Adventures in Learning: What's Childhood But Another Context

So the questions that I'm grappling with and will continue to grapple with in this course until a solid answer is provided (or mayhaps I go off and write my own article/book) is:  Is there any way of distinguishing the child learner from the adult learner beyond differences of degree--that is , are there any full categorical differences between adult and child learner?  If there isn't, then why are we talking about "adult learning" as all; why isn't it just "learning?"

The point that comes up time and again is that adults have much more experience than children to draw upon.  Experience (which is another word for being conscious of contextual elements of our lives—understanding how we live and move through our lives informing our understanding of the world) is great, but because it is so individualized, it then seems to nuke any cohesion about adults as learners.  At least when it comes to giving the instructor or institute anything definitive to work with as a perception of “adult” learner.  Adults are learners with life experience (but that life experience is all over the place, so then what can I do with that).

To that end, I offer this thought:  Humans are chaos theory in action.  That includes children.  Context is the infinite amount of events and experience (conscious, subconscious, and unconscious) that we accumulate in our lives from second to second, minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, year to year and how it is filtered into our senses of past self (personal history/narrative), present self (self-define), and future self (goals and tracks we pursue).  But it's like chaos theory.  Chaos theory says that there are enormously vast systems on Earth (and in the galaxy for that matter) at play and even small elements of that system can trigger cataclysmic events (e.g. the butterfly effect).  Humans are the same.

In another post, something I'll talk more about when I talk about post-modern concepts of the self (a chapter we don't read, but that I will be because I'm finding fault with the definitions offered about the approaches thus far in Merriam) is that we never acknowledge that for all our pretensions about the "self" as being set, we as humans are incredibly inconsistent.  We are NEVER the same; from second to second, minute to minute.  We are never the same person, no matter how you argue it.  Physiologically, we never contain the same number of cells chemical balances, etc throughout the body.  Psychologically, we are continually consciously and unconsciously influenced not only by our environment but by our bodies (hunger, pain, or even the need to pee alter our state of mind as do the morning commute, advertisements, and quality of air or other external factors).  Physically, our bodies are never in the same space twice.  In the immediate sense they may be--I can sit the same chair twice, but is that chair in the same "spot" when one considers that we inhabit a rotating planet hurdling through space.  We are never in the same space twice in the universe.  Thus, the only thing we seem to be saying about adults is that they are very much context defined such as these quotes emphasize:

"For purposes of this discussion, there are two important challenges to the validity of intelligence tests.  The first asserts that they are too culture-specific; the second, that they are constructed from problems and tasks derived from the context or "culture" of schooling rather than everyday life.  Both these challenges derive from a single feature of intelligence tests:  that the problems and tasks used are largely decontextualized; that is, separated from everyday social and cultural activities and purposes.  (Pg 17)"

"These findings reflect a growing understanding of the importance of coming to grips with the full context of human functioning.  The complexity of everyday work and home life makes increasing demands on ordinary individuals to negotiate an ever broadening terrain of life experiences.  In the face of such complexity, the narrow focus and circumscribed text regimes of the traditional intelligence tests appear, somewhat inadequate for the task. (Pg 22)"

"That is, skilled practical thinking draws aspects of the given environment, be they people, things, or information, into the problem-solving system.  (Tennant, Pg 45).

"Schmidt and colleagues argue that expertise is largely non-analytical and based strongly on instances... (Tennant, Pg 53)

"A persistent theme in the expertise literature is the central role attributed to domain-specific knowledge in expert performance. (Tennant, 56).

"The role of the learners' experience.  Adults come into an educational activity with both a greater volume and a different quality from youths. (Knowles, Pg 57)"

"Despite the limitations of this line of research (Courtney, 1992), it has become evident that learners' motivations for participating in adult education are many, complex, and subject to change."  (Merriam Pg 65).

“In summary, looking at the social structure rather than individual needs and interests reveals some very different explanations as to why adults do or do not participate in adult learning activities. (Merriam Pg 69)”

“But each student experiences this lesson in a specific way, which involves emotions, motivations, and psychological energy. (Pg 99)”

“For Jarvis, all experience occurs within the learner’s world (that individual’s world, not the world), which is ever-changing... (Pg 101)”

 What distinguishes adult from child learner--experience--isn't that just one more context.  Some in class have heard me go on about this, but I'm still not buying or seeing any definitive distinction between adult and child learners.  There doesn't seem to be anything that adults can do as learners that children can't to some degree.  So much of this is differences of degrees and so creating different “categories” of learners seems faulty.

Given that context seems to be the only definitive difference, it seems worth exploring.  The reason for stating childhood as a context and not as a deficiency is important and key.  We tend to think of children lacking conscious context (awareness of experiences and how it influences their lives) and being embedded in context (subject to but not necessarily conscious to the impact, relevance, and usefulness of experience).  When we’re talking about context or experience, we privilege adult learners as having much more conscious context to evaluate the context they are embedded in.  But we make 2 fatal assumptions with that.

1. We assume adults fully know or are better equipped to perceive their context.  

I highly doubt this assumption.  If humans are chaos theory in action, one way we center ourselves is by telling ourselves a story—a constructed narrative of selected moments that creates an arc—that explains how a person got to where they are.  However, the construction of the arc is fictional (not the events, but the selected events)—they are the one we consciously subscribe to but don’t account for the millions (if not billions) of actions, decisions, and exposures to different contexts we are subjected to in our lives.  We assume understand the fullness of how the world impacts us and we really don’t.

2. We assume that children can’t make meaningful sense out of their worlds without conscious experience.  

But of course they can.  They use imagination.  They craft meaning out of everything they encounter based upon their experience and projecting themselves into the world.  This is no different than a person struggling with weight encountering the information about high fructose corn syrup and deciding that is the reason they are having so much trouble.  The child projects and engages in the world the same way.

Our discussion of children has largely viewing them as empty vessels to fill up.  They are like cups; empty until filled.  Experience (context) is the flavored drink being poured into the cup.  But I think that’s drastically inaccurate of a metaphor.  Children are not empty; they in fact have a very rich means of sense-making in the world when engaged to do so.  So I ask again what categorical difference is there between child and adult as it comes to learning?

Did you enjoy this read? Let me know your thoughts down below or feel free to browse around and check out some of my other posts!. You might also want to keep up to date with my blog by signing up for them via email.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.