2013. Vol.4, No.3A, 345-348
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 345
Similarities and Differences between Adult and Child Learners as
Participants in the Natural Learning Process
Darlene McDonough
School of Education, St. Bo nav enture Universi ty, New York, USA
Email: dmcdon o u, m cdonoughdar@ ao l .com
Received December 27th, 2 0 1 2 ; revised January 28th, 2013; accepted February 27th, 2013
This paper compares Brian Cambourne’s Conditions of Learning (1988), APA’s Learner-Centered Psy-
chological Principles (1997), and Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory (2011). These theories em-
brace the natural learning process and not the traditional view of learning. The traditional view suggests
that the teacher has the knowledge, the learner is dependent on the teacher to disseminate the knowledge
and the learner has nothing to contribute. In the natural learning process, knowledge is distributed in a
circular and reciprocal way through a collaborative sharing of experiences, centered on real life situations,
and learners are responsible for their own learning. In the 21st century knowledge is constantly changing
and expanding exponentially. The natural learning process facilitates the life-long learning that is needed
to remain a valuable contributor in society where learning has become a collaborative experience.
Keywords: Similarities in Adult and Child Learning; Adult Learning; Child Learning
The concept of life-long learning has taken on a new mean-
ing as the world of knowledge and technology changes at an
exponential rate. Adults have a choice to either keep up with
the changes by improving their knowledge and skills or stag-
nate in their learning and become obsolete (Billington, 2006).
This has created the need for a deeper understanding of how
adults learn, how this learning can be facilitated, and how this
process compares to what is known about how children learn.
This paper summarizes the connections between the research of
Brian Cambourne’s Conditions of Learning (1988), APA’s
Learner-Centered Psy chological Principles (1997) , and Knowles’
Adult Learning Theory (2011). The similarities and differences
between adult and child learners as participants in the natural
learning process are discussed.
Conditions of Learning
Brian Cambourne (1988) developed a model of learning
based on how children acquire speech. It was based on observ-
ing what children do as they learn to talk. There are Seven
Conditions of Learning in Cambourne’s model: 1) immersion-
the learner is surrounded in what is being learned in an authen-
tic, real life situation; 2) demonstration-the learner experiences
(sees, hears, views, witnesses, feels, explores, studies) actions
and artifacts that model what is to be learned; 3) engage-
ment-learning will only take place when the learner actively
participates in the demonstrations which are constantly occur-
ring around them; 4) expectations-powerful and subtle mes-
sages that significant others communicate to the learners that
they have the capacity to be successful learners and they
are expected to learn; 5) responsibility-learners are allowed to
make decisions about what will be engaged in and what will be
ignored during the immersion of demonstrations presented in
meaningful contexts with a relevant purpose; 6) approxima-
tions-learners are encouraged to attempt to use the new knowl-
edge gained through immersion in demonstrations as a way to
receive feedback and move toward the conventional learning; 7)
employment-opportunities and time for learners to use the
knowledge gained through immersion in demonstrations in
social contexts with other language users and alone in real life
situations to gain command of the conventions of the learning;
and 8) response-feedback that learners receive when employing
the developing language through interactions with other lan-
guage users. These conditions need to be implemented for any
learning endeavor to be successful and not just the learning of
Learner-Centered Psychological Principles
The American Psychological Association Task Force on
Psychology of Education along with the Mid-Continent Re-
gional Educational Laboratory developed 12 Learner-Centered
Psychological Principles (1993). In 1997, the American Psy-
chological Association Work Group of the Board of Educa-
tional Affairs revised the 1993 principles to the Learner-Cen-
tered Psychological Principles: Two additional factors were
added to the category of Individual Differences Factors: 1)
diversity; differences in linguistics, culture, social background
and 2) standards and assessment; high standards, diagnostic,
process and outcome assessments of learner and process. The
principles were divided into four categories: 1) Cognitive and
Metacognitive Factors; 2) Motivational and Affective Factors;
3) Developmental and Social Factors; and 4) Individual Differ-
ences Factors. The Learner-Centered Principles focus on the
active and reflective characteristics of all learners and all learn-
ing situations. These are psychological characteristics and un-
der the control of the learner. However, the principles also take
into consideration contextual and environmental factors that
impact the learner and the learning process. No factor is in-
tended to be taken individually, but holistically in the context of
real world situations.
Cognitive and Metacognitive Factors
Principle 1, natural of the learning process, is defined as an
intentional construction of meaning from experience and in-
formation of the learner’s thoughts and beliefs. Successful
learners are actively engaged in the learning process by being
self-directed and personally responsible for their learning. Due
to the strategic nature of the learning process, successful learn-
ing needs the learner to set personally relevant goals, according
to principle 2. The result is meaningfully, coherent representa-
tions of knowledge. Principle 3 states successfully learners con-
nect new learning in a variety of ways such as rearranging,
altering, adjusting, or adapting to prior knowledge. This con-
nection insures the transferability of the internalized new
learning to new situations. Strategic thinking, principle 4, states
that successful learners use a variety of reasoning and thinking
strategies to attain intricate learning goals. Through application
of problem solving and reasoning strategies, successful learners
reflect on which strategies work best is certain kinds of situa-
tions to continue to expand their strategic thinking capacity.
Principle 5 focuses on thinking about thinking. Learners de-
velop creative and critical thinking skills through the use of
higher order metacognitive strategies that focuson self-reflec-
tion regarding the attainment of learning goals. Learning is
affected by the context in which it takes place including culture,
technology, motivation, prior knowledge, metacognitive strate-
gies, and environmental element s.
Motivational and Affective Factors
Principle 7 concentrates on motivation and emotional influ-
ences that impact successful learning. Learners’ internal beliefs,
goals, metacognitive strategies, and interests facilitate motiva-
tion to learn, the quality of thinking and information processing.
Intrinsic motivation to learn is influenced by the creativity,
natural curiosity, and metacognitive strategies of the learner,
according to principle 8. To be successful, learners make choi-
ces that increase knowledge based on interest, personal signifi-
cance, and focus on real life situations where the learner exer-
cises personal choice and control. Principle 9 states that attain-
ing complex understandings and strategies involves effort and
opportunities for practice by the learner in personally relevant
tasks. The results of intrinsic motivation, perseverance, and
commitment are successful learners who actively participate in
the learning proc e ss.
Developmental and Social Factors
Principle 10 centers on developmental impacts on learning
across physical, intellectual, emotional, and social domains.
Learners are most successful when what is being learned is at
the appropriate developmental level and the learner is able to
connect the new knowledge to prior life experiences. At times,
successful learners may be able to demonstrate the learning in
one domain and not all the domains based on their cognitive,
emotional, and social development as well as how home, school,
culture and community experiences can be aligned to the new
learning. According to principle 11, developing positive per-
sonal relationships through social interactions and collaboration
where there is trust and respect for diversity, provide learners
stability and support as well as allow reflective and flexible
thinking. Positive social contexts help learners feel safe to share
ideas, actively engage in the learning process, become part of a
learning community, and take risks to gain knowledge.
Individual Differences Factors
Principle 12 explains the factors that cause individual differ-
ences in successful learners. Learners are born with individual
capacities, talents, interests, ways of learning, and pace of
learning. These areas continue to develop throughout the life of
the learner. The learning environment and the learner’s goals
interact with the individual learner differences and adaptions
are made as needed to make the learner successful. Differences
in a learner’s ability, experiences, language, ethnicity, race,
beliefs, and socioeconomic status have an impact on learning
and should be taken into account when developing the learning
environment, according to principle 13. Learners are successful
when individual differences in these factors are respected, val-
ued, and accommodated in learning opportunities and contexts.
As a result, there is an increase in motivation, engagement and
knowledge gained. Principle 14 describes the role of setting
high and challenging standards and assessments. These include
diagnostic, process monitoring and outcome based assessments
in the learning process. Learners are successful when they are
challenged to meet high expectations. Ongoing assessment
throughout the learning process, gives the learner important
feedback about progress toward the learning goals which en-
hance motivation and self-directed learning. Various assess-
ments can be used based on the learning goals including per-
formance assessments, project-based assessments, self-ap-
praisal, problem/solution etc.
Malcolm Knowles Principles of
Adult Learning
Malcolm Knowles (2011) defined andragogy as the art and
science of helping adults learn and described self-inquiry as the
adult learning process. There are certain assumptions regarding
how adults learn. Adult learning is viewed as problem-based
and collaborative not didactic. Adults are self-directed and
autonomous and determine individual learning goals. As
self-directed learners, they want to determine the knowledge
that will be learned, the projects in which they will participate,
and how they will demonstrate the knowledge gained. Adults
who are self-directed take the initiative, with or without the
help of others, in determining their learning needs, obtain hu-
man and material resources for learning, choose and implement
appropriate learning strategies, and assess learning outcomes.
Knowles argues that self-directed learning is closely related to
the natural process of psychological development-where adults
take on increased responsibility for their own lives and their
own learning. Self-directed learners are proactive, learn more
things and learn better, than do learners who are reactive learn-
ers and are passively engaged in the learning. They enter into
learning with greater motivation and more purposeful. As a
result, new knowledge is retained better and longer, as well as
applied with greater ease to new situations. Adult learners have
a variety of life experiences and prior knowledge from work,
school, family, and community involvements. Respect for adult
learners needs to be demonstrated during the learning process,
in particular acknowledging the wealth of knowledge and ex-
periences they bring to the learning situation. Adult learners
need to be treated as equals in the learning situation and be
given opportunities to communicate freely. Connections need to
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
be made by the learner between prior knowledge and the new
knowledge. These connections help the adult learner see the
value of the new knowledge to real life situation and enable the
learner to apply the new knowledge to meaningful situations.
Adult learners are goal oriented. According to the Adult Educa-
tion Center (2005), most adults engage in a learning experience
to create a change in a skill, behavior, current knowledge, or
attitude. Learning needs to focus on tasks involving a compo-
nent of the learner’s social roles. Adult learners are motivated
to learning that can have immediate application to their real life
situations. The adult learner needs to have a reason for the
learning. Application to the learner’s work or other responsi-
bilities, help the adult learner see value in gaining the new
knowledge. Adult learners are practical and focus on the parts
of the new knowledge that are most useful to them; either in
their work or other areas of their life.
Motivation in Adult Learners
Malcolm Knowles (2011) indicates that motivation in adult
learners is both extrinsic and intrinsic. There are at least six
factors that impact the motivation of adult learners. The need to
make new friendships and engage with new associates may be
motivation for adult learners to engage in social relationships.
Meeting the external expectation or recommendation to par-
ticipate in new learning from someone in authority could be a
second motivating factor. Adults may become motivated to get
involved in new learning for personal advancement such as
achieving a job promotion, obtain advanced status in employ-
ment, or stay competitive. Obtaining or maintaining a license/
certification, maintaining/developing skills, or adapting to
changes within a job can be motivation for adult learning ex-
periences. Motivation to obtain new knowledge, for adult
learners, can be to assist the community, be better prepared to
participate in community work or serve mankind. Adult learn-
ers may be motivated to acquire new knowledge to escape
boredom and relief from the ordinary daily routines of work or
home with a contrast of other more exciting opportunities.
Learning for the sake of gaining new knowledge, obtaining
knowledge for its own sake and appeasing an inquisitive mind
are other motivating factors for adults to learn new information.
Retention is an important part of the adult learning process. It is
directly impacted by the amount of practice/use during the
Adult learners have barriers to their motivation to learn. They
have many personal and work responsibilities that must be
balanced with the demands of learning. Lack of time, financial
resources, confidence, or information regarding opportunities to
learn, scheduling difficulties, as well as child care and trans-
portation issues can impact the adult learners’ motivation to
learn. Past educational or work experiences may be barriers to
learning. This occurs if the new knowledge is in conflict with
past education or life experiences. This conflict needs to be
addressed before the learners can actively engage in the learn-
Dorothy Billington (2007) is in agreement with much of
Malcolm Knowles’ theories on adult learning. Specifically, her
research indicates that adult learners need an environment
where they feel safe and supported and have individual needs
and uniqueness, abilities and life achievements recognized and
respected. The environment should encourage intellectual free-
dom, experimentation, and creativity. Environments where
adult learners are viewed as equals having a multitude of life
experiences and prior knowledge that are valued, respected,
appreciated, and listened to are important. Adult learners are
self-directed and take responsibility for their own learning by
designing learning experiences that meet their individual goals.
Intellectually challenging the adult learner through the appro-
priate individual pacing to insure growth and eliminate bore-
dom is important to the adult learning process. Adult learners
who are actively engaged in the learning process where new
knowledge is connected and applied to meaningful situations,
learn more. Regular, systematic feedback regarding the learning
helps the adult learner adjust to insure they are gaining the
knowledge they want and need to meet their individual goals.
Based on the similarities, the three theories can be viewed as
similar ways of looking at the natural process of learning. The
process described by each has the same meaning using different
vocabulary. The learner, be it a child or an adult comes to the
learning process with life experiences and prior knowledge that
is used by the learner to make connections to the new learning.
One difference is the adult learner has more life experiences
and prior knowledge than the child. In all three theories, the
environment in which the learning takes place needs to be risk
free and one in which the learner feels safe and secure and
supported to engage in new learning. Since learning is a natural
process, all three theories have the expectation that learning
will occur. The occurrence of learning taking place is driven by
the responsibility of the learner. It is the self-directed nature of
the process, as described by all three theories that determines
what will be learned. There appears to be a difference in the
responsibility and self-directedness between the adult learner
and a child. The adult appears to have an awareness of the
self-directed nature of the process and makes conscious deci-
sions regarding the learning by formulation of learning goals.
The child appears to unconsciously determine what is next in
the natural process of learning based on the current skill, strat-
egy, or knowledge that is need in the next step of the process.
This is also determined by what is being learned-language,
reading, writing, walking, running, etc.
The three theories indicate that for learning to take place,
both adults and children need to be immersed in what is being
learned. This is needed to help insure that the new knowledge is
internalized to the point where the knowledge can be trans-
ferred into appropriate situations. Since adults have more prior
knowledge and more life experiences to bring to the learning
situation, internalization and transfer may take less time than
the new learning of a child. Demonstrations or models of what
is being learned are evident in the three theories. Being im-
mersed in the demonstrations or models of what is being
learned is crucial in the nature process of learning. It is the
adult learner who consciously self-directs what demonstrations
or models in which he/she will participate to gain new knowl-
edge. A child is consciously immersed in demonstrations or
models by the significant others in the child’s life. As a result,
the learning that takes place by the child is subconscious and
based on where the child is in the nature learning process. An
example of this is when a child requests the same book be read
night after night. With each reading, the child is expanding
his/her knowledge of language, reading, writing, etc. During
one reading, the child may be learning the meanings of some
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 347
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
words, during the second reading the learner may be learning
something about sentence structure, and during the third read-
ing the new knowledge may be developing an understanding
story structure.
Approximations in learning take place in the learning of
adults as well as children. Due the natural learning process,
both adults and children need to use the learning or employ the
knowledge gained. The more the knowledge is used, the closer
the approximations come to the conventions and become inter-
nalized. Feedback to both the adult and the child helps each
learner fine tune the approximations. Once the learning has
been internalized, the knowledge is transferred into new situa-
tions by both the adult and child learners. A major characteris-
tic that impacts the natural learning process is engagement of
both adult and child learners. The more actively engaged in the
learning process, the faster the knowledge is obtained and the
better the knowledge is learned. Both the adult and child learner
need to be motivated to learn. The motivation can be intrinsic
or extrinsic. Active engagement is influence by a risk free en-
vironment, self- directed learner characteristics, alignment with
life experiences and prior knowledge, immersion, demonstra-
tions, feedback, and learner responsibility as well as motivation
for the adult and child learner.
In summary, both adults and children move through the
natural process of learning in the same ways. Adult and child
learners need: 1) a risk free environment for safety and support
for the new learning; 2) to be immersed i n the new learning; 3)
models/demonstrations of the new learning; 4) intrinsic and
extrinsic motivation; 5) to actively engage in the learning proc-
ess; 6) opportunities to employ/use the new learning; 7) to be
given the responsibility for their own learning; 8) to use ap-
proximations until the new learning becomes internalized and
transferable; 9) feedback to help the learning become internal-
ized and help move approximations to conventions, and 10) to
connect the new learning to prior knowledge and life experi-
The two issues that need to be addressed differently between
adult and child learners are the use of prior knowledge and life
experiences and learner responsibility. Both learners have prior
knowledge and life experiences to bring to the learning situa-
tions. Adult learners make conscious decisions regarding the
self-directed learning in which they participate. Child learners
make unconscious decisions regarding the new knowledge that
they internalize and make unconscious connections to their life
experiences and prior knowledge. The adult learner consciously
takes on responsibility for new learning for various conscious
self-directed reasons. The child learner unconsciously takes
responsibility for new learning based on unconscious under-
standings of the knowledge of a particular learning situation in
which child is being immersed and receiving demonstrations by
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