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Leading Adult Learners: Preparing Future Leaders and Professional Development of Those They Lead

Module by: Rosemary Papa, Jessica Papa. E-mail the authors

NCPEA Publications



This manuscript has been peer-reviewed, accepted, and endorsed by the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) as a significant contribution to the scholarship and practice of education administration. In addition to publication in the Connexions Content Commons, this module is published in the NCPEA Handbook of Online Instruction and Programs in Education Leadership, ISBN 978-1-4507-7263-1.


This manuscript is reprinted in its original form (no third party contribution) from the previous publication, Leading Adult Learners: Preparing Future Leaders and Professional Development of Those They Lead, authored by Rosemary Papa and Jessica Papa, serving as a Chapter in Technology Leadership for School Improvement, Rosemary Papa, Editor, and published by Sage Publications (2011), ISBN 978-1-4129-7210-9.


  • Janet Tareilo, Stephen F. Austin State University
  • Brad Bizzell, Virginia Tech

Associate Editors

  • Beverly Irby, Sam Houston State University
  • Rosemary Papa, Northern Arizona University
  • Thomas Valesky, Florida Gulf Coast University
  • Theodore Creighton, Virginia Tech

About the Authors

  • Dr. Rosemary Papa is the Del and Jewel Lewis Endowed Chair in Learning Centered Leadership and Professor of Educational Leadership in the College of Education at Northern Arizona University. Her record of publications includes numerous books, book chapters, monographs and referred journal articles. In 2011 she published two books, Technology Leadership for School Improvement (Sage Publications, Editor and chapter author) and Turnaround Principals for Underperforming Schools (Rowman & Littlefield, coauthored).
  • Ms. Jessica Papa is a master’s degree student in Liberal Studies from The University of Oklahoma. Her interest in the adult learner undergirds her research in visual literacy from a cultural anthropological perspective.


Two key questions begin this chapter: What are the changing dynamics for faculty teaching today that prospective educational leaders need to know? And, what are the primary challenges prospective administrators face in professional development and optimally managing teachers who are utilizing technology in their respective settings? It is critical for those faculty instructing prospective educational leaders to understand the adult learner to maximize teaching and learning. In this chapter adult learning theories (theories about how adults learn) and how we engage adult learners (adults in a learning environment) sets the stage for managing and utilizing technology in subsequent chapters.

Learning is the acquisition of knowledge through experiences with the result of a change in behavior. Learning theories focus on how one learns. Learning theories originated first focused on the study of children-to-adolescents and more recently on adult learning. It is common today to think of learning as being lifelong: from the cradle to the grave. The maze of learning theories provides no single answer to define how one learns but, does permit a substantial perspective to the process of learning. Some learning theories are more appropriate to adult learning and pedagogy (teaching strategies for how adults learn).

The following questions are addressed in this chapter:

  • What can leaders do to acknowledge the learners motivation and interests?
  • How can leaders learn to mentor the adult learner?
  • How can leaders give professional development choices in planning training activities for optimal learning experiences?
  • How can leaders provide problem centered activities for professional training activities?
  • How can leaders lead using different approaches and strategies?

Learners of All Ages

Attention and motivation (degree with which the learner approaches learning) and how we utilize these are critical to understanding how we approach classroom experiences for our learners. If we know how a learner approaches the acquisition of knowledge then we can arrange classroom strategies that will enhance their learning. Various theories focus on the motivations of the learner: are they internal or external in their locus of control? What motivates a person to want to learn? External motivation in the early years of schooling requires children in most countries to attend school and so the motivation to be there is one of first family approval and expectation and legal requirement. As one ages through middle and high school to college, the motivation to attend schooling unto itself becomes the motivation. Externally, the factor may be to get a well paying job or gain respect from our families. Internally, we may seek greater knowledge because we are inquisitive and curious. It can also be a combination of both external and internal factors. As is the case with children that begin life with their ever expanding curiosity to learn about the world, this individual nature to learn re-emerges with passion when adults are no longer required to attend school and yet choose to keep learning. So, now that we have them in their seats how do we keep their attention?

Often in the learning cycle, we as educational leaders forget that just because students are required to be in front of us during the elementary to middle school or until high school we often fail to see the student as a complex learner different from the other students. We tend to focus on delivering the content usually following the latest fad in education tied to knowledge standards established by our countries policy makers which influences the textbooks we use. In adult education, the similar conundrum may also exist.

How we then approach the years from high school to the lifelong learner becomes quite complex, both from a social-political perspective and learning theory choice. With no clear road map of acceptance by research and theory, we will hope to persuade the reader that strategies from a variety of learning perspective should be of benefit to the educational leader that seeks to be the best they can be. Of course, from our perspective, the best educational leader is the educational leader that has foci on their managing, leading and teaching the adult learner as an individual. As the saying goes, when’ the learner stops being attentive, I am no longer leading nor teaching.’

Is the 18 to 23 year old similar to the 30 to 40 year old? Or, the 50 to 60 year old? Common sense tells us that life experience through our lifetime greatly influences our motivation, ability to learn, and the attention we choose to give learning. From the time we exit mandatory schooling and transition to learning that we choose, such as continuing into college or working at a job we are happy with, we begin adult learning. Adult learning is learning done on a continuum from the adolescent-adult stage forward.

Adult Learning Theories

How we learn and help others to learn is the sub-context for this chapter. Some tie learning to personal motivators, ala, Bandura, Brown, Bloom, Dewey and Glasser. Others focus on innate individual differences, ala, Gardner, and Guilford. And for others behaviorism or learning as cognitive constructivism (learners construct knowledge based on previous knowledge) is the prime importance to defining learning. Learning-based theories describe the learner from a variety of key points. Presented in Table 1 are the learning theories by category listed by the key researcher and the approximate time their theories were developed.

Table 1: Learning Theories and Timeline of Theory Development


Table 1 (continued)



Beginning with Behaviorism, Watson and subsequently the famous B.F. Skinner believed that behaviorism was the key to learning through the use of positive or negative stimuli. Behaviorism is limited in its range for addressing adult leaner needs as it does not consider cognitive and affective processes.

Cognitive Constructivism

Numerous perspectives have contributed to cognitive constructivism. Piaget viewed cognitive construction as having 4 stages. For the purposes of the textbook, we are focused on stage four, Formal Operations for ages 11 to 15 which assumes that this age reaches adult cognition and conceptual reasoning abilities. Knowledge from this point forward is constructed through individual experiences. Some credit the work with children that Piaget did, as the inventor of the field of cognitive development (Gardner, 2006). Criticism of Piaget has been found in his lack of acknowledging individual differences and in minimizing cultural, social, and ignoring motivational factors.

Bruner is considered to have been one of the original thinkers in cognitive constructivism. Learning is an active process. Learners construct new ideas based upon their existing knowledge. Bruner (1983) stated, “Knowing how something is put together is worth a thousand facts about it” (p.183).

Parallel to Piaget and Bruner, personality theory from the mid 1950’s in adult research began to take the view that all learning does not end with adolescence. In personality theory, Erik Erikson’s eight stages of life expanded Freud’s view of five stages and challenged the notion that development ended with adolescence. Erikson took Freud’s original five stages and expanded them to eight to include adult development. These additional stages are: Stage 6-young adult (late teens through twenties) characterized by intimacy vs. isolation, seeking partners and friends; Stage 7-middle adult (thirties to fifties) characterized by generativity vs. self-absorption, seeking a meaningful home and workmates; and, Stage 8-old adult (sixties and beyond) characterized by integrity vs. despair.

Bloom’s (1965) contribution to learning was to define the cognitive (knowledge) domain in unison with the affective (attitudes, beliefs, values) domain. His taxonomy for educational objectives is widely used today for developing and helping students categorize test questions.

Lave and Wenger (1991) have defined their learning research as adult learning theory. They have recently identified that as we grow older engaging in communities of practice increases our ability to analyze our experiences. They call this intentional reflection. This is a commonly used process today in adult learning.

Social Constructivism

For Vygotsky (1978) learner development occurs first at the social level and later on an individual level. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is the potential for learning when children participate in social behavior. His work which began in the 1920’s was embraced during the later part of the 20th century for its contribution to cultural understanding in how we learn.

Approaching it from another perspective Bandura’s (1986) observational learning has motivation at the heart of the theory. His four steps are attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.


Humanistic learning theory focuses on the emotional and affective aspects of the learner. Maslow’s research was centered on the need for experiential learning. Experiential learning emphasized ones ability to choose, encouraged our creativity, values, and self realization. Personal dignity in learning was at the heart of this theory. Rogers also believed that learning should be at the personal level. Learning should include ones feelings and emotions along with the cognitive. Overemphasis of the cognitive was not conducive to good learning.


Motivation impacts learning in interesting ways. Glasser’s (1990) Control Theory is a theory of motivation that ties learning to what a person wants most at any given time. Brown (1996; 1990) identifies the internal or external motivators that drive a person’s locus of control. This locus of control impacts how a person attributes success or failure and thus, what their motivation is to learn. Dewey’s (1938) theory found experiential learning leads us to more learning. Experiential learning motivates us to learn. Rogers (2004) stated that motivation is the single most important factor for the learner. She said, “Unless you are motivated you will not and cannot learn,” (15). Adult learning combined with personality psychology continued to expand during the 1980’s. Levinson’s seminal work (1978) Season’s of a Man’s Life andCarol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice brought further attention to adulthood relative to age, gender, and culture. Female development up to this time had been researched as though complete adult development was inaccessible to the female by virtue of gender characteristics. These studies countered that thinking and elevated that girls do learn differently than boys.


Guilford (1950) believed that the intellect was comprised of operations, content and products. His interest was focused on creativity and how one develops this ability. Creativity and how we engage the learner is supported by Gardner’s (1983) multiple intelligences theory. He has to date identified nine intelligences:

  • Verbal/Linguistic: reading, writing, speaking, and listening
  • Logical/Mathematical: working with numbers and abstract patterns
  • Visual/Spatial: working with images, mind mapping, visualizing, drawing
  • Musical/Rhythmic: using rhythm, melody, patterned sound, song, rap, dance
  • Bodily/Kinesthetic: processing information through touch, movement, dramatics
  • Interpersonal: sharing, cooperating, interviewing, relating
  • Intrapersonal: working alone, self-paced instruction, individualized projects
  • Naturalist: spending time outdoors, sorting, classifying, noticing patterns
  • Existentialist: wondering people, philosophical, seeking the bigger picture

Gardner’s work continues to redefine the learner and what attributes he has identified has led to specific learner strategies. Influences from Bruner and Piaget are found in Gardner’s work.

Adult Learning and Pedagogy

The founding father of adult learning is often attributed to Knowles. Knowles (1990) uses the term andragogy for adult learning distinguished from pedagogy which is children based. Knowles suggested an endpoint to adulthood, as noted by (Rogers, 2002) that adulthood is attained when individuals perceive themselves to be essentially self-directing. Knowles (2002) identified the following principles:

  • Adults need to participate: plan and evaluate their instruction
  • Experiential learning activities should be provided
  • Topics must be relevant to their jobs or personal life

Learning for adults should be problem-centered vs. content-oriented.

Cronbach and Snow (1977) identified attitude at the heart of their theory. Learning they said is best achieved when strategies are geared directly to the learners specific abilities. Their theory is called Attitude Treatment Interaction.

Adult learning contains critical reflection characteristics which require analysis for the learner (Freire, 1972) and are action based for the learner (Knowles, 1990). As stated by Alan Rogers (2002), “Freire…suggested that learning is accomplished by critically analyzing experience and acting on the basis of that analysis… [and for] Knowles…action is an essential part of the learning process, not a result of the learning process,” (107).

Patricia Cross’s Characteristics of Adults as Learners model (CAL) wrote guidelines for adult education programs. These guidelines are practical and situational on adult learning with attention to characteristics such as, full time versus part time; required (compulsory) or voluntary, etc. Cross’s three principles to adult learning are: (1) Learning should capitalize on one’s experience; (2) Age of the learner is a factor; and, (3) Challenge the adult to continue to grow. Choices on how the learning is organized are important to the adult learner.

Engaging Adult Learners

All the learning theories mentioned in the preceding brief summary have impacted the evolution of adult learning and pedagogy: some to a greater degree than others. Cognitive and social constructivisms are strong underpinnings to adult learning, as are Humanist and Motivation-Personality Theories. Figure 1 depicts the relationship of learning theories to adult learning and pedagogy.

Figure 1: Learning Theories Evolution to Adult Learning


As Figure 1 depicts the evolution of learning theories that have lead us to where we are today. Understanding adult learning and pedagogy requires us to know the adult learner differs from the child development theories and that adult motivations and experiences require us to know different strategies to keep adults attention. The best adult strategies are found foremost in the work of Knowles, Cross, Lave and Wenger, and Cronbach and Snow. The evolution of these theories can be found in the cognitivists, social constructivists, motivation theory, intellect theory and humanism.

Today, adult learning can only be studied through a complex arrangement of factors. Learning styles and the psychological theories of learning allow us to acknowledge that learning is neither stagnant for adults nor easy to describe by a single learning theory.

How we lead the adult learner is greatly impacted by both knowledge of the context and of the learner themselves. Contextual understanding by the educational leader is as critical as the transfer of knowledge and how it is transferred through strategies and activities. Our skill and ability as an educational leader is tested now by both knowledge of how adults learn and the tools we have available today that we did not have even ten years ago.

Mentoring (the most complete human skill to acquire) Adult Learners

The former role of the educational leader, the benevolent authoritarian, is now being transformed to the mentor/coach. Papa (Papa-Lewis, 1987; 1983) has researched extensively as an organizational theorist how mentoring adults influences their learning. Mentoring, teaching, coaching, facilitating and other such similar descriptors describe a process for adult learning. Building upon the work of Maslow, Rogers, Lave, Erikson, Glasser, Levinson, Gilligan and Vygotsky cultural, linguistic, and gender nuances are additional factors that comprise the adult learner and that the educational leader must understand when working with adults. In understanding the communication patterns of the individual the following eight stages represent in descending order of ability how adults communicate both at work and in their personal lives: Mentoring; negotiating; supervising; diverting; persuading; speaking-signaling, and serving. Mentoring is considered the most complete human skill to acquire immediately followed by negotiating and instructing (1983; 1987; 2002). Papa’s research combines adult learning, Knowles and Cross, and characteristics of mentoring in the following manner.

  • Adults are motivated to learn as they develop needs and interests that learning will satisfy. The adults (protégé’s) needs and interests are an appropriate starting point for mentoring.
  • Adult orientation to learning is life or work centered. The appropriate frameworks for organizing mentoring are life or work related situations rather than theoretical subjects.
  • Experience is the richest resource for adult learning. The approach for mentoring involves active participation in a planned series of experiences, the reflection of those experiences, and their application to work situations.
  • Adults have a deep need to be self-directing. The role of the mentor is to engage in a process of inquiry, reflection and decision making with the protégé, rather than transmit knowledge and then evaluate the protégé’s conformity to it.
  • Individual differences among adult learners increase with age, gender, culture, language, and experience. Mentoring must make optimum provision for differences in style, time, setting, and pace of learning.

Shifting the educational leader’s role from passive to engagement of the learner forces the educational leader to understand the role of mentoring adults. Papa (2002b) has adapted Knowles’ work on how adults learn best: some adults learn best by listening and taking notes: some adults learn best by group work with other students; some adults learn best by reading rather than listening to lectures; and, some adults learn best by doing specific assignments based on the material covered.

When combined with mentoring skills the educational leader should (Papa, 2002a): (1) Provide alternative models, showing how a problem can be approached from a variety of ways: (2) communicate questions, to aid in comprehension of the issues; (3) try to give a sense of the various strategies they rejected as well as those they adopted, as one sometimes imagine that educational leaders lead without reference to situation, context, people involved, etc.; (4) share your intentions. How do you analyze the problem? What are you trying to accomplish? Why are you adopting this strategy? Don't just let them observe you, explain in advance the context, what you understand the problem to be, what you expect to accomplish, what obstacles you anticipate, etc.; (5) Mutual debriefing, with the leader willing to share mistakes as well as successes; (6) An opportunity for both of you to learn; (7) Work at the relationship. It does not just "happen;" (8) Provide successful experiences for those involved; (9) Recognize this is not cloning. You must preserve a fundamental respect for the views, experiences, and sensitivities of those you are leading; and, (10) Develop mutual trust and befriending. Peer-to-peer instruction or mentoring based leadership are skills the educational leader should practice.

Teaching-Leading Adult Learners

Great teaching is defined by the ability to inspire learners. Motivate the learner and you will grab their attention. Keeping their attention is more difficult. Educational leaders need many strategies at their fingertips to keep other’s attention.

Adult learners by the nature of their characteristics will learn best when in a mentoring environment. In this environment the educational leader acknowledges that they are a learner as well. Figure 2 describes how adults can be taught reaching all learners. This chart has the educational leader understand that by changing the strategies for the learner, all adult learners are engaged. Hearing something said, saying something, doing something and seeing something acknowledges that adults learn differently. The goal is to keep the learners attention: to optimize engaged learners demands the use of strategies and techniques that support the varied learning styles of adults.

To say one leads the way we were lead is not entirely true. More precisely, we lead the way we learn best. How we learn best keeps our attention. It may not keep the attention of those we are trying to lead. Introducing concepts from a variety of strategies ensures all learners are engaged. Papa’s practices (2000b) for adult learners are easy to remember: See the concept; hear the concept; say the concept; and apply the concept. The following table describes the strategies that can be used for each of these four areas. Hear It focuses on the learner that needs to read and write the concepts in order to learn the content. See It offers a visual for the learner, such as writing on a board or using power point. Say It refers to learners that must talk about the concept and are frequently those that ask a lot of questions. This strategy is good for peer-to-peer work and group work. Do It is the hands-on application that allows for trial and error. It is especially important that we discuss mistakes.

Figure 2: Adult Learning Characteristics



This chapter has focused on the adult learner, how we learn and the need for educational leaders to understand these dynamics. What are the multi-media applications which connect to the visual, auditory, verbal and kinesthetic learner? How do the changing technology practices impact the learner? The answers to these questions are found in the remaining chapters of this book.

Key Principles for Leaders to Know

Experiences of the adult learner continue to be the rich backdrop the educational leader can build upon. It also requires having educational leaders that are trained in learning theory – from a variety of perspectives, as found in this chapter.

Key principles for educational leader to understand are:

  • Acknowledge the learners motivation and interests
  • Mentor the adult learner
  • Consider strategies to have them participate in their learning
  • Utilize their life experiences in the activities provided
  • Give them choices in planning their learning
  • Explore their expectations for learning: work and/or personal related
  • Provide problem centered activities
  • Analyze each individually for their learning characteristic
  • Lead using different approaches and strategies
  • Create socialization opportunities in your activities
  • Demand their attention through inspirational leadership
  • Leading should be learner centered not educational leader centered

CASE STUDY: Applying Adult Learning Theories

It is the first day back from summer break. As the new principal, you desire to know more about the teachers in the school. You decide to do a learning activity with the teachers that will help to begin to know them and therefore, to lead them better. You ask them to think about their summer break. Did they travel? Did they teach summer school? Did they work at another job? Did they take flying lessons? Learn to scuba dive? Etc.

You ask them to respond to a specific open-ended question. Choose one style from the following four listed that most closely fits your style (that appeals most to you):

  1. If you are a cognitivist combined with intellect theory, you might ask to describe how they learned something new from previous knowledge they already had. When did they realize they were constructing new ideas? Think outside the box? You would ask them to provide rich detail in what they believed they learned.
  2. As a humanist, you might ask to describe the most emotional day they had this summer and tell why it was emotional. What was the outcome? How did you feel? What did you learn from the experience?
  3. If you are a social cognitive constructivist and motivation theorist, you might ask them to describe what they learned from their peers and how they personally felt about it. Did you go along? Did you resist doing what your peers did? Why did you join in or decide not to join in?
  4. An adult learner theorist might ask them to describe something they learned this summer and what were the steps that they did to learn? What strategies did they use or have to learn? What skills did they master? Were they successful in learning it? If so, why? If not, why not?

Discussion: Which of the four styles listed above best describe your style? Why? Refer back to Table 1 to help explain your answer.

Activity: Utilizing Table 3, identify the most likely type of learning style(s) you have by examining your answer to the above discussion. Reflect on the types of strategies that best reflect your style.

CASE STUDY: Self-Reflection and Professional Development

By identifying how adults learn, administrators are better able to arrange approaches to meet the learning styles of those they lead and arrange for professional development in their respective school settings. This insight will serve us well when we are seeking by-in for new multi-media applications that will improve management aspects of the workplace and especially student success for all. Focus on a professional development situation in which you were a learner: a situation in which you were asked to learn a new concept. What was the concept? What was the setting in which you were to learn?

Discussion: In a group, discuss how you as the learner would respond to the following questions.

  • How key was attention to the learning and the act of learning?
  • What optimized your attention?
  • What maintained your attention?
  • What role did peer or personal motivation play?
  • How much control as the learner did you have? Was it enough?
  • How much did interest or need affect (your) learning? 

Activity: Now plan a professional development activity by focusing on the following issues:

  • How key is maintaining the attention of the learner in the act of learning?
  • What would you do to optimize attention?
  • What would you do to maintain attention?
  • What role does peer or personal motivation play?
  • How much control for the learner do you think is necessary?
  • How much does interest or need of the learner affect your training? 

Web Resources

Adult Education Quarterly,

Adult Learning,

Adult Learning Activities, California Distance Learning Project

Community Partnerships for Adult Learning, U.S. Department of Education,

Educational Technology Clearing House,

How Adults Learn,

ISTE: International Society for Technology in Education

Mentor Information and Materials,

Iowa’s Professional Development Model

Teaching Tips Index,

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology,


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