Learning Differently

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Teaching is a two-way street and not all students learn the same. Marilyn Englander has this Perspective on the difference that age and life experience make.

After working with teenagers for years, I began teaching English to adults too. I’ve been astonished to discover how differently adults approach learning.

My adult students are varied in age, economic status, life experience. Some work tough physical jobs, but others are wealthy, well-traveled. I have to approach them differently than teens.

Teens regard learning as they do food, gulping it in fistfuls like candy, or pushing it away with disgust, like cooked broccoli. They accept that teachers are feeding them, so to speak. But, the adults view class more like a dinner party. They politely try the knowledge that I serve, even when it causes some mental indigestion.

Socializing is the priority for teens. They whisper or pass notes in class so I have to redirect their attention. For the adults, learning is a more solitary quest. Private and formal, even after months together, few know each others’ names.


My adult students possess rich resources from years of experience. To earn trust, I make sure George knows I remember he was a professor in Israel, that Jean was a bank manager in Peru. They take in knowledge more passively than teens do, writing down every word I say. Rosa worries she’s lost the knack of learning since her youth, Cleo want to be sure of the rules, is afraid to be wrong. I have to bolster their self-confidence.

The teenagers, on the other hand, know it all in spite of their youth, and like to strut and perform. Their bravado is exhilarating even when it’s leading them off track. Teens often regard learning as a chore. They crave amusement and rewards. It can take ingenuity to inspire them to study hard.

My adult students come to class diligently, even after a long work day, and study at home in spite of juggling kids and jobs. A thirst for knowledge they can use day to day motivates them.

I enjoy teaching both age groups. The teens offer me tantalizing updates on pop culture, but the adults share better recipes.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a North Bay educator and founder of REAL School Marin.