Why can’t adults learn?

An interesting paper about Adult Learning by Richard E. Clark, Center for Cognitive Technology, Rossier School of Education, USC caught my eye … when talking about instructional technologies. He quotes Mayer (2005), who cautions

that over a half-century of research has indicated that asking novice students to engage in discovery learning, alone or in collaborative teams, is not an effective way to teach. The evidence on this issue is unequivocal – unguided or minimally guided discovery and constructivist learning programs simply do not work for more than a very small percentage of advanced students and subject matter experts. Mayer points out that many adult learning theories suggest that most students construct what they learn by drawing on their own prior experience to understand new knowledge. While there is widespread agreement with this description of learning, it does not follow that the best way to teach is to ask students to struggle with problems and discover or construct a method for solving them.

When I think about this, I wonder if its not the method, but the environment. I learn everything this way – and connectivism makes it a highly effective way to learn. To try an assess how they learn, who from, where and when – cannot be added to an academic transcript as it’s not ‘teaching’ per se. These things trouble me greatly – as I’m seeing the world almost the inverse to Mr Mayer. We can’t both be right – as learning seems and endless struggle and demands new methods constantly.

There seems no stopping point, which is why I might just become the greatest sword fighter in all the world one day, but I just won’t get a certificate.

5 thoughts on “Why can’t adults learn?

  1. The key word is ‘novice’. Students in my school are originally scaffolded through discovery learning but then gradually the scaffolding is reduced. My observation is that they learn to like the learning process, are engaged and stay on task. It is conducted as part of our Matrix program. This is a program where targets are negotiated with each student and then students choose tasks, often of the discovery kind, to accumulaate points. Teachers guide along the side of the students and are only ever briefly up the front of the class.

  2. I think you may fit into the category of “advanced students and subject matter experts” here. The research is pretty strong here that if you want kids to know something, the most effective way is to explain what you want them to know very clearly to them. I think constructivist approaches still need to complement this to ensure we develop the important skills of problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration etc. I don’t think it is about on or the other – I think it is about finding an appropriate balance to ensure our students have the fundamental knowledge and skills to be able to tackle project/problem based learning and develop into independent learners. Initially PBL approaches probably need to be highly guided and structured and as students develop the skills required we can loosen the ropes gradually until we get them where we want them to be.

    • I agree Brad. One of the misconceptions I encounter in PBL discussions is that directed instruction is thrown out. It isn’t, and there’s nothing better that a quick fire test to oil dip during a project. After all, the exit point in our world is generally an exam. The piece does not account for the high numbers of low-ses and less academic students achieving in PBL.

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