A Reflection on Adult Learning

When focusing on adult learning, one is surprised at how multifaceted this field is.  Complexities of ‘self’ and identity are inextricably intertwined with one’s social and cogitative development in adulthood.  Though adult learning may be more focused and more purposeful that it is in traditionally aged students, opportunities for growth and development are vast.  In childhood, one learns that adults ‘have all the answers.’  It seems natural to assume then that learning somehow halts when one enters adulthood.  Using the guiding questions outlined, this paper will strive to prove that assumption inherently false and explore, drawing on research and group experiences some important questions about adult learning, focusing on how they learn, why they learn and the factors contribute to that learning. 

Who or What are adult learners?  What makes and adult learner and ‘adult learner’?

            Traditionally, state and federal policy are left to define and differentiate adult learning from childhood learning. For example, age often comes into play as with the Michigan policy that one had to be 20 in order to qualify to take the high school equivalency test, the GED (Dirkx, lesson 3, definitional issues).  Though age is many times age is the indicator in policy, it is difficult to rely on age as it does not take into account past experiences and cognitive development.  Quite simply, adults are oftentimes at a different developmental stage then adolescents and this is an important distinction.  In their book, Learning in Adulthood, Merriam and Caffarella (1999) state, “The study of pathways of adult cognitive development, that is, how thinking patterns change over time, is often linked to a combination of factors primarily the interaction of maturational and environmental variables” (139).  Thus, maturity and life experiences play a large role in adult learning, yet this is not as easily distinguishable as age.        

            Due partially to this developmental distinction, adults learn in a variety of different contexts in many different forums.  Adults are primarily experiential learners, drawing on past experiences to assist them in interpreting their current situations.  Merriam and Caffarella (1999) assert that “as adults live longer they accumulate both a greater volume and range of experiences” and it is important to “acknowledge that experience is foundational to adult learning” (222).  Additionally, Knowles states that adults tend to be self-directed and their learning is more centered on their lives with specific goal outcomes (Imel 1).  Many adults are not just ‘students,’ they have jobs, families and responsibilities and their learning tends to reflect that.     

            A focus on age, development and experience (both past and present) is imperative to our understanding of adult learning as this knowledge can assist us in how best to instruct adults.  For example we know that experience is key when concentrating on adult learning.  Jane Vella (2002) in her book, Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach discusses the idea of praxis, action and reflection at the same time, and how praxis can assist in adult learning.  “Praxis can be used in teaching knowledge, skills and attitudes as learning do something with new knowledge, practice new skills and attitudes and then reflect on what they have just done”(14).  Also, we know that many adults have specific goals in mind so it is important to vary our teaching styles to accommodate their learning preferences.  By relaying on the ‘teacher-directed’ method (Kerka 2002) with the instructor having all the ‘knowledge’ and dictating it to the class, many instructors are not creating the best environment for their adult learners.

            Though the theory and examples given by the authors in this portion of the class were extremely helpful, I still have some lingering questions.  For instance, not everyone is so easily classified in adult and non-adult, myself included.  The question here is how do we instruct the people in between?  Who developmentally and experientially are in neither place?  Also, we know that learning styles differ between all learners, adults and children alike.  How, then in the collegiate setting, when you may have young adults and adults in the same class do you teach in a way that pleases everyone and focuses their different cognitive, social and developmental differences?

            One of the ideas/concepts that I learned greatly from in this section was the ideas that experience is intrinsically tied to the learning in adulthood.  Merriam and Caffarella and Vella both drew upon the need for adult experiences to be given value in the classroom.  I found this helpful because I am a traditionally aged student and I am very used to thinking about education in a certain context, one that was separate from my life experiences and values.  This strong focus throughout the course gave me the opportunity to give credence to that part of my life that I had once thought had no place in education.   

Why do adults participate in educational programs and how can we understand their motivations to learn?

            Adults participate in many different types of learning situations, from more formal (colleges and universities, conferences, workshops, etc) to non-formal settings (work, friendships and other relationships, etc).  Many times they are in situations in which they are learning, but they are not intending to learn, thus, they learn intentionally and unintentionally (power point, lesson 2, historical contexts).  Their motivation to learn is surely tied to why they do so.  Merriam and Caffarella (1999), drawing upon Boshier (1971), outlined six different reasons and motivational factors as to why adults learn; Social relationships, external expectations, social welfare, professional advancement, escape/stimulation and cognitive interest (54).  Whether it is for pure enjoyment, advancement or for a new experience, adults are motivated intrinsically and they are learning consistently throughout their lives.  Adults may have more specific goals in mind when attending more formal institutions of learning, such as classes or conferences as that then may be a step for a raise or a degree to a better position.  Yet, a good conversation or a social gathering can be a strong motivational factor as well. 

            In order to better understand why adults choose to learn, perhaps it is important to discuss what they seek from a learning experience and how those needs correspond to their motivation.  Karka (2002) states, “adults need learning to be meaningful; they are autonomous, independent, and self-directed; prior experiences are a rich learning resource; their readiness to learn is associated with a transition point or a need to perform a task; their orientation is centered on problems, not content; they are intrinsically motivated; their participation in learning is voluntary” (1).  Adults differ from traditionally aged students in this way as students do not often have a choice as to whether they have to attend school, yet adults to have this choice. Additionally, “pedagogy assumes that the child learner is a dependent personality, has limited experience, is ready to learn based on age level…and is motivated by external rewards and punishment” (Kerka 1).   Going beyond learning style preferences, Kerka associates the self-directed and experiential nature of adults to be important to the understanding of adult learning motivation.  As adults approach learning with a different perspective than adolescents, they need different educational and instructional styles from their formal and non-formal settings.

            Again, knowledge of why adults learn with a focus on how they like to do so can assist us in the construction of a more positive classroom or learning experience for them.  It can also help instructors in understanding the perspectives they come from and give respect their experiences and their need to tie them into their learning.  Furthermore, this understanding can also help to reevaluate what we view learning to be.  Vella discusses a concept that she calls, ‘Newtonian thinking’ in which learning follows a structured course, disciplines are separated and the classical ideals are held firm (31).  Though, it is through the acceptance of new ideas, such as the nature of adults as learners that can assist in the deconstruction of the Newtonian ideal and teach learners to, “…develop the theory they are learning in light of their own context” (31).

            Of course these are important concepts to study, yet I still find that I have a lingering question.  Many adults are brought up in a ‘Newtonian’ system in which the teacher has the knowledge and their authority and that knowledge is doctrine and not to be questioned.  What then, happens to adults in learning situations who are used to the old system?  Oftentimes, we speak of adults as having fully embraced their experiences, but where and when does this transformation in learning preferences take place?  Again, what about those in between?

            Though many theories in this section of the class where very helpful, including Kerka, I drew a lot from Vella and her idea of the Newtonian ideal.  I found this analogy to be practical, and easy to understand as well as revolutionary.  It opened up numerous questions and gave way to many ideas as to how this ideal is applied at Alma College and in what ways we are indoctrinating our students.  All too often, when I ask why things are done the way there are, I get “that’s the way it’s always been” and until now, I’ve taken that as a good answer. 

What does it mean for adults to learn “x”? What does learning mean? How do adults learn? How can we account for the processes of learning in adulthood? What factors are important in considering how adult learn?

            Traditionally, learning is the persuit of truth, knowledge, understanding or an idea and after being in this class I still feel wholly unprepered to answer the question of ‘what does learning mean’?  For, to answer would put a difinitive beginning and end to the learning process, soemthing which I refuse to do.  Rather, I hope to convey, through a focus on theory that learning X is not at all Newtonion, but a constant evolutionary process, one which our experiences add to and our situations can alter. 

            While K-12 styles of learning may be more behavorist in nature or more focused on instrinsic positives and negatives, of punishments and rewards, adult learning is less so (funderstanding 1).  Rather adult learning should (I say should because there is some disagreement as to whether adult leaning really constitutes the following) be focused on constructive and contextual approaching to learning.  Contructivism is a focus on our biasies and socializations. “Each of us generates our own “rules” and “mental models,” which we use to make sense of our experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences” (funderstanding 1).  By focusing on our mental models we let go of some of our Newtonian ideals such as; my teacher is right about everything, my religion is the only worthwhile one, my parents are always correct, etc.  This constructive approach allows us to fuse our experiences with academe and contextualize meaning from the two (Imel 2000).  This is something that a classical approach to education could never foster as binary dualisms or right/wrong, boy/girl, black/white will forever classify and keep us imbedded in our mental models.

            This is imperative to our study and understanding of adult learning because if adults can learn to recognize their personal biases, which often come from our parents, teachers, and communities, and learn to account for them, they will have a very different, more experiential understanding of X.  Though they will not know X intrinsically as X is not a fixed mark, a right answer.  The aspiration of constructivism and contextual learning is to focus on a multiplicity of ideas, a variety of voices, in relation to experience and practice. 

            While I found this material on constructivism and contextual learning very valuable, I still have to wonder about those adults that participate in less formal educational experiences.  Certainly, the theories above were discussed and constructed in the classroom, yet what about the adults who learn a new selling technique at work or who are not in the classroom?  How can we account for their learning?

As a result from my study of adult learning, how will my practice as an educator change or be different?

            Working for Alma College has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life.  I have changed greatly as a person since I began here and much of that has been through experience and my education at MSU.  This class has truly taught me about adults and how they learn and even though I educate and work with primarily traditionally aged students, I can and will still draw upon this class to assist me at work.  In September, I began this class with almost no working knowledge of adult learning theory or why it was even applicable to me in my work setting.  I know now that I need to access my mental models and realize the ways that they may be harming my development. 

            Additionally, in working with my co-workers, I have been far more attune to their developmental needs and I now strive to give credence to their life experiences, which, prior to this class was something I felt should be kept at home.  Meaning, at work you work-Period.  I have also used and will continue to use the Vella text when designing agendas for my RA’s, desk staff, and Hall Director staff.  By using her 7 design steps, I have learned that by ‘setting’ the agenda, I am actually determining what is important to the group, something I could not possibly know without their input (Vella 44). 

I also leave this class with a fantastic group experience and two great friends.  Never being a fan of groups in general, I was forced to trust other people for the first time in an educational situation and I found both Ranae and Cheryl up to the task.  These two women are truly phenomenal and while I was the youngest person in the group, just out of undergrad, they treated me with respect and had faith in my educational abilities.  That meant so very much to me.