It’s All About Andragogy, Baby!


I took up tap dancing and playing the ukulele at the same time. I had not done either in the past and had not shown any previous affinity or talent for either. I pretty much launched into two different artistic forms from the same starting point.

Three months on, I’m loving one and ready to quit the other.


Interestingly, I boil it down to the learning process. Not the art form, not my degree of talent, and not my level of effort. It’s andragogy, baby. I chose two different approaches to learning these artistic endeavours and that has made all the difference. Let me explain.

To learn to tap dance, I signed up for lessons at my local recreation centre. It’s a structured class with about a dozen of us middle-aged mommas trying to replicate the fun their tiny tots have in dance class. Our instructor is a young, spritely thing who LOVES tap almost as much as breathing. Important to note (and I’m foreshadowing here), she is the same instructor of all the tap classes for kids at the recreation centre.

To learn to play the ukulele, I decided to teach myself. Without much of an action plan, I bought the ukulele and a beginners instruction book, and then found a bunch of websites and YouTube videos hosted by ukulele junkies who love to show other people how to do it.

At tap class, after a four minute warm-up of tapping our toes and heels in unison, our teacher demonstrates a random step combination and then has our group repeat this combination up and down the length of the room. Then she shows us another random combo. We follow. Then another. We follow. In our hour-long class, we learn about five or six of these combinations. Think of it like doing piano scales for an hour. Except that each week, the combinations are different. One doesn’t build on another. It’s just random combination after random combination. And just as I’m getting the fancy footwork down for one combo, it’s time to stop and learn a new one. Sigh.

With my ukulele playing, I began by learning to tune the thing (a very good place to start) and strumming some of the basic and most-used chords. Then quite quickly – and quite naturally, I might add – I looked for a song I could start playing. One website suggested mastering “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” as a good start. Hmmm… no thanks. I had to jump to something more fun, so I found “Someone To Lava” (If you’ve seen the movie, Inside Out, then you might recognize this song from the short animated film that was shown before the feature).

I found the tablature (fancy name for chord sequence) for this song and also the video on YouTube, and then just started practicing along as best I could. It was a slow start for sure, and I struggled with changing chords and strumming properly. Every so often I would stop and just practice changing from one chord to the next. Or I’d practice a different strumming pattern. But I could always recognize what I was playing and how it fit into the whole song. And almost every time I’d play along to the song, I could see where I was improving and what I needed to work on. I’ve noticed my progress in not having to always look at the ukulele to change chords, and that my strumming has become more natural. I keep my uke in my office and find myself picking it up to quickly practice my song before starting into some other task.

Can you tell which one I love and which one I’m ready to quit? Yup, tap dance class is becoming a bore and I’m missing more classes than I’d like to admit. And every time I see my ukulele, I smile and want to keep going.

The thing is, there is a solid theory behind why this is happening (read: it’s NOT just me and my fickle ways!)

The theory of adult learning basically states that certain conditions need to be met in order for adults to thrive in learning environments. For those lovers of lifelong learning – like me! – out there, it was Malcolm Knowles who identified these conditions or principles for maximizing the learning experience for adults (and, yes, they differ from what children need). The one principle that I think helps explain my experience is this: for grown-ups, learning has to be goal-oriented and relevant. Basically, in order to keep motivated, adults need to know what they are working toward, to see the relevance of what’s being taught and how it relates to the overall learning outcome. If the goal is not clear and if the applicability of each segment of learning to that goal is not evident, then motivation to learn drops.

Put against the context of my tap dance lessons, you can see why my motivation is waning. I have no idea what we are working toward in that class. We are doing isolated combinations and the steps aren’t building on each other. But I do know exactly what would have motivated me in that class: having the instructor show us a fun and level-appropriate choreographed routine to start, saying “THIS is what you are going to learn by the end of our time together.” Then she could have spent time in each class showing us several of the combinations, starting at with the first sequence and getting the chance to master each before we move on. If I knew that each week I’d be practicing combinations that would eventually tie together to a complete routine, I’d be practicing in my sleep!

Instead, each week I go there knowing I’ll learn some random moves that I will easily forget by the next morning and with no motivation for remembering them. What’s the point? We’re doing completely different moves next week.

But my ukulele playing is altogether different. I started really early in choosing a song I was going to learn. I saw the goal up front: I will learn “Someone To Lava”. And every time I sit down to practice, even if it’s just to practice one or two chord changes, I know that it fits into the bigger picture of playing that song. I’m motivated to keep going because I’ve seen my progress and I know that every time I practice, I’m getting close to my goal of playing the whole song.

So what does this mean for you? Well, if you’re putting yourself out there to learn some new artistic endeavour, pay special attention to HOW it’s being taught. When we lack motivation to keep going with something, we are so easy to blame ourselves for lack of will, lack of talent or lack of skill. It’s easier, then, to give up or make excuses and to, worst of all, give up trying anything else because we already assume it’s us, not them. But sometimes it is them. Not everyone knows what it takes to motivate adults to learn. If you’re trying something new and finding your motivation starting to wane, maybe it’s that the goal hasn’t been made clear to you or the relevance of a particular lesson hasn’t been made evident. Then you can {gently} encourage your instructor to make these things clear for you, keeping you motivated to keep going (and in my case, to keep tapping).