Adult Learning Principles and Latent Music Training

Adults approach learning differently than children. While a child may accept an authority figure in the classroom imparting knowledge, the adult is not.

Often published articles about music instruction and playing refer to children and their psychological and educational development compared to students that do not study music. How an adult learns is an important issue to consider while formulating music instruction.

Some areas to contemplate if you are studying music or teach music to adults are:


Adults generally assume independence and expect to take part in the process of developing instruction as well as an active position in the evaluation of their performance. They prefer to work at their own pace in the areas they choose and feel that their “grade” or result should match their expectations of what they should receive.

The best avenue of instruction for an adult then is not a large classroom with an authoritative instructor but either through independent study, where they in a sense act as the student and the instructor themselves, or one-on-one with a respectful tutor that facilitates the attainment of knowledge.

Level of Physical Comfort

Kindergarten students may sit around in a circle on the floor or a high school student may concede to sit in a small desk with a hard wooden seat, but adults prefer and demand comfort. Some adults are set in their ways so to speak, they “like it how they like it,”period.

To address the desired comfort level of adults either the classroom accommodates, or they choose to hire a tutor to instruct in their home or they learn through an independent course at home. They might also want to consider the instrument they choose in relation to how it is played. For example, a smoker that gets winded quickly might have more success learning the guitar or piano as opposed to a wind instrument like a saxophone or trombone.

Insecurity or Embarassment

Some adults are uncomfortable learning new things or not knowing how to do things. In their employment or at home, they may feel confident about their abilities and problem solving skills but in a new situation, they may feel inadequate or awkward. To counteract these feelings of insecurity, embarrassment or inadequacy adults usually overcompensate by trying to do everything perfectly, they ask the instructor many probing questions to try to focus information and requirements, and take their time to accomplish tasks in order to avoid mistakes.

In music instruction, the adult wants all the information they can get a hold of, they are less inclined to try things without some kind of knowledge base. Whereas a child may blow into a trumpet and not worry about how badly it sounds, whether they know how to read the music or where to put their fingers, they do it just for fun, adults want to master it and not “make a fool of themselves.”

The instructor or teaching method needs to be able to respond to the adults’ intense need for detail and affirmation. While an adult may do well in a formal education setting for a music theory or history class, when in comes to playing an instrument private instruction is a better choice to put the student at ease and allows for plenty of inquiries.

Prior Experience and Application

Young students have few experiences to afford them the ability to imagine a ‘real life’ application of knowledge. Adults may have decades of knowledge and experiences brought into the classroom with them and they can see how information may apply to other aspects of their life or to other areas of study.

When an adult is learning to play music, they want to be able to apply their knowledge and experiences. So many adults do not desire to learn music just for the sake of it, but to be able to play at their church or in a band or to compose their own music. They come to learn music with a goal and prior expectations.

Adults that desire to learn music are goal oriented, exercise autonomy, and require respect and comfort. So if you are planning to learn a new skill, such as playing the piano, or you are a teacher planning your curriculum consider the unique requirements of the adult student.


Kearsley, Greg. Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory into Practice Database Andragogy (M. Knowles).>

Lieb, Stephen. Principle of Adult Learning.>

Smith, M. K. planning your curriculum ‘Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and anadragogy’, the encyclopedia of informal education.>

Mezirow’s Transformational Learning Theory

Adults are the products of their individual histories and experiences, which influence their attitudes, thinking processes, and conceptualizations of their worlds. John Mezirow believed that adults can be “transformed” through a process involving a “disorientating dilemma” followed by critical reflection and new interpretations of experience. Expanding this theory to teaching, the educator must encourage students to examine their personal assumptions, explore other possibilities and test all for validity. Learning comes from the examinations and new idea formulation. The application of critical thinking skills uses this methodology. Many universities are changing the way learning takes place; rather than lecture they are using methods of discovery which yield transformational learning.

Teachers bring their own experiences and learning to the classroom. Not every instructor is able to separate their personal frames of reference from their teaching. Have you ever been in a political science class where the instructor makes it clear that the class will be taught from only one perspective…his? The best professors are the ones that engage the students in such a way that they learn from making connections from their experiences and those of others. Because thinking is a traditionally solitary endeavor, using team learning is a great way to expose individuals to thinking in other ways.

Instructors must be careful to teach the subject material in such a way that students are exposed to a “disorientating dilemma” which will begin the learning process. By its nature, transformational learning requires being more open to the perspectives of others. However, it is much easier to teach from a personal viewpoint, skipping the critical learning process in which the student questions assumptions. I have had professors that essentially say, “what I say is the way it is.” Transformational learning requires that the students have a vested interest in their own learning process, rather than being “spoon fed” a bunch of information to memorize or accept.
The role of the learner cannot be neglected. The student must be a willing participant, ready to engage in the learning process. The teacher can create the atmosphere in the classroom, but the student must be receptive.

Transformational learning causes a change in thinking after digesting information. The student must make the connections within himself to create this new awareness. Knowledge then becomes a part of the student as he begins to make new associations and own it for himself.

As an instructor, I love to see the “aha” moments when the light clicks on in a student’s eye. He has taken something that I taught, rolled it around, and pulled out the truth – transforming himself by learning.
Imel, S. Transformative Learning in Adulthood.
Merriam, S. The Role of Cognitive Development in Mezirow’s Transformational Learning Theory. Adult Education Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, 60-68 (2004).
Mezirow, J. Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1991

Public Speaking – Apply Adult Learning Principles For More Effective Training

Did you know that adults have special needs as learners?

When we were kids, we went to school, and we sat through class every day, and our teachers taught everyone pretty much the same way. It didn’t really matter if you were a visual learner, an auditory learner, or a kinesthetic learner. The teacher pretty much did whatever s/he felt most comfortable doing. Times have changed, and teachers are more aware of learning styles now, and other issues that affect children’s learning.

But the principles of adult learning are still pretty new to most people. If you’re a speaker, and you’re doing any kind of education or training with the groups you’re speaking to, this applies to you.

First, a little history. Malcolm Knowles is considered the “father of adult learning”, although the topic had been discussed and researched over a century earlier.

Knowles’ assumptions were that adults:

1) move from dependency to self-directedness;
2) draw upon their reservoir of experience for learning;
3) are ready to learn when they assume new roles; and
4) want to solve problems and apply new knowledge immediately.

In his book, “The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy,” Knowles opposes the view that adults are unable to learn: “…the rapidly accelerating pace of change in our society has proved this doctrine to be no longer valued. Facts learned in youth have become insufficient and in many instances actually untrue; and skills learned in youth have become outmoded by new technologies.”

The term “andragogy” has come to mean self-directed learning for people of all ages, as opposed to the term “pedagogy” which defines teacher-directed learning. In practical terms, it means that when educating or training adults, process comes before content.

Knowles may not have invented these terms or concepts, but he was the first to put them together into an organized theory. Additional theories of adult learning have been developed since Knowles’ time, as well. Here is an overview of adult learning principles that will greatly improve your understanding of how and why adults learn. This will allow you to tailor your presentations and training more effectively to the groups you serve.

1. Adults are autonomous and self-directed

Adults want to decide for themselves what, when, how and why to learn. Speakers/instructors should allow adults to direct some of their own learning. Here are some ways to facilitate this:

* Ask your participants what they already know about your topic and what they’re interested in learning. Find out what their goals are for being there.
* Share your agenda and ask for input. This might lead to switching around the order of your workshop to better serve the group’s needs. You might find you spend more time on certain subjects than you had planned, and less on others. Be flexible.
* Act as a facilitator, guiding the group and encouraging them to reach their own conclusions, rather than force-feeding information in a lecture format. Allow them to be responsible for their own learning.
* Do your research on the group and organizational needs beforehand, so you can provide a combination of information that meets their perceived needs and their actual needs.

2. Adults have a lifetime of knowledge and experience that informs their learning

Adult learners can be a valuable resource for you as an instructor/speaker. It’s also important for them to connect learning to those previous life experiences. Here’s how to make the most of your audience’s experience and knowledge.

* Don’t assume that your participants are “blank slates” and know nothing about your topic. Nothing is more insulting than a speaker who launches into a lecture without first finding out the needs and knowledge level of the audience. Do your research and ask first to find out what they already know.
* When appropriate, ask your audience to share their experiences, and create activities that call on them to use their experiences, for example, in small group discussions.
* Prepare activities that involve choice, so the learning process can better fit the individual levels of your participants.

3. Adults need relevancy in learning

It’s important to adults that they are learning something relevant and applicable to real life, whether it’s work-related or personal. Here’s how to make learning relevant to your audience.

* Identify learning objectives and ask participants to share their goals.
* Discuss and ask for sharing of real-world applications of your topic.
* Avoid giving a workshop or presentation that’s too theoretical.

In the book “Teacher”, Sylvia Ashton-Warner discusses relevancy in her work as a teacher with Maori children. She recalls trying to teach them to read out of European textbooks with images and language that mean nothing to them. When she starts working within their own language, culture and experiences to teach them reading, they blossom. Relevancy is one of the major keys to learning for people of all ages.

4. Adults are motivated to learn by both external and internal factors

When we were kids, many of us were not motivated to learn by anything other than our parents’ and teachers’ rewards and punishments.

As adults, we have many reasons for pursuing learning:

* it’s a requirement of a job
* we want to make new friends and connections
* for professional development and to advance our careers
* to relieve boredom
* because we’re interested in a particular topic and want to learn for fun
* to create a better environment for our children and families

. . . and the list goes on.

As an instructor/speaker, it’s important to understand the many reasons why your attendees are in your seminar. They may not be there by choice, for example. Ask them why they’ve come and what they hope to gain from the experience.

As it is important to understand what motivates your participants to learn, it’s also important to understand what might be barriers to their learning:

* worry about finances
* time constraints
* childcare issues
* relationship issues (one partner feels threatened by advancement of the other)
* lack of confidence in ability to learn (some people grew to believe they were not good in school, and they carry that with them forever)
* insecurity about intelligence
* concern about practicality and relevance

. . . and the list goes on!

Understanding the motivations and barriers your participants face can help you as an instructor pinpoint how best to serve them, by increasing their motivation for learning.

5. Adult learners have sensitive egos

Many of us, over the course of a lifetime, have developed a fear of appearing stupid or incompetent. As children, we were encouraged to explore, ask questions and learn about the world, but somewhere along the way, that was taken away from us. Many adults have mixed feelings about teachers, school, and structured learning.

Some people go to great lengths to hide their inability to read, for example, or their lack of understanding of the duties of their job.

An instructor/speaker must be aware of these issues and build trust by treating learners respectfully, sensitively, and without judgment.

* Allow participants to build confidence by practicing what is learned in small groups before facing the large group
* Use positive reinforcement to encourage participants
* If sensitive issues are to be discussed, create a safe space by enforcing confidentiality and allowing participants to “pass” if there’s something they’re not comfortable talking about
* Provide activities that are low-risk before moving on to activities featuring higher risk or greater trust
* Acknowledge participants’ previous life experience and knowledge and allow them to voice opinions and share in class leadership

A speaker who believes she/he knows more than anyone else in the room is asking for trouble, and creating an environment that will discourage learning.

6. Adults are practical and problem-oriented, and want to apply what they’ve learned

Probably the most important result for adult learners is to be able to apply their learning to their work or personal life – immediately. Help facilitate this by doing the following:

* Use examples to help them see the connection between classroom theories and practical application
* Use problem-solving activities as part of learning
* Create action items or task lists together with participants
* Help learners transfer learning to daily practice by offering follow-up coaching or mentoring
* Create an experiential learning environment that follows an experiential learning cycle

This has been just a brief overview of adult learning principles. I hope you’ve found some of the tips in these articles to be helpful.

At its most basic level, adult learning tends to be self-directed and based on the person’s individual needs and life experiences. Follow these tips when working with adults, and you will be on your way to creating a truly effective learning experience.