Are adult learners really different from younger ones?

Every once in a while I come across a list like this one that points out the differences between adult learners and, in this case, “youth learners.”
For the most part I disagree with such lists, not because of what they say about adult learners, but because they tend to view younger learners in ways that I think are mistaken and limiting, which, in turn, justify less-than-optimal teaching strategies.
For instance, in this list adult learners are portrayed as “problem-centered” compared to youth learners who are “subject-oriented.” Adult learners are described as “self-directed”; youth learners “often depend on adults for direction.”
I could continue, but those contrasts make my point. (It’s not my intention to single out this particular list for criticism; all the lists I’ve seen have what I regard as similar flaws.)
It makes sense that many younger learners are subject oriented and dependent on adults for direction. They have been taught to be that way by teachers who think of them in those terms. (My experience has been that given appropriate instruction younger learners are capable of making connections between subjects and acting in independent ways.)
There are, of course, differences between older and younger learners. One is that because older learners have lived longer, they have more experiences and cognitive structures that require integration with the new learning.
Another difference may be that younger learners are more willing to try new things, particularly when their self esteem is on the line, but I am not certain about that having observed some high schools students refuse to engage in tasks in which there was a chance of failure.
What qualities, if any, do you believe separate older and younger learners?

2 Responses to “Are adult learners really different from younger ones?”

  1. 1 Jamie June 13, 2013 at 8:13 am

    I’d say that older learners are more likely to give direct feedback when teaching isn’t a good fit, while younger learners are more likely to act out that feedback in various forms of inattention and fooling around. (though I’ve sadly seen some of the kid-like behvior at faculty meetings and workshops)

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