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Children Vs. Adult Learning

author image Elise Wile
Elise Wile has been a writer since 2003. Holding a master's degree in curriculum and Instruction, she has written training materials for three school districts. Her expertise includes mentoring, serving at-risk students and corporate training.
Children Vs. Adult Learning
Adults in a classroom sitting on desks and one is being given personal attention by the teacher. Photo Credit monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images

If you teach adults, you’ll find that it can be a very different experience from teaching children. The same approach cannot be used, although you’ll find that some of the techniques overlap. You can expect adults to bring vast amounts of prior knowledge to the classroom, and children to bring their limitless enthusiasm and curiosity.


The number of adult learners has increased in recent years, but remains much lower than the number of children enrolled in school. More than 19 million students attend two- and four-year colleges as of 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This does not include the students that are enrolled in vocational training schools, GED classes and continuing education courses. In comparison, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that as of fall 2010 there are almost 50 million children enrolled in public schools. Additional children attend private schools and are homeschooled.


Instruction for adults must address the goals that students are working to meet. Students that are learning computer applications, for example, will learn best if they are given opportunities to practice the application in the context of their work environment. As an instructor, you’ll need to let adult learners know how each learning objective helps them to meet their goal. Adults often prefer to be self-directed. You can act as a facilitator of the class, providing adults with ways to choose how to demonstrate their new knowledge. Children often look to the teacher for direction in a classroom setting. While it is desirable to teach children how to be self-directed learners, they rarely enter a classroom as such.

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Learning Environment

A learning environment for adults must be respectful of the time. Adults often attend classes after working a full day or week, and expect class to begin and end on time. Adults also appreciate a comfortable learning environment that provides opportunities to get up, get a drink or take a break. Adult learners have a wide range of life experience. Encourage adults to share these experiences in the classroom, and discuss how they are applicable to the subject being studied. Learning environments for children should be interesting and stimulating. They must also have a much higher degree of structure than learning environments for adults. Children need to be explicitly taught to come to class on time, interact with peer appropriately and other classroom skills.


Adults and children have a different motivation for learning. Adults approach learning with a goal in mind. Adults often sign up for classes for the purpose of career advancement. Obtaining a degree, learning another language or learning computer skills are all a means to an end. Even recreational classes such as sewing, martial arts or art are often taken to meet a personal goal. Learning is usually not mandatory for adults, which means that they will drop classes that they perceive as not helping them to meet their goals. Children, especially when they are young, are motivated to find out about the world. They are interested in a wide variety of subjects simply because the instruction increases their knowledge and satisfies their curiosity. Even if older children are not intrinsically motivated, school is mandatory and learning may be motivated by a desire to move to the next level or graduate.


Both children and adults need to feel that learning is relevant to their lives, especially as children get older and enter middle school and high school. Like adults, children enjoy having the opportunity to discuss how a lesson is relevant to their lives—teachers that are able to help both adults and children see these connections are likely to experience a great deal of success. Children and adults will both benefit from instructional strategies that utilize cooperative learning and invoke some degree of prior knowledge, although adults will have much more knowledge to draw upon than children. Adults and children will both learn best when engaged in active learning and in groups small enough for students to receive individualized instruction.

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