EDAE 655 The Adult Learner
Take-Home Exam by Kaela Parks
At UAA with Gretchen Bersch
1) Discussion of topic from one of the weeks.
Transformational learning is the essential human process of finding meaning in
experiences. As described by Mezirow, learning is a “process of using a prior
interpretation to construe a new or a revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s
experience in order to guide future action” (as qtd. in Merriam and Caffarella 1999, page
319), and as Labouvie Vief reminds us, experiences that we learn from as adults are
increasingly concrete, bound to the problems that we face in lives lived as partners and
parents, employees and friends (Merriam and Cafarella 1999, pp 157-161).
Linking these two thoughts together we see that it is not cerebral explorations of abstract
concepts that provide true transformations to our perspectives, it is the real world
experiences that are laden with emotion, experiences that trigger an awareness of
problems or dilemmas that are central to our existence that truly change us.
The process of actually changing perspectives and truly transforming the way we view
the world is said to be accomplished through a process of acknowledging that current
thinking doesn’t apply to a problem, and entering into a period of critical examination in
which modifications that can be applied are found (Merriam and Caffarella 1999, ch. 14).
This is a process that is remarkably similar to the reflective judgment model described by
Kitchener and King as a way that postformal thinkers deal with ill defined problems
(1994). In the next few pages I will examine this idea that transformational learning can
be related to the writings of both Labouvie-Vief and Kitchener and King.
In studying human development and the development of adult cognitive abilities, there
has been a desire to define potential in terms that move beyond the stage of formal
operations that was defined by Piaget (Dixon and Lerner 1999). Known broadly as
postformal thought, the idea is that adults can advance from Piaget’s formal operations to
what Arlin has called a fifth stage, the ability to not only solve problems, but to actively
identify new problems (Merriam and Caffarella 1999, ch 7). It is in this advanced stage of
cognitive functioning in which individuals develop reflective judgment.
According to Kitchener and King, we start out without much reflective judgment. We
start out with blind faith that answers exist as absolutes. Most of us then come to
understand that answers are embedded in contexts, resulting in a stage of relativism in
which truth is limited and nothing is absolute. After this, some of us recognize that there
may not be absolute answers to problems that are ill-defined, but there are answers that
make the most sense given the information that is available at the time. (Cavanaugh
2002; King and Kitchener 1994; Merriam and Caffarella 1999, chap. 7).
The concept of a problem being ill-defined is critical. Sometimes a situation doesn’t feel
right. The pieces of a problem don’t fit together nicely, don’t match up with what we
expect, and so can’t be solved with our usual processes. The ill-defined problem is what
can serve as a trigger for transformational thinking.
We are confronted with a problem that can’t be solved using our existing knowledge and
so we have to develop a new outlook, a new way of seeing the problem that allows us to
feel more comfortable. The state of discomfort that is created when we run into an ill-
defined problem is important. Our discomfort is not something to fear or dread, but
something to act as a spur, as a trigger for change.
The assumptions we implicitly rely on are important, they help us navigate a complex
world more efficiently, but assumptions can not be set in stone, they have to change as
our experiences change. We have to reevaluate what we hold as truth as new information
enters the mix. This can be difficult. It requires more than just applied effort, more than
critical thought alone. Transforming perspectives by challenging assumptions requires
both critical reflection and reflective judgment.
For Kitchener and King the ill-defined problem is dealt with by using reflective judgment
to synthesize information from a variety of sources. We have to assign weight as
appropriate, to develop faith in ourselves. We need to be willing to trust what emotion
and intuition can tell us even when we can’t prove absolutely that what we believe is
right. We have to become comfortable enough with uncertainty to become comfortable
with the idea that we are justified. The more we do this, the more we trust ourselves in
situations and find that we are capable, the more we will be willing to trust ourselves in
the future, to trust ourselves to reinvent our position as our understanding evolves (1994).
In transformational learning, the ill-defined problem is often the trigger, although as
noted by challengers of Mezirow’s theory, sometimes transformation results not from a
disorienting dilemma, but from an integrating circumstance after an earlier period of
extensive searching (Merriam and Caffarella 1999, page 321). Either way, through a
specific trigger or through a period of integration, the process that Mezirow outlines
includes a subsequent period of self-examination in which assumptions are assessed. This
realization that others too have been in such a position, allows for the opportunity to think
realistically about designing a plan of action.
Once an individual has seen that the position they are in is uncomfortable, but not unique,
it becomes possible to see that if others have been able to navigate out, so too can they.
In order to develop one’s own plan of action, the total options must be restricted to the
most reasonable options, and then to the option that makes the most sense. This is done
through a process of not just critical thinking, but of reflective judgment.
Relationships and resources are brought into the mix and one solution of many emerges
as the best possible direction in which to move. At this point, the new option becomes
integrated and the person is transformed. They now have an experience to draw on that
they didn’t before. The same stimulus that was before disorienting and posed a problem,
that was ill-defined, has now been rendered into a stimulus that can be approached. The
person has arrived at a solution that may not be an absolute truth, but that provides
meaning by virtue of being the result of a synthesis, the result of reflective judgment.
In addition to reviewing the way in which reflective judgment applies to transformational
learning, we can listen to what Labouvie-Vief has to say about the importance of concrete
experience in order to better understand how it is not only the process of transforming the
self that is critical, but also the context in which such transformation is likely to occur.
Labouvie-Vief is important for having pointed to the importance of context and concrete
application in adult cognition, indicating that postformal thought is a move beyond
formal logical thinking into the emotionally laden pursuit of real answers to real
problems (Cavanaugh 2002; Merriam and Caffarella 1999, chap. 7).
This has relevance to the conversation above because when adults are engaged in
transformational learning and they are searching for ways to implement plans of action,
they will look at the commitments they have to others in order to develop a plan that is
realistic for their concrete life responsibilities. Similarly, the problems that are ill-defined
and thus serve as triggers for transformation will be experiences that are rooted in
concrete living, in emotionally laden relationships.
The idea is that as we become adults we also become more committed, we have more
responsibilities, more ties to others that bind us in certain respects. In our youth we are
free to explore abstractions, as adults we pay less attention to those pieces of information
that do not directly relate to our areas of expertise, to our particular life problems, as a
way of selectively optimizing the attention we pay to the parts that do relate.
The work done on fluid and crystallized intelligence adds support to this idea. When we
are young our ability to generate and manipulate mental abstractions peaks, but as we
age, our ability to draw from experiential knowledge increases (Cavanaugh 2002;
Merriam and Caffarella 1999, chapter 8). We go from having to figure things out by
generating lots of possible solutions in order to identify one good one, to being able to
pull from our expertise and solve a new problem based on how we have solved other
problems. We learn to pull from assumptions based on previous experience.
In order to be fair, transformational learning, and for that matter, postformal thought,
including the capacity for reflective judgment, is not an age restricted affair. If anything,
perhaps it makes the most sense to think of transformational learning as experience
restricted. We have to have had enough experiences to have assumptions to change. We
have to have developed a tendency to rely on our previous experiences rather than on our
fluid processing abilities, a tendency that seems to increase with experience over time.
In summary, transformational learning is a process of recognizing the importance of a life
that has meaning. It is a process of recognizing when integration is required, when
experiences in the real world have proved unsettling and serve to function as obstacles or
dilemmas. It is a process of using reflective judgment to arrive at a personal synthesis, a
plan of action that can be taken to alleviate discomfort by transforming reactions that
were initially based on assumptions that have been assessed and found to be ineffective.
3) Description of myself as an adult learner.
I am an adult learner who is curious and tenacious, self-directed but also selfish to a
certain degree. I like to explore ideas on my own terms, when I find something that
captures my interest I tend to follow it as far as I find useful. I like to be in charge of my
own learning, to decide for myself what I want to pursue. This said; it is also true that I
have learned much from instructors who surprised me, who prodded me to make
discoveries that I would not have made on my own.
The way I learn now is different from the way I learned as a child, different from the way
I learned as a teen or even as an adult of a few years ago. The way I learn is an evolving
technique, a basic style that is refined and tempered by new experiences over time.
When I was 13 my older sister had a baby. My sister was abusing drugs at the time and
couldn't provide care for her new infant. My parents urged her to make changes but when
it wasn't happening, they accepted charge of their infant grandaughter. Because they were
both working full-time, I became a primary caregiver. I missed school whenever the baby
was too sick to go to daycare. I had to complete my homework and get assignments in on
time even when I missed lectures and explanations. I learned to study hard while she slept
and I earned good grades. When I found that I could do this, I felt proud. I had learned
that I could learn on my own. It was pivotal. I was changed.
In high school I was a confident student. I negotiated with instructors to alter assignments
to make them more meaningful for me. I did extra credit to make up for missed work and
began to notice more particularities about my learning style.
I loved English, math, and physical science, but struggled with history and political
science. I realize now that the difference was one of processes versus facts. I can
memorize details when necessary but it doesn’t energize me, it doesn’t fuel my fire. I
love processes, to understand systems and broad concepts inspires me. In my English,
math, and chemistry/physics classes I learned by developing an unfolding understanding
of processes and behaviors. The focus was on concepts and general rules rather than
specific facts. I thrived. The classes were creative, I was able to generate not regurgitate.
Creativity is a major part of how I learn. I am production oriented. I work through new
material by creating descriptions and working models, tangible forms that can be
evaluated and critiqued, modified and used as new starting ground.
In order to learn I have to write, to speak, to sculpt, to design. I have to create something
in order to understand what I have processed. I have to create in order to understand but I
have to share my creations in order to refine my understanding. Coming to this
realization has been a major part of the evolution in my learning style.
I have kept journals for my dreams, my waking life, and my academic life. I have found
that these journals allow me to see what I know. I sit down and type, often without
knowing what I'm saying until it's on the page and I read it. I am sometimes surprised but
it usually makes sense to me. I see what I know once I articulate it.
Language is critical. Reading and thinking is not enough for me. I need to articulate my
understanding. In formal educational settings I write my own analyses of course readings
before class discussions. I verbalize summaries of my understanding and modify that
content based on feedback from others. In the absence of ideal conditions, a group of
classmates who are also familiar with the material being studied, I still write, but serve as
my own modifying source via the distance of time. I revisit my journal entries and spot
gaps or new questions to ask.
No matter what the subject, writing is basic to my learning process. I write letters to
loved ones, I write articles for publication, I write lists and notes, journal entries, and
more, in order to process the learning that fills my life.
I have known for some time that I am a verbal learner. Looking at some of the theories
discussed in our text there are additional statements I can make about my learning style.
According to Sternberg's Styles of Mental Self-Government (Merriam and Caffarella
1999, page 212), I would describe myself as Legislative/Judicial, Hierarchic, Global,
Internal, and Liberal. I describe myself as both Legislative and Judicial because I am both
creative and analytical. I love to create, but also to appraise.
There is a Learning Styles Scale put out by NC State University that can be accessed
online (Soloman 1999). Their questionnaire results in scores on four scales that measure
active versus reflective learning styles, sensation versus intuition based learning, visual
versus verbal learning styles, and sequential versus global approaches. My results
indicated that I am a reflective, intuitive, verbal, global learner with the strongest
preference for intuition based learning and the second strongest preference for verbal
learning. This rating fits in well with the results I have gotten from other scales.
The Kiersey Temperament Sorter rates me as a rational mastermind, a self-confident,
strong willed, judicious, planner. I do tend toward maximizing efficiency and do tend to
create contingency plans, to modify those plans based on new information and to manage
my plans through active involvement. I am open minded, but tough minded, willing to
engage novel ideas but tenacious in my hold on what I feel is most appropriate. As an
INTJ, I fall pretty close to the center on the introversion/extroversion scale. I used to be
more introverted than I am now but I still tend toward introversion just slightly. I have
also shown some movement on the judging/perceiving scale. Depending on what roles I
am assuming, what type of work is consuming my energy, I can be more focused on
firming things up and taking a determined position, or I can be more open to change and
desirous of flexibility. I have taken the test three or four times, each at least a year or two
apart and have always rated as an intuitive thinker. Really though, the scores don't mean
as much on their own as they do when I consider my own experiences.
I remember a calculus test in which we were given an equation and a corresponding slope
field that was meant to describe it. Every other student in the class answered the
questions related to the problem by referencing the slope field. I had looked at the slope
field as well as the equation and noticed a discrepency. I thought I might be misreading
the slope field and so answered based on the equation. I was marked wrong but when I
pushed the issue and showed the instructor that my answer was correct given the
equation, she realized that she had supplied the wrong slope field. The interesting part is
that every other student had either not noticed the discrepency or had noticed it but went
with the visual piece rather than the logical. My approach was different.
4) Ways a teacher can facilitate learning.
Adult education is fundamentally different from the education of children for a number of
reasons. Because of this, it is vital that adult educators interact with their students in a
different way than is appropriate in elementary and secondary school even when the
material being covered is similar to that being taught in such classrooms. This means that
even when an adult is learning remedial skills that are usually covered in high school,
because the learner is an adult with life responsibilities and self-direction, the approach
can not be the same as when that material is being taught to a student who is still under
the care of another, who is at a developmentally immature level of functioning.
The problem is that some adults also function at a developmentally immature level of
functioning. Some adults have life responsibilities and self-direction but still operate
under a selfish, self-absorbed, independent perspective. Here in our American consuming
culture it is all too common to see adults who are autonomous, self-directed, and highly
educated, but psychologically stunted, trapped within their own skin and unable or
unwilling to connect to others in honest and meaningful ways.
Self-directed learning can become one more way in which Americans turn all attention
inward, examining our own belly button and spending hours gazing in the mirror,
reinventing ourselves time and again. We rejoice in our autonomy, as evidenced by the
ability to speak for ourselves, to direct our own learning, but if that direction takes us
only as far as the constraints of our own skin, it is not enough.
It is not enough to be self-aware and independent, autonomously maneuvering for own
best interests. It is not enough to be our own best advocate, to be in touch with what we
need and how we can get it. True psychological maturity means more than this.
We need more than to direct our own learning. We need to not only learn on our own, but
to bring what we learn back to the table to share, to bring our personal insights into
dialogue with others and to make connections with our community. It is not enough to
learn on our own and then revel in our personal wisdom, to shelter our insights and
discoveries from the light of day, to privately understand what is not ours alone to own.
Paul Shepard is an eco-psychologist who wrote a text entitled “Nature and Madness” in
which he made a compelling argument for human development as an epigenetic spiral. In
his writing he describes the human being as traveling between periods of autonomy and
symbiosis. We begin life in the womb, in a subjective oneness, a stage of autonomy. We
are born and form a strong connection to our primary caregiver, memorizing the facial
expressions that teach emotional understanding, the smells and sounds of safety. From
here we venture out on our own as toddlers who autonomously explore the world of
objects, the world of things that have names and categories. As young children we then
learn to place these many separate objects into a cohesive landscape, the parts become
pieces of wholes (1982).
In elementary education we also learn about items fitting into larger patterns. We learn
stories in the study of literature, the study of language and history. We learn about
animals, insects, and plants in the study of living things, the study of science. We learn to
categorize knowledge in this stage of symbiosis, a stage in which connections rule.
Following along the ancestral spiral we develop from children who are in a stage of
symbiosis to teenagers venturing back into autonomy, exploring individual identity. We
find what sets us apart, what makes us different. We venture out in order to come back,
transformed by an understanding of who we are as an individual. As adults who know
who we are we become capable of connecting again, this time to our community. We can
share who we are with others and become a part of the greater whole, a part of the
population that surrounds us (Shepard 1982).
Adult education for the individual who knows who they are can be a time of acquiring
skills in keeping with a broader desire to connect to others through work and play. It is a
time when learning specific content that is relevant to life goals can take center stage.
From here we enter our last autonomous stage, a period of independent exploration for
the greater meaning in our life. It is a time for spiritual awareness and a deeper
understanding of how who we are, in combination with where and when we live, has
meaning. It allows us to make the final connection to not only our land and our
community, but also to our cosmos, to our life and death as a whole (Shepard 1982).
It is when we are able to make these final connection that we truly become adults, that we
become psychologically mature. The problem is that many of us don’t reach this point.
From an adult educator’s perspective we have to understand that not all adults are
psychologically mature. In our consuming culture it is all too common to see physically
mature adults who operate at the adolescent level of regressive autonomy, a stage of
development in which the self is constantly reinvented with a new persona, a new job, a
new mate. The role of education is, for this person, a vehicle for self-involvement, a
means to identity formation. Education can be little more than a status symbol, an inflated
attachment. A degree can be worn like an accessory, a way to complement an image.
Learners can be self-directed, autonomous, and in charge of their own learning
environment, yet psychologically juvenile. Striving for personal expression above all else
and making great intellectual advancements, we can make discoveries that affect our own
lives in beneficial ways, but still fall short of the mark. It is not enough to be a self-
directed learner if our direction leads us only to further involvement with our self.
Thus the role of an educator of adults is to not only allow for the learning of content, for
the chance to successfully attain clearly outlined goals, but also to help the learner push
forward to extend learning beyond the personal, to reach out in connection to the
community. This is important. Adult education is about more than content mastery, it is
about recognizing the responsibilities, gifts, and limitations that make up each
individual's particular life circumstances.
Adult education should help individuals reach full development. As educators, we should
honor the innate human potential that exists in us all and reach out to help each others
grow and mature in their psychological functioning.
We don’t have to be brilliant, to learn in great depth the intricacies of a discipline or to
excel in programs of study that are competitive and demanding. We don’t have to learn
any particular material and we don’t have to apply what we learn in any particular way.
What we do need to do is learn who we are so we can understand our strengths and
weaknesses, so we can relate to others in meaningful ways.
We have to learn who we are so we can both share our talents with others and let others
share with us. By sharing our gifts with others we increase our sense of self-worth and
self-esteem. By letting others share with us we accommodate our weaknesses as we
increase our connectedness. So while self-direction is vital, it is not the end to end all.
We need to know who we are so we can share, and self-direction can be a natural
extension of knowing our own voice, but life isn’t a monologue it is a dialogue. We need
to direct ourselves into community involvement, into connections that reach beyond our
own skin, connections that help us to be healthy and fully developed.
For while the child needs to focus on learning how objects and ideas are classified and
related, how a landscape is formed (both physically and mentally), the adult needs to find
how the individual self, with inherent strengths and weaknesses, fits into the community,
how the human being fits into the cosmos. It is a different task with a different scope.
Adult educators thus have different levels of obligation. On one level the educator is
required to serve as a content assimilation facilitator, helping the adult student to
understand specific content that has been identified as meaningful, as important to the
process of living, of working, of maintaining responsibility for self and dependents.
The learner may have a need to acquire a degree to earn a better living to support a
family. The learner may be employed in a capacity that requires continued study to
maintain status and position within the field. The learner may have a natural curiosity to
try new tasks, to experiment with crafts or computers, with canoeing or cuisine.
As a part of the process of knowing the self and sharing talents the learner may need to
study specific content. This is the more traditional task for the adult educator, to aid in the
understanding of new material, to design a learning environment in which content can be
accessed, processed, and utilized.
The way to do this depends on the subject matter being learned as well as the format for
instruction. Workshop or seminar style classes may be the best approach for adult
learners who have concrete life experiences that are relevant to the learning taking place.
Allowing for individual differences while maintaining an open dialogue and keeping
objectives clear are important parts of helping adults learn specific content.
The other part of the adult educator's role has less to do with the specific content being
studied and more to do with acknowledging the developmental stage a learner is in, with
sensing what a learner is and is not capable of, and stimulating growth as appropriate.
This is tricky. It requires observation, dialogue, and critical reflection on the part of the
instructor. It means being tuned in and aware, being committed to more than the lesson
plan, to more than the learning, it means being tuned in to the needs of the learner.
For if we view adult education as more than the mastery of content, as instead a means
for learners to direct themselves, but do so without regard to where that direction leads,
we do a disservice to those learners who are stunted, who need a jumpstart to continue on
the spiral. Not all learners will be easy to get restarted, some engine’s are clogged with
dirt and grime, are used to being run hard and without proper care. Others may not want
to keep moving, they may be not so much stalled out as parked. It doesn’t matter though.
The educator doesn’t need to help every student transform his or her way of knowing to
be useful, they just have to offer the choice. Learners are responsible for their own
movement, educators are facilitators, guide’s for those who are so inclined. There is some
expertise that can be shared, some knowledge that can be imparted, not through a series
of deposits, as in Freire’s banking concept of education (1970), but through a process of
dialogue in which learners are prodded to question how the content they are studying is
related to their own life, how their strengths and weaknesses are balanced and how
learning can help them share those strengths and accommodate those weaknesses.
Learning is about growing, but not all educational experiences are about learning. For
those who are inclined to learn, the instructor can play an important role. For those who
don’t wish to learn, nothing the instructor does will matter. For learners, the task is to
travel on that ancestral spiral, to work on determining who are as individuals and how we
can connect as a community, how our particular gifts and weaknesses contribute to make
us a part of a greater whole. This is the power of learning, not the mastery of specific
content, but the understanding of how that content relates to the individual life in ways
that help the individual function as a fully connected mature adult.
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