Isobel Stevenson

Thinking about Teaching and Learning

Adult Learning 1

January 22, 2014 by Isobel Stevenson · 1 Comment · Student Achievement

I was always a bit skeptical about the concept of adult learning.  The problem, I would say, is not that adults need to be treated as different kinds of learners than kids.  The problem is that we treat kids as passive learners because they are a captive audience and don’t have any choices.  If we gave kids the same options of just not showing up, or of walking out, then perhaps we would teach them differently.

However, when I wrote my dissertation, one of the really clear findings was the role of experience in principals’ development of thinking.  This study happened to be about principals’ definition of good instruction, but I have no reason to believe that the findings wouldn’t also apply to other areas of a principal’s job, nor that they wouldn’t apply to adults in other professions.

Not only were principals influenced by their own experience, to the exclusion of things that were supposed to figure large in their job performance, such as district initiatives and directives, but also, the experience that influenced them wasn’t necessarily their experience as professionals, but their experience as students.  Some of the incidents they related happened almost 50 years ago.  Experience, then, is clearly very important, and certainly much more important than I realized before starting the study.

However, I had not made adult learning any part of my lit review, and so I emerged at the end of the process still not really knowing much about adult learning.  Which is funny, because Malcolm Knowles, one of the best known proponents of adult learning (he used the term andragogy, as distinct from pedagogy) was a founding faculty member at Fielding, where I earned my doctorate.  The learning model at Fielding—of which I am a huge fan, and made being at Fielding a really useful and engaging experience—was developed according to principles articulated by Knowles.  And I managed to make it through almost to the very end of my doctoral work without having read anything by Knowles, and being mildly dismissive of the idea of adult learning.

Then when I got this job, I was reading Blended Coaching which, like many books about coaching and other strategies for professional development, states glibly that coaching is in line with the principles of adult learning, as if these are well-established, well-known, and widely agreed-upon, I realized that if I was going to have anything useful to say about the topic I really should read up on it.  Perhaps it would also prove useful.  That was in August, I think.  And this is January.  No good excuse.

So my learning plan, such as it is, is to sift through other notes I have on other things I have read and things I have written to codify what I already know about adult learning.  And then to start reading Knowles and see where that takes me.

From my own dissertation:

Reflective practice in principal preparation programs

As noted in Chapter 4, principals may have found their formal instruction in teaching or administration interesting, but the only principal who found either experience useful was one who participated in a program that was deliberately organized around reflective practice.  I went into this study with an understanding of the work that has been done in this field (see, for example, Carr & Kemmis, 1986; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009; Schön, 1983).  Yet my own learning style profile (Kolb, 1984) places me high on reflective observation and abstract conceptualization, and low on concrete experience and active experimentation; and so I was somewhat taken aback by the degree of emphasis that the participants in this study placed not just on their professional experience as a teacher, but also their personal experience as a student.  It made me realize several things.  First, in my own professional work with teachers and principals, I over-estimated the extent to which those educators would be affected by research—which is the codification of someone else’s experience, and clearly if you learn through concrete experience and active experimentation, the amount that you learn vicariously through someone else’s experience is going to be limited.  Looking back through the lens of this study, I failed to understand that adequately, and so my own practice featured too much telling and not enough action.



The notion that experience has a powerful influence on how we learn has a long and distinguished intellectual history, weaving as it does through the work of Dewey, Lewin, Kolb, Argyris, and Schön.  Thus I find it fascinating that policies and practices in education, of all areas, do not always give the role of experience its due.  This study shed light on the thinking of a group of thoughtful and dedicated principals regarding good instruction, and found that there appears to be a large area of agreement as to what constitutes good instruction, but also that the individual experiences of principals has an effect on the way they think about instruction, such that teachers may well feel that the feedback they receive about their teaching has as much to do with the person observing them as with the quality of their practice.

And when I searched my Dropbox for Kolb (because I need to track down the leads to Dewey, Lewin, Argyris, and Schön), I found a PDF linking Kolb to reflective journaling.  I had it filed under DU, but I don’t remember seeing it before, and honestly, it reads as gobbledygook to me.  Like somehow there is a direct translation of Kolb to an inquiry cycle, but I’m not sure that that makes any sense.  So now I have to re-read Kolb, which at least I have read, and won’t mind going back to.  I do remember taking a learning style profile.  It was at a conference at the Austin Convention Center when I was still teaching—so at least 20 years ago—and my profile was so high on abstract conceptualization that the presenter of the workshop put it on the overhead projector as an archetype.  I have always thought of myself as being “bookish”, that I could save myself a lot of time and money by reading a book instead of going to conferences and workshops (I still think that); so it is an odd quirk of fate that what changed my mind about the way that adults learn, and what made me doubt my own characterization of my own learning style, was my own dissertation study.

OK, so what next, read Kolb or read Knowles?

One Comment so far ↓

  • Leigh Mires

    Speaking of Kolb, the scientific evidence of effective use of learning styles is pretty weak. As Julie Dirksen notes in her book “Design for How People Learn,” there are a couple of assumptions that can’t really be proved – first, that somebody’s learning style can easily be measured, and second, that there is a practical way to adapt the learning experience to those styles.
    However, all is not lost with Kolb’s thinking. There are some useful nuggets:
    - Not everyone learns the same way.
    - There are different kinds of intelligence.
    - We are more alike than we are different.
    - You may want to vary the learning approach depending on the subject being learned.

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