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.

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