Introduction to Adult learning.

As a childbirth educator, you want to create courses that make a difference to your parents birth and their lives. Now here’s the challenge. Your parents are adults with previous knowledge, life experience and sometimes fixed ideas about what works for them. They want learning experiences that help them meet their needs and achieve their goals.

Understanding what motivates and influences an adult to seek education, how adults learn and retain information, and what impacts their life experiences may have on this process is all part of being a childbirth educator. So when creating any type of course, it is important to base the design on a good understanding of adult learning theory. 

Impacts on learning:

Adult learners bring experience of learning to new learning opportunities. They may have had positive experiences of learning, either informal or formal or both, in which case it is likely that they will feel confident and enthusiastic about learning. They may have had negative experiences of learning for a range of reasons, in which case they may lack confidence and feel quite vulnerable in new learning situations.  

Adult lives are usually more complex than those of children.  They may be busy with work and/or caring responsibilities. Depending on their circumstances they may have worries about their job, finding work, housing, finance, their relationships or their health.  These concerns may have an impact on an adult’s ability to engage with, and focus on, learning, and will ultimately shape what they wish to learn and their motives for doing so. 

Teachers of adults need to be aware of, and sensitive to, the experiences and issues that adults may bring with them to a new learning experience. We will discuss exactly how we can support parents with this step later on in the different units through out this module.

However, the good news is that most adults are motivated and to learn during your classes - and now its your job to fulfil their expectations successfully!

The Principles of Adult Learning.

There are some aspects of teaching adults that are different to teaching children. Adults learn throughout their lives in the form of a continuum. Understanding these theories will help you plan your course during conception, development, and execution, in a way that will facilitate the learning process. 

Theory #1: Andragogy: Tapping Into Prior Experience.

The characteristics of adults and how they use their experiences to learn is known as the Andragogy theory, developed by Malcolm Knowles in the 1970s.

Need for Knowledge: Adults need to know “why” they should learn. 
  • Motivation: Adults are driven by internal motives. They will learn if they want to learn. For instance, a compelling answer to the “what’s-in-it-for-me” question is a powerful internal motivation. 
Willingness: For adults, the willingness or readiness to learn comes from perceiving the relevance of the knowledge. They want to know how learning will help them better their lives, and they learn best when they know that the knowledge has immediate value for them. 
  • Foundation or Experience: Adults bring with them rich reserves of experiences that form the foundation of their learning. They analyze, rationalize, synthesize, and develop new ideas or tweak old ones through the filter of their experiences. As an childbirth educator, you should tap into their well of experiences to help them make connections, perceive relevance, and derive inspiration. 
Self-Direction: Adults are self-directed individuals who want to take charge of the learning journey. They are independent beings who want to feel in control. 
  • Orientation to Learning: Adults learn best when they “do.” They find relevance in task-oriented learning. Besides, task-oriented learning exercises their problem-solving ability that in turn, gives them the confidence that they can conquer their challenges with their newly-acquired knowledge. 
How to apply this theory to your course: 

Ask parents what they want to learn about.

At the start of each activity / topic explain why this topic is important and what difference it could make to knowing about it. 

Ask the parents what experience they have of this topic.

Set two tasks allowing the parents to decide which is better for them.


Theory #2: Transformational Learning: Lightbulb Moments

I personally love this one! This is essentially when a parent goes "OMG I didn't know that" or when you see they have made a link, a connection that turns them from a wary parent to a confident, empowered parent. 

Identification of a Dilemma or a Crisis: The realization that we had all along been holding on to wrong beliefs or that we don’t know what we should know is often a trigger to dig in and unearth information or review our mindsets and thought patterns. 
  • Establishment of Personal Relevance: So this is perhaps easy for you to see, not so easy for your parents. "My midwife will tell me", or "I will just look it up" Establishing this, getting them to envision the results of their efforts - right at the beginning of the course, even before in your marketing, will help to motivate parents book, then to actively engage. 
Critical Thinking: Your parents are sensible, rational people with minds of their own. So you should create opportunities for critical discussion or reflection. This space  allows them to let them sort through their feelings and thoughts and come to conclusions on their own. This way they are more able to accept and retain the learning. Your job here is to nudge, hint and subtly guide them towards the transformation. 
How to apply this theory to your course: 

 Giving parents pens and a workbook at the start of the course encourages them to write down thoughts and feelings as they go. You could include an area for them to write down their birth vision or encourage them to create a vison board for home. Include motivational quotes and questions for them to consider at home. 

Theory #3: Sociocultural: The Village

Vygotsky’s theory brings together the role of social and cultural interactions. Vygotsky’s theory states that knowledge is co-constructed and that individuals learn from one another. Although, not actually seen as "learning" in the traditional sense, social support is a large motivational factor for attending class. There are two main sections to the theory:


Learners must be engaged in the learning process. 


Give your parent the right amount of assistance at the right time. From a teaching perspective, this means to stand back and "nudge" your parents to solutions. 
How to apply this theory to your course:

Any activity which involves for everyone to contribute some ideas as to how to solve the problem,

question or task before any method is attempted, works very well.

Allow time for mingling and group discussions

There are a lot of various theories you can also look at, but depending on what topic you wish to teach, and what you want your parents to gain from it, you can use the different theories to best suit your desired outcome. I have put a reading list together for the below theories if you want to explore this further.  

Instrumental learning theories which focus on individual experience and include behaviourist, cognitive and experiential learning theories

Humanistic theories which focus on individual development and are more learner-centred

Transformative learning theory which explores the way in which critical reflection can be used to challenge and transform a learner’s beliefs and assumptions

Motivational models which look at the motivation of learners, their expectations of success, attitudes to education and barriers that they may face

Reflective models consider that reflection leads to action and then to change.

If you would like to explore these in more detail, there are suggestions for advanced further reading at the end of this unit. However there is broad agreement about the main principles of adult learning and awareness of these principles will help you to plan a course of learning that will engage adult learners.

Learning styles:

An important part of adult education is to acknowledge that people have preferences about the way that they learn.  Some people may be familiar with the concept of learning styles and know what their own preferences are. They may have learnt about this in school or in other learning environments, some may not. There is some debate as to whether learning styles are fixed or change over time. You could ask at booking what preference your parent has, but designing a course to cover all styles is preferable. 

One well known model you may have heard of is the VARK model.

Mode of learning

Prefers learning from/by:



Pictures, video clips and diagrams


Auditory or Aural

Enjoys music, discussion and lectures



Enjoys making lists, reading text books and taking notes



Enjoys movement, experiments and hands on activities

Some learners have a strong preference for one or two modes of learning. Others make use of all the modalities evenly and such learners are known as multi-modal learners.

There is a website dedicated to VARK learning styles where you can find lots of information and applications.

You can take the VARK learning styles questionnaire online here:

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle and Learning Styles

This theory looks at the cycle of learning:  

Concrete Experience (CE): This is similar to Kinaesthetic learning but integrates emotional responses to cement the learning. 
  • Reflective Observation (RO): Adults need to engage with and reflect on their experiences to get the most benefit. So it is critical to also provide time and space to encourage reflection during class. 
Abstract Conceptualization (AC): The success of experiential learning lies in the learner being able to decode abstract concepts from their reflections, generalize these ideas, and realize the relevance to their reality. 
  • Active Experimentation (AE): Role-playing activities, and other hands-on tasks let learners apply the learning and thus truly “learn by doing.” 

Teachers need to make sure that they plan a variety of learning activities that will appeal to learners with a range of learning styles.  As a teacher it is useful to be aware of your own learning preferences as you may have a tendency to plan activities that appeal to your own.

How to apply this theory to your course:

CE: Discussing real or imaginary case studies in class that reveal cause-effect relationships. (Make sure you maintain confidentiality if using real case studies - but DON'T use your own experiences!!)

RO: Demonstrations followed by “analysing” processes and procedures works well. 

AC: Designs activities to encourage learners to exercise their “critical thinking” abilities. Small group, rather than whole group discussions works well for this.

AE: Role play is really another word for "practice". I use role play to demonstrate contractions, practice birth positions and to layer hormonal learning. 

Multiple Intelligences

Another approach to thinking about learning is to recognise that people can be intelligent in different ways.

Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory was first published in his book, Frames Of Mind (1983) and has continued to develop since then.  In summary, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences can be described as follows:


Characterised by:



Well-developed verbal skills and sensitivity to the sounds, meanings and rhythms of words



Ability to think conceptually and abstractly, and capacity to discern logical and numerical patterns



 Capacity to think in images and pictures, to visualize accurately and abstractly)



Ability to control one’s body movements and to handle objects skilfully



Ability to produce and appreciate rhythm, pitch and timber


Inter personal

Capacity to detect and respond appropriately to the moods, motivations and desires of others



Capacity to be self-aware and in tune with inner feelings, values, beliefs and thinking processes



Ability to recognize and categorize plants, animals and other objects in nature)



Sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about human existence such as, “What is the meaning of life? Why do we die? How did we get here?”

Awareness of the variety of intelligence types helps teachers to plan a variety of learning activities that appeal to a range of learners and draw on the multiples intelligences within the group, which will help to maximise learning.

This summary of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences can be found at:

More detailed information can be found at:

You can take a quick, online multiple intelligences test based on Gardner’s work here:

References and further reading:
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Vandenberg, L. Facilitating Adult Learning: How to Teach so People Learn.
  •  Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
  • Taylor. D., and Hamdy, H. (2013). Adult learning theories: Implications for learning and teaching in medical education: Medical teacher. 35. pp. 1561-1572. Available at:
  • Taylor, A. (2019). Adult Learning Theories in Context: A Quick Guide for Healthcare Professional Educators. Available at: 
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