Adult Learning Models

If one is interested in helping people develop new understandings of how their society works the question of how adults learn and engage is critical. Clearly standard pedagogical approaches are inappropriate because our readers are adults not the ages typical for K-12 and college instruction. Further, standard pedagogy is top-down and largely devoted to supporting current cultural, political and economic regimes.

So, I have been digging into adult learning models. Beginning with Knowles 1970s and ‘80s androgogy (vs. pedagogy) investigations there is now a robust body of theory. Much of this work in practice has focused on how to build educational and training programs that are better suited to the learning styles of adults. These remain classroom instructor led.

Self-Directed Learning

Our question is how adults might make inquiries on their own. At least two branches of adult learning theory address this: self-directed learning (SDL) and transformational learning.

Knowles defines SDL as:

In its broadest meaning, self-directed learning describes a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help 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.1

Knowles model posits four key principles of adult learners:

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

Transformative Learning

Transformative learning extends SDL by taking on the embedded mental models that every adult has constructed or been taught through their lives.

Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world. Such a shift involves our understanding of ourselves and our self-locations; our relationships with other humans and with the natural world; our understanding of relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race and gender; our body awareness, our visions of alternative approaches to living; and our sense of possibilities for social justice and peace and personal joy.2

Jack Mezirow3 offers these ten phases in a transformational learning experience:

  1. A disorienting dilemma
  2. A self examination with feelings of guilt or shame
  3. A critical assessment of epistemic, 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 a course of action
  7. Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plan
  8. Provision trying of new roles
  9. Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  10. A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s perspective

I am assuming that people who have found their ways to AmericanDelusions have already passed through the first two steps. It is the rest of the process that I hope to provide some support for.

Transformational learning is often associated with political activism. Paolo Freire, widely know for his 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is an example of this strain.

I would suggest that an additional important transformative act involves the identification and deconstruction of the models embedded in the work of experts, academics, and political actors from whom we must learn much about this world. This is particularly important when using resources from the fields of economics and political science. These suffer two significant problems.

First, they are based in large part on simple assertions, beliefs, that are not supported by factual evidence. In fact, these beliefs are frequently easily discredited just based on common sense and readily observable phenomenon in day-to-day life. For example, to this day most university economics is based on a model that claims to describe how capitalism works. One of the central concepts is homo economicus – this is the view that human beings act as rational utility maximizing agents. The notion that humans act rationally is plainly and obviously a fiction. Fortunately you do not have to take my word or your own experience as a sole resource here. In the last twenty years some academic economists have founded a new branch, behavioral economics, to study how human beings actually make decisions. This new field comprehensively demonstrates the non-rational character of human thinking. I won’t even enter in to any discussion of “utility” as a dominant value system for humans.

Second, academic fields of study divide our reality up in ways that, though convenient for academics and their idealized theories, prevent us from observing and thinking about our reality in a natural way that comports with our experiences and more importantly how the world actually functions.

What Next?

I need to figure out how a website like AmericanDelusions can be adapted to support adult learners. The transformational learning model seems most suitable. But, the correct format and presentation of the materials is unclear.


  1. Knowles, M. (1975) Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers, New York: Cambridge Books. p.18
  2. O’Sullivan, E. (1999) Transformative Learning: Educational vision for the 21st century. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press Inc.
  3. Transformative Learning in Practice: Insights from Community, Workplace and Education, Jossey-Bass Inc 2009


  1. You seem already to be doing 3, 4, 5 and 6. Helpful next would be a slew of items under 7. First list your own ideas about TYPES of knowledge that might be useful. Not just information and data. So what kind of knowledge is usable? Practical x or y. Then skills follows right after that determination. List maybe 4 examples of ones YOU have followed and learned about. PSR—Problem, Solutions, Results. List yours as a first guide. Contributors can build on yours, and see how to structure the issue usefully for themselves. Your answers to 7 guide responses to 8 and 9. Ask contributors for LOTS of their own examples as inspiration and structuring for others.

  2. One thing needed is an organisation or group or culture level construct for learning since the two you have are essentially individual focussed. For organisation I suggest Kagan et al work on deliberately developmental organisations and Bill Tolbert on Collaborative Developmental Action Inquiry which between them have to do with building learning organisations without losing the potential of conflict. I will send short articles separately since I can’t find a tool for downloading to your blog. They can be shared since they are public materials. Second, the matter of sustaining motivation where the challenges of the proposed learning are beyond the present capabilities of the learners is essential. Third, having a space for counter-intuitive facts and interpretations might provide entertaining access for potential learners to such challenging material, issues, etc. For example, maybe in our turbulent times (a perception that’s been around for 2 decades or so) crazy behaviour is a good idea, or at least as good as the failed behaviours that represent various orthodoxies in the standard public discourses. Happy hunting.

  3. To focus and be effective, learning needs to have a goal. What will be different in the learner after s/he has done the learning? How can one tell that that has been learned? What is the evidence? Also, “knowing” baseball, its rules, info, history, is not knowing how to play baseball, much less play it well. What results do you want from any learning? Even if it seems it’s just “having more info,” usually that really means “being able to use more info in x ways.” Organizational learning is also a how-to, as in how to be part of the new culture rippling into the organization, or fit smoothly into the operations of a new process. Advanced learning is not about information but abilities. –Awning3a

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