Guide on the Side – Adult Learning and Continuing Education Courses

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

Professionals continue to learn throughout their careers. They make large investments in time and money in continuing education (CE).Most begin CE as learners but ultimately many become CE instructors switching from consumer to provider. Whether to select a program as a consumer or to design a program as a provider, being familiar with adult learning principles is essential.

What is adult learning?If you want a quick and practical answer, read Teaching for Better Learning:Adult Education in CLE, published by the American Law Institute/American Bar Association.This short, inexpensive book is intended for lawyers and CLE but it distills the principles into valuable suggestions for all professionals.

If you want a more comprehensive and theory based answer, see Malcolm Knowles seminal book, The Adult Learner:A Neglected Species published in 1973.It is now in the 5th edition with a variation of the title, The Adult Learner:The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. Knowles coined the concept and a big word for it, andragogy. (It rhymes with pedagogy).There are important differences in how children and adults learn, based on their different life roles, the amount of life experience they have, and their life goals.

According to both books, adults are not a homogenous group but when it comes to learning, generally they:

  • Are much more self-directed than children.
  • Take responsibility for their learning experiences.
  • Seek learning experiences that are learner-oriented.
  • Have a large reservoir of life experiences to bring to and support new learning.
  • Flourishwhen their abilities and life achievements acknowledged and respected. 
  • Prefer a practical and immediately relevant approach.
  • Learn readily from their peers.
  • Have formed a dominant learning style and know what it is.
  • Want immediate and regular feedback.
  • Are ready to learn when an event in their personal/professional life sparks “the need to know.”
  • May be “education wounded” from earlier pedagogical experiences and require “unlearning” to become an effective adult learner.

Contrast adult learning with what children experience in primary and secondary education:

  • An authoritative atmosphere with subject-oriented instruction.
  • A teaching hierarchy who decide what subjects you learn, what the approach will be, when the instruction will take place and how you are to learn.
  • Little practical, how-to-use-this-in-your-life today instruction, unless you are in music, sports, or the arts.
  • A teaching model resembling a funnel with the teacher at the big end pouring in knowledge and the students at the little end filling their empty brains.

Adult learning started out meaning the art and science of helping adults to learn but has come to mean learner-focused education at any age. (It turns out that pedagogy does not work that well for children either. Now better contemporary schools combine subject-oriented with learner-focused instruction.)

Awareness of adult learning principles can help you make better CE program choices. You will know to look for programs that provide what you need to know and how you need to know it. You will avoid subject-oriented programs which showcase what the expert knows, unless that is what you seek.

The popular lecture or panel presentation covers a topic but has little active learner involvement, meaning little learner retention.Shrink wrapped information is good for overviews and updates but will not develop skills, learned only by doing.

Learning implies a change in behavior.Do you need to change what you know (knowledge), what you can do (skills) or your perspective (attitude)?Are you at a beginning or advanced level?How much do you already know?Choosing an accredited CE program does not assure it meets your needs.The program may not be designed for your purposes and, sad to say, some accredited programs are designed by planners with a pedagogical bent.If you want to improve your golf swing, a clinic will serve you better than a lecture–even if the speaker is Tiger Woods.

How do you distinguish a program that is organized to satisfy the needs of the learners (andralogical approach) from one that is organized to satisfy the needs of the planners (pedagogical approach)?Look at the language and objectives in the program brochure. If the subject of sentences is “the program” or “the speaker” followed by verbs which describe what these nouns will be doing (discuss, explain, explore), the program is unlikely to be learner-oriented.Opt for programs where “you” are the subject, that describe what “you” will do, and answer the question “What will you be able to do differently as a result of having attended the program.”

Why are adult learning principles important for the instructor teaching adults or planning CE programs?It is a billion dollar industry and there is a lot of competition. ( Professionals look for quality programs.Planners can incorporate adult learning principles to CE program design in many ways:

  • Talk to some of the learners as part of your needs assessment.
  • Involve the learners in the choice of instructional techniques.
  • Provide a means for learners to contact the instructor(s) before the instruction to ask questions and share their concerns.
  • Identify the instructional technology to be used in the program brochure.
  • Select examples and demonstrations that are familiar to the learners.
  • Vary the instructional techniques so that a diversity of learning styles are satisfied.
  • Keep the time agenda flexible to allow for related “detour” discussions.
  • Start the learning event with an ice breaker in order for group bonding to occur.
  • Help create a learning community for collaborative learning.
  • Build trust between the instructors and learners so no one is afraid to ask “dumb” questions.
  • Allow for practice of new knowledge and skills in a “safe” environment.
  • Arrange for feedback on the learner’s progress.
  • Integrate the new knowledge with what the learners already know.
  • Arrange for a location that is pleasant, comfortable and without interruptions.
  • Organize seating to promote interaction rather than authoritarian schoolroom style.
  • Use alternative delivery via internal networks, The Web and other technology to give learners a choice of time and place.
  • Support post-instruction performance with guides, checklists and charts.

Unfortunately, after years of classroom education, many professionals accept what they experienced in school as “the model” of learning.When they set out to learn or teach, two things immediately come to their minds–classroom and lecture.The passive coach potato setting is familiar but there are many quicker and cheaper alternatives.

Members of Toastmasters ( improve their communication skills for better listening, thinking and speaking without a faculty.They learn by doing, feedback and by observing each other in a risk free practice environment.Musicians often form informal study/performance groups and progress the same way.

Law librarians at Reference Desks practice adult learning principles, although they may not be aware of it.The patron with the query is like an adult learner with a “need to know.”The librarian functions as an instructor who dialogues with the learner to assess the context and what the learner already knows, does some research and then delivers the results in the format the learner requested.In essence, reference is a guided interaction where the librarian and inquirer respect each other’s level of knowledge and the interchange environment feels safe for both participants.

Try this self-assessment exercise to glean more about adult learning and to make your CE choices.Write down the ten most important things you know about your profession or area of expertise.Go back and add how you learned them.Was it in a formal class setting?Or an informal event such as reading, observation, practice, trial and error, discussion, team work, problem-solving, serendipity, intuition, simulation, peer review, self-study, coach, mentor, or other experience?

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