What is adult learning in the RCIA? Six concepts

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAI like to think of myself as a lifelong learner. Right now, I have ten books on my “to read” shelf. I also like learning new skills, exploring new places, and trying new recipes. But sometimes learning is drudgery. I struggled to learn just enough French to complete my master’s degree. I had to learn enough about cars to be able to understand what my mechanic was talking about. I have had to learn more HTML code than I believe any human should have to know just to keep the TeamRCIA website functional.

Some learning I have a passion for and some I don’t. It depends. When we are teaching adults in the RCIA, some have a passion for learning the skills of Christian living and some don’t. Why is that?

Adult educator Malcolm Knowles developed a theory of learning called andragogy, which is different from pedagogy. To understand why and how adults learn, we have to first understand the following key concepts. As we go through these points, think of something you loved learning recently, and something you hated learning. See if these points apply in your own life.


1.  Adults need to know why it is important that they learn something. It has to be clear that the new learning is either going to produce a benefit or enable the learning to avoid a negative consequence.

Don’t impose

2. Adults want to make their own decisions. If someone tells you that you have to learn something,  for a degree or a job certification, for example, you are likely to feel put upon. Knowles says that when we impose our will on others, “they hark back to their conditioning in their previous school experience, put on their dunce hats of dependency, fold their arms, sit back, and say, ‘Teach me.’”

Click for your FREE “Bibliography for Teaching Adults”


3. Adults come to any learning situation with a vast wealth of previous experience. That means the richest resource for learning is inside the adult learners themselves.


4. Adults come ready to learn—but only those things they believe they need to know. One of the books on my shelf is Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard by Laura Bates. Bates has taught Shakespeare to the most violent offenders throughout the state of Indiana. One of her students, Larry, had been locked down in a solitary confinement supermax facility for a record ten and a half years. He was contemplating suicide when Bates arrived in his life, offering to teach him Shakespeare. He told her that Shakespeare saved his life. Bates had to fight hard to be able to teach Shakespeare in prison, and fight even harder to teach supermax inmates. No one believed prisoners were interested in learning anything except crime techniques. But the prisoners were ready to learn Shakespeare.


5. Adults don’t want to learn “subjects,” they want to learn about life. Adults are motivated to learn things that will help them in their real lives. If they can’t apply it to real-life situations, they aren’t interested.

Inside counts

6. Adults are most motivated by internal pressures. In the RCIA, we sometimes use external pressures—the promise of initiation or the promise of someone becoming Catholic in time for the wedding. Those pressures will work until the learners have achieved their goal, and then the motivation dissipates.

Adult learning is much different than childhood learning. In some RCIA processes, we are relying on models from our grade school and high school experiences. To move adults to true conversion, we have to better understand and apply these insights about how adult learning actually happens.

What is your experience?

Which one of these key concepts do you most identify with? List your favorite below.

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “Little-known ways to turn your RCIA into an adult process—even for children “ Click here for more information.

See also these related articles:

  1. What commitment is your RCIA prioritizing?
  2. Why children in the RCIA need a community, not a classroom
  3. Have we actually tried the RCIA?
  4. Six Keys to Catechesis for Baptized Candidates
  5. Two keys to RCIA conversion that challenge our existing norms

“TEDxPioneerValley2012” by Samuel Masinter | Flickr

Share Button


  1. The pedagogy/androgogy debate has been going on for some time. I prefer to see the both/and rather than the either/or side of this debate. The term for this is humanagogy because it contains aspects of pedagogy and androgogy combined. Both approaches have something to offer. We have all experienced adults who have come to us as children and children who act like adults mature beyond their years. Being familiar with both approaches allows us more flexibility to meet the needs of our candidates.

  2. Nick, thanks for another great post. My experience is that the “Why” will come from asking and reflecting on the 5 key questions to ask inquirers (see one of Nick’s earlier posts). This has enabled our RCIA community to build an inquirer specific plan, recognising prior evangelisation learnings, and showing respect to their current situation.

    I have found working with catechumens significantly easier, where I have them eager to discover how God acts in their life, sharing their spiritual life experiences, and keen to learn more since I increased the role and focus of, and, the way we do Sunday dismissals. For a refresher, go to the October 2013 Webinar “What every RCIA Team needs to know about dismissals”. Since changing the dismissal function by increasing the feasting on the Word during dismissal discussion using the “See, Hear, So-What” principle and mostly avoiding catechesis, catechumens experience an exciting way to discover, learn and change which then flows into the separate catechetical sessions. Using a good dismissal discussion shows respect the life experiences of our catechumens.

    Clearly separating each function empowers the catechumens to apply and respond to changes in their attitudes and behaviours as they journey through the catechumenate period and to openly talk about it in group sessions.

    I have found that this means I do not have to impose on them and that they remain eager to learn and discover more.

    Finally, I am more convinced than ever that the more we tailor a specific journey for each person, whether they be an unbaptised inquirer journeying through the catechumenate or a baptised candidate journeying to full communion of the Church, the more we show respect to them and their already successful faith journey, the greater their adult learning experience will be with the parish RCIA community.

    • Hi Max. I think you really nailed about the dismissal session. Too often, that just becomes another classroom moment and the focus on worship is lost. And I really like your conclusion that we have to tailor the specific journey for each person and respect their faith journey. Thanks for sharing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.