I 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.
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.’”
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.
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.