George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

The Science Behind Adult Learning

Understanding the science behind adult learning is important for professional development success.

August 22, 2011

'Tis the season of professional development for many of us who work in schools. While PD can be meaningful, sometimes the experience feels like we were the unwilling recipients of an unpleasant procedure -- we were professionally developed; our descriptions employ the same tone, syntax, and non-verbal language as when describing a colonoscopy.

Let me digress for a moment. For many years, I've been trying to learn to bake bread. At first, I roughly followed a recipe, using whatever stale ingredients I had in the cupboard. The results were disastrous -- the yeast didn't foam, the bread didn't rise, the center was gooey, and the outside rock hard. I've now accepted that there's a science to making bread: the yeast can't be two years old, the water must be 110-115 degrees for the yeast to proof, the house needs to be warm, the measurements need to be exact, and so on. I doubt that any baker would argue with this fact because if you don't adhere to the science, you don't get bread.

This was what I mulled over as I sat through three days of excruciating professional development because the science behind the PD I was subjected to was all wrong. The result will be thrown in the compost.

In this day and age, there is so much information available about how adults learn that I'm shocked that professional development can still feel like a colonoscopy. In the paranoid moments when I indulge in conspiracy thinking, I wonder if well-intentioned presenters know about adult learning, but choose to dismiss that knowledge. Otherwise, how could they do what they're doing to another human being?

The Science

I like to know about the science behind things -- it helps me make sense of a phenomena and helps me get the loaf I want. In the past few decades, brain scientists, psychologists, behavioral scientists, and others have delivered a rich set of data about how adults learn. As an instructional coach, whether I'm working individually with teachers or principals, or designing and facilitating PD, applying this information is essential to me.

Here's a brief summary of what we know about how adults learn. I offer this to those who have been subjected to any colonoscopy-like PD recently and are trying to make sense of why it felt so unpleasant -- and as a reminder to those who are leading professional development. I have much of this information typed up and posted in my office, lest I forget.

#1. The learning experience has to feel good. When we feel positive about a situation, our bodies release endorphins, which make us feel good and open to learning, and dopamine, which stimulates the pre-frontal cortex and keeps us attentive and likely to remember the learning.

I'm starting with this scientific fact as a reminder and validation that learning must feel good to adults (as well as kids). Professional development that begins with a message of, "You teachers have failed your kids, you're contributing to the premature deaths of our children, let us teach you the right way to do this job," isn't going to work. Negative feelings (including feeling like you've been forced to attend a PD) cause the hormone cortisol to enter the blood stream. This catapults the brain into survival mode, and shifts the brain's attention away from learning and into dealing with stress. Instead of learning, the brain remembers the pressure and registers PD as unpleasant.

This scientific fact -- that the learning has to feel good -- doesn't mean that we all need to sit in a circle and sing "Kumbaya" all day. There are many ways in which PD can be structured so that participants feel good, learn something, and get things done.

Related to this first fact, the following are also true of adult learners:

#2. Adults want to be the origin of our own learning. They should therefore have some control over the what, who, how, why, when, and where of the learning.

#3. Adults will commit to learning when we believe that the objectives are realistic and important for our personal and professional needs. We need to see that what we learn through professional development is applicable to our day-to-day activities and problems. Presenters need to know who's in the room and what's on our plates, and if they don't know, they need to ask.

#4. Adults need direct, concrete experiences for applying what we have learned to our work. We can't just be passive subjects into which theories are poured (just like kids).

#5. Adult learners come to the learning process with a self-direction. Also, they arrive with a wide range of previous experiences, knowledge, interests, and competencies. And this last fact is what I appreciate about working with adults. While there are similarities between how kids learn and how grown-ups learn, there are notable differences. I've heard some PD presenters decry the challenges: "Kids are so much easier to teach! They're so much more fun!" While that might be true in some respects, I'd suggest that those people consider only teaching children if that's how they feel.

I appreciate what adult learners bring to the table. I enjoy the challenges and the rewards make the work worth it. And I also adhere to the science of adult learning. For more information on this topic, this article is a great place to start.

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