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Why Adults Are Better Learners Than Children

It’s common to hear someone blame their age for their struggles and difficulties in learning. Unfortunately, it is a wide-spread belief that children are better in it than adults. That keeps many people from even engaging in learning, as they see it as futile.

The truth is that science has dispelled that belief as a myth. Adults are as good, if not better, in learning and absorbing new information. The reason that it feels like children are better at it, is that they tend to constantly be in learning mode, as their experiences of the world are much more limited. Adults, on the other hand, learn only when they do so deliberately. You could say that children are full-time learners, while for most adults their main occupation is something different.

The reason that adults learn better is the number of experiences, mental models and pre-existing knowledge they have to draw upon. Connecting new information with the knowledge you already have ensures better and faster comprehension, as well as long-term retention. Moreover, the ability and freedom adults have to direct their own learning allows for great control over motivation and results. It is this control that allows adults to utilize techniques in learning that make them more efficient and effective at it.

Although we’ve established that adults are at least as good as children in learning, it is obvious that there are huge differences in how learning works for each group. Let’s dive into their differences and how to utilize those in each group to learn most effectively.

Differences in children vs adult learning

Adult-directed vs self-directed learning

Children’s learning is almost always an adult-dependent process. Children need a guide and supervisor to navigate them through the curriculum while imposing discipline and making the learning process fun.

Adults, on the other hand, are very self-directed in their learning. It’s usually best for them to have more control in their learning process (or even total control if we’re talking about self-education), as well as less structure and oversight.

Previous experiences

One of the most important concepts in learning is that humans learn by connecting new knowledge with pre-existing one. That is true for both children and adults, but it’s apparent that adults have a much broader and richer set of experiences to draw upon. Therefore, in learning as adults we must make a conscious effort to connect new information to our own experiences and mental models.

At the other end of the spectrum, children often might not have such experiences, and thus the new knowledge should be presented in simple, clear steps, in a fun way, to allow the knowledge to stick.

Adults challenge new information

Children, especially young ones, tend to implicitly accept new information, simply because a parent or a teacher tells them they should. Adults, though, are skeptical towards most new inputs and tend to consistently challenge them. They compare new information against their pre-existing knowledge, their experiences, and their biases.

As stated in the section above, that is hugely important to cement the new information on adult minds. Care should be applied, though, to not fall into biases and preoccupations, which might hinder the learning process.

As far as children are concerned, a good educator is necessary (either a teacher or a parent), as their influence over a child’s learning is quite large.

Adults learn things relevant to their situation

Children generally perceive themselves as learners and mostly engage in education without a clear sense of direction. Adults, on the other hand, usually engage in learning in relevance to their work or daily life, in order to immediately enhance their position in their current situation. That is also a prerequisite for motivation; the most relevant learning is to their life, the more motivated to learn adults will be.

Subject-centered vs problem-centered learning

Similar to what I wrote above, children learn for their own development, and, more often than not, their education revolves around specific subjects, e.g. math. They tend to learn with the future in mind, the concept that at some point they’re going to use this new knowledge.

This works completely in the opposite way for adults. In extension to relevance (see the previous section), adults need to take new knowledge and immediately apply it. This way they can both ensure its retention and transform it into a real-life usable skill. If that is not possible, then the next best thing is to use it as the foundation to connect any relevant new information that comes in the near future.

For adults, motivation and responsibility are internal

Children are most often externally motivated, be it for the praise from teachers and parents or the promise of good grades. But adults are most often internally motivated, as they learn to either improve their situation or to increase self-esteem and personal sense of achievement. For that reason, adults need to know why they want to learn what they’re learning. If you don’t have a compelling answer to that question, then you probably should reevaluate your choice to learn that subject.

Fear of failure

Not surprisingly, adults are afraid of failure, and that is often brought into their learning. Children don’t have the same social filters and are more willing to experiment. This is why in a language class children will be much more willing to communicate, despite their mistakes, than adults. Due to that, adults approach trying with a sense of apprehension and they need more positive encouragement if they don’t feel comfortable enough. In case of self-education, this encouragement should be provided by a friend/colleague or the adult themselves.

Also, to avoid the risk of losing motivation and focus, adults should deconstruct the subject to smaller pieces and support with extra learning, to increase proficiency on the subject and reduce mistakes.

The overlap

Despite the many differences, some things are the same for both groups. To begin with, new information should be connected to pre-existing knowledge whenever possible, although adults will have much more to draw upon. Also, especially as children get older, it is very useful to both groups to feel that what they are learning is relevant to their lives. Finally, using active, experiential learning methods instead of passive ones is the most effective way to learn regardless of one’s age.

What should I do as a parent/teacher?

Although the exact number varies depending on the individual, the shift between learning as a child to learning like an adult happens around the 14 years of age. Unfortunately, in today’s education systems children are treated the same from primary school all the way to university. What you as a parent or teacher can do is to teach your child/student the basic concepts on how learning works and assist them in making the transition in how they learn.

In case your children or students are already past that age, now is the best time to act. Direct them to the resources that will teach them how to learn. Don’t forget, though, that adults are self-directed and internally motivated learners, so you shouldn’t push them. Instead, just let them know why this knowledge is important and how it is relevant and applicable to their lives.

Conclusion

The differences in how children and adults learn can be a very useful guide on understanding how to shift your attitude and mindset about learning. Utilize the concepts and advice in this article to shift your habits on learning to the ones that are best for your status and age.

Call to Action

By understanding how you can learn best, regardless of your age, you will see a great improvement in your learning process. I’d love to hear from you about your achievements and/or struggles. Post on the Facebook group, or contact me directly!

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