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Philosophical Orientation

Identifying Your Philosophical Orientation

The multidimensional nature of education is well accepted. This is reflected in works which explore the nature of beliefs in order to better understand how such systems, both on the level of personal philosophies and culture, interact to impact the way individuals behave. From an adult education perspective, much of the focus has been on the way these systems potentially impact teacher behaviour and consequently affect the way seekers of adult education learn. This too is reflected in the proliferation of views about what education is or ought to be, what it should aim at, how it should proceed, etcetera. Zinn's Philosophy of Adult Education Inventory reflects this concern. It has been developed specifically with the aim of helping adult educators better understand their own philosophical orientations, thereby making them more philosophically consistent. According to Zinn the benefits of this are manifest and she outlines several in her chapter, Identifying Your Philosophical Orientation (Zinn, 1990, p.44).

After reading Zinn's article I completed the Inventory. My scores were as follows:

Liberal Adult Education (L) 78

Progressive Adult Education (P) 73

Humanistic Adult Education (H) 70

Behaviourist Adult Education (B) 68

Radical Adult Education (R) 65

Thus according to Zinn's formulation, it appears that my primary philosophical orientation is Liberal Adult Education. While these results did not initially surprise me, further consideration has exposed a number of concerns. A number of Zinn's comments also perplexed me. Even so I am quite comfortable with my primary designation(s). If anything, it was the overall lack of surprise that was most surprising, and this raised an important question. If the above results simply bring to the fore my pre-existing orientation(s), which is what is to be expected if the Inventory meets its purpose, what in terms of actual classroom practice is the advantage of enlightened decision making over intuitive decision making? The answer of course depends on whether Zinn and her sources are correct that people can consistently act inconsistently, by holding to a working theory-in-use that is different to their espoused theory (Zinn, 1990, p.43). Though Zinn spends some time trying to establish this, I ultimately find the argument unconvincing. Such a prolonged incongruity between behaviour and belief would, in my opinion, require a level of dissociation that a normal-functioning adult would be unable to sustain.

As for my perplexity with Zinn's comments, they primarily arise out of the following summary observations. 1) That “typical combinations are Liberal and Behaviourist or Progressive and Humanistic”. 2) That “it is highly unlikely that you would have high scores in both Liberal and Radical categories”. 3) That if your scores are evenly distributed, “you may need to work on clarifying your beliefs and looking for contradictions among them” (Zinn, 1990, p53). Such comments seem to suggest that Zinn's framework is premised on the notion that individuals are either philosophically fixed or only capable of moderate flexibility. This seems to me both counter intuitive and deterministic. I reject any notion that people can somehow be so rigidly slotted into predefined boxes.

In my view there is no issue with Liberal and Progressive philosophies being utilised in complement to each other. They are simply different aspects of what I regard as a broader philosophy. In other words, I do not see that there are any inherent conflicts between them, as Zinn's article implies, (and her Inventory as an artefact of her framework). For example, I do not agree, as Zinn's inventory implies, that one style inherently treats people with more respect and care for their personhood, that is with more dignity than another, as her various categorisations suggest. It is the role of the educator to act respectfully in any given context. Thus while I recognise that Zinn's aim is to help one identify his or her own philosophical orientation, I nonetheless feel that the Inventory, with its inflexible and demarcated approach, is limited in its usefulness. It may even be unhelpful in the sense that it may assist to perpetuate a similar kind of what could be considered restricted thinking.

My reluctance to accept such rigid categorisations, I suspect, stems from an aversion I have to anything paternalistic. It probably also explains why I feel somewhat uncomfortable with aspects of The Hamburg Declaration on Adult Learning, though I also agree with much of what it stands for and seeks to achieve. My concern with this Declaration, which reads like a humanistic missiological statement, is that while it seeks to advance the rights of all adults with respect to education, yet seeks to impose its own values on peoples who may not share them (UNESCO, 1997).

In addition, insufficient consideration is given to context in both Zinn's Inventory and article. While completing the Inventory, I frequently found myself conflicted. I often experienced difficulty answering questions, because I felt that the best response to many of them, ultimately depended on context. Depending on the context, I may have answered differently. Foley reflects my sentiments when he quotes (Usher & Bryant, 1989, p.82) as saying “The question for the practitioner is not ‘what…[philosophical]…rules should I apply' but ‘how ought I to act in this particular situation'“(Foley, 2004, p.10).

As for my relatively even distribution of scores, should they be accepted as a possible indication of confusion, as Zinn suggests, or might they indicate something else? It seems that my own personal philosophy is broad enough, and flexible enough, to allow me to borrow from a wide range of approaches, depending on the context. This being the case, I tend to think that it is perhaps better understood as confirmation of my eclecticism.

Though limited and mostly informal, this eclecticism also appears to have been well reflected in my own teaching experience. For example, when working as a team leader with a large telecommunications corporation, I was often required to educate technical staff in the use of new technologies and testing methods. Such a context often necessitated what was essentially a Behaviourist approach. This was because I had found from experience that behaviour repetition and programmed instruction were ideally suited to the development of this kind of technical knowledge. For instance, when training staff in the use of test equipment or tracing data through telephone exchanges, I would first demonstrate the skills and techniques involved, have learners practise them, and then I would answer any questions or provide feedback as required. Even so, progressive elements, such as problem solving exercises, were often included, particularly in response to specific learner requests.

On the other hand, when teaching English to students of other languages (TESOL), who were adults of Korean origin, I intuitively recognised that it was not only appropriate but often necessary to use elements from a variety of approaches, even Radical, in the sense of “getting at the basis of something” (Zinn, 1990, p.53). For instance, while learning often occurred through formal instructor led teaching (L), learners were also encouraged to decide what they wanted to focus on and how they wanted the sessions to proceed (H). Students could, for instance, negotiate whether to formally work through exercises in text books (B), learn and practise through role playing (P), or through singing songs or reciting limericks (H). Sometimes the class decided to go on field trips or take rides on public transport in order to practise, reinforce and discover new learning (P, H, B, R). Again, after discussion with students, cultural aspects such as etiquette were often incorporated into lessons (H, P). Additionally, because some students felt the need to reveal that it was very important in Korean culture not to lose face, much attention was also given to developing class rules which encouraged student participation in an open and non-judgemental way, thus creating and ensuring a supportive and nurturing learning environment (P, H). This, I believe, approximates what Heron describes with respect to his decision mode-levels. In my opinion it constitutes an attempt, albeit intuitive, to develop a holistic approach to learning and teaching (Heron, n.d, p.4). It would thus appear that in my case, Zinn's Inventory perhaps better reflects the consistency that exists between practice and philosophy than her framework allows.

It is for reasons such as these, that I personally prefer Illeris's Tension Field of Learning Theory. As a model, it recognises that all learning is multidimensional, that “the cognitive, the emotional and the social” all have a role to play. That, “irreducibly, human learning always involves all three at the same time” (Sawchuk, 2006, p.4). This is personally much more acceptable because it presents and focuses on the complete multifaceted-individual with his or her attendant needs. And I feel that much more emphasis generally needs to be given to the central role of learners.

Illeris' model is also preferable because of the way theories of adult learning can be mapped within the so-called “tension field, allowing us to…[better]…imagine relations between theories which all too frequently neither reference nor even acknowledge one another “(Sawchuk, 2006, p.4), vis-à-vis Zinn's approach. In short, it promotes a less rigid and more useful way to think about theory.

Another possible concern that Zinn's Inventory highlighted, is the apparent ease with which experiential knowledge can be subordinated to, and thought as being lesser than, theoretical knowledge. I, on the other hand, agree with Foley that “a conception of theory and practice that emphasises their mutual dependence is more useful than one that sees theory as prior to practice”(Foley, 2004, p.11). For me, theoretical and experiential knowledge are two sides of a single phenomenon, as are teaching and learning, and as such are blended in ways that can not be easily separated. Foley seems to reflect this intimate fusion when he emphasises the need to derive “theory from both experience and study” as a way of assisting “adult educators to do their work better” (Foley, 2004, P.3). Thus, in my opinion, to divide them, is to artificially divide the cognitive from the practical. It introduces what I regard as an unnecessary dualism, which in my opinion detrimentally elevates one form of knowledge over another.

Thus I conclude that there is some merit in examining one's philosophical orientation, at least as an academic exercise, because now I am more aware of the scope of the debate, itself an artefact of the competing philosophies. However, despite Zinn's exhortations to clarify one's philosophy, at this point I remain to be convinced of the practical benefits of rigidly aligning myself with any one particular philosophy. I am also, more than ever, committed to the belief that when it comes to education, the learner(s) must always be the primary focus along with the context in which learning occurs. I consider Sawchuk's approach, unlike Zinn's, preferable because it provides a framework with greater flexibility for the educator to work within, and ultimately respond creatively to the student within their particular context. To me, this is true congruence. Zinn's Inventory on the other hand, does not allow for the flexibility needed in real life. If taken on board and strictly adhered to, in my opinion, this kind of rigid thinking ultimately leads to losses of ingenuity, initiative and creativity in teaching, and consequently, learning. As for my own approach, I feel that it better aligns with what I currently understand of Sawchuk, Foley and Heron, in that they generally appear to give greater consideration to the needs of learners within particular contexts.

Reference List

Fenwick, Nesbit, Spencer. 2006, Contexts of Adult Learning, Thompson, Toronto.

Foley, G. 2004, Dimensions of Adult Learning, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.

Heron, J. n.d. The Politics of Facilitation, Unpublished paper.

UNESCO, 1997, The Hamburg Declaration on Adult Learning, CONFINTEA, Hamburg.

Zinn, L. 1990, Identifying Your Philosophical Orientation, in ed.Golbraith, Adult Learning Methods, Kreiger, Florida, pp. 39-77.

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