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Prior Learning in Adults – A Double-edged Sword?

08 Apr

A double-edged sword has to be wielded with care. My experience with adult learners has taught me that the heaviest and the deadliest double-edged sword that most adult learners own is their prior learning.

The Principle of Experience in Knowles’ Andragogy suggests “he/she accumulates a growing reservoir of experiences that becomes a resource for learning”. There’s nothing wrong with this principle. In fact, from the Cognitivist’s angle, this “reservoir of experiences” helps us design effective learning content. But how the adult learner chooses to use his or her prior learning, would in fact, determine whether it would facilitate or impede the acquisition of new learning.

Here’s what happened when Sloth and Froth attended a short orientation program on Organizational Behavior. The program focused on understanding the factors that motivated people.

Sloth, as you know, had spent most of his life closeted in his office-cum-bedroom, with his mom doing his bidding all the time. While thus closeted, he spent his time reading all sorts of books, and this led him to become a “reservoir of theoretical knowledge.” Obviously when the training came up, he found it rather difficult to haul himself to his car and then drive to the training venue. He reached a little late and took his seat after mumbling an indistinct apology to the trainer. The day had begun for him.

Froth, on the other hand, lived alone and preferred to spend her spare time with her friends. She liked to learn what she could apply – nothing more, nothing less. Froth cooked her own food and she maintained a tidy apartment. She had been looking forward to this training program, the entire week, and so on the morning of the training day, she was prepared. She reached the training venue a little before time, and even had an opportunity to talk to some of the other participants.

The trainer began with a quick icebreaker, which didn’t really go down well with Sloth. “Let’s not waste time,” he said into the ear of participant who sat on his right, who gave a non-committal smile.

Before the trainer could begin, Sloth had a question. He wanted to know whether the MBTI would be covered in the training. Right after the trainer had begun, something made Sloth remember something about the theory of X and Y, and so he asked, and when the trainer said that it wasn’t part of the program, Sloth offered to tell others about it. His offer was turned down politely, but the refusal continued to rankle in Sloth’s mind. He made a note of it in his mind, and waited patiently for the discussion to begin. There would be a discussion, all training programs had them – it had something to do with the adult learning theory, thought Sloth.

The response that Sloth’s query invoked in others could be called mixed. The fresh incumbents were in awe of him and felt inadequate. Those who knew Sloth knew what was to come when the discussions began.

In the discussions, Sloth tried to become the center of attention, but he quickly lost track. Though he had much to share, his contribution wasn’t relevant. Instead, it steered the participants away from the core discussion. Froth however was more interested in reviewing how what she had learned mapped or didn’t map to her prior experiences. These feelings she shared with her group-mates, who then began sharing their experiences as well. The facilitator tried to help Sloth, but his prior learning had already hardened into an attitude and it was almost impossible for him to leave his mold so soon.

You know the end of the story…don’t you?
Froth went home richer and happier. Sloth went back grumpier and dissatisfied. Froth didn’t have prior knowledge of Organizational Behavior theories – she had prior experiences though. She shared them. Sloth didn’t have prior experiences, he had prior knowledge, and the knowledge interfered with his ability to learn more. They both exhibited the same adult learning behavior – they wanted to share what they knew!

Let us review the success of the training program.

The training program was created for people who needed an orientation; it was designed for the newly minted managers. Most of the newly minted managers had profiles that matched the audience profile for the training. It was assumed (and not incorrectly) that the executives who were recently promoted to being managers would not have spent many years of their lives going through the motivational theories. For this reason, the program was successful for 14 out of 15 participants. It worked for everyone, except you-know-who. The trainer went home happy – the learners went home happy…everyone was happy except the person who knew it all – but who couldn’t use any of it!


If not wielded carefully, Prior Learning could be a dangerous weapon!

If you are a learner with tons of knowledge, do the right thing. Read the next post on this blog to discover how you could rein in your knowledge and direct it usefully.

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