Learning Philosophies in Tension

After completing the Philosophy of Adult Education Inventory (in Adult Learning Methods: A Guide for Effective Instruction by Michael W. Galbraith), I found myself surprised at how high my score was for Behavioural Adult Education. Admittedly it was near the bottom of my scores, coming in at number four out of five, but I still felt a visceral reaction against it registering even that high. Part of that is probably also because Liberal (Arts) Adult Education rated at the lowest and I do think that liberal arts education has a place and is useful. I’m a former English minor, after all, and a former humanities scholar. But behavioural or behaviourist education bothers me, even more so after reading the descriptions.

When reading “ensure compliance with standards and societal expectations” as the purpose of education, I cringed. While I do think that has been a huge part of education (moreso with K-12 perhaps than adult education), I have many problems with our “standards and societal expectations.” I have numerous conversations with colleages, friends, family about what I dislike, about feminist, lgbt-friendly, anti-racist, supportive work. I struggle with the stigma our society has for those with mental health issues or different ways of approaching the world like those on the Autism spectrum. I struggle when I find myself conforming to the expectation that I be something, do something, not do something, because of my place in society. So how could I even a little bit identify with an educational philosophy that promotes conformity, supports the status quo?

Oh yes. I see. I read further down and saw terms like “feedback,” “reinforcement,” “objectives,” “skill training.” There are places for aspects of Behaviourist learning. As an instructional designer, I use learning objectives in online courses to help guide students who may feel lost without the physical presence of their instructor, without body language, tone of voice, visual cues that they are expecting. I have done skill training that requires repetitive learning such as learning a new program (if you don’t practice a particular task, you promptly forget how to do it). I strongly believe in feedback. I think reinforcing important concepts is important.

So yes. Based on the questions asked, I may use strategies that are used by Behavioural Adult Education. But does using those strategies mean I believe in that philosophy?

To begin at the beginning, I ranked highest in Progressive and Radical Adult Education. Not a surprise to me based on the descriptions or previous similar exercises I have done. I have spent a lot of time absorbing theories such as feminism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism. I fight the internal struggle to match my actions to my beliefs every day and expect no less of myself in my teaching. I also think analytical skills are important, that experience is useful, and that activities are a good way to engage in education. Humanist came in a respectable third, probably because I found many of the examples to be difficult ones to accept self-directed nature when thinking of particular contexts. Like the fact that higher education courses aren’t always conducive to self-directed learning. With 40+ students in a course, it is a lot harder to let them all go their own way, especially if the course is introductory. When trying to work in advance, how can you plan for students you have not met yet? Also, to assume that adult learners will be able to walk in and assume responsibility for their learning is appealing but not always possible. I have done workshops with people who just really want to be shown what to do, especially on a technical level. I know university students are not always prepared to own their learning. It would be lovely to think, but I think there is an educational piece that may be missing; we have not taught our students to be self-directed learners. Belzer’s article definitely highlights this issue.

As for Liberal Arts, I feel a little guilty. I think learning for learning’s sake is admirable. I wish we lived in a world where everyone had the opportunity to engage in education for the joy of knowing. I do think that having some exposure to liberal arts is important for students in a higher education setting but I watch as the focus of adult education shifts more and more to job training. I find myself stuck between the reality that it can feel pointless having a degree that qualifies you (on paper) for “not a whole heck of a lot” or “grad school.” I have been asked what my previous degrees qualified me for and given those sorts of answers. Now I can see the value in my education but for someone who is struggling to make ends meet, is Shakespeare the answer? For students weighed down by debt, do they care about sociology or would they rather have some extra time spent on being prepared for a job?

I suppose I have to accept that the theories intertwine. That there are new positionalities that blend bits and pieces. Bricolage has been my way of assembling my theoretical identity for a long time so I can continue in that vein, accepting the parts that make sense, filling gaps from other philosophies and theories to make a whole that I agree with.

Telling Stories

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In reading about narrative learning, I found myself making connections with previous work I had done. I remembered my study of historiography and storytelling, the idea that we create history (and our lives) as stories. We take events and string them together to make meaning.

This makes sense to me as a way to understand education and learning. This is often how I look at my own learning, how I make sense of the paths I have travelled. My work previously in Religious Studies, through a BA, MA, and on to being a PhD candidate, was a story that I expected to have a particular goal and end. I have, since then, reinterpreted it as a beginning for a very different journey. Withdrawing from the PhD program was both an ending and a new beginning. I now see my previous education as the roots of my current path. When I tell people about my learning history, I put both my current and past education within a particular perspective by how I describe it.

I had to learn how to retell my story. Suddenly my education was no longer working toward the goal I had expected but I had to make meaning of what I had been through. I had to find a new story to tell, a new way to find purpose in where I had been. My previous path became the training ground for my current life and education. I can speak of teaching because I have been there. I can discuss with instructors because I have had some of the same training. I have done comps, I know what it means to be in a PhD program, I have taught my first class and recognized that I did things I would never do now. It has all become backstory for my current education.

I have also found that the story I tell myself about my experiences impacts my current experiences. Like the students discussed in “It’s not like normal school”, I have a history with education that colours my expectations. My previous experiences with graduate school have given me certain understandings of what graduate classes are like. My experience was with seminar classes, heavy discussion components, article critiques, or small reading classes. To me, that was what graduate school meant. Although some of my courses have taken similar approaches, I am adjusting to different course structures, different approaches, different language.

I am constantly retelling my story, such as positioning myself as a critical theorist. That was a term I had never really heard before. I was used to identifying as a feminist, post-structuralist, post-colonialist.

Reflection through narrative has become a way to make sense of things to me. I blog, often when I need to think through something. I have always had a tendency to talk through my thoughts, most often in a social way, constructing meaning with others to arrive at something together. Class discussions were often where I made sense of what I thought. Now I find myself turning to colleagues but also to the internet. I blog to share, both with myself and with others, my thoughts around issues and also my steps along the journey. It has been a learning tool that gave me space to be “I,” something more formal academic writing had previously made difficult even as my theoretical positioning suggested that “I” should exist more openly. In narrative, I exist. I have agency. I have biases and experiences. I can and do learn.

Transformative learning?

At first, I found the idea of transformative learning appealing. The idea that learning could result in changing your life (or result from a major change) makes sense, especially when discussing things like major medical crises. I felt like I experienced a pretty major epiphany during a previous course about gender. It felt sudden, it felt eye-opening. Never before had I thought about the socially constructed nature of gender. I started thinking more about the language I use, ways I code gender and sex every day (“throw like a girl,” baby announcements, calling a male friend a wuss). The more I read about transformative learning, however, the more I wondered.

After reading Newman, I think I find myself agreeing that transformative learning as it has come to be envisioned is really just part of a broader category. Yes, sometimes it seems sudden. But is it really? Although the epiphany seemed to happen from a single course, it was also building on previous learning I had done. It coincided with having a group of fellow grad students who also had similar views and such issues had become more widely discussed in the world around me (making it part of my socio-historical context). So was it really a lightning bolt for me, or was it just the realization that was a lightning bolt?

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I certainly did not systematically sit down with the intention of transforming myself. I engaged in the readings my instructor assigned and those sparked thoughts. I researched based on my potential thesis aims. I did not set out to transform my thinking. I did not proceed to social action other than my own awareness.

I also wonder whether it is really always advantageous to have learning be truly transformative in such an explosive manner. Quieter transformations, longterm learning, can have a huge impact. Little by little, we can change our lives in sustainable ways, engage in society differently, watch society change and participate in that. My transformation into an Education major was not a sudden transformation or done quickly. It was not even on anyone’s schedule but mine. That transformation, however, has had a huge impact and education has been a big part of it. The incidental learning, the little pieces here and there, have added up to change my perspective. Does that make that learning any less transformative in hindsight just because it was not done intentionally? Likewise, is learning wasted if it is only a building block for more learning or reaffirms something I already thought or felt?

Sometimes we need a “wow” factor but I don’t think that is always necessary. Quiet moments can have much more staying power. The same thing is said of lifestyle changes. Many of the people who make sudden, drastic changes do not keep them up. Are they really engaging in transformative learning? Does a transformation not need to truly change you in a consistent way? It is nearly impossible to say if something has truly transformed you except with hindsight. Only in looking back can we see with clarity what impact anything had. Planning to transform does not guarantee that there will be a transformation, no matter how much you plan for it.

Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences

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During my first class of EAHR 801: Foundations in Adult Development, we talked briefly about learning styles and multiple intelligences. I admit that I don’t really believe that everyone has a specific learning style that lets them learn best. Some people do, or at least have particular learning styles that don’t work for them (a colleague is very much visual rather than auditory).

I don’t, however, believe that we should cater to students and give them content solely in the learning style that they feel works best for them. For one thing, a preference may not actually come from true knowledge of what works best. I have heard multiple students complain that they just want an instructor to lecture and tell them what is important. That doesn’t mean those students are necessarily auditory learners. They may just find it easier because they have been trained to learn that way. I know I am a successful product of the education system I went through, finding I can excel in lecture-based courses, can learn through taking notes and hearing, occasionally blended with visual aids.

That would be the point, though. Education is usually a blend of learning styles already. Especially now, material is often delivered with something visual (PowerPoint comes to mind). There is usually some auditory component (online this is usually coming mixed with visual in the form of videos but could be audio clips). Kinesthetic learning may come in practical, hands-on application but can also come through the homework assigned. Learners may need to work through problems or case studies or may take notes which is actually a physical action, especially when done with pen and paper, but can also be such when including typing. My husband, for example, has discovered that he enjoys sketchnotes. Even if we are intending to support students in particular learning modes, that means we should be developing ways of delivering content in multiple modes. We can make it all available to students.

The education world seems to be fairly divided on the matter, however, and it is easy to find research that supports either side. There is no definitive research to support the issue one way or the other although I have seen research that showed minimal change even with access to content in a variety of formats. It can depend so much on the quality of content delivery.

As for multiple intelligences, I have no disagreement with the fact that there are numerous facets to intelligence. All the standardized testing I did, all the strengths tests I have done, all start with that assumption. I tried taking a quiz but, as with many such online quizzes, I found it was limited. My results proposed that my intelligences are music, self, and spacial. Knowing myself, I would doubt that music should be my top intelligence. I may have rated high on musical skill but somehow that left out linguistic which I would expect to be significantly higher. Testing such things always depends on the questions asked, the combination, how many. I am talented when it comes to music but it is not something that is integrated in my learning. I love words. I find words to be fascinating and important. I am a capable communicator with language and I often think out loud or in type because giving form to my thoughts, connecting them to language, helps me sort them out.

Whether these intelligences are innate or learned, however, is something I would question. Our society does not place a high value on women having athletic ability. While my dad would happily have encouraged me more, I had no interest and hadn’t shown innate ability in sports. I loved soccer but it was not easy to play recreationally growing up in a town rather than a larger center. I was happy to develop my musical talent because it was easy. I was encouraged. Likewise with reading and also with creative pursuits including art and a variety of crafts. My mathematical thinking is limited but I also had negative experiences with math and had more interest in other pursuits.

I do believe some people find certain intelligences easier to develop. Some struggle with specific aspects or never bother to develop others out of lack of interest or encouragement. I struggle with the underlying assumption that to find a particular intelligence easy means that you should ignore others. I know I discovered later in high school that a good teacher meant I could suddenly enjoy math. In my undergraduate degree I had a less than exemplary professor and lost interest. I am talented easily in music and art and so I invested more in developing that. Children are discouraged at a young age if they do not show an affinity for one intelligence or another, by parents, teachers, and peers alike. What would happen if we encouraged students to develop intelligences they previously ignored? Then again, it begins to tie into assessment. If someone is being graded, is it fair to push them to go into an uncomfortable area or should they be allowed to excel out of familiarity?