Thinking about your own learning as an adult

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As a child I often could not see the point of learning, however as an adult, wanting to develop a deeper faith, I chose to undertake theological studies. This turned out to be a defining time as my understanding matured, and I was able to resolve theological conundrums and answer questions that had long perturbed me; questions and issues that conventional explanations, while sometimes helpful, frequently exacerbated. Yet, the discord between what I felt and what was more broadly accepted, rather than diminishing, for a time intensified considerably. Only towards the end of my studies was the tension substantially alleviated. The resolution began unexpectedly while I was home one evening reading articles by an author to whom I had only recently been introduced, and whose fresh perspectives would in time profoundly impact my own. Amazed by what I was reading, it did not take long before I realised that I had found the hermeneutical keys I had long sought, even if it had been on an unconscious level. As I now recognise, this point in time marked, not a new beginning, so much as the beginning of the end of what had essentially been an "autodidactic" (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p.139) process - that commenced the moment I first joined the church. Over following days and months, as I read and my understanding grew, I literally felt re-awakened and liberated. Even now, as I read and ponder scriptural texts, I feel reverberations from that night.

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That this critical learning event occurred long after leaving school, supports much contemporary thinking in adult education, particularly the notion that adults are essentially self-directed learners. Reflection has revealed to me just how significant self-direction was during this extended event. In terms of effect, it was fundamental to my learning; I had entered formal studies fully aware of why I was there and what I wanted to achieve, reflecting Knowles' contention that adults "need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it" (Knowles, 1990, p.57).

This was indeed true for me. While I had found much of what I had learnt from simply attending church helpful, I just as often felt that issues had barely been skimmed, leaving me asking questions, and frustrated because I could not answer them. Conversely, because I also found adept-preaching to be a powerful tool in communicating perceived truth, this too, strongly conveyed a necessity to undertake theological studies. Still, based on my own experiences, and notwithstanding that I was more motivated as an adult, I remain unconvinced that young learners, to a greater extent than adults, only need to know what they must learn in order to pass, without understanding the relevancy of their learning to real-life (Knowles, 1990, p.55).

Because need and relevancy are closely aligned, to imply as Knowles does, that adults are more intrinsically 'need' oriented as learners (Knowles, 1990, p.57), by implication, must mean that they are also more 'relevancy' oriented as learners. One of the interesting things about reviewing my learning-event, has been the discovery of how central a role relevancy has played in my own learning. While there are many reasons why I enrolled at bible college, that I was interested and wanted to understand the keys to gaining more knowledge, alone suffices to illustrate the point.

Looking at things through a relevancy lens has also made it easier to see the true nature of my involvement in this learning event. The mere fact that I could have pulled out of my studies at any time, but did not, shows that I had willingly taken responsibility for my own learning (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p.139), and the achievement of my learning goals. That I was challenged by the ideas that I was learning, but also empowered to challenge these ideas in return, likewise shows that I was not simply a passive recipient in the learning process. While incidental learning no doubt played an important role, it was just the accompaniment, not the main course. In fact, as my reasons for enrolling demonstrate, I was the one who was in control of my learning, albeit with assistance from academics (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p.139).

Permitting that by 'need', Knowles apprehended 'deep-desire' or 'longing', to be part of the semantic range he associated with the word, then my entry and participation in theological studies, also demonstrates that as an adult, I too was motivated to learn those things I needed to, in order to "cope effectively with real-life situations" (ibid). Simplifying what was in reality quite complex, I wanted to be able to function more effectively as a Christian. Even so, I think Knowles' use of "need" in relation to child learning, as highlighted by its association with the idea of 'coping effectively', is problematic. In my opinion, unless it can be clearly shown that children, perhaps apart from infants[1], have a lesser "need" to learn in order to "cope effectively with real-life", then it is hard for me to see how Knowles can maintain, that "pedagogical assumptions are realistic...[and]...practiced appropriately" (Knowles, 1990, p.55). Like adults, just because children can suspend their natural inclinations when required, does not mean that this kind of need is any less relevant to them.

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Dependency does not necessarily equal not needing to know, nor does intrinsic necessarily top extrinsic motivators with respect to "need". Ironically, based on my experience, it seems more probable that the reason children suspend such a need, is so they can cope effectively with the real-life necessities of learning within an externally imposed pedagogical structure. What reflection on my own childhood learning experiences tells me, is that I would agitate to learn things that I perceived to be in my own best interest or need - which is essentially what I take Knowles notion of "cop[ing] with real-life situations" to mean. For example, because I perceived a "need", as a child I pushed to be taught how to ride a bike and make a kite, to ensure the learning. The difference is perhaps that children and adults have different perceptions of need. It may also have to do with the fact that children are less able to perform certain tasks, due to their less developed brains, as recent studies have shown (Khun & Pease, 2006, p.280 & Hill, 2001). Thus in my opinion Brookfield was correct in criticising the notion of "need" as a derogatory "shibboleth" (Newman, 1995, p.65), not because it is unimportant to adult learning, but because it artificially distinguishes it from child learning.

Having lived longer and having experienced much more of life, means that as an adult, I entered my learning-event with a far greater volume and broader range of learning experiences, compared to when I was a child (Knowles, 1990, p.59). Yet, it seems that just as important as number and range, was the time and opportunity that I had to process and subject my experiences to considered reflection (Davis, 1974, p.20). For this reason, I commenced this period of learning with far more knowledge, and capacity to consider its limits, under what Kuhn and Pease refer to as, "executive control" (Khun & Pease, 2006, p.281). This is significant because I believe that it was this particularly adult characteristic, more than any other, which enabled me to approach my learning critically - or in a way that was characterized by careful evaluation and judgment; something that for given reasons I could never have done to the same extent as a child. It provided me with the point of entry I needed to allow me to be able to critically analyse, and challenge the prevailing thinking of myself, and others from whom I would draw. So, compared to when I was a child, I was no longer just 'experiencing' learning (Knowles, 1990, p.60), as an adult learner I had become empowered to integrate or not integrate my experiences. Moreover, even mounting dissonance, in the face of much of what I was processing at this time, could not dislodge me from my learning quest, substantiating Mezirow's contention that "the impetus for action must come from the learner" (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, p.142).

Thus seen, it is clear that my learning event had many points of commonality with what Mezirow describes in relation to Perspective Transformation. Like the women re-entering college programs, I too experienced a "disorienting dilemma" (Mezirow, 1981, p.146). The only difference I can see may be in the order, which simply underscores that all people are unique in how they learn. What Mezirow describes as a "disorienting dilemma", and I as dissonance, unlike the subjects of his study, for me commenced not when I entered college, but when I was first exposed to the teachings of the church. During this time of disorientation, dissonance or of possessing a knowledge that was "'provisional' and 'ambiguous'" (Amstuz, 1999, p.21), I too sought perspectives "that were more inclusive, discriminating and integrative", in order to become re-oriented (Mezirow, 1981, p.146). Cognitive dissonance theory in fact predicts such behaviour (ref). However, by the time I got to college, perhaps through incidental learning that occurred somewhere alone the way (Foley, 2004, p.5), I had already become critically conscious. For this reason I was able to reject and question perspectives that to me did not seem credible or adequately substantiated. According to Hill: "We literally must feel something is true before it can be believed and learned" (Hill, 2002, p.79). My own perspective, that is, beliefs, values, and assumptions that I had acquired through my own "life-world" (Kalantzis & Cope, 2008, p.93) - as a result of critical engagement, had already alerted me to the constraints associated with cultural assumptions (Mezirow, 1981, p.146); in my case - of particular ways of reading and interpreting scriptural text. Thus, it seems that I commenced college, having already entered what Mezirow describes as the "emancipatory process" (ibid), possibly as the result of some innate quest to realise order, as Rogers hypothesized (ibid).

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To put it in transformative terms, it was my critical reflectivity that enabled me to refrain from accepting the majority view, both prior to, and during my term at bible college. Indeed, the opposite was true. It was in fact my critical disposition acting in consonance with my 'internal dissonance', which impelled me to continue the learning journey and satisfy my learning goals. Thus, when the time came, and I began reading the articles, which as previously stated, were critical in achieving my learning objectives, I was already cognitively prepared to be transformed by the text. That from the outset I perceived the solution to my learning as residing, not in some one-off all-encompassing idea, but rather a hermeneutic or system of interpretation, also suggests that I was already operating from within an interpretive-critical paradigm. I was, as it were, already engaging with my life-world as an interactive text to be interpreted. This, therefore, suggests that the most impactful learning that occurred during this event, actually took place within the interpretive-critical domain. Having entered this learning phase with clearly anticipated outcomes, that I used to guide my actions, and goals, that I intended to attain, also attests to the purposefulness, motivation and autonomy, that I brought to the task as an adult learner. Moreover, because all are interrelated in highly complex ways that involve the mind, emotions, beliefs, feelings, attitudes, and values, also shows how important these were in helping to construct my reality (learning) as an adult (Hill, 2001).

REFERENCES:

Amstuz, D.D. 1999, Adult Learning: Moving toward more inclusive theories and practices, Chapter 2 in Providing Culturally Relevant Adult Education: A challenge for the twenty-first century, Guy TC (ed) New Directions in Adult and Continuing Education, No 82, Jossey Bass.

Boud, D. 1988, 'A facilitator's view of adult learning', in Boud, D. and Griffin, V. Appreciating Adults Learning: From the Learners' Perspective, Kogan Page, London.

Davis, L. N. 1974, Planning, Conducting, Evaluating Workshops, Learning Concepts, Austin, Texas.

Foley G. 2004, Introduction, Dimensions of Adult Learning, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

Hill, L.H. 2001, The Brain and Consciousness: Sources of Information for Understanding Adult Learning, Chapter 8 in The New Update on Adult Learning Theory, Merriam SB (ed) New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, No. 89, Spring 2001.

Kalantzia, Mary & Cope, Bill, 2008, New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne.

Knowles. M. 1990, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, Gulf Publishing, Houston.

Kuhn, Deanna & Pease, Maria, 2006, Do Children and Adults Learn Differently? JOURNAL OF COGNITION AND DEVELOPMENT, 7(3), 279-293, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Merriam, S. & Brockett, R. 2007, "The Adult Learner and Concepts of Learning" (Extract) in The Profession and Practice of Adult Education, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Mezirow, J. 1981, 'A critical theory of adult learning' in Adult Education, vol. 32, no. 1 (reprinted in Kemmis, S. and McTaggart, R. 1988, The Action Research Reader, Deakin University, Victoria.

[1]Rapid language acquisition in infants provides a good example a real-world "need".