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Adult Jewish learning

Theory, practice, and making a difference in our own community

Spertus Survey image
Members of our community at a Spertus Institute workshop on Jewish leadership.

Adult humans are complicated, to say the least. 

They navigate numerous competing goals and priorities. They possess varied personal identities, interests, strengths, and needs, not only from one another but over time. They participate in a range of personal and professional communities throughout their lives-each with specific commitments and responsibilities. Given all of this, what exactly might they want from Jewish education and how can adult Jewish learning be successfully offered? 

While we need some background in adult learning theory to address this question, its answer is not theoretical. It matters why, what, how, and certainly if, members of our community continue to learn about Judaism and topics of Jewish interest. It matters to Jewish involvement, to the interests we instill in our children, the strength of our organizations, and the health and vitality of Jewish life. 

That is why Spertus Institute, with funding from JUF, is spearheading a community-wide initiative around this issue, bringing professionals together to learn from and with each other, and to plan collaborative opportunities to learn. The first joint program will take place June 2.   

There are many successful models of adult Jewish learning-measured variously by quality of program, attendance, ongoing engagement, and program sustainability. While there isn't a precise recipe for creating and sustaining such programs, an overview of theory and practice can lay a strong foundation. 

Major changes have impacted how, when, why, and where adults learn. In the U.S., the population is aging. These older adults possess higher levels of education, health, and income. Globalization has significant implications for what adults want and need to learn. And technology has revolutionized how adults access and evaluate information-and how they engage in learning itself.

Adult learning is multi-dimensional. It involves thought, feeling, and action. Much of it is informal and self-directed, occurring in everyday life. Yet adults clearly value learning in social contexts with support and direction. Characteristics that motivate adults to learn include an individual's interest in the subject, social relationships, external expectations, and practical factors such as opportunities for professional advancement. These motivating factors have impact: Recent studies have found that 90 percent of U.S. adults are engaged in at least one formal or informal learning project.

To be attractive to adults, learning must be relevant. Scholarship suggests that the most significant adult learning leads to personal growth, making a difference in the learner's behavior or attitudes. Transformative learning, which is much discussed today, has the potential to liberate "adults from distorted perceptions, beliefs, and assumptions that effectively limit their freedom to be responsible actors in the world" ( Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind by Kathleen Taylor and Catherine Marienau).  

Beyond theory, the practical experiences we have had at Spertus-having presented dozens of pubic programs annually for decades-leads to some conclusions. Adult learners have specific interests, which change over time. They are busy, and since participation takes time and effort, they need to know the benefits of participating. They are encouraged by social opportunities. They seek a combination of knowledge, discussion, and application.

Merging theory and experience, let me suggest a few factors that lay strong grounding for attractive and engaging adult Jewish learning experiences. Program content must be deep and rich. A knowledgeable presenter is important, but as important is a presenter who is engaging. Regardless of topic, adult learners are problem-centered and seek opportunities to apply their learning in their own lives. Adults are willing to be challenged, provided they are in a safe environment. While many adults value and engage in independent learning, they also indicate interest in experiences in which they can learn in person from experts. Many adult learners have an interest in Jewish texts, themes, and experiences, even as they seek to explore more general (at times comparative) thought and experiences. 

Programs that are constructed with the needs, orientations, and interests of adults will be more likely to resonate, strengthening our community through lifelong learning.  

Dr. Dean P. Bell is Provost and Vice President at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. Visit to sign up for information about the June 2 community-wide program.

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