Adult Learning Theories: a Reflection (Beyond the Black Box)


I’ve been brushing up on my Learning Theories lately, since it has been almost a decade since I completed my M.Ed. in Educational Technology & Learning Design. As the Director of Educational Technology at my current school, I am always thinking about the ways to best support faculty with Professional Development, and mentorship when it comes to integrating technology, media, maker activities, and computer science in their classes. There are many great learning theories out there in the world, which bring value to and justification for designing instruction; but in the end, there is a certain amount of intuition and improvisation that goes into facilitating the actual implementation in the classroom or learning environment.

As a musician, I enjoy and continue to explore the art of improvisation. This free-form immediate music composition has some structural elements, like a harmonic framework or chord progression — that allow for things like instrument or vocal solos, and  forms like call-and-response. Similarly, in education, I believe it is important to keep research-based concepts, frameworks, and methodologies in one’s periphery when designing and facilitating learning experiences so that there are containers for transformative learning moments.

Pedagogy vs. Andragogy

In education, we often speak of pedagogy, which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the method and practice of teaching. Instructional strategies help to guide decision-making when it comes to designing lessons for formal and informal learning, and offer best practices in this area. But as I was reading up on this topic, I was reminded of the term ‘Andragogy‘ — not to be confused with androgYny  From it’s Greek origins, pedagogy is essentially translated as being a method or “guide” (-gogy) for  children (peda- ). Andragogy, on the other hand is a theory, methodology, for guiding adults (where andra- is translated roughly as ‘man’). This term was supposedly first used by Kapp, a German educator, in 1833. Interestingly, some folks place pedagogy in the realm of ‘teacher-centered’ learning, whereas andragogy is focused on ‘student-centered’ learning or ‘learner-centered’ education. This is an interesting distinction to consider, as many educators are shifting to the student-centered approach, and integrating making activities into their classes. So if this is the case, we are likely living in a time when approaches that were once considered ‘adult-learning theories’ are being applied in K12 learning environments with young people, especially in MakerSpaces, and for Maker-Themed activites!

Let’s take a look at some of Malcolm Knowles’ assumptions about adult learners, as well as the four principles of adult learning theory aka Andragogy. (Note: The information below is adapted from this article as well as  this article on



  1. Self-Concept (Create learning experiences that offer minimum instruction and maximum autonomy.)
  2. Adult Learner Experience (ones own reservoir of experience becomes an increasing resource for learning)
  3. Readiness to Learn (oriented to developmental tasks of one’s social roles)
  4. Orientation to Learning (shifting time perspective from postponed application to just-in-time immediacy of application; moving from being centered on the subject to being centered on the problem or issue to resolve or tackle)
  5. Motivation to Learn (motivation becomes more intrinsic, or internal, instead of external).



  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented. (Kearsley, 2010)



  • Create learning experiences that offer minimum instruction and maximum autonomy.
  • Include a wide range of instructional design models and theories to appeal to varied experience levels and backgrounds.
  • Utilize social media and online collaboration tools to tie learning to social development.
  • Emphasize how the subject matter is going to solve problems that an adult learner regularly encounters.
  • There must be a valid reason behind every eLearning course, module or educational activity.



  1. There is a need to explain the reasons specific things are being taught (e.g., certain commands, functions, operations, etc.), and they in turn can explain the practical applications & reasoning better to their learners.
  2. Instruction should be task-oriented instead of promoting memorization — learning activities should be in the context of common tasks to be performed by the others, and applied in Situ.
  3. Instruction should take into account the wide range of different backgrounds of learners; learning materials and activities should allow for different levels/types of previous experience with maker tools.
  4. Since adults are self-directed, instruction should allow learners to discover things and knowledge for themselves without depending on people. However, learners should be offered guidance and help when mistakes are made.


Transformative Learning Experiences

As our educational models are slowly shifting away from the traditional approaches of teacher-centered Behaviorism, and more towards learner-centered Constructivism, we are also seeing schools focusing more on Socio-Emotional learning across K12 environments, where we are teaching kids the skills they will need to collaborate and interact with others as they are solving the challenges of tomorrow.

Sociolinguistics provides a framework to emphasize the importance of language and social interaction on learning experiences, and suggests that authentic learning experiences (where the teacher or facilitator is able to scaffold learner activities to achieve the learning goals) provide a culturally responsive approach to education Learners are: discussing and confronting injustices and inequalities in society, learning ways to have these difficult conversations, and building an awareness of society — and this ignites passion, and connects them to the world outside of the classroom walls.

Information Processing Theory is a more modern approach to understanding learners and cognitive development, that moves beyond stimulus and response, and considers the development of the mind over time, as well as the processing of information as it is received by the brain. In this learning theory, the mind is analogous to a computer, and looks at working (short-term) memory akin to RAM, and long-term memory (a computer hard drive). This analogy of brain function also seeks to demystify the mental models that are formed as meaning is ascribed to the input of information. Thus it is all about information encoding and retrieval. This evolves the Cognitive Development theories of folks like Piaget, who looked at the development of the mind in stages. What is interesting about this area of study is that with the advent of such technologies as MRI, CAT Scans, and other mind-measuring technologies and interfaces, the brain is no longer the mysterious ‘black box’ of yesterday, and is now somewhat observable.  This has helped build evidence towards, substantiate, and validate once controversial theories, such as Elizabeth Gould’s paradigm-shifting theory of Brain Plasticity — which has transformed the field of Cognitive Science.

Finally, I am very intrigued by the Transformative Learning Theory (first developed by Jack Mezirow, and its practical applications in Maker Education. This approach involves having the learner “engage in critical reflection on their experiences [and assumptions], which in turn leads to a perspective transformation.”  (Mezirow 1992) This perspective brings us back to meaning-making approaches found in Constructivism; in transformative learning, ‘meaning structures’ are ‘understood and developed through reflection’ . But many scholars and educators in the Transformative Learning field of study see it as way to construct meaning authentically in adult learning scenarios. When reviewing this approach, three types of learning were described: transmissional, transactional, and transformative. Transmissional learning is the traditional approach where teachers (or educational media is created to) transmit knowledge to students. Transactional education is described an approach valuing experience, inquiry and critical thinking, as well as interaction with other learners. Most cherished learning moments likely fall into this category. It is the third – transformational education – category (that often falls into the transactional category) that introduces a recognition, introspection and analysis of  foundational assumptions and approaches. Some educators posit that by taking action to transform ones mindset, a learner shifts their mental model and approach, changes their thinking around a topic, and is empowered to boldly create a new foundation. They have a transformative learning experience.

THIS I think is the sweet spot of Maker Education. The Maker Movement in schools often focuses on the place – the MakerSpace, and ensuring that it is filled with all of the tools, building materials, computers with software, gadgets, electronics and flashy accessories. But it is important to support the people who are tasked with supporting these innovative, yet familiar, hands-on learning approaches. Many survey results (including some of my own research) indicate that Professional Development for educators & MakerSpace coordinators is an often neglected element in K12 in this area. There is an assumption that teachers will: figure it out on their own, do the lesson planning, and (like with all other content that they are tasked with transmitting to students) will use their training to successfully create lesson plans in Making. This is not the case! Time is valuable, and there is value in efficiently designed experiential learning, where one can experiencing a cyclical systematic approach to making. Risk-taking, confidence, iteration, and design-thinking skills need to be developed and fostered within a community of practice — a support group of fellow educators that are also seeking to break the mold and shift the model. MakerEd is a cutting-edge organization that offers: Professional Development opportunities like Micro-Credentials (in collaboration with Digital Promise); and Programs such as Making Spaces (in collaboration with Google & the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh) — all designed to empower educators to do things like: building a social network, attending a local Maker Educator Meetup; and sign up for PD offerings to take this Transformative Learning journey as a cohort. Both learners and educators can look more critically at their current learning models; develop new skills and mindsets in a supportive and semi-structured setting; and explore where they can begin to integrate the Maker Mindset.

And so…

As a trainer and instructional designer, I continue to revisit and explore new learning theories; and continue to refine my approaches to organizing, designing, and offering Professional Development. As a systems thinker, I’m always thinking about the optimal ways to organize information and elements in a system. As a technologist and computer scientist, I hope to continue to inspire and empower humans; and evolve best practices through action research, latest trends, and societal tendencies. As a lifelong learner, I’m always seeking to develop new skill-sets, and deepen my human experience.  And so, I will continue to explore learning theories, and technology integration frameworks, and synthesizers soundscapes… and hope that you too will follow your passions and seek to make the world a better place.

Thanks for reading! This writing is a work in progress.

If you are interested in sharing your perspectives on learning theories, the state of education, or anything else I mentioned above, you can leave a comment here, or  find me on Twitter @tatyanakgriffin .

Click HERE for some additional resources on Adult Learning Theory.

… And for Visual Learners, behold the Infographic below. The original file is found HERE.


Author: tatyanakgriffin

Bay Area Creative Technologist, Maker (SHTEAM) Educator, Computer Science Explorer, Interactive Media Artist, Music Maker, & Explorer

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