Over the past twenty years, one of the many key changes in early education and childcare has been the focus on continuing the education of practitioners in the field through developing professionalism and reflective practice. It is known that the best settings have well trained staff who are motivated by their own learning and development. Workplace learning, apprenticeships and research projects in early years are all successful ways of engaging staff in further learning. These directly link the learner with both motivation and relevance, two key components for adult learners.

One question I have been asked is how to engage older and highly experienced but underqualified, practitioners in their further professional development. This is complex. Many staff come with barriers that they may not easily voice. This article aims to explore the concept of adult learning and how to encourage reluctant learners to engage.

There are many obstacles that can get in the way for adult learners, both internal and external. Some of these might include:

External factors
  • Financial considerations
  • Health concerns
  • Childcare costs
  • Time commitment
Internal factors
  • Self-limiting beliefs or mind sets,
  • Holding on to old facts and skills that were formed in the past
  • Staying focused on one thing rather than the bigger picture
  • Being anxious about a new learning situation (which may present as negative perceptions of school and the value of learning)

In early years, we are all familiar with the term pedagogy, which refers to the process of teaching children. You may be less familiar with the term, ‘andragogy’, which is the process of helping adults to learn. Introduced by Knowles (1984), It has several key principles, from which many of our adult learning opportunities are created. These include:



    Most adult courses are built on these ‘andragogic’ principles. These include anything from in house delivery, local courses, BTEC courses, and all the way up to graduate level and beyond. This approach enables older learners to gain new knowledge and skills in a way that is so different to past memories e.g. those of school, sitting in front of a teacher, being told things they weren’t interested in, rote learning and homework!

    Overcoming the barriers for adult learners

    Research (e.g. Falasca, 2011) has shown that adult learners of any age can learn and succeed if they are afforded the opportunity, assistance and support they need.

    Here are some top tips for adults just waiting to take that leap into new learning:

    1. Regard continuous professional development as an entitlement and expectation rather than an optional extra – you are worth it!
    2. Draw on your own personal history and bring out your strengths as a starting point. Reflect where things went wrong and remember you are not that child or teenager anymore.
    3. Contribute to a safe and supportive learning environment within your setting. Trust that you can take part without fear of judgement or reprisal. This is the purpose of learning agreements at the start of any course.
    4. Know that you can be flexible with your individual circumstances and commitments – you can be autonomous in most learning situations and you can take responsibility for your needs.
    5. The dramatic move towards online learning since the pandemic, is a great opportunity to enable you to manage your own time to study. You have probably surprised yourself with how much technology you are already familiar with.
    6. You can have a voice in planning approaches to learning and give feedback to facilitators to help shape future learning.
    7. Find the right level of learning - set the degree of difficulty high enough to challenge you but not so high that you are overloaded.
    8. Ask for a mentor or peer learner from within your workplace so you have someone to safely go to, or to work alongside you.
    9. Be proud of being a new learner – it will open doors for you.
    An exercise to try:
    A starting point – your own learning journey

    Our perceptions of ourselves as adults and professional learners will be affected by experiences through childhood and into adult life. We need to consider the extent to which we still hold beliefs that restrict and inhibit us in our learning work. Here is an activity that can help you gain fresh insights into how your patterns of learning have developed.

    Try mapping out your own learning journey. All you need is a large piece of paper and some coloured pens. This is what to do:

    1. Create a timeline of your education, starting with early years/primary/secondary – map out where you went and how you felt about it. Draw a smile or heart for happy times and a little cloud or sad face for less happy times. What happened to made you feel like this?
    2. Keep going as you map your higher education and work experiences. What were your highs and lows? What made these so?
    3. Go back over your map and see what your learning looks like. What can you take from your past that is helpful and what can you learn from less helpful times?
    4. Share it with a trusted friend of colleague, in voicing your experiences you can make sense of your world.

    When we have made an experience or a chaos into a story, we have transformed it, made sense of it, transmuted experience, domesticated the chaos.” Ben Okri (poet, 1997).


    • Falasca, M. (2011) Barriers to Adult Learning: Bridging the Gap; Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 51:3
    • Knowles, M. (1984) The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd Edition) Houston TX: Gulf Publishing
    • Okri, B. (1997) A Way of Being Free; London: Phoenix

    About the author:

    Ruth Mercer is a coach and consultant, with a career background in early education. Ruth is committed to creating a positive learning environment for staff, children and families. She has a successful track record of 1:1 coaching for leaders and group coaching across the maintained and PVI sector. She supports leaders and managers in developing a coaching approach in their settings through bespoke consultancy and introductory training on coaching and mentoring for all staff.

    Virtual course forthcoming: Onwards and Upwards - Becoming an Effective Leader in the EYFS (6 half-day sessions over 6 months). Suitable for EYFS leads in school, nursery school teachers and reception teachers. Please email for further details, to book a space or request a bespoke option for your school/setting.

    Contact: ruthmercercoaching@gmail.com

    Website: www.ruthmercercoaching.com

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