Do adult learning principles transcend cultures?


I was in Canada last week observing several pilot versions of training programs that my team had developed. After one of the sessions I was talking with a participant who asked: “Have you found that adult learning principles work the same across cultures?”

As I took a moment to reflect on my experiences, everyone’s eyes turned to me, curious of what I might have to say about it.  

“Yes, I’ve found that the adult learning principles that you’ve seen in action during today’s session have worked everywhere I’ve gone. I’ve presented to groups in places as different as the U.S., India, Paraguay, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Uganda. These strategies have always engaged people and I’ve received feedback that told me people were excited to learn more and delighted to not have to sit and listen to another lecture.”

That was the good news. It wasn’t, however, the whole story. When working in different cultures, you do have to know your audience.

I’ve found that some groups of learners who are not accustomed to learner-centric design or learning activities that require critical thinking take a little time to get the hang of it.

I’ve found that in places like India which is more of a hierarchical, top-down culture, I’ve needed to be intentional about which participants to place in which groups. Supervisors or other participants who are in leadership roles or positions of authority need to be grouped separately from front-line staff and individual contributors. Otherwise more junior staff will generally clam-up and defer to the senior members of their group.

Similarly in a place like Saudi Arabia, I’ve found that small group work led to high levels of engagement… as long as I broke the groups up along gender lines.

The bottom line is that I’ve never had a group revolt and I’ve never seen participants disengage as a result of designing training experiences that are learner-centric. On the contrary, I’ve found that learners appreciate the opportunity to actively explore the content and feel valued through opportunities to share their thoughts, opinions and experiences.




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