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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kristen Mattson

Four Recurring Themes In Adult Learning and Their Implications for PD

I originally wrote this reflection for a doctoral course called “Professional Learning in Education” but there are a few gems of information in it worth sharing.

Four Recurring Themes in Adult Learning and their Implications for PD

In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, researchers attempted to distinguish differences between learning in adulthood and childhood. The foundation of most current models about adult learning came from the work of Malcom Knowles (1968) who identified six basic assumptions related to adult learning, and Jack Mezirow’s (1978) Transformational Learning Theory which stressed the value of learning and understanding through reflection. Out of the work of Knowles and Mezirow came several other adult learning theories, frameworks, and models. While each has unique characteristics, four recurring themes appear throughout the various work of these theorists (Rohlwing & Spelman, 2014).

Below, I will describe each in detail, adding implications for both educational leaders and professional development specialists.

Theme One: Experience

Constructivists from Dewey to Vygotsky and many in between will argue that learning occurs through experiences. Adult learners, by nature, have a much larger repertoire of experiences to draw upon over time. It is important to point out, however, that experiences can serve as a resource, but also as a barrier for learning, especially when it comes to learning for change.


1. While the aim of professional learning is often to change, or move forward, a group, it is important that leaders recognize and account for the individual learner within each group and the experiences they bring with them.

2.  Climate is often a very deeply ingrained factor that can serve as a barrier to learning for both individuals and organizations. Leaders may need to spend significant amounts of time listening to the experiences of people within the organization, and work at building a culture of trust and respect  before initiating any large change process.

3. Every professional in the room comes to a learning session with a variety of experiences and valuable resources. Knowing this, trust the genius that IS the room, and allow time for participants to interact, reflect, and share.

Theme Two: Reflection

In order to learn from experiences, adults must practice the art of reflection. Jarvis (2001) defines reflective learning as “the practice of planning, monitoring, and reflecting upon experiences.”


1. Remember that change is a process, not an event. Reflection is less likely to occur during a one-stop “sit and get” session. Designing professional learning experiences to be ongoing can help support participants through the reflection process.

2. Allow time in training sessions for some “reflection on action” activities. These activities might come in the form of reflective journaling, peer observations followed by reflective dialogue, data analysis, or even portfolio development. Allotting time for people to reflect is one of the surest ways to support them in the process.

3.  Facilitate reflection beyond content. Ask participants to look back upon the process, the premise, and the results of their learning as well.

Theme Three: Dialogue

Most constructivists would argue that learning occurs through interaction with others. With professional dialogue, it is important to help participants move beyond debate or simple agreement toward collaborative, shared understandings of content and process. Dialogue can help deconstruct assumptions and clarify misunderstandings. Inner dialogue can support the reflection process which is also critical for adult learning.


1. Leaders must create a climate of trust, security, and empathy in order to facilitate professional dialogue among staff.

2. Allot time for dialogue during any professional learning session. Pose questions that can encourage collaborative inquiry and debate. When necessary, provide staff with protocols for professional interactions.

3. Providing participants with data to analyze can help scaffold dialogue.

4. Consider strategically grouping your participants to make the most out of dialogue opportunities.

Theme Four: Context

Context largely shapes a learner’s experience. Learning is often presented through one of several lenses whether it be professional, biographical, historical, or cultural. Most theorists argue that adult learning needs to be set in the context of the learner’s environment. Of course, this context can include everything from political and cultural beliefs, climate within the community,background knowledge and experience to the physical space of the training, time of day, and learning styles of individual participants.


1. Avoid the trap of designing professional learning from your own perspective. Take time to situate yourself in the context of the participants prior to planning learning sessions.

2. Create an environment of safety and respect in which participants can learn.

3. Situate the learning within best-practice and other initiatives happening in the school or district so teachers can clearly see the ties between the learning and their current environment.

4. Use a variety of teaching methods to best meet the needs of your learners.

In the end, those who design and deliver professional learning experiences need to give careful consideration to the way in which adults learn. Designers should focus on understanding and honoring each participant’s past experiences, viewpoints, and expertise when facilitating sessions. Remember that learning is a journey, and do your best to support all learners in their travels.


Jarvis, P. (2001). Learning in later life: An introduction for educators and carers. London: Kogan Page.

Rohlwing, R.L. & Spelman, M. (2014). Characteristics of adult learning: Implications for the design and implementation of professional development programs. In L.E. Martin, S. Kragler, D.J. Quatroche, & K.L. Bauserman (eds.), Handbook of professional development in education: Successful models and practices, Pre-K-12 (pp. 231-245). New York: The Guilford Press.

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