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3 principles on how to engage adult learners

17th July 2022

Lifelong learning is now not only a widely accepted but a widely encouraged approach to personal development. It is the idea that education doesn’t end at school or at college but that, as adults, we continue our learning for life. Nowadays, adults have many varied ways to learn, develop skills and improve knowledge.

That’s important because continuous learning unlocks opportunities.

Among the many benefits, adult learning opens new routes to employment, it increases earning potential, it broadens perspectives, it improves feelings of confidence and happiness, and it strengthens our communities by reducing crime and increasing social cooperation.

For prisoners, learning as an adult may be the first time they have fully engaged in their own education. Many prisoners have experienced little or no success in school. Research by the Prisoner Learning Alliance in 2020 showed that a disproportionate number of prisoners have low levels of literacy (62%) - this is four times higher than in the general population - and around half of people entering prison have no prior qualifications (47%). Nearly two-thirds (59%) have been truant from school, and 42% were expelled or permanently excluded from school. This can leave them unclear of the benefits and lacking confidence to embark on a new learning programme.

One thing we know through our work at Coracle, and by working with education partners in prisoner reform, adult learning can be the key to successful rehabilitation and reduction in reoffending. What’s important is that we approach adult learning among the prison community in a sensitive and appropriate way.

Here are 3 principles to adult learning that we believe are most important when working with people in prison.

1. Support autonomous learning

Adult learners require more autonomy around their learning. This is because they see themselves differently, compared to young people. In their life, they will have already fulfilled a number of different roles – as a parent perhaps, as a friend, as a worker, and so on. So they already know that they can make decisions on their own and deal with the consequences of their own actions. Nowhere is this more starkly true than in prison.

So these learners will want to be in control of their education. They are more likely to figure out what they want to learn on their own, or at least with the right tools and resources in front of them. They want to feel empowered by their learning, and carry it out when and where it best suits them.

This autonomous learning is key to andragogy, a method of teaching set out by Malcolm Knowles in 1984 which still stacks up today. Andragogy – as opposed to pedagogy, the teaching of children – is the study of how adults learn and how best to teach them. Knowles says that to attain a ‘model of competencies’, such as a set of skills for a particular job, then adult learners need to be able to self-diagnose their own needs and see where their learning gaps are.

So when we work with our education partners we ask ourselves: how can we support this sense of autonomy, and how can digital learning particularly help in this respect? For example, Coracle devices can be used safely by learners in any location including in their cells. This means that learners in prison can choose when and where they study. We have also designed a platform that comes with self-assessment tools so people can identify their own particular learning needs and then work with the Learning & Skills Manager (LSM) in the prison to build a programme of content that is bespoke to them.

2. Respect lived experience

Prisoners, like all adult learners, have plenty of life experience. This lived experience has become part of their identity, and so must be taken into account when thinking about the way they learn.

Knowles suggests lived experience can impact an adult’s openness to learn. Working with prisoners, we’ve seen firsthand that life experience can sometimes be a barrier to education. They may believe they have learned all they need to know. They often don’t value education because they don’t necessarily appreciate the benefit of gaining new knowledge or skills.

Lived experience can also impact how they want to learn. Traditional teaching methods used in schools don’t work. Knowles suggests that more social activities such as group discussion, case studies, role playing, and scenario simulation will work better as it allows adult learners to use their life experience as a resource they can draw on to aid their own skills development.

Learning methods and content, therefore, needs to be respectful of this lived experience. We do this by developing prisoner-centric solutions. For example, our devices enable digital learning offline through downloadable content. Digital, modular learning like this can be more easily adapted to a learner’s needs and goals. It can be personalised, which means prisoners can pick and mix what they study and - crucially - it means their learning can match and enhance their lived experience.

We also work closely with our learning partners to ensure the education content we deliver acknowledges their lived experience and supports social learning. Where appropriate, we encourage LSMs to give learners the opportunity to contribute to courses, help each other, discuss and critique topics, and bring their own knowledge to the table.

3. Make it relevant to the real world

Finally, adults have a greater need to apply their learning to problems they face right now. This is even more the case for people in prison, where education might be the difference between getting a job or accessing benefits.

There is mounting evidence that people have a greater chance of reintegration into society if they learn new skills, but only if those skills are applicable to the challenges they might have on release. A study by the government reported that, “​​The rate of reoffending drops significantly when digital skills, training and support are used to complement existing approaches to reducing reoffending.”

Understandably, the prisoners we work with are interested in skills and competencies that are easy to access and can be practically applied as soon as they leave prison. That is why we work hard to ensure our learning content is designed to help adults discover what learning they need for the real world, and show them how to solve problems they might experience in day to day life.

We also focus on increasing the digital literacy of prisoners. Much of the information and services we rely on every day can now only be accessed through digital platforms and apps. Yet for many prisoners, especially those who have served terms longer than a decade, these digital skills are entirely new to them.

Digital learning helps improve problem-solving capabilities, it equips people with the technical skills they need outside of prison, and it can provide practical, and applicable lessons in a variety of media to aid learning and engagement.

The overall learning from these reflections? We would strongly encourage anyone involved in adult learning to continually check that the nature of your content and the way in which you deliver it is always centred around the learner and their needs. That is why, at Coracle, we will continue to surround ourselves with partners who share these insights, put learners at the heart of their content and technology, and why we will always ask first: what do our learners need the most?