Adult Learning in the Future World of Work

Adult Learning in the Future World of Work

Adult learning, self-directed learning, and adaptive learning are some of the buzzwords in a changing world of work.

The truth remains: employee up-skilling, re-skilling, and workforce training should be a top business priority and there are several factors that contribute to this trend, including:

  • An ageing population who has not had the opportunity to enrol in new courses, acquire new skills, be exposed to many different backgrounds, or do not have the confidence to upgrade their subject’s expertise
  • Preference for employees that know a second language or have taken highly specialised courses in sciences, maths, and technologies
  • Workers willing to learn and train to be a part of an online or virtual team, distributed work unit, or a remote workforce

So how do we ensure as a business or training provider that we can train our adult population for the future world of work? Let’s explore…

Adult Learning Defined

Adult learning is the process of teaching and educating adults to develop existing skills, acquire a new skill, or gain professional qualifications. This is achieved through various formal, non-formal, and informal educational activities.

Malcolm Knowles was an American adult educator, famous for the adoption of the theory of andragogy. He recognised the need for lifelong learning and the importance of ‘learning how to learn’ (Knowles 1970, p. 41).

This ideology puts the learner in charge of their development as they explore and respond to new interests, courses, or backgrounds in their unique way.


This is the practice used to teach adults (from Pedagogy which was originally the teaching of children). Malcolm Knowles’ Andragogy Theory focuses on how mature individuals function and use their experiences to navigate informative learning during the next stage of their career, education, or lives.

Knowles’ Six Assumptions about Adult Learning

Adult learning

The need to know

Adults cannot be forced to become students for the sake of studying. They must contextualise why they are being asked to participate in higher education, take up new courses, or have fun learning new things.


Adults bring their life experiences and professional qualifications to the table. They search and evaluate past mistakes and errors to compare them with the complex skill or the new subject at hand and help them form or learn new ideas.


Adults must be in charge of and actively involved in the pace, flow, and process of how they learn. Mindful participation in adult education courses (e.g. attending a class, webinar or the like at least once a week) is crucial in influencing the effectiveness of the training course or program taken. It is also important that they are having fun or gaining the confidence in knowing they are making progress.


Adults assess their readiness to become students based on how taking up new courses or accepting any form of advice and support from a teacher or a tutor will affect their professional career or personal lives.


By being exposed to continuing education, adults achieve understanding by placing themselves into the situation to search for proper context.


The internal realisation of the importance of continuing education will make them willing to undergo self-directed training.

These assumptions should form the basis of your training module to ensure you get the most out of your adult learners.

Experiential Learning

Once we understand how adult learners learn, we can delve into how to help them learn.

Experiential Learning, as explained in David A. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model (ELM), acknowledges the fact that adults are shaped by their experiences and that the best learning comes from making sense of their experiences.

Four Cyclical Stages of Experiential Learning

Concrete Experience (CE):

Physical engagement in scenarios results in meaningful comprehension that is permanently imprinted in the mind of the adult learner.

Reflective Observation (RO):

Concrete experiences must be followed by periods of reflection to gain new knowledge or iterate on old knowledge. This enables the adult learner to search for and derive meaning from the bodily experience they have just had.

Abstract Conceptualisation (AC):

The meaning obtained from the concrete experience is synthesised and placed in the context of their larger reality due to the adult learner’s need to grasp the relevance.

Active Experimentation (AE):

Adult learners can apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real-life problems.

Transformational Learning

Jack Mezirow began working on the hypothesis that learning occurs due to an event that challenges existing realisations or comprehension.

The learner is guided through a transforming experience and a sequence of processes that lead to the reintegration of their new knowledge into their daily lives.

These “Eureka!” moments signify a complete shift in the learner’s viewpoint.

How To Use Adult Learning Principles In Your Employee Development And Training

Improving your department/company’s capabilities

Instil a growth ethos to inspire workers to strive to complete every task to the best of their abilities. Given enough time, many people can learn anything new and become proficient at it.

Increasing employee satisfaction and reducing turnover

Introduce new hires to their new teammates and roles immediately upon hiring to boost their perception of your company culture. Moreover, take proactive measures to ensure strong relationships between coworkers and management to increase their desire to stay with an organisation.

Making it easier to identify worthy candidates in your current operation and promoting from within

Provide career advancement opportunities to fuel their motivation to continually perform their best year-round and become less likely to move around in their careers.

Creating an environment where your employees develop and learn without supervision

The best workers get the assignment done without excessive hand-holding or assistance.

Fostering a healthy work-life balance

Work-life balance is crucial for employee satisfaction and overall business success as well. Organizations that prioritise this aspect will not have difficulty attracting and retaining talent.

Becoming Lifelong Adult Learners in a Changing World of Work

Understanding diverse adult learning theories and practices will help you ensure your learners or employees get the most out of your training and learning modules.

Although Knowles’s assumptions are from years ago, they are still applicable today as training is becoming learner-centred rather than curriculum centred. While the theory of andragogy has been used as a guide for adult learning (Henschke, 2011) and is a significant component of online learning (Chametzky, 2014), some scholars have argued that andragogy is not a theory at all and that the assumptions were just “principles of good practice” (Hartree, 1984, p. 205). In fact, Knowles (1989) acknowledged that andragogy is more akin to learning assumptions than a learning theory. A criticism of andragogy is the lack of an instrument that is able to measure whether the assumptions outlined in andragogy are being implemented in educational settings (Taylor & Kroth, 2009b). Nevertheless, andragogy has been applied effectively to higher education programs using face-to-face and online instruction (Harper & Ross, 2011).

Learn more about the solution designed for adult learning here.

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