Adult learning is the educational philosophy that underlies effective arts and aging programs for cognitively fit older adults. Malcolm Knowles, who pioneered this field, identified the following characteristics of adult learners:
Adults are autonomous and self-directed. Teachers are facilitators who involve adult participants actively in the learning process and guide them to their own knowledge rather than supply them with facts. Facilitators solicit participants’ perspectives about what topics to cover; let them work on projects that reflect their interests; and allow them to assume responsibility for presentations and group leadership.
Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that includes work-related activities, family responsibilities, and education. Facilitators draw out participants’ experience and knowledge connected to the topic; relate theories and concepts to the participants; and acknowledge the value of their experiences to the learning process.
Adults are goal-oriented. When joining a session or enrolling in a class, they usually have a goal in mind. They appreciate an educational program that is organized and has clearly defined elements. Early in the session, facilitators should show participants how the class helps them attain their goals.
Adults are relevancy-oriented and practical. They need to see a reason for learning something; learning has value if it applies to their lives. Facilitators identify objectives for adult participants before the class begins and relate theories and concepts to something familiar by letting participants choose projects that reflect their own interests.
As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect. Facilitators acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the classroom; treat them as equals in experience and knowledge; and allow them to voice their opinions freely in class.50
Tips for Facilitators
Stephen Lieb shares the following tips for effective facilitators:
Learning occurs within each individual as a continual process throughout life. People learn at different speeds, so it is natural for them to be anxious or nervous when faced with a learning situation. Positive reinforcement by the facilitator and proper timing of the instruction enhance learning.
Learning results from stimulation of the senses. In some people, one sense is used more than others to learn or recall information. Facilitators should present materials that stimulate as many senses as possible in order to increase success.
If the participant does not recognize the need for the information (or has been offended or intimidated), all of the facilitator’s effort to assist the participant to learn will be in vain. The facilitator should establish rapport with participants and prepare them for learning, thus providing motivation. Techniques include:
Establishing a friendly, open atmosphere.
Adjusting the level of tension so that participants experience only low to moderate stress. If the stress is too high, it prevents learning.
Setting the degree of difficulty high enough to challenge participants but not so high that they become frustrated by information overload. The instruction should predict and reward participation, culminating in success.
Providing specific feedback.
Positive and negative reinforcement is necessary to encourage correct modes of behavior and performance; to teach new skills and information; and to help participants retain what they have learned.
Participants need to retain information from classes in order to benefit from the learning, and they are more likely to do so if they see a meaning or purpose for the information, understanding how to interpret and apply it. Facilitators assist the learner with retention and application by ensuring that they learn and practice the information.51