Adult vs. K-12 Education, What’s the Big Difference?

by Paula Moran in


In my professional experience I have taught “the bottom of the barrel” to the highly advanced.  I’ve taught a variety of concepts in multiple different settings.  Then an interviewer expressed concern about the transference of my teaching skills to educating adults.  Was his concern valid?

To answer this I did some research about the nature of adult education.  It’s not as well documented as K-12 education and several researchers specifically noted how it is a newer field of study.

What I found was that the fundamentals of education remain constant regardless of the age of the learner.  Educators alike must craft master measureable objectives, draw on background knowledge, develop cognitive structures, structure lessons effectively, assess understandings, etc. 

One might argue that teaching adults is easier because they have fully or mostly developed reasoning skills.  During a meeting with parents I tried to explain why their students sometimes struggled with physics problem solving.  Take a relatively simple problem such as “it takes 3 hours to drive the 150 miles to the beach, what is your average speed for the journey?”  As an adult reading this you probably quickly said 50 miles per hour.  And you are correct. 

Did you realize you took the information of time and distance and turned them into abstract algebraic concepts?  Then you manipulated them in your head and came out with a new number.  Then you retranslated that number back into reality as something that can be experienced, a car’s speed.  To do such a problem you had to use abstract thinking skills.  The human brain beings to develop these skills in the early high school years and tends to master them by the late teens or 20s.  Just as walking is initially unsteady for a toddler, you have to work with thinking skills.  Gradually you’ll master them and they’ll become second nature.  When teaching adults you can just talk about a situation and utilize their abstract thinking abilities.  Whereas in a high school situation I often have to model or act out a problem for students before they can begin to figure it out.  Part of educating non-abstract thinkers is to help them develop strategies to model and document what they cannot manipulate in their heads.

Adults also have a larger repertoire of life experiences.  When teaching adults you can reference their experience driving a car, using a corkscrew, paying rent and other such experiences that can illustrate an understanding.

But what are the special characteristics of adult learners that would cause a job post to specify “adult education experience”?

It all has to do with motivational methods.  Sitting in a classroom is part of life for 5-18 year olds and they will deal with a variety of courses and assignments because “is part of school,” or “the teacher requires it.”  Adults are in an educational setting in addition to their daily job requirements.  For that reason you have to work harder to get them to buy into the instructional program that has been created for them. 

The first thing is to show adults how learning the material will specifically benefit themselves, their career or family.  Sadly very few adults, as well as children, are motivated by the pure love of learning.  Once you get an adult student’s buy in you must maintain it by helping them apply their understanding immediately – particularly for professional development.  As an adult educator you must remember to treat your students as peers.  They will resist your instruction if you insist they call you Mr. Smith while you refer to them as Tom and Janet.

Universally as an instructor you need to set ground rules, such as “no cell phones” for an effective educational experience.

So is adult education really all that different from K-12?  The more I read and learn about the pedagogy of teaching adults the more I recognize my professional development and training in K-12 education.  Motivational theories universally say students are more motivated when the lesson content is shown as relevant to their everyday lives.