Three unexplored questions about adult learning
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The Future of Work team recently published a guide filled with practical advice on how to design better adult learning experiences: Make it FutureFit. To help us shape our ideas, we caught up with Tessa Forshaw.

Tessa approaches the future of work as a designer, a technologist, a learning scientist, a researcher, a workforce strategist and an educator. She is on the teaching faculty at Harvard University and has worked as a lecturer at Stanford University and IDEO U.

We asked Tessa what she identified as the most pressing and unexplored questions regarding adult learning. These are the three key issues she raised:

1. Can we professionalise the field of adult learning?

There’s a wealth of neuroscience research, for example, that we could be using to inform our practice. Every day we are learning more about how the brain works at a biological level and the implications this has for learning. This is knowledge that educators rarely engage with, but could be incredibly useful.

Translating and disseminating this knowledge in a formalised way and building up a body of knowledge to inform our practice is crucial. You can envision people entering the field of adult learning and becoming well-versed in this foundational knowledge.

This happens all the time in other professions, such as medicine, law and engineering. Jai Mehta, a professor of Education at Harvard argues that these professions create consistency of quality by building a body of knowledge, and carefully training people in that knowledge. They are then required to show expertise before they become licensed and use their professions’ standards to guide their work.

Mehta's work is focused on professionalising primary and secondary education in the US, but we should be looking at how these principles can be transferred to the discipline of adult learning.

2. Can we use prior experience to personalise learning more effectively?

Science suggests that we should always build on people’s prior experience for better learning to take place. The process of recalling past experiences, knowledge and skills in a conscious way helps strengthen neural pathways.

It’s all too common for learners (whether children or adults) to do this in a ‘rote learning’ context. Recall and reflection on previous knowledge is done superficially and might not prime us to learn new things.

How can we do this in practice? Exploration before explanation. Give learners the opportunity to explore a new knowledge space before explaining anything. By doing this, they are able to engage in processes of sense and meaning-making. This means that individuals can find order, patterns and symbols to connect new learning to their past experiences.

This approach can help codify and make use of what learners already know in a personalised way. The question is whether we can incorporate this principle more rigorously in adult learning, particularly online or through educational technology.

Many online courses and edtech providers claim to personalise learning through tools like AI, but it’s rare for these approaches to be based on strong evidence. Critically assessing the role of AI in personalising learning and rigorously conceptualising how people learn online are crucial areas of research that are still in their infancy.

In the meantime we need to remember that technology affords us the chance to do many things, but it’s essential to get the pedagogy right first.

3. Can the principles of design thinking be used for the development of cognitive skills in adults?

Design thinking relies on a range of mindsets, skills and processes - could this be harnessed to help adults thrive in the world of work?

Shelley Goldman has explored how design thinking can be taken into primary and secondary school as a cognitive strategy, but it’s relatively unexplored in the field of adult learning.

Bringing design thinking principles and methods into the structure of adult learning experiences might help promote a growth mindset, creativity, grit and resilience: all essential in order to thrive in a rapidly changing world of work.

Find out more about the future of adult learning

These are but a few of the unexplored questions concerning the future of adult learning. However, our new guide offers valuable examples from leading learning providers on how to prepare adults for the immediate needs of a constantly evolving world of work.

If you want to learn more, review Tessa’s suggested reading list on adult learning.

Follow us on Twitter @D_Frontrunners to receive updates or to ask us your questions about the future of adult learning.