Adult Learning and Development
Integrating disparate perspectives of adult learning
- Written by Brent Duncan, PhD
Exploring disparate philosophies and applications of adult development theory helps to identify principles for building effective adult higher education programs that foster learner success and creative longevity. However, only one thing seems clear: no single approach alone adequately addresses the diverse abilities of individual learners, the multiple missions of institutions, the changing needs of society, and the dynamic environment of markets and cultures.
Exploring major adult learning models provided insights into how some adults learn in some situations, but did not find a prescriptive universal approach. Presented as the art and science of teaching adults, andragogy provides a valuable framework and serves as the foundation of non-traditional adult education programs by providing a set of assumptions and tools for facilitating some adult learners toward autonomy in perceptual learning, while offering best practices for engaging capable learners of all ages in self-directed learning. However, andragogy is an incomplete theory with limited empirical support and may have limited applications in cultures that do not value individual autonomy.
Experiential learning provides a framework for engaging individuals, groups, and organizations in acquiring, disseminating, and evaluating information to more effectively adapt in dynamic environments. However, experiential learning can be limited by the subjectivity and depth of experience. Self-directed learning provides insights into how some individuals take initiative for their own learning. Self-direction is not universal to and among adults, may result in learning that has no objective value, and ignores the value of social factors that facilitate learning.
Of course, adult education practice is not limited to these three theories. As a disruptive model, traditional education has been critical of institutions that have offered non-traditional programs to meet the unique developmental needs and abilities of adults. However, traditional education is recognizing that many of the assumptions and practices in adult education translate to more effective learning environments for students of all ages. Non-traditional institutions are also modifying practices as experience demonstrates the value of some traditional practices.
The dynamic interaction of traditional and non-traditional philosophies are opening opportunities for alternative learning models to enter the mainstream. These alternative models seem to return to ancient forms of teaching that developed the human as a spiritual, physical, and social entity--not just as a mind to be molded. Somatic or embodied learning focuses on how learning occurs through the body and emphasizes the role of spirituality in learning. Some educators are bringing spirituality learning out of the realm of religion to help individuals make meaning of experience.
Non-western perspectives like those found in the spiritual traditions of eastern religions and indigenous cultures around the world are becoming increasingly popular as alternatives to traditional education in the United States. In addition, critical theory, postmodernism, feminism, and sexual and racial politics are also becoming pervasive models that are influencing adult education practice. These alternative models provide western adult educators with new ways to consider the nature and purpose of learning, leading to applications that can build more dynamic learning environments that help learners and educators the cultural dynamics that influence learning and meaning-making (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).
This rich array of traditional, non-traditional, and emerging philosophies beneath emerging practices in adult learning provide different perspectives and practices, but each seems to represent only a portion of a massive dynamic system that may remain undefined. Rather than relying on a single philosophy or theory, the diverse nature of the adult learner seems to require a pragmatic approach that accommodates a broad range of strategies, while applying the specific application for each event. Some interpreters and organizations have analyzed adult learning from multiple perspectives to find the common elements that may point to best practices or principles that might be applicable across all environments.
Reviewing some of the best practices presented by theorists like Knowles and interpreters like Maehl, found common elements that define adults as different from youth, capable of learning, needs-based, and complex. Some of the principles that build on these commonalities included building adult learning applications on these commonalities require that the program carefully address the needs of the learner, design programs around the desired outcome, center instruction on the learner, integrate relevant social dynamics to enhance and accelerate learning, recognize the value of the learner’s experience, provide continuous feedback, and eliminate barriers to student success.
However, each of these principles may be argued when viewed from different perspectives. In other words, any principle perceived through one perspective may only be applicable in that limited environment. What seems clear is that the educator needs to consider the needs, abilities, history, and characteristics of the learners, the context and environment in which learning will take place to determine the set of approaches that can meet the dynamic needs of the learner, the group, the institution, and society.
Emerging research in brain science is starting to shed light on how the adult brain learns, suggesting strategies and techniques that could facilitate lifelong learning and enhance creative longevity. While critics in traditional education argue that lab findings do not necessarily translate into classroom applications, the brain research has debunked traditional theories that presented adulthood as a period of decline. To the contrary, emerging research is proving that adulthood is a period of new possibility. Adults are capable of learning, and the emerging field of adult higher education is providing a rich array of possibilities for enriching life of individuals while meeting the needs of society.