Adventures in Learning: Or My Skepticism About "Adults" Part 2: Learning In Adulthood.

So in a previous post, I took to task some of the concerns and problems that I find with Tenant and Pogson's Learning and Change in the Adult Years.  Now, I'm going to discuss Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner's Learning in Adulthood (Henceforth: LIA).  We had 2 chapters to read for LIA.  Chapter 3:  Adult Learners:  Who Participates and Why & Chapter 13:  Cognitive Development in Adulthood.  Here we go!

Chapter 3:  Adult Learners:  Who Participates and Why

The first assumption I have trouble with is "participation in adult education is largely a voluntary activity." (Pg 53).  But is it?  A teacher getting his/her master's degree could be construed as "voluntary"--but only voluntary in so much as that teacher wants to keep his/her job (in MA, I believe the rule is that a teacher needs to obtain one within 5 years of starting a teaching position).  There were numerous jobs I worked where we were required to get training and certification in order to keep our jobs.  Is that voluntary?  In the big picture of it, yes, but in the real context, no--not really.

Later on, the authors explain "Almost all studies of participants in adult education focus on formal, institutionally based programs.  This, of course, is due to the ease of gathering this information from learners and institutions that sponsor programs.  It is much more difficult to assess participation in nonformal, community-based activities or in informal self-directed learning."  (Pg 54).  Ok, big problem here.  If we're trying to understand and explain what "adult learning" is, and we haven't in any real way captured and studied what appears to be a large chunk of adult learners--can we say anything substantive about adult learners?  And coupled with that is the fact that we're making assumptions about that audience that isn't entirely true (such as its voluntary).

It reminds me of the problem with serial killers.  All profiles and information that we have created with regards to serial killers is generated by serial killers who were caught.  There are studies that suggest we've caught only a fraction of actual serial killers, so do we actually have a legitimate profile of a "serial killer" or a limited view of failed serial killers?  Similarly, we've captured only a portion of adult learners, a fair percentage may not be there entirely voluntarily.

I'm also surprised that they don't really account for the increase in adult education over the last 40 years and connect it to the issue of degree inflation.  That is, adult education doesn't seem entirely of people seeking to improving themselves but recognizing that the credentials of yesteryear (a 4 year bachelor's degree) doesn't hold up nearly as well any more and to be competitive or to even advance (or not be laid off), means one has to further specialize and educate himself/herself.

Then there's the issue of "formal" and "nonformal."  Here is not a criticism but something I think worth noting.  With the rise of MOOCs, badge systems like CodeAcademy, the question increasingly is--is there discernible difference or does the difference matter?  (It may now--but as we move forward, the answer's not clear).

At other times, I feel the authors aren't really paying attention to what they are saying:  "An astounding 63 percent of adults reported participating in informal workplace learning."  (Pg 60).  Why is 63% "astounding"?  Given the desire for advancement for many and the nuances of different jobs, this seems normal...not astounding.

Overall, a better question to ask in all of this is would people get as much additional education (formal or informal) if it didn't mean a potential advance in their work (either in pay or position).  And is there good reason to differentiate learning for career advancement as opposed to learning for self-development?

However, where the chapter does shine and I feel works past some of what feels like light or superficial discussion is the section labelled "Problematizing the Concept of Participation."  In turning the question of participation on its head and questioning the underlying assumptions and cultural rhetoric, I think they do much better and are critical about ways in which systematic defaults allow us to privilege those who fall in line and disregard those who don't (often by the fundamental attribution error).  As they put it: "So although the rhetoric of adult education suggests some rather lofty ideals for the purpose of the endeavor, the reality suggests a more conservative purpose: maintenance of the status quo, which today means a capitalist economic system that values individuality, independence, and entrepreneurialism."  (Pg 72).

Chapter 13:  Cognitive Development in Adulthood.  

I find myself falling in with the "neo-Piagetians" who "recognize that these qualitative changes...may not occur for all aspects of thinking, but rather tend to be 'local and domain specific in nature.'" (Pg 237).  I tend to agree and find myself just as guilty of localizing sense-making.  I do my best to push it to larger systematic levels, but that too is often harder to do without practice (or realistic terms to rely upon).

But where I find great value about understanding learning (though not necessarily "adult learning"), is the discussion of postformal thought.  "a more advanced level involves an individual's ability not only to think logically but also to reflect on this logical thinking....People who possess postformal thought believe the following:  First, they know that all knowledge is incomplete and subjective.  However, they recognize that they must act despite the limits of their knowledge.  They understand that there is not one 'Truth' but many 'truths' and they commit to one set of beliefs knowing that there are many.  Further, they understand that contradiction and subjectivity are inherent in all logical and objective observations....They go beyond problem-solving to problem-solving behaviors, characterized by 'creative thought vis-a-vis discovered problems'....In short, formal operational thought 'presume[s] logical constituency within a single logical system'....In contrast, postformal operations 'presume somewhat necessarily subjective selection among logically contradictory formal operational systems, each of which is internally consistent and absolute.' (Pg 327).

As I understand it, the postformal understand recognizes the lack of objectivity and therefore, knows no matter what their approach/decision, it is limited and likely will need to be contradictory to another answer and approach to something else.  It's being consciously aware that learning, while always enlightening is always limiting.  It kind of reminds me of what my father always said.  "The more I learn, the less I know."  This seems to capture that concept.  I ultimately know less, but still move forward with making sense of the world as a result of continued learning that is tempered by contradiction, subjectivity, and instability.

LIA does well in this chapter providing a variety of theories, explaining who was involved in forming them, their potential and their limitations.  However, the "Transcendence View" seemed to be poorly developed and explained.  If anyone cares to explain that one to me; I'll give you a prize.

As LIA moved into dialectical thinking, I got a little excited.  Though hard and sometimes, I find myself re-reading it several times to get it.  The dialectical approach fits and though I don't entirely agree that it "becomes the hallmark of mature adult thinking" (Pg 344), I do believe it shows a higher level of thinking.  I disagree because 1. I still don't care for this concept of an adult learner; 2. Because I don't think it is fully possible to constantly maintain this state of mind.  It's exhausting for our brains.  It's most likely a sign of evolution, but to maintain and move through the world ceaselessly in this state doesn't seem entirely possibly.  That said, I do certainly appreciate attempt to "work within these relationships, miserable as that might be, to advance our ways of thinking and working" while recognizing "that 'the other side will not go away, [and] probably should not."  (Pg 344).  After all, it's election season and many of us wish the other side(s) would go away.  Ultimately, I see the dialectical approach striving for nuance and subtlety.

Two more bits and I'm done.  I promise.

Labouvie-Vief's view is that "while the theme of youth is flexibility, the hallmark of adulthood is commitment and responsibility.  Careers must be started, intimacy bonds formed, children raised.  In short, in a world of a multitude of logical possibilities, one course of action must be adopted.  This conscious commitment to one pathway and the deliberate disregard of other logical choices may mark the onset of adult maturity."  (Pg 347).  I have issue with the word "maturity" and its connotations.  Maybe it was a poor word choice, but I'm still not buying that one becomes inflexible and that decisions made about life's path destroy flexibility.  If that were the case, then starting new families, new careers, new hobbies, new faiths wouldn't occur, right?

Finally, their discussion of wisdom, while interesting at times, failed in one substantive way.  More than anything else, wisdom is social.  That is in order for wisdom to be conferred/recognized, it's within a social context.  So much of other types of learning or adult thinking can be internal, but it seems to me that wisdom is social.  It is executed in some real of publicness between one or more peoples.  Sages (heralders of wisdom, right) are so because of the wisdom they bestow upon others.  Oracles, prophets, etc--they all may be wise people, but they are only so in a public context.

Ok, I'm done...has anyone actually read this far?




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