Monday, January 17, 2011

Andragogy: How adults learn

NOTE: After the recent holiday break brought an opportunity to reflect on my “Nonprofit Learning Manifesto," I realized that I have not really begun to share here the learning theories that shape my thinking as an adult educator. This post begins an occasional series applying some of those theories and voices to nonprofit board development. There is much to learn, much to stretch our definition and practice of preparing boards for their governance responsibilities.
It is no coincidence that I gravitated toward andragogy early in my doctoral studies. I came to the adult and postsecondary education program from other academic disciplines, so everything I encountered was new. Andragogy offered a lifeline in an unfamiliar land: a common-sense connection to my own experiences as an adult learner. I got it, because I was living it.

Though others coined the word and the concept, Malcolm Knowles brought the framework to a broader audience and to the field of adult education. Over time, Knowles identified six “assumptions” of andragogy. As I review those assumptions again today, their application to nonprofit board development is clear.

“Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.” Most boards face packed agendas, too much to absorb and discuss, and limited time in which to handle it all. Members make a major contribution in giving their time to board service. Board development that is connected clearly to their responsibilities has greater opportunity to impact board members' work. If they can’t make that connection, it’s likely to be a lost opportunity (and lost board time).

“Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own lives.” We assume our board members are not only capable of running their own lives, but that they will take significant responsibility for advancing our organization's mission. Board members are community leaders. Taking on those governance roles drive most of them to board service, and adds personal value to individual members' participation. When we respect and empower them in their service – and support them in meaningful ways – they benefit. Most important, our organizations benefit.

“Adults come into an educational activity with both a greater volume and a different quality of experience from youths.” We recruit board members for the breadth and depth of experiences that they bring to governance deliberations. Respect that knowledge, and draw upon it as you create formal and informal learning experiences for the board. If you have recruited well, you already have most of the expertise you need to govern well. Don't start with the assumption that you need to turn to an outsider for the answers you seek. They may very well already exist in your boardroom.

“Adults become ready to learn those things they need to know.” There is something to be said for just-in-time learning. There also is something to be said for identifying the types of information and resources your board need to govern and making them accessible to members. How to do that? Ask your board what would work for members. I’ve mentioned elsewhere a nonprofit board that used a secured-access wiki for storing documents, sharing reports, and otherwise communicating between members. Such a site could also easily include links to online resources related to your mission and governance. Whatever the format used, make it easy for board members to locate what they need, when they need it, to increase the potential for effective deliberations and decisions.

“Adults are life centered (or task centered or problem centered) in their orientation to learning.” When most board orientation and continuing education efforts stumble, it’s probably related to this assumption about board members as adult learners. It’s also perhaps the biggest challenge in adopting some of the alternative approaches that many of my peers and I are advocating. We start with the belief that board members are not well served by waiting until a problem arises. Governance should be proactive – anticipating, asking “what if” and engaging in generative thinking. But that runs counter to our nature as adult learners. How to handle this is a perpetual question. One first step seems to be acknowledging this contradiction with our boards and making a convincing case to adopt a different mode of thinking and learning in a governance setting. I write that, not as a horribly incomplete answer to a major learning challenge, but as an invitation to engage readers and board development colleagues in conversation.

 “While adults are responsive to some extrinsic motivators…the more potent motivators are intrinsic motivators.” We cannot ignore the extrinsic motivations for board service (e.g., a line on a resume, developing or contributing a valued skill, meeting and working with others of like mind). But intrinsic motivations keep us coming back when the meetings are long, the work is challenging and tedious. Intrinsic motivators draw upon – and expand – a member’s desire and capacity to serve. We serve them, and our organizations, by feeding a board member’s heart as well as his or her head.
If this post has inspired you to learn more about andragogy, I offer two more links that may be of interest. One is an online version of a chapter that I have always found useful, by adult education author Sharan Merriam (Note: you’ll find a link to a PDF version at the top of that page.)

With the exception of a bothersome misspelling of one of my adult education heroes (it’s Eduard Lindeman, not LinDERman), this YouTube video by Janet Finlay offers a credible overview.

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