It’s easy to view learning as a standard process. A teacher tells learner some information, they seemingly absorb it, and learning occurs. Many of us are intelligent enough to know different, and the who, what, where, when, how of learning is in a constant state of change. But the question is, is there a distinction between the learning needs of an adult (andragogy), and those of a child (pedagogy)? Are we all just a child at heart?

First experiences of learning often come from a traditional classroom environment, and with that comes certain issues. In the classroom environment, we are (generally speaking), all children or young learners, who have not gained the life experiences that our future adult will have. We will most likely take the information we are given at face value and trust that what we are learning will be useful. As adults, most of us will have memories of school. These memories may have been happy, or they may have been less so – what they will all have in common is a largely ‘en masse’, didactic and teacher-led, ‘one size’ fits all approach.

With school days behind them,  adult learners, now likely to be parents and in employment, are expecting learning to be task-based and relevant to their job roles. Gone are the days of learning about Pythagoras Theorem and memorising equations – to buy into learning, adults need to know ‘What’s in it for me?’. Adults are independent and self-directing learners. With that comes the responsibilities and pressures of being independent and self-directing. Time is of the essence.

Malcolm Knowles, Assumptions and Principles of Andragogy, state that adults are intrinsically motivated and goal-oriented. They seek a collaborative and problem-based approach in place of one that is imposed. Given that adults may already have a significant amount of knowledge, this would involve teachers and learners working together to share and align experiences – perhaps even shaping the design of a particular course or contributing to the overall approach.

How can you incorporate andragogical principles into your learning? Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping can help.

  1. Take a goal – what do learners need to do (not know)?
  2. Why are learners not already doing this? What are the obstacles to an action?
  3. Will training solve the problem?
  4. What activities will help learners to do what they are currently not doing?
  5. What do they NEED to know?

In practice: Aurion Learning and Food Safety Authority of Ireland, MenuCal


We worked together with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to produce a simulation that would mimic real-life tasks for learners – that is – how to use MenuCal to calculate the calories in foods on menus, and how to effectively display them to customers. An example of a task was to identify the six points of choice where calories needed to be displayed in the MenuCal Café.


This also provided the learner with a safe environment to practice tasks before applying them in ‘real-life’. Often adults can have a fear of learning due to previous experience, or fear of failure, so it’s important to produce learning that encourages successfully acquiring new skills rather than putting people under pressure to perform.

Blended approaches

From carrying out action mapping, you might find that learner activities are not suited to one approach. On a project we are working on with Scottish Housing Options to help tackle homelessness in Scotland, we are developing several activities to meet learning outcomes. The traditional e-Learning course or ‘e-lesson’ is one of those activities, embedding real-life scenarios and case studies within the content. But we are also incorporating short videos, reflection activities, assignments, discussion forums, practice guides, job aids and classroom support materials – all aimed at supporting housing practitioners to deliver great customer service to those presenting as homeless.

The blurred line between adult and child learning

Blended approaches are also effective within pedagogy. Adult or child, there are different ways of presenting learning content, much as individuals have different learning styles (see VARK). 

But the key commonality between adults and children is emotion. To engage with any piece of content is to connect, to feel – something that continues to be one of the major challenges within eLearning, or indeed any type of learning experience. Think about the last thing that you watched, read or listened to that you connected with. How did it make you feel? Why was it so memorable? Anything that can create a cognitive impact on a person will most certainly make them pay attention, regardless of the emotion. Take a look at the Dumb Ways to Die video from Metro Trains, used to promote railway safety. How do you feel after watching that video?

Adults also like to reminisce and take a trip down memory lane to when they were children, so whilst using gamification tactics or game themes (such as a board game), in learning may seem a silly idea within a corporate environment, as long as it is relevant, it may help to connect learners with the learning content – and that is half the battle. 


Another aspect of emotional connection is positive reinforcement. Skinner’s behaviourist theory, states that behaviour that is reinforced is likely to be repeated. In eLearning, at its most basic, this comes into play in question feedback. Acknowledging that a learner has done a good job and explaining to them why can nudge them into continuing in this way. Better still, adding gamification techniques such as including the learner’s name in the feedback, collecting some form of token or badge or even bonus points for going the extra mile, can increase a learner’s motivation to achieve the required outcome. A different level of motivation has been introduced – that of competition and differentiated achievement.

Are we just a child at heart?

Whilst there are psychological techniques that should be at the heart of any learning, regardless of the target audience, there is a clear distinction between how to tailor a learning approach to an adult and to a child. Didactic, knowledge-based learning will not provide the ‘connect’ that adults need. It won’t help them to independently achieve their goal – that is, being able to effectively complete certain tasks as part of their job role.

Have you heard about micro-learning and the part it can play within your learning strategy? Check out our blog on why microlearning is more than a buzzword. 

Would you like to know how to create content for your audience with your audience? Check out our webinar

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