Re-conceptualizing Adult Learning for a Changing World

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

The most boring version of adult learning. Credit: Wikipedia

The most boring version of adult learning. Credit: Wikipedia

By Brittany Watts, C+S ’15

One of the most memorable characters from the cartoon series Charlie Brown is the faceless and prosaic teacher. Even though this character had no physical manifestation — no form, no dialogue — the caricature is memorable because of the frustration and giddiness it caused you to feel. No matter how eventful Charlie Brown’s day may have been, when he arrived at school, the teacher would motor on “wah-wah-wah-wah-wah,” inspiring the students to mutter to each other, “Are you getting anything of this?” Well, in a lot of adult learning situations, don’t you feel the same way?

This past spring, sitting in a conference room with teacher leaders in Atlanta, a hush fell over the room when the topic of andragogy versus pedagogy was introduced because after being with kids for almost 100 hours per week, teachers really struggle to relate to other full-grown people. According to the facilitator of the discussion, a “child learner” is dependent upon the instructor for all learning, but an “adult learner” is self-directed. A child learner comes to the activity with little experience that can be tapped as a resource for learning, and an adult learner is a rich resource for others in the room. A child learner has to be told where they’re lacking knowledge and is motivated by competition for grades, while an adult learner has the ability to assess their own gaps in knowledge and is motived by performing a task, solving a problem, or learning to live in a more satisfying way.

I’m sure the distinction between andragogy and pedagogy is backed by tedious research yet, doesn’t everyone want to live in a more satisfying way? Further, in the context of climate change and addressing the necessary shift from our carbon-intense world and a more sustainable pathway, I’m wondering if some of these distinctions should be switched.

The nature of the intellectual exchange that is required for people to really understand climate change and act on it requires much more than a lecture format and 10 minutes of question and answer. When covering climate science topics, the adult learner actually more often depends on the presenter to enlighten them, comes to the situation with either no background knowledge or misguided concepts and might not be able to assess their own knowledge gaps.

For example, last week I attended a flood insurance informational meeting in the Far Rockaways hosted by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the New York Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which is where I have the privilege of being an intern. During the meeting, four different presenters gave presentations related to the evolving likelihood of intensified storms based on climate change projections, the debate around the accuracy FEMA’s 100-year flood maps, the process for obtaining reparations for Sandy repairs and adaptation strategies which can make homes in this area less vulnerable to climate risks.

Now, I’m still growing my climate communications expertise. Yet, it is clear that this must have been a lot of fresh information for many people in that small, hot room.

After the mammoth amount of information, audience members raised their hands furiously during the question and answer portion asking for repetition of previously stated information, clarification and tailoring of information to their specific circumstances.

I couldn’t help but think, “I bet these people walked in the door with these questions which are just now being answered an hour later.”

I wonder if there’s a better way to handle this.

Well, there is! One of the most nascent, innovative and PowerPoint destroying formats of distributing information to adults is through game play. As stated in Boston University’s Games for a New Climate: Experiencing the Complexity of Future Risks:

“Managing climate risks requires new kinds of decisions in familiar contexts under unfamiliar circumstances… games can generate emotional experience while also inspiring individual discipline and collective cohesion…well-designed games can prepare people for critical decisions that need to be made right to avoid creating (or worsening) deleterious future consequences.”

I’ve never heard such detailed praise of PowerPoints and pamphlets.

Dan Osgood, a research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society who often uses games to introduce rural farmers in various countries to index insurance, echoes this sentiment.

“Farmers are very good at thinking through the math and science that is central to the projects when they play it as a game,” he said. “Using computers tends to dull the mind. Pencil and paper gets people awake and thinking. With a game, they’re awake and active.”

With this in mind, let’s really think critically about how the most complex issue of the modern time is presented to adult audiences. How can we use presentations to really get people involved, give them meaningful practice making climate relevant decisions and empower them to have a better understanding of the processes that drive climate change? How can we engage them in a way that brings out the best in the principles of pedagogy and andragogy? How can we re-conceptualize adult learning in a way that is rigorous enough to compete with our changing world?


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