Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

Questions and Answers on Adult Education

Edited by Daniel Schugurensky

This site includes questions and answers on Adult Education that were written by students in the course 'Outline of Adult Education' at OISE/UT. The questions are first raised in class by the students themselves. Then they organize in teams in order to research and answer them. New entries are added regularly. This website is intended to provide information about the field to new students and to those who have a general interest in Adult Education. Anyone is welcome to submit a question and/or answer.


Do adults and children learn differently?

By Karen Webster, Miriam Zachariah, Joelle McFaury, & Leah McMullin (OISE/UT) 

In his book, The Modern Practice of Adult Education: from Pedagogy to Andragogy, Malcolm Knowles defines several components of learning for adults, which he claims are different from the learning needs of children.  First, adults need to be self-directed in their learning because they are maturing and moving away from the dependency of children.  Second, adults have a vast reservoir of experience, which is rich resource for learning and suggests that adult learners learn best through experiential techniques.  Third, adults choose to learn some thing in order meet more immediate needs in their lives where as children learn because they are told to learn things that will have some relevance in the distant future.  In addition, according to Piaget and other developmental theorists, children complete several stages of cognitive, emotional and physical development, which are presumably complete for the adult learner.  We have compared all of the above components for both children and adult learners and examined the implications for educators working with young and mature learners.

Knowles suggests that “teachers have the responsibility to encourage and nurture the movement” from dependence to independence while Brookfield (1995) states that self-directed learning is the process by which adults take control of their learning.  While adults are certainly expected to be more independent members of society, children can learn the skills they will need for independence early in life by experiencing some components of self-directed learning. Given the opportunities, we believe that children are also capable of self-directed learning.  Montessori (1955), writing about children, felt that learners were primarily self-motivated and generally learned by themselves. The teacher only played a small role in their learning environment. 

Weikart examines this concept in Educating Young Children, where he describes the need for children to direct their own learning (child-directed), with the teacher as facilitator, guiding the process as it relates to children’s interests and goals. This type of curriculum for children is called active learning.  It is defined as learning in which the child, by acting on objects and interacting with people, ideas and events, constructs new understanding.  The children also have the opportunity to reflect on their actions, thereby making the learning experiences more meaningful.  Through this process children become ‘inventors and questioners’ of their own learning.  Rogaff (1990) suggests that children are very active in choosing their own activities and companions, directing themselves and their caregivers toward desirable and away from undesirable activities.  Teachers structure learning situations through joint participation by providing access to and regulating the difficulty of tasks.  Adult involvement can motivate children toward a goal and focus their attention.  This type of learning illustrates that within a caring and supportive environment, children as well as adults, can make choices that reflect their own interests, set goals which are meaningful to their world and choose a style of learning which best suits them.   Bell (1999) finds that most learners, adults and children, are best motivated when they are self-directed and can take responsibility for their own learning.

One of the main areas that distinguish the learning of adults from that of children is the amount of life experience the learner possesses.  Adults have been exposed to a variety of experiences, such as participating in different relationships, taking part in the workplace and having significant responsibilities in their families.  Some of adult’s experiences may be spontaneous but others are chosen intentionally. Children’s experiences, on the other hand, are more limited and are not necessarily intentional, at least on the part of the child. 

Experience is equally important for adults because they often tend to define themselves through their unique experiences.  In contrast, children, according to Erikson, have not developed a strong sense of self-identity.

In the learning environment, experience provides a wonderful asset for adults because the diversity of experiences can make learning more meaningful, relevant and rich.  However, experience can also hinder the adult learner because adults tend to have more fixed patterns as a result of their experiences and can therefore be less open minded than children to new learning.  Children, with less experience, are often more open to learning new things.  

The role of experience plays a significant role in learning for both children and adults.  Dewey felt that in order to be effective, learning had to be based on the learner’s experience.  Children, as well as adults, need to have opportunities in their learning to reflect on their life experiences-to explore concepts of family, culture and nature in their own way.  Teachers need to help children and adults access their prior experience in order to help them integrate new learning into their current experiential schemas.  These experiences make meaning for the learner within the learning environment.

Young and mature learners also differ in terms of the motivation for learning.  According to Knowles, adults tend to learn specific skills that may be applied in the workplace as a means to a specific end identified by the learner.  The adult’s application of their learning is more immediate and relevant to their particular life circumstance.  A child’s learning is motivated by their natural curiosity about the world.  Instead of learning pertinent skills that will be useful in the immediate present, children often learn about skills that may be useful “one day in the future”.  The application of a child’s learning does not take on the same urgency as that of adults.

Another way we can compare the adult learner and the child learner is to examine their differing stages development.  According to Piaget’s theory, children pass through different stages of physical, emotional and moral development as they mature into adults.  We can view development as the change in a person’s cognitive development, which may include knowledge about stimuli and the environment as well as age related interpretive tools.  Therefore, there is a need for the teacher to use specific teaching strategies to target the needs of the young learner. 

We need to acknowledge some fundamental differences between adult and child learners. First, adults differ from children in terms of the quality and quantity of life experience they possess. Secondly, children have not completed developing, cognitively, emotionally or physically into mature human beings. Thirdly, children are generally not motivated to learn by immediate needs in their lives.   However, despite these obvious differences, the educators of children and adults have a similar task.  Both sets of learners benefit from some degree of facilitated self-directed learning and experiential techniques.   


Hunt,Lloyd. Andragogy vs. Pedagogy - Executive Summary. October 21, 2001 . Online<http://www.usm.maine.edu/~dlarson/exec2000.htm>

Jones, Elizabeth & Nimmo, John. Emergent Curriculum. NAEYC.1994.Washington.

Knowles, Malcolm. The Modern Practice of Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. Follet Publishing, Chicago, 1980

Rogoff, Barbara. Apprenticeship In Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context. Oxford University Press. 1990. New York.

Rutherford, Jane. Adult Education Learning:Major Theories in One Instructor's Classroom Experience. October 21, 2001 . Online<http://www.indiana.edu/~1506/jan.html>

Weikart, David P. & Hohmann, Mary. Educating Young Children: Active Learning Practices for Preschool and Child Care Programs. High/Scope Foundation.Ypsilanti, Michigan. 1995.

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November 2001

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