How race, gender and class may affect learning

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Laguna Pueblo/Sioux feminist literary critic Paula Gunn Allen (1986) claims, “Westerners have for a long time discounted the importance of background” (p. 243). For Allen, understanding is filtered through context; the listener’s age, sex, gender, class, race, tribal affiliation – everything that makes an individual unique – play a role in how that individual listens and hears, understands and learns. “When a traditional Keres reads the tale of Kochinnenako, she listens with certain information about her people in mind …” (Allen, 1986, p. 232).

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The fields of adult and higher education have not been, historically, paragons of inclusiveness, especially in regards to developmental and learning theory. Perry (1999), for example, developed his theory of student learning based on interviews he conducted with students at Harvard in the mid-20th century – as if such a homogenous population could be representative of the development of all students. Today, however, scholars of development and learning in adult and higher education do understand that it is not just individual intellect or motivation that affects how the individual grows, changes, and learns. Sociocultural background is also important. For example, Bee and Bjorklund (2004) identify four factors affecting individual development that are sociocultural in nature: gender, race and ethnicity, class, and education.

On the other hand, educators of adults have, since the early 1990s, begun to pay attention not only to how sociocultural factors affect individual development but also to how sociocultural factors can present barriers to or enhance interaction with adult and/or higher education (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). For example, race and gender are associated with inequality in “adult social, educational, and work lives” that, in turn, can adversely impact participation in those same social, educational, and occupational situations (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2010, p. 28).

In this essay, I will provide a brief overview of how race, gender, class, and sexual orientation may affect the learner – either in their developmental process or in their experiences in adult and higher education environments.


Despite the fact that the United States elected its first Black president in 2008, we are not a post-racial country. As a society, we still must face the fact that racism exists in our culture, in both subtle and quite blatant forms. This racism often leads to negative consequences for individuals not in the dominant culture (Johnson-Bailey, 2001).

In the broader cultural context, racism can impact every aspect of daily lives for those who are do not fit the profile of the dominant culture. For example, in the town where I live, my Mexican neighbors live in fear of being stopped for “driving while Latino,” even while obeying all traffic laws, while I, who should have gotten at least one speeding ticket by now as I possess a major lead foot, am often given a free pass by the authorities – because I appear White. Likewise, I don’t ever have to worry that someone walking at night will cross the street to get away from me, in fear that I will assault or rob them. I do not fit the racial profile our culture has established for muggers. I also am aware that by virtue of my racial appearance, I am afforded certain privileges that give me a greater chance for career success than others who don’t look like me.

In educational environments, as in society in general, racism plays a critical role in how minority students access and experience learning. Minority students are less likely to pursue and complete postsecondary education (Swail, 2003). This is not because minority students have any organic deficit that makes them less able to learn or any less desire and motivation to succeed than White students. Rather, minority students have not been supported for academic success. Many often have attended primary and secondary schools poorly funded under a racist, classist system in which communities that are White and high-income have more money to provide education for their children than do communities that are minority and low-income. Schools that serve minority, low-income students, for example, may lack up-to-date equipment, such as computers, access to out-of-class programs that may enhance student learning such as field trips to Abbott Labs, basic equipment such as textbooks for each student, and safe schools that don’t leak every time it rains.

Minority students who attend schools such as described above face many barriers to academic achievement whether they pursue education immediately after high school graduation or enroll in an adult education program in their later years. In colleges and universities, for example, racism can negatively impact how minority students experience their education. Johnson-Bailey, Valentine, Cervero, and Bowles (2009) found that more than 50% of Black graduate students experienced racism on campus and suffered from “isolation, loneliness, disconnection, and discrimination” that could be attributed to racism (p. 192). Black women face discrimination based on both their race and their gender. “Speaking about the influence of racism and sexism in their lives, Johnson-Bailey notes, “Racism and sexism impact the educational experiences of Black women in many ways. As Blacks, they are thought to be intellectually and morally inferior. As women, they are held to task for the alleged inadequacy of their gender’s intellect” (p. 91).” (Baumgartner, 2001, p. 32).

Critical race theory argues that racism is “the enduring, all-pervasive reality of American life, and suggests that adult educators acknowledge this and makes its analysis and confrontation a central feature of study and practice” (Brookfield, 2010, p. 75). While not every adult educator or educator in the higher education system will agree that confronting racism should be the fulcrum for education and learning, issues of racism and internalized racism must be addressed in order for students to be as successful as they can be. Practioners in adult and higher education ” … must attend to racism and racial stereotypes, as well as question race-based assumptions (which are pervasive and internalized)” (Smith & Taylor, 2010, p. 53).

The story of how race affects learning and development is not entirely negative, however. Minority students who experience racism may be moved to more deeply embrace their heritage and culture, thereby reclaiming identity and forging new paths for positive individual development. “Such resentment can be directed by more deeply engaging with and reclaiming one’s culture, history, and heritage, and thereby redefining what it means to be ‘me,’ rather than defined (be either oneself or the dominant culture) according to what one is not … ” (Smith & Taylor, 2010, p. 53). This developmental process can, in turn, lead to new paradigms in adult education that lead to better success for minority students by incorporating socioculturally appropriate beliefs and values into educational practice. For example, the Africentric paradigm “conceives adult education as a process of developing African-based cognitive and socioeconomic structures that stress community, interdependence, and collective action” (Brookfield, 2010, p. 73). A practice to grow out of such a paradigm is the use of narratives and storytelling to facilitate the learning experiences of individuals of color (Brookfield, 2010).


Like race, gender can be used by a sexist society to throw up a barrier to women’s development and negatively affect their learning experiences. In a culture where the default human is seen as a White male, the model for individual human development has been structured around White, male life experiences. As a result, when compared to these androcentric models of development, women are often seen as lacking.

For example, Kohlberg (1981) developed a theoretical model describing the stages of moral development that is one of the most influential theories in psychology today (Haggbloom et al., 2002). Now matter how influential his theory is, his research findings were based only on male participants, and other theorists, such as Carol Gilligan (1977) have contended that his work, therefore, is inadequate to explain women’s moral development. Unlike Kohlberg’s (1981) model, in which a justice focus is the penultimate stage of moral development, Gilligan (1982) contends that women have an ethic of care, instead.

Just as there have been challenges to androcentric models of moral development, there have been challenges to the androcentric models of student learning development. Challenging Perry’s (1999) model of student development and influenced by Gilligan (1982), Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberg, and Tarule (1986) proposed a model of women’s ways of learning and knowing that emphasized a sense of connection and interrelation. Belenky et al. (1986) found that men and women learn differently; men learn in a hard, fact-based, separated fashion, whereas women learn best by being able to connect their experiences with what they were learning. An example of a feminist pedagogical method based on Belenky et al. (1986) can be found in an undergraduate earth science class taught by Mayberry and Rees (2009).

Mayberry and Rees (2009) set out to develop an earth science class that would attempt to improve women’s engagement with science by doing away with traditional science class structures that often alienate women. For example, rather than having strict lectures and labs, Mayberry and Rees (2009) took their class into the field. In one case, their class took a fieldtrip to Death Valley to study sedimentary deposits, something that brought their classroom discussions home to female students, who found it easier to understand theoretical geology by seeing and touching geological formations.

Acknowledging that women and men develop differently is helpful because it allows practioners to use a range of styles and techniques to shape learning environments, rather than accept a one-size-fits-all theory. However, even with this broadening of perspective, developmental theories are at danger of portraying all women as identical, which may do as much harm as theories that portrayed all humans as identical. ” … this subtext can lead to a simplified portrayal of authentic women as homogeneous, uncomplicated, and harmonious, and it can also lead to some misguided and simplistic attempts to plan learning experiences for them” (English, 2006, p. 17). What is true across the board, however, is that gender plays a significant role in the amount of power and privilege women have (Johnson-Bailey, Baumgartner, & Bowles, 2010, p. 342).

Gender also can prohibit full participation by women in adult and higher education, even in the Western world where a large majority of postsecondary students are women (Allen, Dean, & Bracken, 2008). For example, in 1949, Harvard Divinity School Dean Willard Sperry spoke out against women’s admission to the school because it would, he opined, lower academic standards since women primarily went into religious education and taught Sunday school, a job that did not require academic rigor in its workers (Braude, 2006, p. 375).

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Women are still more likely to be clustered into fields that are seen as traditionally female or that rely on women’s socialization as caregivers, such as teaching and nursing, and are less likely to pursue careers in mathematics and the hard sciences. Women also face added barriers to the pursuit of adult education that many men do not face, particularly in regards to their family responsibilities. For example, Maher, Ford, and Thompson (2004) found that women graduate students who were late-finishers of their doctorates faced significant barriers in regards to child-care responsibilities and marital problems as opposed to women who were early-finishers. As a result, it was difficult for them to balance their family and educational responsibilities.


Class – or rather, lack of access to financial resources – is one of the primary reasons that low-income adults do not pursue either postsecondary education or adult education opportunities (Merriam et al., 2007). According to Ginsberg and Wlodkowski (2010), poor adults are among the least likely students to enroll in higher education and, if they do happen to enroll, they are least likely to graduate. As with minority students, this is not because poor students happen to be lazy, unmotivated, or less intelligent than non-poor students, despite a research focus that has focused primarily on “individual’s motivation, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, position in the life cycle, and so on” (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 67).

Rather, poor students often have to make the choice between going to school and going to work (Gollnick & Chinn, 2006). Moreover, in poor families, i.e., a single mother with children, the choice is made even more difficult; although a college education or certification might improve the mother’s earning capacity, the needs of her family must come first, and she may find herself in a catch-22.

Sadly, everything about going to school is expensive. Not only is tuition costly, even at state universities, but fees, books, and room and board or commuting expenses can be more than an adult learner can afford. For example, poverty is an important factor in whether or not an individual can take part in technology driven learning (Norris & Conceição, 2004). It does not matter whether the learner wants to enroll in an online degree program or whether his or her traditional degree program requires an online class. If the learner is poor, he or she may not have access to the technology needed to participate. “While computer prices continue to drop, the price of a computer with monitor, speakers, software, and a printer can be as much as 10 to 15 percent of a poverty level income for a family of four” (Norris & Conceição, 2004, p. 74). In addition, the learner may not have been given computer instruction in primary or secondary education and may be computer illiterate, and, because of work and family responsibilities, may not have the time to become literate in order to participate in the online learning experience.

Computer illiteracy is not the only barrier that low-income learners face in accessing educational experiences. The poor lack the cultural capital needed to succeed in an educational system designed for a middle-class culture (Jarvis, 1985). In other words, the Western education system is designed to meet the needs of the middle class; the lower class, while educated publically up to a certain point, is not necessarily welcomed and supported. For example, teachers may be biased against lower-income students and expect them to perform more poorly academically than other students (Gollnick & Chinn, 2006). Poor high school students, as a result, may be steered toward less challenging courses that may leave them unprepared to attend the best colleges and universities, despite the intellectual ability to do so.

Despite challenges, however, low-income students who participate in adult education programs together can often be successful in their learning goals. Prins, Toso, and Schafft (2009) found that when impoverished women participated in nonformal adult education or family literacy programs, they bonded together in a familial way, supporting each other in ways that not only helped them achieve their educational goals but also improved their mental health as well.

Sexual Orientation

A student’s sexual orientation can also negatively affect his or her development and learning experiences. Lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender (LGBT) students who are not out to their family, peers or teachers may face significant anxiety about whether or not to disclose their sexual orientation (Messinger, 2004). According to Messinger (2004), they may fear for their personal safety or they may fear that they will be judged as less competent or professional if a current or future employer knows their sexual orientation. They may also be concerned about loss of parental emotional and financial support (Freedman, 2009). These fears play an important part in student development in educational environments. LGBT students who are not out about their sexual orientation prior to college may elect to come out while at school if they perceive their residence hall environment to be supportive of their sexual identity (Evans & Broido, 1999).

Unfortunately, even LGBT students who are out at college face challenges that impede learning. Their heterosexual peers may target them for harassment or harm; Rey and Gibson (1997) found that nearly a third of heterosexual students admitted committing a harmful behavior against a LGBT student. Out students may experience academic reprisals as well as physically and emotional harassment from educational administrators and teachers who disapprove of their sexual orientation. Some colleges and universities still prevent LGBT clubs from being active on campus, depriving students of access to social support that could lead to improvements in academic achievement (Gollnick & Chinn, 2006). Such hostile environments could negatively affect the academic performance of LGBT students (Gollnick & Chinn, 2006).

Openness about sexual orientation in the college environment can also lead to benefits for LGBT students. Newman, Bogo, and Daley (2008) found that among social work students undertaking field instruction, the disclosure of sexual identity improved their learning experience and potentially enhanced their interactions with their clients around issues of sexuality:

Self-disclosure was identified as enhancing a student’s learning opportunities. For example, field instructors spoke about the importance of students’ self-disclosure within the context of the field instructor/student relationship to processing sexuality-related issues that arise during their work with clients. (Newman et al., 2008, p. 222).

Undergraduate students who were out about their identity also experienced positive learning outcomes. According to exploratory research conducted by Longerbeam, Inkelas, Johnson, and Lee (2007), out gay men had “the highest mean scores for an array of intellectual outcomes, including applying acquired knowledge to different contexts, growth in cognitive complexity, and development of a personal philosophy” (p. 224). The challenges and barriers that gay students had to overcome in their academic and social lives may have better prepared them for growth in critical thinking skills, tolerance, and acceptance (Longerbeam et al., 2007).


Race, gender, class, and sexual orientation – in addition to other characteristics such as geographical location, religious background, and ability/disability status – affect us not only in our development but also in how we experience educational environments and our learning process. In many cases, our sociocultural characteristics may mean that we face significant social inequalities. Because of racism and sexism, certain learners may feel that they are not deserving of educational opportunities or may have become convinced that they are not capable or academic achievement. Members of the dominate culture who hold racist and sexist views may – consciously or unconsciously – deny access to individuals who “do not belong.” Learners who are low-income may not have had access to important educational opportunities and learning tools and, as a result, may have to struggle to overcome deficits in their adult and higher education experiences. Students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered may face very real threats to their physical safety in educational environments. As a result, they may “stay in the closet,” and be denied a full flowering of the exploratory learning process.

Yet, the situation is not all negative. Students who face challenges related to their sociocultural characteristics may have very positive learning outcomes because their ability to negotiate and overcome challenges makes them better prepared for advanced learning (Longerbeam et al., 2007). Learners can be assisted on their journey by adult educators and educators in the higher learning system that have a strong understanding of “how social inequities based on various attributes including race, class, and gender affect adult development and learning” (Baumgartner, 2001, p. 32). With such an educator, not only can students experience positive educational outcomes, but also they may be inspired to work toward social justice and change for others who also face barriers to full development and educational opportunity.

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