ERIC Identifier: ED305495
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Imel, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.

Teaching Adults: Is It Different? ERIC Digest No. 82.

The adult education literature generally supports the idea that teaching adults should be approached in a different way than teaching children and adolescents, groups sometimes referred to as preadults. The assumption that teachers of adults should use a style of teaching different from that used with preadults is based on "informed professional opinion; philosophical assumptions associated with humanistic psychology and progressive education; and a growing body of research and theory on adult learning, development, and socialization" (Beder and Darkenwald 1982, p. 143). Following a discussion of the major model underlying this assumption, this ERIC Digest examines research that investigates differences in these teaching styles and suggests considerations for practice.


Malcolm Knowles (1980, 1984) is attributed with developing the most cogent model underlying the assumption that teaching adults should differ from teaching children and adolescents (Beder and Darkenwald 1982). By contrasting "andragogical" or learner-centered methods with "pedagogical" or teacher-centered methods, Knowles argues that adults differ from preadults in a number of important ways that affect learning and, consequently, how they approach learning. Therefore, according to Knowles, the more traditional pedagogical model is inappropriate for use with adults.

The following assumptions underlie Knowles' (1984) andragogical model: o Adults tend to be self-directing. o Adults have a rich reservoir of experience that can serve as a resource for learning. o Since adults' readiness to learn is frequently affected by their need to know or do something, they tend to have a life-, task-, or problem-centered orientation to learning as contrasted to a subject-matter orientation. o Adults are generally motivated to learn due to internal or intrinsic factors as opposed to external or extrinsic forces.

Although the assumptions underlying the andragogical model have to do with how adults learn, the model has clear implications for teaching practice: if adult learning differs from preadult learning, then it follows that adults should be taught differently (Beder and Darkenwald 1982; Feuer and Geber 1988).

Since he first proposed the model, Knowles has gradually modified his position regarding the contrast between how preadults learn (pedagogy) and how adults learn (andragogy). According to Feuer and Geber (1988), "[w]hat he once envisioned as unique characteristics of adult learners, he now sees as innate tendencies of all human beings, tendencies that emerge as people mature" (p. 33). Nevertheless, the andragogical model has strongly influenced the adult education field, with one result being the assumption teaching adults should differ from teaching children and adolescents.


Although the andragogical approach to teaching adults has been widely espoused by adult educators, until recently there has been no effort to test whether teachers do actually use a different style when teaching adults. Two studies (Beder and Darkenwald 1982; Gorham 1984, 1985) examined this area by investigating the following questions: Do teachers teach adults in a different way, and if so, what are these differences? In both studies, subjects were teachers who taught both adults and preadults. In the Beder and Darkenwald study, information was collected solely through a self-report questionnaire. Gorham used an adaptation of Beder and Darkenwald's questionnaire for the initial phase of her study, followed up with classroom observations of a small number of her sample for a second phase.

In order for the instruction of adults to differ from the instruction of preadults, teachers have to perceive that there are differences in how adults learn. Both studies investigated perceptions of these learning differences and found that teachers believed adults to be significantly more intellectually curious, motivated to learn, willing to take responsibility for their learning, willing to work hard at learning, clear about what they want to learn, and concerned with the practical applications and implications of learning than were children and adolescents.

In both studies, as a result of these perceived differences in how adults and preadults learn, respondents reported significant differences in teaching styles. As compared to teaching children and adolescents, when teaching adults, they spend less time on discipline and giving directions, provide less emotional support to students, structure instructional activities less tightly, and vary their teaching techniques more. Beder and Darkenwald also found significant differences in adult classes in greater use of group discussion, more adjustment in instructional content in response to student feedback, and a greater relationship of class material to student life experiences.

The self-reported differences in teaching behavior were not verified through Gorham's (1984, 1985) follow-up classroom observations. Although she found that with preadults, teachers tended to provide more emotional support and overtly to be more directive, overall, the use of directive teacher behavior was essentially the same with both preadults and adults. In interviews, teachers "spoke often of the responsiveness of adult students and of the quality of discussion in adult classes...[but] these differences...did not appear to influence teachers to adopt the less directive, more student-centered approaches to teaching adults they had reported" (1985, p. 205).

The only exception to the lack of congruence between self-reported and observed behavior was in the classrooms of teachers who changed their classroom environments when teaching adults. Gorham (1984) observed that a nontraditional, less-formal room arrangement (e.g., chairs in a circle) that put the teacher in closer proximity to the students led to a "clear use of the more student-centered approach prescribed for teaching adults" (p. 79). Furthermore, Gorham noted that in her study only female teachers made such adjustments.

Additional findings related to Gorham's analysis of the classroom observations are as follows: o Teachers with more formal training in adult education tend to use student-centered approaches the least. o Differences among teachers, in both adult and preadult classes, are more pronounced than differences between the adult and preadult classes. o Teachers who are the most flexible and responsive in both adult and preadult classes are in the following groups: less-experienced teachers, female teachers, teachers who taught personal enrichment adult classes, secondary teachers, or teachers reporting high teaching differences between how they taught adults and preadults.


Is teaching adults different? Based on the literature discussed here, the answer is both yes and no. Although teachers perceive adults as being different, these perceptions do not automatically translate into differences in approaches to teaching.

Perhaps a better way to frame the question is to ask "Should teaching adults be different?" According to Darkenwald and Beder (1982), "the real issue is not whether learner-centered methods are universally applied by teachers of adults, but rather for what purposes and under what conditions such methods, and others are most appropriate and effective and in fact used by teachers" (p. 153). Gorham (1985), in citing studies that identified interaction patterns of "master" preadult teachers as being less directive and more student-centered than those of "average" preadult teachers, suggests that "the most cogent prescription might be to define responsive teaching techniques as the approved practice for educators at all levels..." (p. 207).

Based on these observations, some considerations for practice emerge. 1. Determine the purpose of the teaching-learning situation. The andragogical or learner-centered approach is not appropriate in all adult education settings (Feuer and Geber 1988). The decision about which approach to use is contextual and is based upon such things as the goals of the learners, the material to be covered, and so forth. 2. Provide opportunities for teachers to practice learner-centered methods. Gorham (1984) suggests training teachers in techniques especially suitable for adult students, such as small-group discussion methods, effective use of nontraditional room arrangements, and so forth. 3. Select teachers on the basis of their potential to provide learner-centered instructional settings. Gorham's (1984, 1985) study identified some characteristics of teachers who seemed to be more flexible and responsive in adult settings. However, she also suggests that more research is needed.


Beder, H. W., and Darkenwald, G. G. "Differences between Teaching Adults and Pre-Adults: Some Propositions and Findings." ADULT EDUCATION 32, no. 2 (Spring 1982): 142-155. (ERIC No. EJ 262 809).

Feuer, D., and Geber, B. "Second Thoughts about Adult Learning Theory." TRAINING 25, no. 12 (December 1988): 31-39. (ERIC No. EJ 381 416).

Gorham, J. "A Current Look at 'Modern Practice': Perceived and Observable Similarities and Differences on the Same Teachers in Adult and Pre-Adult Classrooms." In PROCEEDINGS OF THE ANNUAL ADULT EDUCATION RESEARCH CONFERENCE (25th, RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA, APRIL 5-7, 1984). Raleigh: Department of Adult and Community College Education, North Carolina State University, 1984. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 269 554).

Gorham, J. "Differences between Teaching Adults and Pre-Adults: A Closer Look." ADULT EDUCATION QUARTERLY 35, no. 4 (Summer 1985): 194-209. (ERIC No. EJ 317 833).

Knowles, M. S. THE MODERN PRACTICE OF ADULT EDUCATION. Rev. ed. Chicago: Association Press/Follett, 1980.

Knowles, M. S. "Introduction: The Art and Science of Helping Adults Learn." In ANDRAGOGY IN ACTION: APPLYING MODERN PRINCIPLES OF ADULT LEARNING, by M. S. Knowles and others. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1984.

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