In the treacherous and rewarding arena of adult education, trainers often find themselves at a crossroads. On one side lies a bounty of motivated learners ready to engage in the most thrilling of activities, and on the other lies a gray mass of drones preparing to be pushed into the next mandatory session. Both groups possess a commonality that is often referred to in adult education, but often misinterpreted. This is the theory that all adult learners are self-directed.
Malcolm Knowles, a central figure in U.S. adult education in the second half of the twentieth century and author of Informal Adult Education (1950), The Modern Practice of Adult Education (1970) and The Adult Learner (1973), moved the field of adult education in a way that has prompted deep thought and discussion. However, while his theory about self-directed learning, which emphasizes that adults are self-directed and expect to take responsibility for decisions, is highly useful, it skews slightly from its target by assuming that self-directedness begins with the decision to engage. Here is where the fork in the road takes some learners to the green pastures of self-enlightenment and others to the gray corners of training dismay. To merge their paths toward a common destination, the necessary "road work" must be done before the road forks.
Though self-directed learning is an ideal that often occurs naturally within the adult learner, forced learning theory recognizes that the self-directed learning Knowles talked about is a natural paradigm held by the adult learner once engaged in the learning activity, not an impetus for involvement. What does this mean? Though Knowlsian followers might criticize the thought that adult learners do not largely "self-direct" themselves, forced learning theory posits that for most adults, involvement in education and/or training programs is externally forced upon them by their organization, the economy, society and/or the culture within which they live and work. The key to forced learning theory is that, by and large, only when forced into the learning environment will the adult learner's natural tendency to be self-directed become evident.
If the adult learner is only self-directed once engaged in the learning activity, the focus of trainers and other adult educators shifts. Rather than seeking to shift the paradigm of the adult learner, we can dig deep and seek to shift our paradigms on how adults respond best when "invited" into a training program. Trainers must answer three basic questions to have a greater chance of sparking participants' self-directedness prior to involvement: Why will the adult learner sincerely appreciate this training opportunity? How will the adult learner apply what he learns immediately, and for what personally identifiable gain? What approach to engagement will the adult learner respond to most favorably?
Organizations know why they want employees to complete a particular training program, so the focus must be placed on approaching the employee in a thoughtful way that ignites self-directedness toward training. Only through a critical self-reflective approach and thoughtful, learner-centered implementation of their programs will trainers have a shot at tapping the natural self-directed inclination of the adult learner.
It is also critical to realize that human capital is an end product of human development brought into existence best when driven internally by the learner. When we forget to value this truth, we alienate the adult learner and prevent her from engaging cognitively and emotionally, even if forced to do so physically.
This recognizes that while "forced" engagement precedes true self-directedness, the crux of the learning activity must still be founded on a more substantial human basis than bottom-line reasoning. As training professionals, we must hold fast to our personal philosophies of adult education. When we are successful in transforming our sincere purpose into trust relationships, engagement becomes less forced and allows for self-directedness to emerge, take hold and grow.
Nicholas Phillips is the CEO and president of HR Department Unlimited. email@example.com