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The Challenge of Adult Learning (Maximising your CPD)

The challenges that come with adult learning are common and absolutely predictable.  The key to understanding the challenges of adult learning comes with an appreciation of the fact that adults arrive at the table with a significant body of existing knowledge and experience.  It is this prior learning that creates problems when we are leading teaching or training that challenges existing practice, or introduces new concepts.

There are several instances in schools where teachers and/or school leaders come up against the challenge of teaching or training adults.  Often this includes trying to change practice through introducing new learning or new ways of doing things.  For example..

  • A teacher of History trying to motivate a group of Y13 students around the importance of learning the circumstances of the execution of Charles I;
  • A teacher training mentor trying to encourage a primary trainee teacher to adapt their use of language to correct behaviour;
  • A Senior School Leader trying to improve practices around questioning across a diverse teaching staff.

Whatever the situation, the challenges that come with adult learning are common and absolutely predictable.  The key to understanding the challenges of adult learning comes with an appreciation of the fact that adults arrive at the table with a significant body of existing knowledge and experience.  It is this prior learning that creates problems when we are leading teaching or training that challenges existing practice, or introduces new concepts.  When we learn, we do so by relating new information to that which is already known. In practice that means that everyone takes away a slightly different version of the learning as they relate it to their own personal learning and experience, which can and does vary widely. It is almost impossible to avoid the biases that can obstruct effective adult learning, but with greater awareness, we can plan to expect them and to mitigate against them.

In their new book, ‘Unleashing Great Teaching – secrets of the most effective teacher development’, David Weston, CEO of the Teacher Development Trust and Bridget Clay, present a model for effective adult learning that is designed to circumvent some of these.  His excellent talk at ResearchEd Birmingham in February 2018 provided a compelling and engaging account of the biases we need to be aware of in ourselves, as well as others.  Read the summary below..

Main Challenges to Adult Learning (David Weston - @informededu):

 1. The ‘Sunk Cost Bias’ or the ‘Ikea Effect’ – as adults, we are more likely to value something if we have worked hard at it.  The quality of this item/knowledge is irrelevant, but the value we place on it, due to the time spent building/developing it means that we find it hard to let that go.  (Think - difficult to change teacher habits if they have been developing ‘their’ technique over many years)

2. The ‘Dunning-Kruger Effect’ – this describes the ‘illusionary superiority’ of those with a small amount of knowledge. This becomes damaging when adults are exposed to short and superficial learning experiences (think 45 minute CPD slot, or reading the York notes instead of the novel) as it creates the illusion of knowledge.  Learning is a deep process – to understand something fully means to engage with the depths of the issue.  Creating the ‘illusion’ of knowing and understanding can be damaging as the detail is lost (and the initiative misapplied)

3.  The ‘Not My Tribe / My Tribe’ Bias – we are more likely to believe something if it comes from within our own contexts or from people we believe are like us. It is not based on the value of information, but on the degree to which we can relate to the person delivering it.

4. Fundamental Attribution Error – this is where we attribute mistakes to the character deficiencies of others.  In doing so, we push or pull people out of or into our tribes. We attribute an error / mistake / unpalatable information to the bad character or incompetence of others.

5. Curse of Knowledge – we so easily forget what it was like to be a novice and not to have known.

It is not difficult to think of examples of where we may have fallen victim to one or more of these biases ourselves. If you are planning some adult learning, whether that is an A level lesson, an ITT professional studies session or a staff CPD twilight, it’s worth bearing these in mind. To find out more about adult learning and how to make the most of CPD in your schools, we recommend ‘Unleashing Great Teaching’ by David Weston and Bridget Clay.

Tagged CPD Learning Bias