A positive learning environment never happens by accident – it is the direct result of actions taken by instructors who understand adult learners. Hallmarks of a positive learning environment are trust, open communication and shared learning experiences. Instructors who maintain the positive nature of the environment make use of the existing knowledge and skill of their students. Fundamental aspects of the environment include:
- A recognition of the differences between andragogy and pedagogy
- A deep understand of how the adult student functions in the classroom
- A willingness and commitment to communicate with adult students in a way that fosters open exchanges
Andragogy and Pedagogy
When children begin attending school they don’t know much. It makes sense for them to learn from someone who has vastly more knowledge and intellect than they possess. The education model used in this scenario is called pedagogy. The Greek translation refers to a literal process of “leading the child." The pedagogy model places the instructor at the center of the figurative learning environment and all knowledge comes from the teacher.
Teaching adults requires a completely different approach. Effective adult education or andragogy employs a model that incorporates the tremendous knowledge and experience that adults bring to the classroom and uses it to facilitate the learning process of all the students. Andragogy is a dramatically more collaborative approach that incorporates the points of view, knowledge and experience of all members of the classroom. Andragogy places the student at the figurative center of the learning environment and relies on the instructor to function as a facilitator who helps students to attach new concepts to their existing understanding. Instructors do this by leading discussions, assigning projects that weave experience together with new information and by helping students draw analogies to events or information in their lives with the information being taught.
Adult Learning Approaches
When instructors view common classroom events through the prism of adult learning theory they gain a different perspective on creating a positive learning environment. For example students that make mistakes in the pedagogical learning model are often reproved, corrected and told what to do. Such a response with adult learners is counterproductive. Instructors help adult students identify their own mistakes and facilitate improved understanding and performance. Some basic guidelines that instructors should follow to create and maintain a positive learning environment include:
- Treat students as adults and recognize their existing skill and experience
- Set clear and meaningful expectations for adult students
- Avoid creating an environment that results in hostility
- Address errors privately and respectfully
Maintaining a Positive Environment
One of the most important elements for instructors to remember is the need to treat adult learners as adults. Unlike children, adults are unaccustomed to feeling helpless. When key information about the layout of the class, the expectations of the instructor, or other germane information is withheld the adult student will often feel helpless. This is a dangerous mistake because it can cause conflict or withdrawal. Instructors should be conscious of this factor and work to avoid such circumstances by creating an environment of clear expectations, open dialogue, and professional feedback.
Instructors should provide feedback to adults with sensitivity and aplomb. Feedback should be clear and actionable and it must be delivered privately. Public criticism of an adult learner is viewed as disrespectful and hostile and often results in a breakdown in communication. These facts do not absolve an instructor of his/her responsibility to make sure that students understand mistakes they have made. Instructors can inform students of mistakes and help maintain a positive environment by providing feedback to the student in a private forum.
Accentuate the Andragogy
Careful examination of the needs of an adult learner provides an important set of guidelines to all instructors. These guidelines are central to maintaining a positive learning environment and to maintaining communication. Instructors should recognize these guidelines as not only restrictions to behavior but powerful allies in improving performance. Leveraging the powerful features of andragogy will improve class interaction and maintain a positive learning environment.