Adult Learning Targets Life Experience

When Malcolm Knowles headed the adult-education program of the Boston YMCA in the 1940s, several people told him they were keen to learn about the stars. So Mr. Knowles did the sensible thing: He hired a Harvard graduate student to lecture on astronomy. People defected in droves.

Then Knowles tried a different approach. Through an association of amateur astronomers, he hired a retired executive who led his adult students out of the classroom and up to the roof. He had no syllabus, and he didn't lecture. Instead, he asked questions - What do you see in the night sky that intrigues you? What do you want to know?

As more and more schools have discovered, the trick is not getting adults into the classroom, but keeping them there. Whether they're in search of professional credentials or expanding a hobby, adults thrive in classes that value their life experience and leave wiggle room for exploration - rather than strict adherence to course schedules and reading lists.

And with adult enrollments soaring, it's a style of teaching that is increasingly relevant. According to a 1995 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, 40 percent of America's adults - some 76 million - are enrolled in some form of adult-education classes. In 1991, the percentage was 32 percent.

Deborah Warren, director of continuing education at Georgetown University in Washington, recently began teaching adults after years of teaching undergraduates. And she found herself doing things very differently. Instead of handing out a syllabus, she gave her 18 students a reading list, leaving open the option to go off on tangents. In tackling Edith Wharton's short story "Roman Fever," she did not start off by lecturing or guiding the discussion, but kicked the class off by eliciting students' raw responses. "With 20-year olds," she explains, "you try to bring in life experience. Adults bring the context from their own experience."

This tallies with one of the main principles of adult education - or andragogy, to use the term Knowles made popular - which assumes that adults have become used to learning by relating new material to past experiences. Andragogy also assumes that adults are highly motivated, self-directed, and have become used to learning by solving problems.

It is no coincidence that Jean-Marc Favreau, who teaches at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Md., begins his class on Web-page design by asking students what each wants to get out of the course. "It helps me know where to focus my teaching," he says. Once he has imparted the basics, he can tailor his approach. He might concentrate on creative presentations with a student who wants to create a home page for his family but stress consistency in design with students building a more complex, professional Web site.

Even though Favreau loses a number of students each course - "cell phones ring, family emergencies come up" - the self-employed always stick it out. After all, knowing how to build a Web site is "what will keep their business going," Favreau says.

Similarly, office administrator Susannah Buckles enrolled in a science course at Northern Virginia Community College to lay the groundwork for becoming a licensed physical therapist. But if a strong motive is what keeps Ms. Buckles plowing through difficult material, it is the course setup that makes it physically possible for her to work and study at the same time. "This course is designed for people who are working or home-bound," she explains. This means that Buckles studies in her free time, takes tests when she is ready, and if she needs it can avail herself of free tutoring at the college.

At Russel Corp., a manufacturer of sports leisure wear in Alexander City, Ala., the company's education division has used computers to take self-directed learning a step further.

One worker might want to get his GED, while a sewing machine operator might want to transfer into a clerical position. On the advice of a supervisor, a work-to-welfare new hire might want to learn to manage his time better, or a secretary wants to add accounting to her portfolio of skills. Whatever the case, employees head for the education service, where the staff assesses their skills and tailors a computer program so that they skip what they already know and work on what they lack.

Even though colleges cannot be quite so accommodating, many also try to offer flexible programs for nontraditional students. When Lynn Litterine decided to complete her college education after some 20 years, one of the reasons she chose Bryn Mawr (Pa.) College, was that it allowed her to take as few or as many courses per semester as her time and finances allowed.

As a result, Ms. Litterine, who had dropped out twice from college, completed 21 semesters in five years. "I had burned my math book after high school," she says, yet years later she was completing college requirements in algebra and calculus, graduating in 1996 with a bachelor of arts in English. This time, she was raising two sons, working part time, and running a household. She gives much credit to her teachers, who were "equally committed to pedagogy as to their field."

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