Child Learning versus Adult Learning

Are the differences real or do we create them?

It was an exhilarating evening. I spent an hour listening to a panel of students and a professor talk about their experiences in a learner-centered classroom. The professor clearly had many decades of teaching experience. But he was not jaded.

He spoke with passion about equalizing power relationships between students.

He talked about teachers learning from students as much as students learn from teachers.

He described building a community within a classroom by helping students to create personal relationships. As a result of those relationships he saw greater respect across differences within the classroom space

He so clearly loved what he did and believed in the transformative power of learner-centered classroom spaces. The college chancellor also talked about the need to support this model of teaching throughout the college system.

There was this moment, however, when the professor said some things that made me sit forward in my chair.

I felt a clash of emotions.

I nodded my head vigorously in agreement.

At the same time, I felt a great sense of sadness.

Here’s why.

A member of the audience, another faculty member, asked a question about what you do when a student in a learner-centered classroom is teaching other students clearly incorrect information. He added at the end, “Do you just sweep it under the rug and not address it?”

His questions, or concerns, were clear in the words he used.

  • Can we really trust students, college students of all ages and experiences,
    to teach other students?
  • Can we give up our power as faculty members to individuals
    who do not have expertise in the subject matter?

The professor handled the answer well. He responded by saying that adult learners need to feel as though they are respected. Using power to humiliate a person does not facilitate adult learning.

He also emphasized one aspect of adult learning that is often overlooked by the teacher.

Adult learners have shown him over and over during his years of teaching the capacity to self-correct. If given time and space, adult learners engage in self-correction without the intervention of the teacher.

He went on to say that we could humiliate and shame learners by showing them what they don’t know. We can create fear of making mistakes. But that method of teaching is not conducive to adult learning.

In fact, respect, mutuality, and support from others in the classroom were the cornerstones of a learner-centered adult learning environment.

Wait. Respect, mutuality, support for adult learners. Is he saying that only adults need to be treated with respect?

I went into either-or thinking.

In my mind, I yelled,  “Does he actually must mean that children don’t deserve the same respect, mutuality and support as adults?!?”

Okay, breathe, Teresa, and take a step back.

He didn’t say that at all.

But, I had to make sense of this experience and began to ask myself the question,

“What are the assumptions we make about child learners versus adult learners?”

I’ve thought and written quite a bit about the assumptions we make about children and how those assumptions reinforce adult beliefs that children must be controlled. As well as the way our broader culture supports the use of control, power and domination of children.

Though I had read many books and articles about alternatives to traditional learning, I felt the desire to delve more into how it is learning theorists (who deeply influence curriculum development and teacher education) see children.

Malcolm Knowles, author of The Modern Practice of Adult Education, has written extensively on adult education and adult learning theory (or andragogy). Here is what he says about the ideal psychological climate of the classroom for adult learners.

“(T)he psychological climate should be one which causes adults to feel accepted, respected, and supported; in which there exists a spirit of mutuality between teachers and students as joint inquirers; in which there is freedom of expression without fear of punishment or ridicule.”

He writes about the impact of past classroom experiences on adults. “In the case of some adults the remembrance of the classroom as a place where one is treated with disrespect and may fail is so strong that it serves as a serious barrier to their becoming involved in adult-education activities at all.”

Here is what Knowles writes about children. “The first image children get of themselves as separate entities is that of dependent personalities whose lives are managed for them by the adult world. At home, often at play, in church, in the community, and in school, they expect the will of adults to be imposed on them. That is what life is like when you are a kid.”

These last lines bear repeating.

“They expect the will of adults to be imposed on them. That is what life is like when you are kid.”

Knowles’ book was published in 1996. With the push for the common core and the increase in standardized testing, youth education hasn’t progressed on the whole to be learner-centered.

Of course, there are amazing examples of learner-centered schools that have existed for a long-time, but they are not the experience for the vast majority of children. We have several here in Tucson.

He goes to write that the role of child “is defined as the more or less passive one of receiving and storing up the information adults have decided children should have.”

Here is how he describes the traditional pedagogical assumptions about children and learning:

  1. The role of the learner is, by definition, a dependent one. The teacher is expected by society to take full responsibility for determining what, when, how and if subject matter is learned.
  2. The experience learners bring to a learning situation is of little worth. It is the experiences of teacher, textbook writer, and other experts that matters most.
  3. Learners are ready to learn whatever the school or society says they should learn, provided the pressure is great enough on them, especially the fear of failure.
  4. Learners see education as a process of acquiring content, most of which they understand will be useful only at a later time.

However, he goes on to write,“The difference between children and adults are not so much real differences, I believe, as differences in assumptions about them that are made in traditional pedagogy.” (emphasis added)

“Actually, in my observation (and retrospection), the children start fairly early to see themselves as being self-directing in broadening areas of their lives; they start accumulating experience that has increasing value for learning; they start preparing for social roles and therefore experiencing adultlike readiness to learn; and they encounter life problems for which they would like some learnings for immediate application.”

He goes further and says, “I have the impression that many traditional teachers (and learning theorists, for that matter) have an almost ideological attachment to the pedagogical model. It is something they have to be loyal to, enforce with sanctions (like normative grading), protect from heresy.”

This is not about finding someone to blame.

I write this not to vilify teachers.

I know many dedicated teachers. I also had the opportunity to be in classrooms with teachers that created learner-centered environments often in opposition to systems and institutions that required the opposite. I’ve met many teachers who are committed to working within structures to humanize the educational process and empower students.

My goal in writing about this is to have us, all of us, question the assumptions we make about the “inherent” differences between children and adults as people and as learners.

We need to question these assumptions as adults, parents, individuals, institutions, and a society.

We create learning environments that children must participate in. They do not have a choice.

The environments are created around assumptions about how to best teach children. And those assumptions also happen to serve the institutional needs around organizing large numbers of individuals to progress through the system in an orderly fashion.

Knowles acknowledges that there have been many developments in the curricula in primary and secondary schools that challenged the assumptions of traditional pedagogy but they have occurred in a piecemeal fashion. And he also encourages us to move beyond adherence to a particular ideology of learning.

There are many others who have written more eloquently about learning, educational systems, and children. Several have been particularly influential to me, including Alfie Kohn, John Taylor Gatto, Paulo Freire, Maria Montessori, and John Holt.

I know what I write today is not groundbreaking for many people.

I write it to bring back into focus the ways in which we (I) choose to see children in our society.

We choose to see children as needing to be coerced into learning.

We choose to see children as resistant to learning.

We choose to see children as needing external motivators and threats in order to learn.

I use the word choose, because we have the ability choose to see children differently. We can challenge ourselves to look at the underlying assumptions, beliefs, and values that become unseen forces for how we treat children.

We then build environments based on these assumptions.

Children react to those environments by conforming to them.

We then see confirmation of our beliefs about children.

And then that belief becomes the truth about the ways children learn and must be educated.

We create self-fulfilling prophecies.

What has been most influential for me, however, has been watching children who have the opportunity to create their own learning experiences with the assistance of adults who have deep trust in their ability to learn without coercion, threats, grading, shaming, and control.

I didn’t start out trusting right away.

I had to take small steps.

I had to start with just suspending judgment and not intervening.

I took a step back from assuming I knew the way to learn or teach something.

I had to close my mouth more often and create some space.

I had to listen and observe. Often a hard task for a former college teacher and administrator.

I had to learn how to not “impose my will” on the child. I am continually learning how to not impose my will on another human being.

Mutuality, respect, and support are hallmarks of effective adult learning environments. But they are more than that. They are the hallmarks of effective learning environments for all human beings regardless of age. They are also the hallmarks of healthy relationships.