Facilitating Transformational Adult Learning

When asked to imagine a learning environment, most of us will picture a classroom with students and a teacher. We likely picture a lecturer, standing in front of the classroom, droning on and on, with students listening passively, if not asleep. Most of us will recognize this picture from our own education experiences. The truth is that adults learn much differently than children. In adult education, we need to move away from this traditional teacher-centered approach towards a role as facilitator of adult learning. The good news is facilitation is a skill that can be improved!

What is Facilitation?

Facilitation moves the focus off the teacher and is the art of bringing adults together with the learning, by helping adults learn through self-discovery. Facilitation is about empowering others. Facilitation involves letting go of control over the outcome of a process and giving that responsibility to the group. Facilitation is partnership.

The Role of a Facilitator

The facilitator helps a group find new ways of thinking about and analyzing new knowledge. A facilitator does not necessarily know all the answers but helps the group think critically about their own needs and interests and to make decisions for themselves. A good facilitator encourages each member of the group to contribute to the best of their ability since everyone has valuable knowledge and a valuable contribution to make. And finally, facilitator builds trust and respect between the members of the group and to encourage dialogue and learning, from which the whole group will benefit.

5 Principles of Adult Learning

Malcolm Knowles, a pioneer in the study of adult learning, found that adults learn best under the following circumstances:

  1. The Learning Is Self-Directed An adult learner can learn best when they understand why something is important to know or do. Adult learners also need the freedom to engage with new material in a way that suits their learning style.
  2. The Learning Is Experiential and Utilizes Background Knowledge It is helpful for a facilitator to see each person’s background knowledge as a resource. No matter how old the adult learners are or what type of life they have led thus far, every one of the learners will have gained an extensive collection of experiences that the facilitator can draw on to make the most of what everyone brings to the table. This enriches the learning experience.
  3. The Learning Is Relevant to Current Roles The goal of adult education is to fit the needs of the learners. Ask and listen to learners about what they want from this experience.
  4. The Instruction Is Problem-Centered Adults learn best when the subject matter is practical and useful to the learners. The adult learner and the facilitator can partner together using the learner’s background information and coursework to solve current problems the learners might be facing.
  5. The Students are Motivated to Learn For a lot of adult learners, studying again or starting a new course can be intimidating. Getting past the initial uneasiness of adult learners can be a challenge. Despite the apprehension, adults that have chosen to go back to education and are probably already motivated to learn. The role of the facilitator is to encourage this motivation and to create an atmosphere that helps the group participants move past their anxieties.

A learning-centered outcome shifts the focus from what the “teacher” is teaching to what the adult learners are meant to learn. More and more evidence suggests that incorporating a learning-centered approach into the learning experience is beneficial to both the facilitator and the adult learners.

Facilitating the learning of adults is different than teaching children and requires a different approach. When the facilitators utilize the principles of adult learning and partner with the group members in a learning-centered approach, great facilitators can change the participant’s lives and give the learners the skills to bring transformation to their communities as well.


  • Barnwell, Katharine: “Introductory Course in Applied Linguistics – unit 3” Unpublished, taught regularly by Katy Barnwell at the Nigeria Bible Translation Trust from 1976 until recently.

  • Global Learning Partners, “Ten Tips for Effective Facilitation,” https://www.globallearningpartners.com Greene, K., Larson, L., “Virtual Andragogy: A New Paradigm for Serving Adult Online Learners.” International Journal of Digital Society, Volume 9, Issue 2, June 2018

  • Otim, R. L, “Facilitation Skills Training Manual; A facilitator’s handbook.” AVCI SCORE Project, October 2013

  • Peterson, Deb. “The Basics of Adult Learning.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-adult-learning-31425. Peterson, Deb. “5 Principles for the Teacher of Adults.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/principles-for-the-teacher-of-adults-31638.