Monday, 28 April 2014

Learning Creative Learning: Adult Education and a Fifth 'P'

We are coming to the end of the 'Learning Creative Learning' not-quite-a-MOOC with MIT Media Labs. 

I have not been as active as I would have liked. I enjoyed experimenting with 'Scratch'; watching the videos about the four P's of creative learning (more of that later); reading the suggested articles and occasionally chatting to fellow students.

However, the one thing that it has done is that it has enabled me to reflect on my own ideas and practice in the field of informal adult learning. 

Last time I looked at how the four P's of 'Learning Creative Learning' might apply to the principles of Trade School. This time I want to broaden things out slightly (actually quite a lot) and talk about the four P's in relation to adult learning theory.

Adult Learning Theory
A blog like this is not really the right place to go through all of the idea that revolve around adult learning. The fact that such theories exist at all suggests that adult learning is different from the world of children's learning. Much of the 'Learning Creative Learning' course has focussed very heavily on the learning needs and experiences of children. That's fine. It could be argued that the education of children should take priority over the learning needs of adults but it does beg the question. Do the four P's of Creative Learning work as well in an adult learning environment as they do in one geared towards kids.

I am going to concentrate on the doyen of adult learning theory: Malcolm Knowles (1913-1977).

Malcolm Knowles

Knowles came up with a theory of adult learning that he called andragogy. Those of you whoknow your Classical Greek will instantly see the difference between this and pedagogy. 'Andragogy' means 'man-leading' (apologies for the gender-specific language - I guess that Knowles remained untouched by Third Wave Feminism) and 'pedagogy' which means 'child-leading'.

Andragogy is based on six assumptions:

A Need to Know. Adults have to have a reason for learning something

Foundation. Adults bring their previous experiences to learning

Self-Concept. Adults make their own decisions about their learning, including the planning and evaluation of that learning

Readiness. Adults are most interested in learning that has some relevance to their lives - whether that is professional or personal

Orientation. Adult learning is problem-centred rather than content-centred

Motivation. The adult motivation to learn is internal rather than external

You've probably read through that and thought to yourself that these six assumptions cannot hold true for all adult learners. Somebody doing an MBA at Harvard will have very different learning needs from somebody learning to cross-stitch with some friends round a camp fire. Yet broadly both of these examples work within the assumptions of andragogy. Having said that, many contemporary theorists of adult learning acknowledge the strength of Knowles' ideas but have come up with some more nuanced theories...that's a whole blog all by itself. 

I hope you can also see where there are significant differences between the assumptions of andragogy and many of the ideas revolving around the teaching of children. To me the most important difference revolves around the voluntary nature of adult learning. Of course children also learn voluntarily such as in after-school clubs, 'maker spaces' or whilst playing multiplayer online game but the bulk of their learning takes place within a compulsory environment (whether that is school or parents 'encouraging' them to take violin lessons).

Adult Learning and the Four P's
Let go through each of the four P's and see where they fit in with the six assumptions of Knowles' theory of angragogy.

A hit straight away! The most effective adult learning is problem-centred rather than content-centred. For instance, if you are teaching a child about grammar then you would explore sentence and paragraph construction. For adults wanting to finesse their understanding of grammar then this could be done through writing a job application or a marketing plan straight away. 

Don't forget that adult learning is voluntary. An adult learning is doing that learning because they want to learn about that particular subject. That means the passion is there right at the start. Coming from the perspective of informal adult learning, this passion is even more important. Nobody is going to learn about bird-watching, woodwork, tap dancing or gardening without an interest in the subject before the learning actually begins.

I've had a quick trawl through Knowles' writings and found nothing that mentions peer-based learning. In a sense, this may be simply because Knowles was a product of his time and ideas around peer-to-peer learning are a relatively recent phenomenon. Of course adults learning from peers is as old as adult learning itself. This is especially true of informal adult learning networks - whether that is online or face-to-face. Special interest groups on social media websites or hobbyist get-togethers are all examples of peer-to-peer learning. 

One of the assumptions of angragogy is that adults bring their own knowledge and experiences to their learning and will be able to share those experiences with others who have different experiences.

Let;s take this 18th century sampler on display in a local museum as an example:

A group of adults have the opportunity to examine the sampler in detail. One is an expert in social history, another is a needlework enthusiast and a third is a materials scientist. All three of them have a particular expertise and knowledge that they will bring along and share with the others. In another scenario, all three are interested in needlework but they experiences will still be different enough for them to learn from each other.

This to me is the one P that may sit less comfortably with adult learning. I suspect that  many adult learners will see 'play' in their learning as something that is either frivolous or a waste of learning time. If adult learning is directed by the learners by themselves and they have a view of their learning as something that should be taken seriously then trying to introduce a sense of 'play' or 'playfulness' in their learning may be difficult. 

This does not mean that it does not happen already. My experience is that if it does happen then it most likely happens if the adults in a group where everybody is familiar with each other and are willing to temporarily relinquish their sense of adulthood in front of each other. Teachers of adults could encourage a sense of playfulness into their teaching but it might be better if the learners are told well in advance.

Also Knowles believed that adult learning is more problem-centred. This may be a way in to introduce a sense of 'play' into adult learning.

My Fifth P
With all due modesty and with deference to the staff at MIT Media Lab, I would like to propose a fifth 'P' which I think would make the ideas of Creative Learning more applicable to adult learning.

That fifth P is Purpose

This covers several of the assumptions of andragogy and to me is at the core of adult learning, whether this is a structured formal course in college or a less hierarchical informal learning environment in a local community centre. At it's heart is the belief that adults who are learning are mostly looking for a specific goal to be met. An adult learning how to use PowerPoint, for example, is more likely to learn because they have to give a presentation or to help their children with their homework. There is also a strong cross-over here with Projects.

I think that Learning Creative Learning does have a lot to recommend itself to the world of adult learning. Two out of the four P's are more or less done already and the other two can be introduced by the teachers of adults if the learners want it to happen. The introduction of Purpose as a fifth 'P' may act as the lynch-pin around which the other four could easily revolve.

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