Today the term learning circle is actively used to describe adult learning as a group so that open discussion occurs.   Instead of the traditional form of group meetings,it’s a progressive learning experience that meets social needs and addresses how to teach adult learners through learning circles and apply what is learned to the job.

As the adage goes, learning is a never-ending process.  Continuous learning guarantees opportunities.  In the workplace, it helps employees adapt to required skills.  It also allows flexibility in the sense that if an employee leaves, others could easily fill in the gap.  For the employee, adding continuous learning becomes their force to move ahead.

Continuous learning through learning circles is a concept where team members and employees are given the opportunity to make learning a part of their work. It’s all about getting into the habit of developing skills and knowledge to become more proficient in their job.

Unfortunately, continuous learning can only be possible if employees are EAGER to learn and grow their skills at an INDIVIDUAL LEVEL.    This can be quite a challenge for adults learning a new skill and one reason why learning circles are so successful.


What does research tell us about age and learning circles?

A large body of research on aging reveals that as we grow older, neural connections that receive, process, and transmit information weaken from age or lack of use.  It does take a little longer to absorb new information.  It’ll be quite the challenge to think quickly and reaction times can be significantly slower. Discussions in Learning Circles, however,  help everyone assimilate new learning through discussion and examples.

Further, research also tells us that older people find it harder to multitask and retain information.  Words, concepts, and names can easily turn into tip-of-the-tongue instances.  An older individual is also easily distracted and more prone to errors.

Unsettling? Yes.

Is the future for adult learners bleak?  Absolutely NOT.

Learning circles reduce difficulties that are overcome with a training program, book discussion or debriefings on training received that fits the adult groups’ learning style, as well as work culture.

To maximize your company or organization’s training program, it would be beneficial to know a few adult learning theories. 

What are adult learning theories?

Adult learning theories are models with the consistent idea that adults learn differently from children.

The difference in learning between adults and children are as follows:

  • Adults have the capability to self-direct, solve problems, and learn new concepts. Children, on the other hand, need constant direction until they reach the age of conceptual thinking;
  • With adults, the role of “teacher” may be filled by a mentor, coach, trainer, colleague, peer, or expert. With children, teachers play a central role in delivering knowledge and guiding learning activities;
  • Adults are (or tend to be) more self-motivated. They now understand the value of education and have a concrete goal in mind when they return to or begin studying.  Children, on the other hand, need a higher level of engagement since they are naturally less motivated in learning settings.  They have no choice but to study and may lose enthusiasm if engagement is poor;
  • Adults are better able to tap into their existing knowledge to grasp newer concepts. Children, on the other hand, approach a new idea/topic entirely blank.

The following theories highlight the idea that training programs must be developed with the adult capability to be effective.    There isn’t one unified adult learning theory.  But utilized on its own or in combination with another, learning can be maximized.




If pedagogy is the art and science of teaching children, Andragogy is the art and science of teaching adults. Developed in 1968 by Malcolm Knowles, the Andragogy theory proposes that the adult learner:

  • Can direct their own learning;
  • Uses own knowledge and life experiences to learn a new concept or skill;
  • Is readily engaged / present when the material is relevant to them;
  • Wants to apply the new information almost immediately to solve real-life problems;
  • Prefers to have a voice in the planning and evaluation of their learning experience

Learning Circles address each of these adult learner criteria. 

How is this type of learning conducted?

The instructor creates a space that welcomes COLLABORATION.  Materials are relevant to the learner’s needs, as well.  The teacher must clearly demonstrate why the lesson is important.  Real-world examples are indispensable.  Last but not least, learning is arrived at by DOING, rather than mere repetition or memorization.

Organizations or companies can best utilize this training method by presenting common problems participants encounter in their role and then assisting them develop solutions. 

Who is this adult learning theory suited for?

Andragogy is best suited for those who are self-motivated or are in a structured, goal-oriented program (such as learning to solve specific problems). 

This isn’t recommended for… 

Adult learners who either value a classroom setup over alternative learning.  The learning circle, however, does provide opportunities to meet face-to-face or in online affinity groups where discussions based on personal experience as well as sharing wins on the material learned further deepen what was learned.  


Also known as SDL, this learning theory builds on Malcolm Knowles’ Andragogy. SDL was developed in 1997 by D.R. Garrison and occasionally includes concepts on self-management.  Here, the adult learner: 

  • Sets learning goals. He finds his own learning material and creates a learning plan.  They evaluate their results.  In short, the adult learner takes the initiative to understand what they need to learn; 
  • Finds those knowledgeable who can best help them – peers, resource speakers, teachers, mentors; 
  • Responds positively to being in control of their learning process.

How is this type of learning conducted?

The facilitator merely acts as a guide or source of encouragement.  

Who is this adult learning theory suited for?

SDL is best suited for self-motivated learners and those who respond well to technology-based learning.

Use this method if the topics have clear, concrete, black and white answers.  No gray areas.  For instance, a learner might see the need to learn a new language.  Self-directed learning would lead them to seek the appropriate apps, reading material, forums, and conversation groups that enhance learning.  Progress is at their own pace.

This isn’t recommended for…

Learners who have low literacy skills or low self-confidence.  This type of learning, however, can still be made part of a blended training program especially if upskilling is involved. If so, learning circles are very appropriate for discussion groups and to further address what works and what does not work from the point of diverse learners.

(to be continued)

Copyright TIGERS Success Series, Inc. by Dianne Crampton

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