Adult Learning – the real leading edge of Coaching by Sue Young

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From my earliest days with a major multinational organisation, I worked with a wide range of people and developed my interest in the reality of the issues and challenges others faced in their roles. As a Manager I made active use of those perspectives in my business plans. In hindsight I was a good listener, and found that others readily opened up to me – the beginnings of my coaching?

This experience informed my move into management consultancy, where I increasingly saw that people were the biggest potential enablers or saboteurs of business strategy, and the need to plan how to get them on board. I moved increasingly into the area of management development. In this I was helping to raise managers’ awareness that the changing reality was that nothing in their careers was going to automatically happen. They need to take charge of their development and careers. That was the start of my interest in self managed learning. 

After about 10 years in practice I decided to take time out to study the formal knowledge and theory of OD, by undertaking a Masters in the field. It was at that time that I discovered the formal body of knowledge around Adult Learning – wow! It affirmed and resonated for me many of the principles that had been core to my way of working and learning throughout my career.

So why is the body of knowledge around Adult Learning so invisible when it comes to reading and training materials about Coaching, let alone discussions and media coverage and writings in the field?

The key features of the theory of Adult learning are not nearly as widely disseminated in Coach education and the industry media as the different techniques that can be used in coaching, for example the behavioural approach of GROW, NLP, Solutions-focused coaching, TA etc.  In addition there’s a great deal written about the skills and competencies of coaching. The ICF, EMCC and AC have followed this through in their competencies frameworks. Poorly used, they can be prone to be Coach technique or input led, rather than Learner needs led. This risks missing out on the whole point of coaching – enabling the Client to take charge of their learning.

So, what does the field of Adult Learning add? The field of Adult Learning is an integrative one, drawn from the fields of clinical, developmental and social psychology, sociology, and humanist psychology. The focus of its approach is trying to understand, from observation and research, the conditions that enable adult learning (Andragogy).

The Androgogical model of adult learning makes a number of assumptions:

1. The need to know – adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it. The first task is to help learners become aware of “the need to know”. (Tough 1979)

2. The learners’ self-concept. Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, and for their own lives. They become responsible for their learning and are naturally self-directed learners. If people do not feel safe, and are not treated with sufficient respect, they can revert to resistance or passive dependence.

3. The role of the learners’ experience. The richest source of learning resides within the learners themselves. This experience will be unique to them. Habits of thinking accumulate, some of which may get in the way of seeing new perspectives. Deeper levels of learning involve exploring the meaning of our experience, questioning assumptions and beliefs.

4. Readiness to learn – the assumption is that people learn in a staged way. For example until we have learned some basics we will not be ready to jump straight into the more advanced tasks. This progression can be accelerated by the right focused support.

5. Clear context for learning – unless people can see the relevance of the learning to what they want to achieve, they will be unlikely to engage. To achieve maximum outcomes the learner needs to see that the learning they achieve will contribute to something they see as high priority.

6. Motivation – While people are responsive to external motivators – e.g. better jobs, more money, they naturally also want to keep growing and developing. In fact todays younger generation sees opportunities to develop as one of their top criteria when judging attractiveness of jobs. In addition learning is frequently held back by limiting self-belief, and lack of opportunity.

You may notice that it could be referring to coaching. Probably because coaching, out all of the approaches to learning, most closely aligns with Adult Learning principles. For me the theory of Adult Learning provides a bigger context and rationale for a coaching approach to learning. If our coaching is not having the impact we want, I suggest the answer may well lie in reviewing our practice against the underpinning principles of Adult Learning

So, the following few questions may be useful to check out yourself against:

1. Whose needs am I meeting here? The Coach can get so caught up in the tools and techniques, or approaches they are using, this may get in the way of truly seeking to understand and connect to the Client’s reality. Have our egos become over identified with our chosen techniques and approaches, so we’re not open to hearing the real information our Client is giving us about their needs? Are we imposing our reality on the client, and getting in the way of their learning?

2. Am I leaving my client more able and equipped to self manage their continuing development after my work with them is complete? Some coaches get so caught up the impact they want to have in the immediate, that they can actively encourage dependence. Well in that case, it’s not generating sustainable learning and change. 

3. Have I really connected to, and understood the emotions of the Client in relation to their learning goals? Learning can be a strongly emotional issue. This is the territory for the biggest potential shifts in awareness and capabilities, but it requires the right environment to be created. Have I invested sufficiently in the relationship so there is a foundation of rapport and trust we can build on? This can be easily under-estimated, particularly as people are expert at masking their more difficult feelings, uncertainties and anxieties. Have I proactively created the safe space for the client to explore their feelings in relation to their objectives?

4. Have I sufficiently helped the client tap into the depth and value their experience brings? In our ‘expert led’ society it is easy for people to massively discount the expertise, knowledge and qualities they bring from their experience. Helping them raise their conscious awareness and connect to the power of their implicit knowledge and be able to articulate and express that is one of the most powerful sources of learning for experienced people. Are we helping our clients maximising learning from their experience sufficiently – both in immediate and longer term Life/Career contexts?

5. Have I got a sense of their readiness to learn and change? This is about where they are at, where they want to get to and the nature of the gap. If people set themselves stretching goals without chunking it down into tangible sub-goals defining progress, then they may be setting themselves to fail. Or, as Coach am I being unrealistic in my expectations of them, given where they are? Emotional readiness can be a major factor here – see 2).

So, that’s an overview of the key features of Adult Learning theory and a few questions that may be a useful ‘health check’ on your coaching approach. Particularly for those cases where you feel slightly disappointed in the outcomes, it may help develop your thinking about your expectations, and identify things you may test out doing differently.


Knowles, M. S. The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston: Gulf Publishing Company. 1973 Revised Edition 1990.

Tough A. The Adult’s learning Projects. Toronto: Ontario Institute for studies in Education, 1971, 1979

Mezirow J. Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. Jossey Bass 1991

To contact Sue Young for more details:

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The Innova Partnership

M: +44 07802 817727