A New Look at Adult Learning

October 21, 2013

“The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

Reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic aren’t enough anymore. It’s certainly important to be able to read and write – that’s long been a foundation requirement for participation in society. However, the basic ability to read and write isn’t even table stakes for  success in our economy and society any more.

As Alvin Toffler has made clear, what really matters today for anyone who wants to succeed is agility – the ability to change, adapt, learn, unlearn, and relearn.

We talk all the time about how dynamic the world is in the 21st century, and almost every day we come across new technologies, new products, and new “rules” for getting ahead. But I have not seen or heard any serious discussion at all about what we as adults have to do to take full advantage of all those new technologies and new concepts for succeeding (not to ignore the need to completely rethink how we prepare our children for the same thing; that equally important issue will have to wait for another time).

It is certainly exciting and energizing to be alive in 2013, but all too often it can also be discouraging and overwhelming. Technology is changing the world we live in at an accelerating pace, but as human beings we evolve and adapt far more slowly.

Do you feel outnumbered by the sheer volume of new ideas and new products coming at you every day? I know I do!

When I reflect on how my own life and work practices have changed over the last ten years, I certainly wonder how we will be working, communicating, and living five or ten years from now.

But at the moment I am less concerned with predicting the future, and much more focused on how we as human beings can possibly keep pace with all the changes that hit us every day.

What new skills, new knowledge, and new ways of making sense out of our experiences do we need to master? How can we possibly learn fast enough?

These questions have driven me back to basic principles of adult learning. What mindsets, and what habits, do we need to be good at learning, unlearning, and relearning?

A quick search on “The Google” led me to a number of websites and other resources that offer lots of good advice. Here’s one set of basic principles (edited somewhat from the source material) that I found particularly useful:

  • Adults only learn when they want to.
  • Adults only learn when they feel they need to.
  • Adults learn by doing.
  • Adults only learn by solving problems they can associate with their reality.
  • Adults’ past experiences interfere with learning new ideas and skills.
  • Adults learn better in an informal environment.
  • Adults need feedback.
  • Adults require a variety of teaching methods.

[Source: “Eight Principles of Adult Education” by Maxwell Calloway, May 2009]

Think about the last professional development program or conference you attended. Which of those eight principles were being followed? Which ones were being ignored?

I’ve become convinced that it takes an unforgettable learning experience to produce meaningful and lasting change. Yet, with all due respect to professional meeting organizers, I find it hard to recall the last time I came home from a conference or a workshop feeling truly energized or transformed.

Let’s be honest with each other: far too many of the events most of us participate in regularly are far too forgettable. Many speakers/instructors actually acknowledge that reality by asking their audience “What are you going to do differently on Monday morning?” as if that challenge would increase our ability to learn and change our behaviors. While we may come away from a conference with the best of intentions, how often do we translate intentions into meaningful change?

What if we set the bar a whole lot higher? What if we all demanded that the conferences and professional development programs we attend (at great expense in time and money) generate unforgettable learning – learning that actually elevates our individual and collective capabilities?

Is that too much to ask?

Perhaps even more  importantly, how can you as an individual take charge of your own personal learning, unlearning, and relearning? That may be the most fundamental question of all. And it’s one I promise to focus on in upcoming newsletters.

More to come. . .


As usual, your comments and reactions to any of these articles are more than welcome. Please send your thoughts to us at any time, or post them here.

Do you want to create an unforgettable learning experience for your organization? Let me show you how to produce a turning-point event that enables you to take charge of your future.

Download "A New Look at Adult Learning" as a PDF

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Augusto Tomas October 23, 2013 at 1:17 pm

I have to say that I perfectly resonate with your ideas.

Nevertheless we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to make or attend conferences and workshops that cover the trilogy of “Head, Heart, Hands” experience.

But I would say that we could improve that “wheel” by starting to add some “holy spirit” salt&pepper in the management workshops.

Nowadays the conference world is still separated between new age conferences and management and leadership conferences. Interestingly, both are only targeting our Heads as the way to achieve our Hearts.

But since our Hands are not used and our Holy Spirit is almost shutdown (even by new agers), then we have to feel that our “food for thought” was not as amazing as we imagined.

Kind Regards,



Anonymous October 25, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Great newsletter Jim. I’m in awe of you and how well you keep so many irons in the fire

I’m at CoreNet right now and getting that old feeling of “why am I here?” So many of these conferences are repackaged material from yesteryear, and people talking about their great new insights that aren’t particularly new or insightful.


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