18th February 2019

Adult learning theory & families

by Susana Beltran

In my previous blog, I wrote about the need to engage families in playful learning experiences while thinking of them as adult learners, especially in a social context.

According to Knowles (2015), andragogy refers to adult learning and the framework of helping adults learn. Pedagogy serves as a foundation for the development of thought, instruction and advancement of knowledge (The history of pedagogy, 1888)—especially in learners who know little or lack a full understanding of a topic. While andragogy builds on adults’ previous experiences into the learning process, this process can be real-life applications in which adult learners acquire knowledge, skills, and abilities.

It is important to note that Knowles (2015) distinguishes pedagogy as a content model and andragogy as a process model. The andragogy model consists of five assumptions (Knowles, 2015), 1) adults have the need to know why they are learning something, 2) adults have a need to be self-directed, 3) adults bring more work-related experience into the learning situation, 4) adults enter into a learning experience with a problem-centered approach to learning, and 5) adults are motivated to learn by both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

The adult learner is usually expected to know and understand where the new knowledge fits in with the old—andragogy is a learner-centered method. Through this model, the instructor prepares to work with the adult learner and designs a learning environment that will encourage learning that prioritizes the learner’s role in identifying their needs (Knowles, 2015). Andragogy serves to teach an adult learner how to learn and why learning is meaningful.

This is especially true for STEM family engagement practices. Andragogy can serve as a framework to teach adult learners, in this case families, how to learn and why learning is meaningful. Although significant resources have been invested by national and local agencies to support STEM education in classrooms and afterschool programs, parent-based interventions have mainly been left out despite a vast body of research proving family engagement is essential for children's learning and development (Mapp & Kuttner, 2013). The dissemination of information and engagement opportunities for families have been few and far between. The lack of resources, information, and engagement is even more pronounced for low-income Latino families in early learning settings. As a result, little is known about effective STEM family engagement methods and evaluations for Latino families.

Therefore, it is critical for early childhood and family engagement practitioners to engage families in STEM learning experiences to amplify their voices as advocates for STEM education access in their communities. And one way to do this is by thinking of families as adult learners. Based on Knowles (2015) concept of androgyny combined with learning theory, I suggest that families as adult learners should have the following:

  • Families must have the experience that will allow the behavioral change desired by the objective. How are they experiencing STEM learning themselves? How do they see STEM in their cultures?
  • Families must gain satisfaction (motivation) from the desired learning. PowerPoint presentations work for the dissemination of information, but workshops should be designed around playful learning experiences where math or science is fun and interactive.
  • Reactions in the experience desired are within the range of capability of the family/adult. No family should be made to feel incompetent. STEM are complex concepts and families already have funds of knowledge that can help them understand science and math.
  • There are many experiences that can be used to obtain the same objective. Families should not be given only one option. Let them play and explore like children.
  • The same experience can bring out different outcomes. Families/adults might not share the same experience at the end of the workshop, but that doesn’t mean they are not taking something with them, families might be learning through peripheral participation.

It is imperative to encourage family involvement in STEM education and provide them with strategies they can use with their children. Just as parent participation in early reading skills and exposure to books at a young age positively impacts the development of reading skills, early exposure to math and science activities for young children through STEM family engagement activities can be an essential contributor to successful STEM learning outcomes.


Tags: adult learning theory, ECE, Parent Engagement, STEM, STEM Family Engagement

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