The Four Principles of Adult Learning

Years ago I was invited by my district office to leave my classroom of 26 years to become an instructional coach serving 300 K-5 teachers as they transitioned to Common Core. Up to that point I was happily and successfully teaching math to middle school students. I also coached the golf team and was one of two teachers leading Rock and Roll Club – 20 or 25 kids playing the loudest (and worst) music you could ever imagine..

Ostensibly, I was offered the coaching position because I knew how to teach (whether it was mathematics, golf, or rock and roll) in a student-centered way. I took the job, but quickly realized that teaching students did not prepare me in any way how to coach adults.

My initial foray into coaching could be summed up as nothing more than me trying to get the teachers to teach like me. I had no clue how to coach adults.

What I’ve learned about being coaching adults

In my nearly ten years of being an instructional coach, I have learned that there is a big difference between teaching children and teaching adults. Children and adults have different needs, different motivations, and different desired outcomes when it comes to education, so the way we teach adults must necessarily be different from how we used to teach children.

Rather than doing a compare and contrast between pedagogy (teaching children) and andragogy (teaching adults), I’ll summarize the four principles I follow as an instructional coach for teaching adults whether during in-class coaching or in a workshop/PD setting.

It is your right – as an adult – to experience these four principles whenever you are being trained by a member of the MCOE Math Team. If you are getting trained by someone other than our Math Team, then you should demand the trainer honor these four principles as well.



Principle 1: Voice and Choice

Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They like to direct their own learning, to be actively involved in learning and work around their specific interests and personal goals. Generally, they like to be involved in creating – or at least informing – whatever agenda you will be following during the training.

So what does that look like for me? I almost always begin my coaching and professional development workshops by asking teachers to reflect on what has been going on in their classrooms. Then I ask them two questions:

  1. What is going well in your classroom that you would like to feel validated about during today’s training?
  2. What is a pebble in your shoe? Something that might feel small today, but if you don’t get it fixed TODAY, it will become very, very bothersome?

I call this the “pebble in my shoe” conversation. Others call it “Roses and Thorns” or “Peaks and Valleys”. Whatever it is called, teachers have come to learn that the answers to these two questions truly inform our agenda for the day. Of course, I likely have my own personal agenda of things I’d like to accomplish for the day. Generally, I can weave my agenda items into the answers of the two questions I just asked. In this way, I am able to deliver the content I need to deliver, but in a way that the adults also feel that they have a significant voice in our day’s agenda.

Worst case scenario…we spend our time meeting the immediate needs of the adults and my agenda is pushed off until next time. I am okay with that!

Principle 2: Existing experience is valued

Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences. This may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education. I approach my coaching and workshops knowing that the adults are not empty vessels waiting for me to impart gallons of my wisdom.

So how do I use this experience?

First, I make sure we have table conversations that bring to the surface the vast amounts of experience the adults already have. In many cases, I leverage the expertise of someone in the room by asking them to share their experience with our topic of the day. Then I use that person’s shared experience as a throughline for the ret of the workshop.

The more the adults share their prior experiences, the better I can leverage those experiences to move them in the direction of improving their current practice.

Principle 3: Immediately relevant

Adults need to see a reason for learning something. When they see the applicability they also see the value in the experience. They need to see that whatever mathematics or instructional strategy we are discussing can IMMEDIATELY be used with their own students in their own classroom. In the past, I’ve seen many a teacher cross their arms, slowly shake their head, and say, “This will never work with my students.” I see this not as a defiant teacher, but an adult who needs to see the relevance of what we are discussing.

So what do I do here?

Since teachers have had voice and choice in crafting our agenda, we have already gone a long way towards making things immediately relevant. Sometimes more is needed for the teachers to see the relevance. In which case, we can pause the “training” and go directly into someone’s classroom for me to demonstrate with actual students. Nothing says to a teacher “this is relevant to me” more than going into their classroom, with their students, and demonstrating that the particular teacher move works with THEIR students.

To make immediately relevant whatever the adults are learning, I make sure to budget my time to allow the adults to deliberately practice the new skill. If I am teaching them a new fluency routine, I make sure the adults have time AWAY FROM THE CLASSROOM to practice that new skill with one another.

Principle 4:  Learn through talking and other forms of active engagement

Adults learn best when they are actively engaged in the learning experience rather than passively listening to someone else. In this case, it is a lot like how children learn. Active engagement. The difference, however, is that adults also continue learning when they talk with one another afterwards, debriefing the new learning and filtering it through the lenses of their prior experience.

So how do I keep it active?

As previously mentioned, I make sure the adults have an opportunity to deliberately practice the new skill away from the classroom, in the privacy of their colleagues. During this deliberate practice, teachers suddenly realize they have additional questions they didn’t even know they had when they were just watching me. This is a great time for teachers to be actively engaged in their learning.

I also make sure the adults have plenty of time to talk about the new thing they are learning. It is during this informal discussion that a lot of learning is taking place. My mental model is ripples of water emanating from a rock that has been dropped into the water. I might drop a nugget of learning into the water, but then I have to get out of the way and allow the ripples of conversation emanate through the room as the adults debrief and learn…from each other.

Wrapping things up

When we apply these four principles of adult learning in our workshops and coaching, great things happen for the adult learners. Feel free to implement these four principles in your own work with adults. I also hope the presenters you watch at the start of next year will employ these principles…for your benefit!