Module on Adult Learning

SECTION ONE

OVERVIEW - MAPPING THE RESEARCH AND THEORY ON ADULT LEARNING

I want to first provide you with an overview of the research and theory on adult learning. We certainly will not cover all this material. In many respects, the "cognitive map" or outline that follows represents the content of the adult learning course, EAD 861a, when I teach it. Within this map, we will then locate several key ideas that seem especially relevant to thinking about teaching adults.

***********

Overview

***********

Now let’s turn to an overview discussion of adult learning. I first want locate the kind of learning we are talking about here in this course within a broader discourse on learning.

 

***FORMAL, INFORMAL, NONFORMAL, AND INCIDENTAL ADULT LEARNING***

Adult learning takes place in a wide variety of settings and contexts, such as higher education, adult literacy, continuing professional education, or workplace education. We might refer to these contexts as settings for "formal" adult learning. For the most part, it is the formal setting that will command our attention in this course, because it is in these settings where we are most likely to encounter the phenemenon of "teaching," or some form of helping adults learn.

*Informal learning*

It is important to remember, however, that adults learn in other settings as well, which we might characterize as "informal" and "non-formal." Informal learning refers to settings in which there is much less structure or organization to the learning process (some students might characterize my teaching in this manner!). There is not usually a formal lesson or unit of study. Rather, learning occurs through more informal relationships and structures, such as a supervisor-employee relationship, mentor-mentee, and master-apprenticeship situations. Informal situations are generally characterized by power relations in which one or more persons are generally recognized as having a certain degree of authority and power to influence and control the nature of the learning situation. I might also check out a video from the library on small engine repair to learn how to care for my lawn mower. In this case, I have control over whether I learn or not, but the content is coming from the expert on the tape. Thus, Informal settings might have a "teacher" as well, but that role is considerably different than the one we will be talking about in this course.

*Nonformal learning*

Nonformal learning characterizes a learning experience in which the power relations are more or less equally distributed among all members of the learning situation, and no one person is recognized as having more power, authority, or control than another. These settings refer generally to groups of people who have come together to work on a problem or an interest area in which they all have some investment. Examples of this form of learning might include peasant farmers in Mexico who come together to learn from one another about how to reduce the use chemicals when planting groups. Book clubs, in which five to six individuals get together on a monthly basis to read and discuss a book they mutually determine is another example. One could think of many more. Generally, we do not think of the role of a "teacher" when we consider nonformal learning settings. Everyone in this kind of setting is considered to be a teacher to each other.

*Incidental learning*

Another term that you will likely run into in the literature on adult learning is "incidental learning." For the most part, this term refers to learning that occurs parallel to or along side of another form of activity. It is generally thought of as learning that is unplanned or explicitly unintended. It can occur in a work setting, in relationships with significant others, watching a movie, or going for a walk. Much of what I have learned about being a professor, a husband, and a father represents this form of learning. It does not necessarily distinguish a type of activity that is distinct from formal, informal, or nonformal learning experiences.. In fact, incidental learning can and probably does take place in all three of these settings. My guess is that, in the three weeks of our course, you have learned a number of things that we might consider incidental to the more formal, planned learning experiences we engage in each week.

So, as we proceed with understanding and learning about helping adults learn in formal settings, it is always good to keep in mind that most of what our learners will learn will occur outside of this formal setting. We, as teachers, have some role in what they learn, but we should never lose sight of the fact that this role is relatively small compared to the many other sources and forms of learning in which they are likely to be immersed.

****************

INDIVIDUAL EXERCISE

Take a few moments to reflect on your own learning experiences. Can you identify some that were:

a) Informal?

B) Nonformal?

C) Incidental?

How are they different? Similar? Did any of these seem more powerful or significant to you in some way? How so?

How useful are these conceptual distinctions? What might be some of their limitations to helping us understand adult learning

Write out your reflections on these questions.

****************

So one way of bounding our study of adult learning, at least for this course, is to focus on learning that occurs within formal settings. To help us get a better handle on this literature on adult learning in formal settings, we can ask four powerful questions:

1) Who are adult learners?

2) Why do they engage in these educational experiences?

3) What do they learn in these settings?

4) How do they learn?

I will provide a brief overview to each of these questions. For the most part, in this course we want to focus our discussion on the fourth of these questions: How do adults learn? or adult learning theory. But first, a brief discussion of the first three.

 

***WHO ARE ADULT LEARNERS?***

The research which addresses this question is largely descriptive in nature. By this I mean that studies of adult learners seek to identity the characteristics of adults who participate in formal learning experiences, rates of participation, and variation in participation rates. The first national study of adult learners was funded by the Carnegie Corporation and carried out by Johnstone and Rivera, reported in 1965. Since this initial study, many other participation studies have been conducted. Among the most well known are the studies conducted for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This agency has sponsored a series of triennial surveys since 1969 of adults. There are several other studies like this as well, reported in Merriam and Caffarella’s Learning in Adulthood.

Taken as a whole, there are several interesting aspects to these studies. First is the variation in who is considered to be an "adult," for purposes of these surveys. There are no neat boundaries to defining learners as adults or what counts as a learning experience. For example, the NCES studies defined an adult in 1969, as "persons beyond compulsory school age (seventeen and over) who are not enrolled full-time in a regular school or college program but who are engaged in one or more activities of organized instruction" (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991, p. 65). You can see that this definition is predicated on the assumption that college students are all younger. Obviously, with the large increase in returning adult students that we have seen over the last 15 years, this definition would not help us out very much. The proportion of individuals attending college who are over the age of 25 is about 50% now. Other studies have used this age of 25 to define an adult learner. There is simply no consensus on a definition of an "adult" learner.

Another interesting observation from these studies is the variability in reported rates of participation. For example, the J&R 1965 study reported a 22% rate of participation among American adults. The NCES studies have reported rates from 10% to 14%. Other studies have reported rates ranging from 35% to over 80%.

***********

*Reflective exercise*

What might account for these variations in rates of participation observed in these various studies?

**********

Aside from no clear consensus on who is an adult, and considerable variation in how many participate in formal learning experiences each year, what have we learned from this research? At least a couple things seem important. In general, adult learners tend to be:

* younger rather than older;

* better educated than adults who do not participate;

* have higher than average incomes;

* employed full time in white collar jobs; and

* live in the suburbs.

For the most part, these findings have fluctuated relatively little in the 35 years since the first formal study of adult learning was reported.

We have seen some important shifts in these data. Initially, there were some differences in participation based on race and gender. However, among middle class adults, these differences have virtually disappeared. Finally, with the aging of the baby boom generation, we have seen higher rates of participation among groups of older adults who, in years past, showed relatively little participation in formal education.

Clearly, these data do not typify all adult learners, and each of us can identify exceptions to these generalizations. Huey Long argues that there is really no basis for talking about the "typical" adult learner. There is so much variability among this group that he cautions against sweeping characterizations. For example, adults who participate in literacy or job training programs are likely to be much different from those who participate in university study.

*Individual differences among adults*

Another way to look at the question of who are adult learners is to look at how they differ from one another in terms of learning. This area of research and theory is generally referred to as "individual differences" or learning styles. There is evidence that differences in learning can be attributed to learning style, cognitive style, personality, gender, and culture. Typically, the question of differences in approaches to or preferences for learning seems to fit more with how adults learn, and we will deal with that topic in another session.

We can look at who our adult learners are from yet another perspective, that of a developmental point of view. The field of adult development has been a rich source of research and theory for educators working with adults. If we take this research seriously, it suggests that adult learners represent a wide spectrum of intellectual, cognitive, psychosocial, moral, and spiritual development. And these different developmental levels within each of these areas may manifest themselves in different approaches to the learning task. The work of Larry Daloz, in Effective Teaching and Mentoring, probably best exemplifies this developmental approach to understanding adult learners.

Among the theorists most well known in this area, are Jean Piaget (cognitive development), Erik Erikson (psychosocial identity development), Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan (moral development), and William Perry and Mary Belenky et al (ethical/intellectual development). The developmental framework has been aggressively applied to adults in both higher education and other educational settings as well. It also represents an important dimension of the student affairs field.

***********

*Reflective exercise*

Can you identify ways in which studies which seek to characterize adult learners and their participation rates might be applicable to your work with adult learners?

***********

 

***WHY DO ADULTS PARTICIPATE IN EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS?***

The body of literature which addresses this question is both broad and deep. We will look at it, in overview terms, from the research and theory on participation, nonparticipation, and noncontinuation or attrition.

* Participation*

Studies of participation have also attempted to provide information on why adults would participate in formal learning. Early survey studies were largely descriptive in nature, seeking to identify the reasons adults give for participating in education. Examples of these might be: Becoming a better informed person; Preparing for a new job; Meeting new people; or Getting away from my daily routine.

*Motivational frameworks* Later studies, however, have attempted to develop conceptual frameworks or models which might help predict and explain certain patterns of participation. One of the early examples of this approach to understanding adult motivation to participate was the notion of "motivational orientation," described by Cyril Houle in his now classic, The Inquiring Mind. He identified three major forms of orientation to participation: a) Goal-oriented; b) Activity-oriented; and c) Learning-oriented. Goal-oriented adults use education as a means to achieve some other kind of goal. Activity-oriented adults participate in education for the sake of the activity itself and the social aspects of it. Learning-oriented adults seem to enroll in education for the sake of knowledge.

Other researchers, such as Roger Boshier, and Morstain and Smart, took Houle’s model and developed it further. This work resulted in a 48 item Education Participation Scale (EPS), reflecting six factors:

a) Social relationships: meet new friends;

b) External expectations: complying with the directives of those in authority;

c) Social welfare: wanting to serve others or the community;

d) Professional advancement; for job advancement;

e) Escape or stimulation: alleviating boredom or escaping home or work routines;

f) Cognitive interest: engaged for the sake of learning itself.

The main difference between these approaches to understanding reasons for participation is that Houle was characterizing groups of people, while the latter researchers were identifying clusters of reasons for participation.

*Nonparticipation - Barriers or deterrents to participation*

Another way this question of why adults participate has been studied is through analysis of those who don’t. This has led to a body of information generally referred to as barriers or deterrents to participation. Again, a similar pattern of development within the research and theory can be identified here as well, beginning with largely descriptive studies and then later, the development of models and conceptual frameworks which seek to predict nonparticipation.

You might imagine that there are many reasons identified by adults for not participating, and you would be right. Sometimes, adults give more than one reason. But lack of time and money are the two reasons most often cited. Others include personal problems, goes against social norms, prior negative experiences with education, and lack of awareness.

Later conceptual work has examined whether there might be types or categories of barriers. The first of these frameworks was set forth by Johnstone and Rivera and included situational and dispositional barriers. Situational barriers might include things like absence of childcare, cost, lack of transportation, and time. Dispositional barriers reflect more one’s negative attitudes toward the value or worth of education. In 1981, Cross added a third category, institutional barriers, which reflect characteristics of the program which make it difficult to participate, such as the time or day of the week a program is offered, physical access, and content. Darkenwald and Merriam added a fourth category, information, which reflects a lack of awareness of what is available.

This work on conceptualizing barriers to participation lead to the development of the Deterrents to Participation Scale (DPS) by Gordon Darkenwald and his colleagues. In general research conducted with this instrument, or some variation of it, lead to the identification of the following factors as major deterrents to participation: a) Personal problems; b) Lack of confidence; c) Educational costs; c) Lack interest in organized education; and d) Lack of interest in available courses.

*Noncompletion or attrition and retention studies*

A third approach to studying motivation to participate has been to focus on those who start an educational program and then withdraw. This is particularly evident in studies in attrition in higher education and adult literacy and basic education programs. Attrition rates in adult basic education programs are high across the United States, averaging around 50-60% and ranging as high as 75-80%. Higher education has attrition problems as well. In some studies, it is estimated that only one of every four freshman who start college complete their degree.

Some of the most well known work in attrition in higher education has been conducted by Vincent Tinto. He argued that two main clusters of factors account for retention of students in college; academic and social integration. Tinto’s work has also been used as a framework by some researchers to study retention in adult learning as well. Others have argued that the contexts are so different that Tinto’s model has little utility in learning settings that are not higher education in nature. These researchers have used the barriers to participation models and applied them to reasons for not completing.

Others who have focused on the underprepared adult, like Allan Quigely, argue that noncompletion may very well be a fundamentally different phenomenon from nonparticipation. For this reason, we need to study noncompletion in its own right. His work has focused on the notion of resistance to education that some adults demonstrate and understanding the nature of that resistance.

 

*The sociological perspective*

Adding a new wrinkle to the whole area of participation and motivation is the critique of the psychological, individualistic perspective so pervasive in this research. In general, this critique charges that we have sought to understand participation, lack of it, and attrition as an individual problem, looking for the causes in characteristics and attributes of the individual. Examples of this would be the individual’s beliefs, interests, values, behaviors, devleopmental stage, etc. Quigely’s research would be an example of a more sociological perspective. Here he and other researchers look to the social structures in which education takes place for possible understandings of lack of participation.

From this perspective, we would examine the role of educational programs in socializing adults into a given system; transmitting desired knowledge and reproducing culture; fostering social mobility; legitmation. That is, we can look to the ways in which social structures within a given area systematically differentiate and sort people on the basis of certain structural factors. Cost of programs would be a good example. Obviously, only those people who have the discretionary income to spend on educational programs are likely to participate.

 

*Summary of research looking at why adults participate in educational progams*

The participation research and theory is one of the most well developed and extensively researched areas represented within the field of adult education. It is both descriptive and explanatory and represents the areas of participation, nonparticipation, and noncompletion. It has included reasons and factors why adults participate, why they don’t, and why they withdraw before completing their goals.

Most of the research on nonparticipation has been conducted with questionnaires, leading some to speculate that respondents might be giving socially desirable responses to the items included on the survey. Research that I and others have conducted with educators who work with underprepared adults suggests that there may be other things going on and the learners are simply not telling us the "real" reasons, or they themselves may not even now for sure what those reasons are.

Much work remains to be done in this area, despite its breadth and depth. But it is a difficult area in which to work. For example, in one recent study of mine, we sought to interview students who completed their program, studies still in the program, and students who had withdrawn. We especially wanted to talk with those who had left before completing their goals. Yet, we were able to contact only a handful of the students identified in the study. They are difficult to find, to reach, and eventually to obtain an interview from.

A different approach to participation reflects a constructivist approach to the problem (more on that later). Stephen Brookfield, Larry Daloz, and others suggest that adults participate in learning as a way of making sense and meaning of their experiences. They argue that we might best understand the motives for engaging in learning as seeking a context in which to engage in meaning-making processes. While these other things might be going on as well, looking at the question of motives for learning as one of meaning-making opens up whole new avenues of research and inquiry. We then look to the nature, content, and context of the learning experiences to determine the extent to which adults find these meaningful and relevant to their lives.

**********

*Reflective exercise*

In light of the material on why adults learn that you have just read, think about your own motivation to learn. To what extent does your own experience reflect these research findings? How does it differ from what was presented here? How might you account for these differences?

**********

***WHAT ADULTS LEARN***

The answer to this question is, in some respects, closely tied to the research and theory on why adults learn. That is, we are asking about the content of their learning experiences, and what they obtained from it, or the outcomes of their learning. The first question has received more attention in studies of adults in non-higher education settings, while the latter seems to be more well developed among higher education contexts, such as within the field of students affairs.

While the contexts for adult learning often varies tremendously, the most common reasons provided by adults for participating in educational programs are occucaptionally related - perhaps as much as 80%. It then follows that what it is that adults are learning in these programs is job-related or at least perceived to be related or applied to present or future work.

In terms of learning outcomes, perhaps one of the most well-known bodies of work within the student affairs area is that of Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini. Their work and that of others in this area focuses on how college affects students over the course of their experience. While most of this research focuses on traditional, college-aged students, some research has focused on the effects of college on nontraditional, adult students. The focus of this research centers around cognitive and intellectual development, psychosocial and affective development, and critical thinking.

***HOW ADULTS LEARN***

The last key question that we will look at is how adults learn. Here I will just mention where we will go with this discussion. Then, in the next section of this virtual session, we will explore this question more, using both the readings assigned for this topic, my own understanding of the research and theory, and your own experiences.

Virtually all attempts to develop a theoretical understanding of how adults learn are grounded in philosophical and theoretical orientations that have been around for many years. These orientations are listed in the cognitive map at the beginning of this module, and in the assigned readings by Merriam and Caffarella. Probably the most well known of these perspectives on adult learning is that of andragogy, popularized by Malcom Knowles. Whether andragogy actually does represent a theory of learning or a prescription for practice has been debated for some time. Most now, however, generally agree that it represents more a set of assumptions than it does a theory.

None-the-less, the idea of andragogy has been very generative within the research and theory on adult learning. Several important ideas seem to have sprung from or at least related to from this initial work on andragogy. They are self-directed learning, experience-based learning, and reflection. Another area of adult learning, that of transformation theory, especially that advanced by Jack Mezirow, represents an extensive elaboration and revision of andragogy applied to profound changes within adult lives. The idea of learning as contextual and applicable to specific problems and situations within adult lives is also a current topic within the field today (See Chapter Two in Dirkx & Prenger). As may be evident from the reading in Merriam & Caffarella, contextual learning is also contained within this set of assumptions about adult learning known as andragogy.

The area of cognition is less well developed in adult learning research and theory. We are just begining to get research within this area conducted with and among adult learners. Examples of this research are the work on situated cognition, cognitive apprenticeships, cognitive restructuring (very popular in prisons these days!), and postformal thinking. Studies of cognitive and epistemological development are more prevalent among studies of traditional college-aged students, representing a fairly extensive body of research and theory.

***********

This, then, concludes the first section of this module on adult learning. Before we go on to a more indepth discussion of how adults learn, I would like you to complete an exercise that will help you both better understand the material you have just read and encourage you to think more critically about it.

***********

*Reflective exercise*

*Individual work*

Think about the nature of the adult learners with whom you work or are planning to work (or think of your own experience as an adult learner). Write out answers to the following questions:

1) In what ways does the research and theory on who are adult learners and why they learn seems clarify or help illuminate your understanding of these learners?

2) How is your experience of these learners different from what you have read here?

*Small group work*

Once you have thought over and reflected on this material, and written out your responses to these questions, e-mail your responses to the other members in the small group to which you have been assigned.

After each member has contributed his or her responses, review these contributions and see if you can determine any patterns or themes to the individual responses. Share your observations with the small group.

Interact with your group until you have reached some consensus as to how you might characterize the nature of the responses shared.

*Large group work*

The facilitator of each group should post this consensus to the class listserv.

*Small group work*

After all the small groups have posted their consensus observations to the listserv, examine the different group responses to see how they are similar and different. Discuss these observations with your small group and then post your general observations back to the listserv.

***********

In the next section, then, I will posit several principles or guidelines for fostering adult learning that are grounded in this research and theory. Students interested in a more extensive study and discussion of this area are encouraged to take one of our courses on adult learning.

 

 


  

Module on Adult Learning

SECTION TWO

KEY PRINCIPLES OF ADULT LEARNING FOR USE IN

PLANNING AND IMPLEMENTING INSTRUCTION FOR ADULTS

INTRODUCTION

In the last section of this module, we looked at different ways we may think of adult learning experiences and differentiated formal learning from other forms of learning. We also looked at research and theory that provides us a sense of who adult learners are, their motivation for participating in formal education, why they don’t participate or why they don’t persist in pursuing their educational goals, and what kinds of things adults learn when they are pursuing formal education.

There is also a wide body of research and theory which examines how adults learn. In the closing segments of the last section, we touched on this knowledge base. I don’t intend to exhaustively review this literature with you in this course. As I indicated earlier, EAD 861a: Adult Learning covers this body of research and theory in more depth. What I will try to do here is to abstract from the research and theory on adult learning what I consider to be key principles that you can use to plan and implement instruction for adults in a wide variety of formal learning settings.

**********

*Reflective Exercise*

Before we get too far along here, it would be helpful for you to pause and think about what learning means to you. How have you thought about the meaning of learning so far in your own learning and teaching? How has it manifest itself within your own life?

Write out your responses and share them with your virtual small group.

***********

 

THEORETICAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATIONS OF ADULT LEARNING

*Theories of learning and adult learning*

You were asked to read a couple chapters from the new book on adult learning by Sharan Merriam and Rosemary Caffarella. This book is a revision of an earlier edition published in 1991 titled, Learning in Adulthood. While it is not a definite statement of the research and theory on adult learning, I think it represents a nice introduction to the topic of this module. In addition to the chapters I assigned, these authors also include chapters on self-directed learning, transformative learning, and other topics of relevance to understanding adult learning. If you don’t already own this book, you may want to obtain it as a useful resource.

In addition, I asked you to read Chapter Two out of the Dirkx & Prenger text, focusing on contextual learning. This chapter (in fact, the entire book) presents a view of learning grounded in what Merriam and Caffarella refer to as "constructivist learning." My own view of adult learning most closely reflects this perspective of learning, although I am also informed by cognitivist and humanist traditions. Hopefully, as you complete this module and as your experiences in this course unfold, these influences will become increasingly apparent to you. In all likelihood, none of us demonstrate a view of learning that is entirely consistent with one or two views. I suspect we have different learning theories, instead of one grand theory of adult learning, because how we learn differs, depending on what we are learning and the context in which we learn.

Can you imagine a single theory of adult learning that might be used to explain how we learn to speak a foreign language, tune a motorcycle, design and maintain a web page, appreciate Shakespearean drama, and to break a junk food habit? It would be quite the theory!

***********

*Reflective exercise*

In what ways does your understanding of adult learning reflect the different theoretical traditions discussed in Chp 11 of Merriam and Caffarella? In what ways is your learning:

- Behavioral?

- Cognitive?

- Humanist?

- Social learning?

- Constructivist?

Can you point to specific beliefs, assumptions, or actions which reflect the characteristics and properties of each of these perspectives?

Which of these schools of thought best reflect what you believe overall about adult learning? Can you identify examples from your own experience when you didn’t act on these beliefs and act instead as if you were guided by a different theory of learning?

Answer these questions on your own but feel free to share whatever thoughts you may have about them with your virtual small group.

***********

* What’s unique about adult learning?*

We are also going to sidestep another knotty problem, whether adult learning represents a unique and distinct form of learning apart from how children and youth learn. Put another way, does Knowles’ notion of andragogy represent a way of learning that is different from forms of learning embedded in pedagogy? This is an important theoretical problem and, for the most part, the jury remains out. But this distinction, while theoretically important, has only tangential consequences for our understanding of how to facilitate adult learning. For this reason, we will not go into this debate here. In fact, you will probably here me use the term "pedagogy" to refer broadly to the practice of helping others learn.

 

SOME KEY IDEAS OF ADULT LEARNING

So I would like to approach this problem of understanding adult learning from the perspective of what is useful for us to know in planning and implementing instruction for adults. Hopefully, you will see how these principles are not theoretical, in the sense of being derived from a specific theory. Yet, they are grounded in the research and theory of adult learning and are not constructed out of thin air. In this sense, then, they are theoretical. Go figure!

The guiding ideas around which I will structure the following discussion are:

1) The self as intimately bound up with adult learning;

2) The importance of context in adult learning;

3) Reason and imagination as processes of learning from experience; and

4) The influence of power and culture on the content and process of adult learning.

 

*Idea One* "The self is intimately bound up and involved in the process of adult learning."

It is surprising how easily and often we slip into a view of learning that minimizes or ignores altogether the person who is learning. This is most evident when we think about teaching as transmission of information or skills, and learning as mastery of a pre-ordained content separate from the learners. Yet, the research and theory here suggests otherwise. We find the centrality of notions of self in such theoretical ideas as a) self-directed learning, b) learning from experience, developmental readiness, c) learning as meaning-making, d) motivation to learn, and e) transformative learning.

*Self-directed learning*

There are a number of ways this principle or idea is manifest in the process of adult learning. Knowles and others drew our attention to the self-directed nature of learning in adulthood. Subsequent research has demonstrated that self-directedness is actually a fairly complicated notion, dependent on the emotional and intellectual maturity of the learner and the nature of the task being learned. But the idea here is that, in our learning, we strive to become increasingly self-directed. Adults will typically become impatient with learning situations which continue to be highly directive and which do not allow for the emergence of their own authority and direction.

*Learning from experience*

The self is also involved in the idea of learning from experience. In this course, I have already provided you with several opportunities to draw on your own experience in thinking through and coming to understand certain ideas and concepts. Think of how your own sense of self was involved in this process. Think of how your values, beliefs, sense of purpose and direction influenced the meanings derived from these opportunities.

*Developmental readiness*

Furthermore, the research and theory on adult learning suggests that the nature of the learning experience seems connected with the learner’s developmental phase. Consider the two scenarios:

a) A 21 year old woman who has been out of school, married with children, and working for three years, and is now seeking job skills for middle-level work;

b) A divorced 51 year-old electrical engineer with no children, who has begun a serious but avocational study of Russian literature.

Can you see how the aging process and developmental changes associated with aging might have an influence on the learning process? Where we are in the movement of our lives seems to make a difference in how we learn and what meaning these learning experiences hold for us.

*Meaning-making*

If we talk about learning as significant learning or as deep learning, then we are talking about the construction and reconstruction of the meaning of our experiences. Stephen Brookfield made this point in his book, Understanding and facilitating adult learning, and it is underscored by the wonderful book by Larry Daloz, Effective teaching and mentoring. While each of these texts are now almost 15 years old, they still represent stimulating points of view on how we use learning to "re-story" our lives.

*Motivation to learn*

Motivation to learn also seems connected with this sense of self. As we grow older, we seem less willing to be driven or directed by factors which we consider external to our lives, our sense of who we are as a person. This is why I believe that, as teachers, we should not focus on "how to motivate adult learners." I think that is wrong-headed. Rather, I think it would be more helpful to think of motivation in terms of:

- understanding our learners as persons,

- helping them connect the text they are attempting to learn in meaningful ways with who they are as a person

- asking them to take increasing responsibility for their learning,

- to assume authority and control for what and how they learn,

- to stress the importance of their experience as a text and context for learning, and

- to see their learning through their location in the lifespan.

*Transformative learning*

In the mid 1970s, Jack Mezirow conducted a study of women returning to college. One of the important findings of this study was how learning seemed to result in fundamental changes in the ways many of these women framed and made sense of their worlds. They appeared to have fundamental shifts in

- basic assumptions about themselves (psychic assumptions),

- their understanding of knowledge and how we come to know (epistemic assumptions), and

- their understanding of the soci-cultural contexts in which they lived (socio-cultural assumptions).

That is, Mezirow argued that we frame our understandings of ourselves and our world in terms of structures or perspectives of meaning. These structures reflect sets of assumptions, values, and beliefs which more or less cohere around core phenomena. Our understanding of what it means to learn or to teach might be examples of such meaning structures. But these structures of meaning can be changed or "transformed" by processes of reflection:

- making explicit our assumptions about self, society, and knowledge (content reflection);

- questioning the sources or origins of these assumptions (process reflection); and

- critically thinking through the validity of the claims represented by these assumptions (premise reflection).

Mezirow’s findings and subsequent work have come to be known as "perspective transformation." He is generally regarded as one of the leading theorists on transformative learning in adulthood.

Thus, in several different ways, the subjectivity of the adult learner (his or her sense of self-identity) seems to be intimately involved with the process of learning. Each of these theoretical areas of study has had important implications for our understanding of helping adults learn.

***********

*Reflective Exercise*

What do you think about the idea that the self is intimately bound up with adult learning? Do you agree?

Can you think of examples from your own learning where that seems more or less the case?

What implications might this idea have for the way we plan and implement instruction for adults?

***********

 

*Idea Two* "Learning is context-dependent"

What we learn and how well we learn reflects the context in which we frame this learning. And the context that is most important in adult learning is the experiences, desires, interests, and purposes of the learner herself or himself.

This idea is exemplified in the work in adult learning on a) contextual learning, b) collaborative learning, and c) situated cognition.

*Contextual learning*

The idea of connecting with learners’ life experiences is discussed at some length on pp. 19-26 of the Dirkx & Prenger text and will not be elaborated on here. To this discussion, I would just like to add a few points.

"Active learning" is not necessarily synonymous with contextual learning. Learners can be kept very active pursuing tasks and activities that have little connection with their own lives or contexts. Perhaps a word better than active here is "engaged." We want our learners to be engaged in authentic ways with the content of our study. When they are engaged, they are making connections between this content and their own lives.

The most common interpretation of this notion of contextual learning is the idea that learning should be "applied" in some sense to a problem that the learners perceive to be important or significant to them. This is a good start. We can learn a lot from the literature on problem-based learning. And certainly many adults do engage in learning to pursue some specific application to their lives in some way.

But I think we can take this "problem" focus a little too literally. Sometimes, as in the case above of the electrical engineer pursuing the study of Russian literature, a distinct problem is not readily apparent. Rather, as Brookfield and others have suggested, adults might pursue some kinds of learning for the sake of the learning itself, with no specific goal in mind other than to engage in interesting reading, discussion, thinking, and writing.

So, while I think all significant or deep learning is contextual, not all of it has immediacy of application, as Knowles suggested, or is necessarily oriented to address a specific problem.

*Collaborative learning*

The notion of collaborative learning represents another example of the ways in which we find the notion of contextual learning exemplified in the literature on adult learning. It can be understand both from the perspectives of teaching and learning. We will focus more on this ideas as a teaching strategy later in the semester.

Within adult learning, the idea of learning collaboratively has a long and rich tradition, stretching at least as far back to the work of Edward Lindeman in The Meaning of Adult Education. Group discussion has always been an important component to practice, because of the ways in which learning through group discussion fosters learning experiences and forms of learning that are not readily achievable through other means. These skills have to do with group problem-solving and decision-making, and interpersonal communication.

But probably closer to home for adult learning is how the idea of democratic ideas have been tied to learning in and through group formats. While collaborative learning may pursue other kinds of ends external to the context, such as mastering a body of knowledge or a particular skill, educators interested in the learning capacity of collaborative learning stress the kinds of learning that, with this form of learning goes on in the "here-and-now." This form of learning has to do more with attitudes and beliefs around democratic principles and awareness of one’s self within a social environment.

*Situated Cognition*

Another area of research and theory that is rapidly developing within adult learning is the notion of situated cognition. Situated cognition is related to the notion of contextual learning but differs in important ways. Arthur Wilson is probably one of the leading proponents of this idea as it applies to adult learning.

Basically, the claim here is that what we learn - the kinds of cognitive schemas and meaning structures that we derive from processes of learning - are bound up within the particular situations in which this learning takes place.

For example, underprepared adults who enroll in a developmental math program will focus on traditional ways of mastering basic mathematical facts and rules. Adults may do well in this environment and pass the necessary tests which certify their knowledge of this material. But then they may enroll in a training program focusing on business technology and they are not able to address problems presented in this program that require math skills we presume they acquired in their academic education. They are presented with a new situation or context in which the same math, which everyone presumes they learned in the developmental program, is used to address problems specific to this field. In a sense, they have to re-learn math within this particular context or situation.

Situated cognition has also been applied to educational and training contexts, such as medicine, allied health, and engineering, in which specific problems have to be addressed and resolved. Some argue that there are no problem-solving skills separate from the specific contexts in which they are to be applied, while others argue for a more generic problem-solving skill. My money is on the middle somewhere. There may be some skills which are situation-specific but common sense tells me that there are some problem-solving skills that are, indeed, "generic" and cut across contexts and situations.

This is different than contextual learning. While examples of situated cognition are necessarily contextual, the same is not true of examples of contextual learning. We may provide contexts that are relevant and purposeful to the adult’s life experiences, but this is done to increase the meaning of the experience. Contextual learning does not necessarily make claims about specific cognitive structures or meaning schemes. Rather, the argument seems to turn more on relevance and meaning of a given task for their life context. We can do this in a classroom setting. To foster the given cognitive structures associated with, for example, effective leadership, we have to have learners in situations where such structures are required.

*Summary*

Context is very important in helping adults learn. In the research and theory, its role and significance is supported by the notions of contextual learning, collaborative learning, and situated cognition.

***********

*Reflective Exercise*

What do you think about the role of context in what and how we learn?

Is all learning contextual? Can you think of an example of learning in your own life which is not contextual?

Are important cognitive skills and structures specific to the situations in which they are learned?

***********

 

*Idea Three* "Adult learning that is significant involves both reason and imagination"

Since the pragmatists in the early part of this century, progressive educators have placed considerable importance on learning from experience. We discussed the significance of experience in adult learning in our consideration of how the self is intimately involved. Here, though, I want to focus on the role and importance of reflection and imagination, processes by which we learn from experience. T

*Reflection in adult learning*

The idea of reflective learning is certainly now new. John Dewey wrote about it over 80 years ago and many others since him have stressed the importance of this process in learning. Whole programs of teacher education, such as the one at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, are known for the emphasis they place on developing reflective skills among teachers. Donald Schon gave this idea a big boost in professions education when he published The Reflective Practitioner in 1983. The work of David Boud, David Walker, Nel Noddings, and others have continued to study the reflective process in adult learning.

In some of my earlier work on reflection, I argued that one can identify at least three kinds of reflective learning: a) Reflection as problem-solving; b) Reflection as reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action; and c) Reflection as critical reflection.

Often we think of reflection as problem solving. In problem-solving, we:

- Look to some aspect of our lives or experience that have become problematic in some way.

- Seek to identify what the problem is.

- Identify possible explanations or causes for the problem.

- Identify ways that might reduce or eliminate the problem.

- Select the one that method that seems most appropriate to the problem at hand, and

- Implement the solution, and then assess its overall effectiveness.

If our actions do not resolve the problem, we go back to the drawing boards in identifying and seeking another possible solution.

But reflection as problem-solving assumes the problem as given and that we are solving or addressing the correct problem. It is a rather technical approach to using our experiences as a resource for learning. Reflection-in-action and critical reflection are much more constructivist in nature, assuming that how we think about and frame a situation influences and shapes the kinds of problems we end up naming and addressing. Sometimes, learning involves re-framing the problem, or questioning the taken-for-granted cultural and political assumptions that are embedded in the problem we have identified.

For example, I may notice that students in my class do not use their readings in class discussions. Assuming that the students have either not read the material or that they have read it at a superficial level, I may create an intervention, such as pop quizzes, aimed at fostering a better understanding and mastery of the assigned readings. But the problem may not have anything to do with the students reading or mastering the material. Rather, the problem may very well be how questions for discussion are framed and pursued. Framing the problem this way very well lead me to different forms of intervention.

Or I may notice that, in a class discussion, the questions I pose to the group during the discussion are not picked up. I wonder about that and began to see that my questions, rather than deepening their discussion and analysis, are actually perceived by students as leading them astray. I then seek to either keep quiet or ask questions that are more closely tied to the overall theme of discussion.

We could go on at length here, but we wont. The point is that fostering reflection is critical to helping adults learn from experience. There are several forms of reflection, characterized by different beliefs about what is known and how one comes to know.

As I indicated earlier, reflection plays a central role in Jack Mezirow’s theory of transformative leaning. In this view of learning, we can reflect on what we hold to be true about something, the sources of our knowledge, or the validity of the knowledge claims represented in our beliefs. Sometimes, Mezirow argues, this process ends up overthrowing existing meaning schemes and replacing them with new ones.

*Imagination*

Concern for the prominence of reason and rationality in the work of Mezirow and other adult learning theorists, I and others have begun to explore the role that imagination plays in fostering processes of meaning-making and learning. This work is very much in an early developmental phase but builds on a long philosophical tradition of image and metaphor. Basically, the argument here is that, in many instances learning from experience is mediated not by reflection or through reasoned analysis but by direct apprehension through images. These images are often no-linguistic. Daydreams, fantasies, and night dreams are examples of how images arise within our consciousness to lead us to unknown aspects of ourselves and our experiences.

The use of story and narrative is, in part, grounded in an appreciation for the power of imagination in helping us connect with and learn from our experience. Educators who incorporate the use of novels, short stories, and video within their teaching may be seeking to foster imaginative approaches to experience.

***********

*Reflective Exercise*

How do you use reflection in your own learning? What do you do to "reflect" on your experience?

What makes reflection different from simply recalling, remembering, or thinking about given aspects of our experience?

As you think about the ways in which you learn from experience, does image preceded reflection and cognition, or do you first become cognitively aware of aspects of your experience and then shape images about them? Which comes first, imagination or cognition?

***********

 

*Idea Four* "Influence of power relationships and cultural context on how and what we learn"

Finally, we will look briefly at another body of research and theory which is very important in understanding how and what adults learn. Critical theory, feminist theory, and postmodern analyses have led to questioning taken-for-granted assumptions embedded within our research and theory.

Scholars such as Michael Welton, Michael Collins, and Phyllis Cunningham have stressed the importance of learning as social and cultural critique. Mechthild Hart, Elizabeth Tisdell, and bell hooks stress a more feminist point of view on learning, seeking to show how are ways of thinking about learning tend to reflect and reproduce masculine, patriarchal power relations in society. Finally, postmodernists challenge the ways in which we have privileged reason and rationality, at the expense of emotion, affect, imagination, and diversity.

Ron Cervero and Arthur Wilson have shown how models of and approaches to planning in education manifest different ways of construing power relations within given situations. The ways in which these power relations get acted upon directly affect what comes to be defined as the aim and content of instructional programs, and the ways in which this content is addressed through instructional methods. We will discuss two prominent models of planning in this course: the instructional design approach, and the thematic approach.

Different cultures present markedly different beliefs and values around a number of important ideas and issues that, in adulthood we often take for granted. Our relationship to the environment, sense of time, importance of control and authority, and the relationship of self to society are just a few of these notions that often structure our learning environments in implicit and tacit ways. Yet, learners with different cultural backgrounds may very well struggle with the ways in which, in rather taken-for-granted manner, we have structured our educational environments around these issues.

SUMMARY

In this section, we have looked briefly at the theoretical and philosophical foundations for our understanding of adult learning theory. We then examined four guiding ideas, derived from the research and theory on adult learning, that we can use to think about, plan, and implement instruction for adults. These were:

1) The self as intimately bound up with adult learning;

2) The importance of context in adult learning;

3) Reason and imagination as processes of learning from experience; and

4) The influence of power and culture on the content and process of adult learning.

***********

*Reflective Exercise*

- Individual work:

- Identify ways in which each of the guiding ideas have guided our work together in this course so far. Try to demonstrate how the examples you have selected seem consistent with the guiding idea you are discussing.

- Virtual small group:

- Share your examples with your small group. Where do you agree or disagree? What might account for the disagreement?

***********

THIS ENDS YOUR VIRTUAL SESSION ON ADULT LEARNING