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5 Major Contributors to Adult Learning

Posted by Steve Flanagan on 4/30/18 8:00 AM
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There are many theories and approaches to how adults learn, many of them developed between the 1940’s and 1970’s. Although developed several years ago, these models still drive much of the adult learning today.


Here are five major contributors to the research, theories, and approaches to adult learning. These aren’t necessarily the top five, but they are well-known for their contributions.


B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) – Skinner theorized the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences, what he termed as “operational conditioning.” Skinner believed learning to be a form of behavior modification, where new behavior can be caused and shaped with well-designed learning programs. This approach is most commonly used in training that requires precision and refined skills.


Benjamin Bloom (1913-1999) – Bloom’s work is considered to be foundational and an essential element in adult learning. It centers on the taxonomy of learning objectives which addresses both lower and higher levels of knowledge and skill to encourage full learning. Many military training programs are based on Blooms Taxonomy.


Howard Gardiner (1943-present) – Over his career, Gardiner has written hundreds of articles and over thirty books on adult learning. Probably his most famous work is on the theory of multiple intelligences. The idea that adult learners process information in eight different ways, including interpersonal, naturalistic, spatial, and mathematical. Several of these intelligences are used in relationship-centered programs such as leadership training.


Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) – An educational theorist, Knowles is credited with the definitive classic book in adult learning theory, “The Adult Learner.” Although written in 1970, the book still drives a great deal of learning programs today. Knowles used the term “andragogy,” referring to the art and science of helping adults learn. He focused on the following principles of adult learning: relevance, benefit, participation, experience, self-esteem, timeliness, and self-direction which are often incorporated in training.


David Kolb (1939-present) – Kolb is an educational theorist who has studied the power of experiential learning ranging from individual learning and career development to social change. Kolb’s work addresses the formation of abstract concepts and generalizations and a framework for understanding how people process and perceive information.


Adult learning theory is a broad area of study with many contributors and approaches. There is not one best theory or approach. One must consider the adult learning situation when contemplating any of the adult learning models.


To learn how to apply proven principles of adult learning to your training, have a look at our How Adults Learn workshop. It's filled with loads of techniques that will help you connect with your audience and build your credibility as a trainer.


Dealing with Difficult Participants

Steve has been a course leader with Langevin since 2000. He completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in Physical Education and dreamed of being a pro soccer player. Steve translated his love of soccer and physical performance to the corporate sector and became a trainer. He’s had the pleasure of training within the government, large corporations, and as an independent consultant. Outside of training, Steve’s two biggest passions are his family and guitars, which he collects and plays!

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