from the situation causing it, which probably accounts in part for the high dropout rate in much voluntary adult education. 
The bottom line is that, while there are many exciting ways to create more interactive and participatory learning than is often encountered in, say, your average conference session, there is ample reason to believe that most of us are not particularly well prepared to engage in and benefit from such learning. (I don’t think this is a matter of laziness, as is sometimes suggested. To a very large extent – as Knowles suggests – it is a vestige of our K-12 education system, and it is a key reason I have recently turned to research and writing about K-12 education.)
Here are a few key thoughts that the issue of “self-concept” prompts for me – and I hope you will share your own:
- Those who are teaching adults have a responsibility to ensure that their students are prepared for the methods they employ. They can’t assume “self-directedness.” This, to me, implies a much more developed process for speaker selection and preparation than I typically encounter.
- The above point suggests to me that organizations that purport to educate adults must be prepared not simply to handle the logistics of putting together learning experiences, but to lead learning. If it is true – and I believe it is – that most adults are constrained by their pedagogical baggage, then it is hardly likely that they will be able to tell organizations what a great learning experience looks like. In other words, you can probably place only so much faith in data you may gather via various types of needs assessments. Educators must be prepared to take some risks, make some leaps, to lead their learners to new and better places. (This, by the way, is exactly what our research has shown most organizations that have offered virtual conferences have done – their learners were not clamoring for them to go virtual.)
- All of that said, we must also recognize that there are many individuals who are self-directed and intrinsically motivated and who essentially bring their own problem-solving and task-oriented processes to each learning experience. For these learners, content-centered learning experiences may actually be preferable a great deal of the time (basically my point in I hate it when presenters do that). The challenge for organizations is to do a better job of segmenting learners and and properly aligning learning experiences.
- Finally – something I have been arguing in one way or another for years – the problematic side of “self-concept” pretty much flies out the window if you remove the obvious, traditional labels like “seminar” or “Webinar.” This is a key reason why social networks are so powerful as learning environments – people tend not to consciously acknowledge them as such even though learning is typically the key social object in any professional community that survives and thrives over time. Educators must recognize this and learn to facilitate learning within networks if they want to truly lead learning in their fields and industries.
So, with that, I’ll bring this long post to a close. But I’d really like to know what your thoughts are on the whole issue of self concept and readiness to learn. What do you see as the implications?
P.S. – See also http://www.tagoras.com/2011/04/12/embracing-social-learning/