Professional Development and Adult Learning Theory

To encourage a culture that values knowledge and growth, develop professional development formats that support adult learning theory.  Creating learning communities, peer coaching, collaborative action research and live lesson observations all support the principles of adult learning.

To stand in front of a group of educators and demonstrate a learning strategy is not an assignment to be taken lightly. Teachers can be a very tough crowd. In an earlier post, I mentioned, for example, that credibility, relevance, and respect are essential postures one must assume before delivering a training session for staff.  But credibility and relevance are subsets of the real issue that underpins the professional development of teachers. 

The real issue lies in the vast differences between child learners and adult learners.  That should be obvious, but the execution of most professional development illustrates that the differences have not been fully considered. When professional development providers deliver PDs by lecturing, for example, the delivery method itself works against the very principles of how adults learn.

One of the foremost thinkers on adult learning was Dr. Malcolm Knowles who developed the theory of andragogy to explain how adults learn differently from children.    Knowles’ theory was based on a few basic assumptions about adult learners: that adults are independent learners, that adults carry with them a lifetime of experiences, that adults must see an immediate application of the learning, and that adults are more driven by an internal as opposed to an external need to learn.

From these assumptions, Knowles extrapolated four principles that should be considered when developing a training or learning experience for adults.  Let’s look at these principles:

  1. Adults must be involved in the planning of their learning.  Create a focus group of teachers with a representative sample of all staff.   Poll the focus group about their professional development needs.  Discuss. Share. Brainstorm.  List all answers on a giant piece of chart paper.  Each member of the focus group casts five votes to prioritize. Boom! That’s the PD agenda for the year. Added bonus:  Tap teacher leaders within the school to provide staff development.
  1. Experience provides the basis for the learning activity. Think of the vast and divergent levels of experience present in the teaching staff.  Veterans and newbies, different philosophies, different contents.  Many staff may have experience in career sectors other than public education.  When building an effective professional development plan, school leaders must take into consideration the experience capital present in the audience.
  1. The professional development must have immediate relevance and impact on teachers’ lives.  This may be the most important part of developing an effective PD.  A professional development session at the end of a long day of teaching about some abstract theory or philosophical framework will not go over well.  But offer a PD to your staff about how to cut their work load in half by using Google docs, you’ve got a blockbuster.
  1. Adult learning is problem-centered.  Adult learners must have time to analyze, think, reflect, and assimilate the new knowledge they receive at any PD. Real world assignments with task-oriented instruction will appeal to adult learners. They must experience the learning, and once they’ve experienced it, they must apply it. Adults prefer to process information by doing something with it.  Active experimentation creates a problem-centered approach to a PD session that clarifies and creates more relevance for the staff.

The sage-on-the-stage, sit-and-get PD sessions of yesteryear will not cultivate the professional growth of a teaching staff.  To encourage a culture that values knowledge and growth, try some professional development formats that support adult learning.  Creating learning communities, peer coaching, collaborative action research and live lesson observations all support the principles of adult learning.

Knowles, M. S. (1980). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. New York: Cambridge.


  • TriciaEbner


    So very true, all of it.

    Great “case study,” if you will:  I cannot remember much of anything about the district-wide PD I was required to attend in my first three years of teaching. However, the cooperative learning training, provided in small groups by our district’s cooperative learning specialist (yes, we had one of those in the early 90s), and followed up by in-classroom practice AND observeration by her and my building principal–that I remember and still use those techniques today. I also cherished my days at the Indiana Writing Project in 1993. Both of those experiences hit so many of the points you’ve made here.

    Great points.

  • PaulBarnwell

    Appreciated Reminder


    I’d seen one presentation on andragogy before and I remember thinking, hmmmm…this is very relevant… Then I forgot about this idea, as it was scribbled down in my notebook somewhere. Now I’m working with other teachers in Kentucky to design teacher-led virtual learning communities, and we’ll be taking this to heart. Thanks!

  • akrafel

    Very Useful

    Thank you for publishing this digest of Adult Learning Theory.  I do lots of presentations on various things and I am a lifelong learner myself. The thing that so rings true for me is that the list you published is exactly how I learn and have learned to be a better and better teacher. It is also how I learn when I get interested in something and want to engage more. I will use these points the next time I do a presentation. Good stuff. Forwarded it to our leadership team.

  • Jessica Tan

    Teachers attitude towards training and seminars

    In most cases teachers attending trainings and seminars are reluctant to integrate what they have learned from the training and seminars attended.  There are some who arevery indifferent especially when new teaching-learning strategy is introduced; and it seems that they can't let go of the traditional teaching practices.  


    • Mphoentle Naicker

      Teachers attitude towards training and seminars

      You are so right Jessica, working in a university environment I witness a lot of seminar/conference/workshop attandence but you dont get hear anybody coming back excited about their learning and ready to implement in their daily work…

  • Riya Bano

    very nice thinking

    Really this is very good activity.

  • Mphoentle Naicker

    Sometimes experience is the crippling factor

    Very relevant article Liz! Timeless!

    I am workingon my PhD and point number 3 touches on one of my reaserch questions…however, I have noticed that the very same experience become a stumbling block for adults to learn, as Jessica pointed out sometimes adults “can’t let go of the traditional teaching practices”.

  • dereckatters

    I completely agree Liz. Arown

    I completely agree Liz. Arown-up learners must have room schedule-wise to think, reflect, and acclimatize the new information they get. They should experience the learning process, and once they’ve encountered it, they should apply it. Adults like to process data by accomplishing something with it. I have noticed that while working with my students. #4 is particularly close to me.

    Dereck – Self-Discipline Books author.

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