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Communities of Practice: How Adults Learn

Understanding how adults learn

Adults learn for different reasons than children do – typically because they want to or have to, for personal and professional reasons. Here is a brief summary of Malcolm Knowles’s principles of adult learning, honed over 40 years, and bolstered by recent research into how the brain functions and how it learns. Consider the following principles of adult learning when planning meetings and interactive webinars.

  • Adults want to know “What is in it for me? How will this learning experience be personally relevant?”
  • Adults want to make connections between what they already know and the new things they are learning
  • Adults want opportunities for practical application
  • Adults bring their life experience to any learning opportunity; as a result, they have a lot to contribute and given the right opportunities, they will contribute to others’ learning.
  • Adults generally consider themselves self-directed and responsible; they want to have at least some control over their learning experience and want to be treated with respect.

The importance of reciprocity

A unique feature of a community of practice is its ability to ensure reciprocity. In this context, reciprocity means ‘when one teaches, two learn’. In a community of practice, all members are seen as both learners and teachers, regardless of their experience or role. This widens everyone’s openness to all ideas and increases opportunities for learning.


Being open to new ideas and being willing to learn from others is a key component in successful communities of practice. Cultivating this attitude means moving from a closed, ‘we have the answers’ attitude to a genuine openness to collaborating with others.

For more information on how adults learn, view:

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  • Last Updated: Oct 12, 2023 2:27 PM
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