How Children Learn vs. How Adults Learn

A Brief Memoir, with Support

Education is not simply a matter of attaining information. If it were, then teachers would require little more training than a call center representative does. Not nothing, of course, but just enough to provide answers to the questions in a (usually) courteous manner.

This is decidedly not the case. Properly trained teachers have an eclectic education, learned in lesson design, behavioral management, group and individual psychology—in a way, the range of knowledge needed to properly teach runs the range of human experience.

A major emphasis in classes on education is the phenomenon of classroom culture. Child by child, you generally have young people who will listen to you. In groups, kids don’t just sit there and listen. BELIEVE ME, they don’t. Not even the quiet ones. The teacher’s first, and many say most important, job is to create an environment in which teaching is possible.

It can never be assumed that this will simply happen. Allowing classroom culture to evolve independent of direct, conscious guidance is (unless you are extremely lucky) a terrible mistake.

There are different ways to do this; stacks of books have been written on the subject, and most disagree with each other. I myself, in my years teaching (heavens help me) middle school, have tried several approaches with varying degrees of success.

I was surprised early in my teaching career how much of my achievements in classroom culture was based on acting. A student, for instance, may have said something that I thought was absolutely hilarious—but it was timed poorly and disrupted the lesson, so I would have to keep a stone face and correct the behavior. Or a student may give an answer, in response to which I would want to quote the old Adam Sandler movie: “Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it.” But it was an appropriate response at an appropriate time, so I give no hints as to my disdain and keep the classroom an encouraging place.

Of course, out of seven teachers, there will be at least four different ways of handling these situations. It’s highly inexact.

There are also disagreements about the goals of a classroom culture: Is it about “making learning fun”? Is it about discipline? Is it about collaboration? Is it about individualized pacing? There really isn’t a single answer. Each group responds to different prompting, different attitudes towards being in a classroom.

But I can say this with certainty: However you do it, whatever you’re shooting for, the foundation of your classroom culture must rest on your authority. This does not mean being authoritarian. It means being, in the eyes of your students, the person who has educational and behavioral legitimacy.

Children are biologically programmed for this. In evolutionary terms, response to statements from authority is the basis of acquiring knowledge. We wouldn’t have survived without it: Don’t go too near the cliff. Don’t pet that alligator. Get that mushroom out of your mouth.

So once you win their trust, once the kids see you as a proper authority figure, then classroom culture has the strongest possible foundation. They are psychologically prepared to absorb the knowledge you provide.

So it is with children.

On the other side of my experience, I taught for over a year at a Job Corps center. For those of you who don’t know what this is, it is a federal program instituted in the 1960s—part of Johnson’s Great Society. It is a service for “troubled youth,” meaning young adults who have gotten in legal trouble, homeless teens, people in their twenties who have fallen through the cracks and want to turn their lives around. When you attend, you are assigned an apprenticeship in a trade and study to earn your high school equivalency, which is where I came in.

I was one of two teachers helping them take the GED exam, or rather the TASC, which is the newest iteration of high school equivalency. These kids were older; most of them weren’t actually kids, and those who were were older beyond their years.

I did win their trust pretty quickly, which surprised me—an approaching-middle-age, middle-classed white guy waking into a room filled twenty-somethings who have experienced poverty and racial discrimination on grand scales. But they soon took me as the kind of presence of authority I always tried to cultivate.

It wasn’t nearly enough. Despite their respect, the teaching was a daily slog through resistance, inattention, and lack of retention. Why? Well, these weren’t kids; they were adults. Young adults, but adults nonetheless. With more established thought patterns and mental habits, they ultimately considered themselves their own authorities. They had very little interest in learning something for its own sake or just because I had told them to learn it. They were past that part of their lives.

What were they now interested in? How is this going to help me. Please explain to me in what practical sense knowing about proper comma usage or being able to read an historical article is going to advance my goals in life.

I changed my lessons to meet these questions. I did what I, as an idealist, despise doing: I taught to the test. Explicitly. “This is the sort of question you will see on the test,” I would say, “and this is how you answer that kind question.” Drill, drill, drill on question types and testing techniques—the kind of class that would have a large percentage of seventh graders weeping with boredom, and it was succeeding.

Of course, it’s all about the goal. Adult learners are not generalized learners. They learn in order to do; it’s a pragmatic approach that requires a clear benefit. They do not learn simply because they feel like they’re supposed to.

They are much more skeptical than their youthful counterparts, which of course they should be. It’s not that the bulk of adult learners are cynics whose default position is that they’re being lied to…but they do withhold judgement about the accuracy and efficacy of the material they’re being taught. As the adage goes, tell a person that the paint is wet, and they’ll want to touch it to make sure.

This is what I concluded.

Now, I did promise support. It turns out that these conclusions of mine are all over the literature. (Aren’t I clever to have spotted it all on my own!)

The place where I began my reading on the subject was actually the NCJRS, or the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Since many of my students at Job Corps were graduates of the justice system, it seemed a good place to start.

I have kept this link for my own reference, and here it is as my citation:

The Ultimate Educator: Achieving Maximum Adult Learning Through Training and Instruction, Chapter 3: Ultimate Adult Learning (ncjrs.gov)

In summary, here is what the NCJRS says when comparing children and adults side by side:

  1. Children rely on the guidance of others to determine what to know, while adults make these decisions on their own.
  2. Children accept what they’re told without questioning its value. Adults check the information against their own pre-formed value systems and use this to validate what they’re told.
  3. Children expect their new knowledge to serve them in the long-term. Adults want immediate gain.
  4. Children have little previous experience, and adults have a bunch. Obviously. But this means that adults have stronger belief systems and viewpoints that will inform how they absorb the material.
  5. Children can’t use previous knowledge or learned abilities to help each other, since they don’t have any. Adults can be much more useful for each other as resources, not just collaborators.

The point of all this: Precision. I am wary of any trainer or designer who tries to inflate the training with “activities.” In the right context, and done right, they can be a nifty addition. Adult learners, after all, do still respond to positive feedback and comfortable surroundings; that never goes away. But too often are there extra things just for their own sake. In designing a training module, clarity, usefulness, and practical application go much further.

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