Adults and children do not learn in the same way. The concept of “andragogy” was widely introduced to the world of educational theory by Malcolm Knowles, PhD, in the latter part of the 20th century. He contrasted “pedagogy,” which is generally used to describe the method or practice of teaching — and comes from the Greek for “child learning” — with the practice of “andragogy,” which applies specifically to adult learning. While Knowles did not invent the term, he advanced the argument that andragogy should be very different from pedagogy.
Maureen Duffy, CVRT, LVT, an editor for Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, a writer and blog editor for VisionAware, and author of Making Life More Livable: Simple Adaptations for Living at Home After Vision Loss, relies heavily on andragogy in her work with vision-impaired adults. Loved ones — especially adult children of older people — have a tendency to push care and “help” on grown-ups as if they were children, she says. Not surprisingly, this method seldom works.
Using Andragogy to Help People with AMD
From her work as a certified vision-rehabilitation therapist (CVRT) and low-vision therapist (LVT), Duffy calls out three concepts of andragogy to keep in mind when trying to help an adult who is coping with vision loss:
1. Adults have life experience.
Children don’t have a lot of life experience. And while adults have an incredible amount of life experience, we don’t always treat them as if they do. They already know how to problem-solve. If they have been cooking for their entire lives, they don’t need to learn to learn how to cook all over again; they just need to make adaptations.
“We treat adults as if they have to forget everything they’ve learned, and try to teach them something new,” Duffy says. “That doesn’t usually work. I say, ‘Show me how you’ve always done this. There’s probably just a little adaptation you need to make, and you can keep doing things the way you’ve always done them.’ You can’t just go in, and tell someone you’re going to change everything they do. Just figure out an adaptation.”
2. Adults are reactive learners.
Children are ready to learn when they are told they are ready to learn: We send them to school, and they know it’s time to learn. Adults are ready to learn when they decide they need to know or do something to improve their daily lives — not before. You cannot make an adult learn until they are ready to learn. That’s a big difference.
“Adults tend not to say, ‘I’m going to learn this now because I might need it later.’ They say, ‘I have this problem right now; I need to learn this thing right now,’” Duffy says. “It’s common for family members to tell a person with macular degeneration, ‘You need to learn braille in preparation for when you go blind in the future.’ That’s not true. They can read larger and larger print for as long as they are able to do so. It creates additional anxiety to tell an adult they have to start now to prepare for when they can’t see. You can’t prepare for that. It’s a process, and you make changes as you go.”
“Adults will decide what they want to learn, usually based on a hierarchy of needs and what they really need to know now,” Duffy says. “That hierarchy starts with survival needs: making food, getting food, reading medications, etc. And the only way to know what an adult wants and needs to learn is to ask them.”
At the heart of andragogy, it seems, is respect for the fact that an adult is an adult — and should be treated as such. “Andragogy is more focused on teaching problem-solving skills, which can be used over and over again by the adult in a variety of situations,” Duffy says.
Another difference between the way children and adults learn is the need for adults to maintain a sense of autonomy, points out Judi Delgado, director of the Macular Degeneration Partnership (MDP). “People with AMD may need to adjust the way they do some things, but they can still do them,” she says. “It doesn’t help them if others try to take over or do things for them. It’s important to understand that the person is already losing so much; if loved ones try to take over their lives, it just adds to the loss of independence.”
Maureen A. Duffy, CVRT, LVT
Social Media Specialist, visionaware.org
Associate Editor, Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness
Adjunct Faculty, Salus University/College of Education and Rehabilitation