Meeting the Needs of Adult Learners

Meeting the Needs of Adult Learners: One Size Does Not Fit All

In my previous post, I discussed three different ways to develop an adult education program in a parish. They were Learning the Tradition, Deepening Knowledge of the Tradition, and Applying the Tradition. Essentially each of these creates levels of engagement with the adult learner, from basics to something more advanced.

Now, we should think about the nature of adulthood itself. If you ever took a human development course, you may recall that as we develop across our lifespan we go through different states of development. In a nutshell, there are physical stages, cognitive and emotional stages, and social stages. Theorists over the last century have studied them and named them. These understandings have had a huge influence on education as well as other areas of life.

Adulthood is also a stage of development, with biological, cognitive and emotional, and social stages. The religious questions of adults also develop over time. Adult development should be considered when creating an adult education program. When our adult education work meets the needs of the people, the more successful we are likely to be.

All adults are not in the same place developmentally. In short, in adult education, “one size does not fit all.”

My grandmother had a saying, “Where you are, I was. Where I am, you are headed.” Think about it. If you are sixty years old and reading this today, how are you different physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, and religiously from when you were thirty-five years old. Looking at people older than yourself, how are they different from where you are now?

Each stage of adult life has different questions and concerns that could become the basis for adult education work in the parish. Parenting, vocation and career, marriage, making sense of life’s journey as we age, prayer, just to name a few.

We also have to keep in mind that adulthood brings with it many physical and cognitive changes as well, ranging from hearing and vision to comfort in a chair, recall and memory issues, and others. In general, all these areas decline as we age. We still learn and are very capable of learning, but it can take us a bit longer, the environment has to be “right” for the learning to occur.

What can we do?

Target the program to a specific group. In a marriage program, for example, while couples certainly learn from the experiences of couples across the span of a marriage, you might want to target some programs for newly married, or couples that have been married for a few decades. Younger adults are typically more concerned about discerning their future place in the world. Older adults are typically more concerned about reflecting on their lives and making sense of their life’s journey.

Consider the environment. Especially for older learners, the space should be bright enough, the acoustics should be appropriate, the chairs easy to get in and out of. Don’t expect a group of senior citizens to look forward to sitting on the floor!

Taking all of this into account, parishes can develop programs that meet the religious, social, cognitive and emotional, physical, questions and needs of adults. Combining these ideas with the “levels” of education mentioned in the earlier post, creates many rich possibilities.


To be continued.


Rev. Dr. Tony Vrame
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