My MBA Journey

Record of my personal journey completing an MBA

OLAD Week 4 – Adult Learning Theories

OLAD Week 4 - Adult Learning Theories image


The focus of this subject is around organisational learning so it is appropriate now to look at adult learning theories and how they apply within organisations. Of key significance with adult learning is that they are self motivated and self managed (Adult Learning Australia Ltd). Consequently, motivation needs to be taken into consideration because not everyone may wish to participate in dictated learning programs by an organisation. Often there will be resistance that can be quite palpable in a learning environment. As a result, learning needs to be developed that is attractive to potential participants and designed so they are engaged in the experience.

This module considers three of the foundational adult learning theories being andragogy, self-directed learning and transformative learning.

Knowles’ Andragogical Assumptions

Malcolm Knowles’ Andragogical Assumptions focuses on the motivation of the learner by connecting it to the practical application of theory. Knowles (cited in Delahaye & Choy 2018) sets out six characteristics that can apply to adult learners:

  1. Need to Know – if adults need to learn something they will be far more motivated. Time is precious, so learning often only received the attention it needs. There needs to be value in the learning and promoted on the “What’s in it for me?” basis.
  2. Self-concept – adults will often need guidance on how to learn when it is self-directed. It may be a new experience since school where there was dependency on a teacher. So adult learning should be in bite-sized bits that can be measured and ticked off when completed. This can provide both pace and a feeling of accomplishment for the learner.
  3. Adult Learner Experience – adults are experiential learners who will have accumulated a considerable amount of experience they can use in learning. With this experience in hand, adults make valuable assets in co-designing learning experiences.
  4. Readiness to Learn – demonstrate relevance and value and adults will be ready to learn, particularly when they can see relationships to real life situations.
  5. Orientation to Learning – adults prefer task learning where it is solution focused as it is applying everyday problem solving skills to the learning environment.
  6. Motivation to Learn – adults have intrinsic learning needs and you need to find out how to meet those needs to drive learning and the motivation to engage.

If you have access to Linked In Learning, there is a video there worth watching
LinkedIn Video – Introduction to Malcolm Knowles Adnragogy Theory

Adults as Learners

There is over a 100 years worth of knowledge around adults as learners. In the 1960s the difference between how adults learn, focusing on the difference between adults and younger people, with learning needs and experience a priority compared to traditional teacher/student relationships was described as andragogy. Children’s learning methods were referred to a pedagogy according to Knowles (1974). It is surprising to know that in the past, the ability for adults to learn was considered complete with maturity but we now know that life long learning is possible (Delahaye & Choy 2018).

In today’s learning environment, the design of useful and engaging learning programs for adults to meet their needs is considered essential (Chaipidech et al. 2021; Fake & Dabbagh 2020; Wozniack 2020). It is also worth noting that when it comes to workplace learning that self-motivation is an important ingredient in the process (De Matas & Keegan 2020).

There are a number of differences between adult learners and child learners:

  • Adults are in the process of continuing their learning, not starting it.
  • In addition to traditional learning already acquired, adults bring skills, experience, values and beliefs to the environment.
  • Adults have expectations of learning environment and the outcomes
  • Adults will have an ingrained learning style developed over the years.

Basic Types of Learning

Delahaye and Choy (2018) identify three types of learning:

  1. Classical Conditioning – Pavlov (1849 – 1936) was the first to describe this type of learning from his experiments where there was a relationship between stimulus and learning itself. This type of learning attempts to generate particular responses with specific inputs. Considered to be more useful in counselling environments rather than for people development.
  2. Operant Conditioning – Associated with Skinner (1904 – 1990) when he demonstrated with his rats how behaviour could be stimulated through a reward system. It includes both positive and negative reinforcement to develop behaviour models. Workplaces use this style with their rewards and recognition processes.
  3. Modelling – Bandura (1977) showed that people also learn from observation of others and then modelling their behaviour.

For the purposes of this subject, the two types of learning of value are Operant Conditioning and Modelling. In an organisational sense, the introduction of behaviours is of value, but so is the example of through modelling by management.

Adult Learning Theory

There are several theories around the concept of adult learning and these are linked to sites with more detail including:

This module, however, will focus on the three basic theories of adult learning (Merriam 2017)

  • Knowles’ Andragogy Theory
  • Self-directed learning
  • Transformational learning

An important paper around Adult Learning is the work of Sharan Mirriam Adult Learning Theory: Evolution and Future Directions

There are a number of myths and generalisations out there around learning and how our brains work. The video below examines a number of these myths and dispels them.

Source: Ten Myths of Learning

Self Directed Learning

To maintain competitive advantage, organisations need to continually provide and keep updated, self directed learning opportunities for their people. The theory of andragogy claims that as adults become more independent. The theory of self-directed learning is based around adults shifting their learning from one of pedagogy where they are relying on a teacher/student relationship to where they take responsibility for their own learning (Merriam & Baumgartner 2020). The definition provided by Knowles however appears to be the most widely used (cited in Loeng 2020, pp. 3-4):

Self-directed learning describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.

Pixar Animation Studios is one organisation cited as a pioneer in the area of self-directed learning. They offer free classes for their employees and get the time off work to attend.

Coursera is another organisation cited in the notes as an e-learning platform offering a large number of courses. Organisations are accessing such sites to provide training for employees at a cheaper cost than they could deliver it themselves. LinkedIn Learning is another example of a similar organisation also offering e-learning.

Enabling a Self Directed Workforce

Organisations need to provide the opportunities so that workforces are enabled to become lifelong learners. Merriam and Baumgartner (2020) consider that self-directed learning has three general aims:

  1. Enhance personal independence: encourage the curiosity of individuals to pursue lifelong learning adding value to their knowledge and as a consequence, to the organisations they work for as well as their community.
  2. Create transformational change: curiosity leading to learning in turn can lead to “aha” moments that can transform people and take them to another level.
  3. Allow people to become agents of change: learning gives people new perspectives, allows them to think critically, to reframe long held beliefs, build new skills and create a different experience for themselves and others as a result.

Andriotis (2021) contends that there are benefits in encouraging self-directed learning in organisations:

  1. People can develop their own skillsets when they can choose their own path.
  2. People will use learning to fulfil their current needs and do so in a way that best suits their particular learning style.
  3. People pursuing self-directed learning will experience deep learning because of their interest in the knowledge they are consuming.

Andriotis (2021) suggests that if self-directed learning seems a good fit for an organisation, there can be a few challenges to address:

  1. People may have difficulty in learning on their own and may need help in developing these skills. This could be in the form of learning in groups.
  2. People may take advantage of the autonomy offered by self-directed learning. There may be need for an accountability system such as KPIs or progress reports. These should be structured in a supportive manner however, not in a manner that suggests people are being monitored.

Transformative Learning Theory

Transformative learning theory is the most studied of all theories considered in this module and exploring how adults are taught (Kitchenham 2008). Transformative learning results in deep rooted change as a result of the person’s learning experience and can be defined as:

the expansion of consciousness through the transformation of basic worldview and specific capacities of the self; transformative learning is facilitated through consciously directed processes such as appreciatively accessing and receiving the symbolic contents of the unconscious and critically analysing underlying premises (Elias 1997, p. 3).

The Transformative Learning Centre (cited in Kitchenham 2008, p.104) defines it as “a deep, structural shift in basic premises of thoughts, feelings, and actions”.

Mezirow (cited in Kitchenham 2008, p.104) researched the influencing aspects of women re-entering the workforce after they had been absent for a considerable period. He found they went through ten phases of significant personal transformation:

  1. A disorienting dilemma.
  2. A self-examination with feelings of guilt or shame.
  3. A critical examination of knowledge-based, sociocultural or psychic assumptions.
  4. Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change.
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions.
  6. Planning of a course of action.
  7. Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans.
  8. Provisional trying of new roles.
  9. Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships.
  10. A reintegration into one’s life based on conditions dictated by one’s perspective.

Mezirow’s theory has been through a number of revisions since the initial concept and has evolved into the transformative learning model below.

Source: Reproduced from Aurerra Learning (2020)

Transformative Learning Behaviour Videos


  • First step is the experience of a disorienting dilemma where your current framework of life is challenged.
  • The next step is reflective discourse or dialogue where openness to change is critical as alternate frameworks and ideas are considered.
  • You would then engage in revising your assumptions or beliefs. Are they valid? Do they still hold true or do they need to be modified in light of new information?
  • As a result of revising your beliefs as a result of being more informed, your behaviour changes to reflect your new learnings.
  • You hold a new outlook on life so you have experienced transformative learning.


  • John Dewey refers to reflective practice when we talk about a real form of learning. It is a careful, intentional and considerate look at our reality so we don’t take things for granted.
  • Dewey also refers to the “continuity principle” where experience builds upon experience.
  • Schon refers to Reflection on Action and Reflection in Action that is the process of reflecting on experiences. On action is post event and in action is on the fly or at the time. Allows for course correction. So, the two are different processes.
  • David Kolb refers to different learning styles to facilitate the continuing experience concept:
    • Concrete Experience – you just do it and learn by doing
    • Remote Observation – you watch others do it and then try to emulate
    • Abstract Conceptulaisation – considering the object or concept and imagining all the things you might do with it.
    • Abstract Experimentation – you imagine all the things you could do with the object and then testing it. This is considered different to Concrete Experimentation as it involves thinking about possibilities before doing them.
  • Marsick and Watkins split adult learning into incidental or informal learning compared to formal learning. They argue that the less informal learning is, the more powerful it becomes.


  • What are we reflection on? (Dewey)
    • Content
    • Process
    • Premise
  • Stephen Brookfield refers to various types of assumptions used iin learning
    • Descriptive assumptions – how a story is told
    • Prescriptive assumptions – the way things you feel should happen
    • Paradigmatic assumptions – these are your core beliefs. Not viewed as assumptions because it is who you are but should still be reflected on and challenged to ensure they are still true to you.


  • Don’t take things for granted but we do and don’t often challenge things
  • As a result you develop a frame of reference for the way you look at life
  • When articulated, these are your points of view or opinions
  • In the background we are developing “Habits of Mind”
    • Epistemic – your natural source of knowledge
    • Socio linguistic – the words, phrases and idioms with which we make sense of our beliefs
    • Psychological – emnotional readiness for change and our attitudes
  • All the above creates a scaffold for our view of life and how we can deal with conflict when it arises.
  • Conflict with others can be the result of divergent perspectives
  • We may find there are points of agreement with others and points of disagreement or conflict
  • Conflict with ourselves is cognitive dissonance
  • So how do we have good quality dialogue to have free and full discourse
    • Permeable
    • Reflective – a willingness to look at the world from different angles
    • Inclusive – the more inclusive we are the more divergent our thinking
    • Discriminatory – choose the views you wish to keep or adopt and those to discard
    • Emotional Ability to Change – comfort in being challenged provides ability to change in a transformational manner


  • Mezirow’s Ten Steps are covered in this video but these are detailed above.

Seems there is no Part 6 to the video series.


  • This video focuses on social action and critical thinking where knowledge can be provided to “the masses”:
    • When you are learning, whose interests are really being served? Is it for your benefit or in the interests of others such as social engineering?
    • Access – is access freely available to everyone or limited through socio economic or political considerations
    • Intended or unintended consequences of the learnings
    • Assumptions regarding knowledge – where does it come from?
    • Location of knowledge – in the person or in society?
  • The structure needs to look at the consequences of the learnings in that it may have overtones of creating hegemonic systems that aren’t beneficial for society.

Step 4 – Define Your Learner Population

This now builds on the previous three steps of the Human Resource Development Needs Investigation (HRDNI). Having now completed Assignment 1, Step 4 will be the next in preparation for Assignment 2. In order to complete this step, there are two questions to be answered:

  1. Who are your learners?
    For the purposes of the assignment I am focused on where the training topic will be “Governance of small, volunteer run community organisations”, the learners will be people who are currently occupying executive and/or committee positions in these organisations. The training could also be of benefit to people aspiring to serve on committees of such organisations, but also those with a general interest in the subject.
  2. What is the demographic profile of the learner population?
    The demographic profile is extremely broad as people of any age, gender or ability may be serving or intending to serve on community organisations. Experience is not a factor, in fact the less experience held, the more open people may be to the ideas from the training. People undertaking this training would have a love of their community and see the training as a means of increasing their personal knowledge in order to better serve their organisation and consquently their community.

The Persuasion Cycle

Although not part of this module, is considered relevant in areas of adult learning. As previously identified, one of the problems in community based training can be resistance to new methods and ideas. So many organisations are steeped in history and traditions with committee who may not have changed positions for years. The Persuasion Cycle starts with resistance to change and moves through the processes to create Transformational Learning and adopted modified behaviour. It could potentially be a very useful tool in course and training design by starting out with why the training is potentially valuable and then moving through the cycle of transformational training.

The Persuasion Cycle image
Source: Dr Mark Goulston, Just Listen 2010


The module has delved into the definition of an adult learner and explored several theories around adult learning. Although several theories exist, the module focused on Knowles’ Andragogical Assumpions, Self-directed learning and Transformational Learning theory. With these theories in mind, the learner profile was looked at and their demographic profile so that these could be matched with suitable training based on the most appropriate adult learning theory.

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Ric Raftis

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