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Transformative Learning and Adult Higher Education (New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 147)
Date Reviewed: September 13, 2017
Transformative Learning and Adult Higher Education is a small anthology written by adult education practitioner-scholars in which they share diverse learning perspectives and practices utilized in universities for adult learners. The editors and writers of this volume describe creative experiences, unconventional perspectives, and unusual pedagogical methods in a variety of educational contexts that lead adults to experience learning that is transformative. A fundamental premise of the book is that genuine adult learning is synonymous with significant life change.
The book’s animating notion is sociologist Jack Mezirow’s influential theory of Transformational Learning, found in his seminal work, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning (Jossey-Bass, 1991). Some acquaintance with Mezirow’s theory is necessary if one is to fully appreciate the book since each contributor builds on it or refers to it. According to Mezirow, transformative learning happens when three things take place in the life of the adult learner. First, an adult learner changes their understanding of themselves. Second, she or he revises their behavior. Third, he or she changes their approach to life (19). The contributors to the book pay homage to the groundbreaking ideas of Mezirow, but do not always locate transformative adult learning inside the limits of Mezirow’s definitions. Sometimes the writers expand the perspectives supplied by Mezirow in avant-garde and provocative ways.
The book is composed of eleven short chapters each written by a different practitioner-scholar in which she or he shares the transformational learning that took place within a specific group of adult learners in a particular context. (For example Chapter 3 explores the learning that took place between female professors and female doctoral students in the advising process of working on their dissertations). The writer then usually shares the character of the learning process which catalyzed the transformative change. Typically, each chapter includes a description of the uniqueness of the population of adult learners the writer was involved with, each chapter gives a report of the qualitative study the contributor completed, and each chapter contains the writer’s reflections about the learning process and outcomes. The chapters are very different from one another, demonstrating the eclectic nature of the learning experiences and the diverse learners involved. A couple of examples of chapter content may reflect the variety and uniqueness of the adult learning described in the volume.
Chapter 1 describes the learning journey of eighteen to twenty-eight-year-old emerging adult undergraduate students who struggle with learning differences (such as dyslexia). The chapter contributor, utilizing Mezirow’s theory and Marcia Baxter-Magolda’s stages of self-authorship (13), details the transformational process by which these students went from viewing themselves as intellectually diminished, and therefore inferior to their “smarter” peers, to being uniquely equipped for life, and therefore confident in engaging life. In this chapter transformative learning was expressed as overcoming a seemingly indomitable life challenge and going forward with determination and optimism.
Chapter 2 presents a study of three black women educators: a portraiture of each woman’s transformative journey is given. One of these women had grown up as a Roman Catholic. Part of her transformational learning involved acknowledging the inadequacy of the Catholic faith for her and abandoning it in favor of a new expression of Christianity which she found generative and liberating. According to the writer of this chapter, transformative learning involved rebelling against her faith, abandoning an old and insufficient way of living, and embracing a new way of seeing the world. Adult transformative learning is often depicted in the eleven chapters as becoming aware of a harmful way of living and discarding it.
The Editor-in-Chief, Catherine M. Wehlburg, wrote that this book regards transformative learning as a “‘rich metaphor’ for exploring the interactions and experiences of students and faculty in higher education” (3). She goes on to write that one will find “many examples of the richness of transformative learning” in this volume (3). I agree. The strength of the volume is its diversity in conceiving of transformative learning and describing some of its possible expressions. These conceptions and expressions are sometimes peculiar and idiosyncratic, but they are always creative and stimulate thought. I found that they beckoned me to stretch the boundaries of my own pedagogical creativity. Further, I found particular pedagogical practices described in the book as ones that I could use in my own teaching with a little adjustment to my context.
The chapters are scholarly, concise, and easy to read. One is able to extract useful ideas without wading through lengthy, rambling prose. A weakness of the volume is that nearly every chapter addresses Mezirow’s chief ideas in such a way as to create the feeling of redundancy. The repeated recitation of those ideas is unnecessary and tiring.
The seminary where I teach has a mission statement which expresses its intention to provide its students theological education that is characterized, in part, as “Christ-centered transformation.” Thus, I was drawn to this book about transformative learning with the hope that it would further illuminate my understanding of transformation inside the context of a confessional Christian institution. My seminary, as well as scores of schools with similar confessional commitments, finds it impossible to think about life transformation apart from particular content. For example, knowledge of the Christian Scriptures and the life of Jesus Christ are believed to be necessary catalysts for genuine life change.
Transformative Learning and Adult Higher Education does not venerate any particular content as necessary for life transformation. Instead, this volume exalts process as the means of transformative learning. Transformation is made possible through the masterful facilitation of a process which is conceived without many definitive guidelines or boundaries. Teachers and scholars in confessional learning contexts will likely, therefore, find the conception of transformative learning contained in this book helpful but incomplete.
Tectonic Boundaries: Negotiating Convergent Forces in Adult Education (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, Number 149)
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
This slender volume presents a collection of essays examining concerns for adult education. The first chapter frames the problem with the concept of “liquid modernity,” which is the idea that structures such as family, occupation and career, and social life are fluid in an unprecedented way (12). Education and informal learning serve learners if they teach them how to navigate complex contexts and to recognize and adapt to changing circumstances. The metaphor of “tectonics” is used to describe forces which are sometimes convergent, divergent, and/or transformative in adult learner’s lives (93). This metaphor underscores the paradox that for adult learners, education needs to complement the structures of their lives while at the same time responding to the modern world’s shifting demands.
Other chapters explore various contexts of adult learning. Chapter Two discusses the concerns of adults learning English as a second language. As immigrants, these learners are in transition, adjusting to new circumstances and a new culture. In order to make their education meaningful and engage them in learning, the authors describe strategies of using prompts to get students speaking and writing about their lives and their experiences to practice English, to engage students, and make their education meaningful (25). Chapter Three describes the growth of job clubs among communities of African-American women. These clubs are often attached to other institutional social networks in their lives, such as faith-based communities. These networks facilitate informal learning by providing tips and resources for members to update their skills. Chapter Four addresses education for the dissemination of health information, describing interrelated cultural, social, and economic factors that impinge on health education and which in turn impact health care outcomes. Chapter Five takes the digital native versus digital immigrant divide to examine intergenerational differences in approaching education. The challenge for educators is to design educational content which engages natives yet is also friendly and inviting for immigrants, and to shift the mode of adult education from thinking about teaching to thinking about learning. Chapter Six describes the significance of the ancient art of storytelling, not just to preserve culture, but to evoke and shape the meaning of life experiences for adult learners. Chapter Seven begins with the context of a post-recession economy in which low-skilled workers are increasingly vulnerable. This context provides the foundation for a discussion of the role of adult education: to build human capital, to make better citizens, and to enrich the course of learner lives. Chapter Eight outlines problems of delivery, credit, and accreditation that result from the tectonic shifts of the modern digital age. These shifts include such varied educational modes and attainments as badges, MOOCs, and "direct assessment competency-based programs" (87).
The book’s strength rests in its ability to point to the concerns that frame contemporary adult education, although it does not describe pedagogical strategies in an equally consistent fashion. The book ends with the important reminder that in adult education, negotiation is key. Adaptability and flexibility complement the issue of fluidity. Good pedagogy meets learners where they are and recognizes their needs and concerns.
Transforming Adults Through Coaching (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, Number 148)
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
Coaching has grown exponentially as a professional practice and as a discipline in recent years. According to the International Coach Federation (ICF), the number of coaches worldwide increased from some 30,000 in 2008 to 47,000 in 2012. Coaches assist individuals with a variety of vocational and personal issues in both public and private sector organizations. As a result, many clients have become better prepared to reach their workplace and life goals.
The field of adult coaching as a discipline has matured considerably alongside the practice itself. For example, studies of best coaching practices and analysis of coaching models abound. Professional organizations have formed and have begun to address such critical issues as training, certification, and ethical standards.
Transforming Adults Through Coaching, edited by Pappas and Jerman, provides an introduction to the history, current practices, and possible future of coaching. Each chapter in this compact overview includes material that will benefit scholars, practitioners, and their clients. In particular, there is a solid review of adult development and learning theory with illustrative case studies and pertinent bibliographies.
Pappas and Jerman acknowledge in their introduction that clarity is needed when considering what coaching is and is not. It is, they say, neither psychotherapy nor advice giving. Coaching is relational. It is ordinarily practiced with individuals and not groups. And, they underscore, the coaching relationship typically proceeds with a combination of questions and attentive listening. The results, they contend, can be transformative for clients.
The first three chapters sketch the parameters for the field of adult coaching. The initial essay by Rachel Ciporen is “The Emerging Field of Executive and Organizational Coaching: An Overview.” Ciporen provides the reader with essential definitions and perspectives on coaching as well as a valuable list of resources for further study. She also notes some of the most common critiques of coaching, such as a frequent reliance on an “overly simplistic view of the learning and change process” (12).
Carolyn Coughlin explores a major goal of adult coaching in “Development Coaching to Support the Transition to Self-Authorship.” Her essay describes how coaches, using their knowledge of adult development – especially body and mind theory and practice – can facilitate their client’s movement toward self-authorship.
Adult learning theory provides a vital foundation for coaching. Elaine Cox’s contribution, “Coaching and Adult Learning: Theory and Practice,” identifies links between andragogy and transformative learning and how each connects with the practice of coaching. In addition, Cox addresses practical applications of these theories. Brief illustrative dialogues are included to show how the theories can impact actual adult coaching.
“Coaching as a Strategy for Helping Adults” by Dorothy M. Wax and Judith Westheim focuses on the kind of issues adult learners bring to the learning environment and how coaching strategies can help them deal with professional and personal obstacles to success.
Pappas and Jerman’s closing essay, “The Future of Coaching among Adult Populations,” outlines major directions and critical issues that lie ahead for the field. They underscore not only continued growth for coaching, but also the need for further refinements, including more specialization.
These are some of the essays that make this brief collection valuable, not only for coaches and their clients, but for a range of helping professionals and researchers.
Learning Cities for Adult Learners (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, Number 145)
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
In Learning Cities for Adult Learners, Leodis Scott compiles seven articles that explore how cities are uniquely positioned to provide new directions for adult and continuing education. “Adult education needs more space,” Scott writes, and scholars and practitioners must take the lead in building larger spaces for all learners (1). The larger spaces are cities themselves – “learning cities” that take education beyond the traditional walls of schools, colleges, and workplaces in order to connect and grow in all life experiences. Scott suggests cities can take on the characteristics of learning, and in doing so, adults of every social class and educational level can experience a new quality of life.
Scott is cofounder and research scholar at LearnLong Institute for Education and Learning Research, and lecturer in adult learning philosophy and practice at DePaul University–School for New Learning and Columbia University–Teachers College. Contributors to the volume come from a variety of universities, research centers, and programs that are committed to connecting the scholarship of adult learning with concrete practices that encourage a more widespread approach to learning. Most articles are co-authored, further demonstrating how collaboration and cross-disciplinary thinking is a natural hallmark of building the necessary infrastructure for learning cities.
After an Editor’s Note by Scott, Connie Watson and Aimee Tiu Wu introduce key themes of lifelong learning and lifelong education in Chapter 1, as they explore the evolution and reconstruction of learning cities for sustainable actions. In Chapter 2, Hiram E. Fitzgerald and Renee Zientek write about the connections between learning cities, systems change, and community engagement scholarship in the context of a learning city/region. Lyle Yorks and Jody Barto investigate in Chapter 3 the interconnections between workplace, organizational, and societal learning, showing how 21st-century cities must function to promote learning for a larger society. In Chapter 4, Alysia Peich and Cynthia Needles Fletcher provide research and a case study for how public libraries and cooperative extension can work as community partners for lifelong learning and learning cities. In Chapter 5, Joanne Howard, Diane Howard, and Ebbin Dotson provide a connected history of health and education and demonstrate the necessity of including both health and education endeavors in any strategic planning of learning cities. Dan K. Hibbler and Leodis Scott write in Chapter 6 about the role of leisure in humanizing learning cities. Finally, Scott provides a summary in Chapter 7 of the main themes from the book and suggests a way forward: scholars and practitioners in the field of adult and continuing education can become facilitators of learning cities so that citizens have the power and ability to construct their own cities appropriate to their needs.
This book is written for scholars and practitioners in adult learning and provides both a compelling vision and practical strategies for how citizens can work across fields and disciplines for the betterment of society. It will take leadership, vision, and talent to connect civic institutions in the formation of learning cities. One strategic type of institution not mentioned in the book is local religious communities. It seems that religious groups could be uniquely situated to both model and help facilitate the essential elements of a learning city. As scholars and practitioners continue to work towards this new direction for adult and continuing education, they will certainly do well to collaborate with as many different types of civic institutions as possible – for building a learning city is certainly worth the pursuit.
Tell Me So I Can Hear You: A Developmental Approach to Feedback for Educators
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
The question, “Can you give me some feedback on this,” is incredibly problematic. It is what some leadership theorists call a “landmine question.” Giving constructive feedback can be a tricky wicket. We may call feedback “honest.” However, it almost always comes across as critical, perhaps even mean. The idea is to focus on the negatives or how others can improve themselves, so we address it in what I call a “combatively collaborative” fashion. However, because of the possibly aggressive or even bullish nature of the one giving the feedback, it can have the reverse effect.
Tell Me So I Can Hear You is a helpful volume for educators and leaders. Rooted in the cognitive-developmental theory of human development as espoused by Robert Kegan, the authors base their entire argument firmly in the “four ways of knowing – instrumental, socializing, self-authoring, and self-transforming” (40). The authors convincingly argue that feedback to colleagues and peers works best when it is understood to be part of the continuing education or professional development process. For them, this results in primarily offering feedback in a way connects with our learning styles. For example, if you are an instrumental learner, you will focus on offering feedback that adheres to the rules, regulations, and expectations of an employee of that organization. Since this approach relies heavily on rubrics, it will positively help colleagues understand where they stand professionally, based on the commonly-accepted careerist markers. However, it does not take into account more abstract qualities, such as emotional health, creativity, or one’s personal background.
Those in administrative educational leadership often offer constructive or critical feedback and tend to process feedback differently than the faculty colleagues and students who are recipients of that feedback. The one receiving feedback may become confused, angry, or withdrawn because they interpret the administrator’s comments differently than the intended meaning.
The benefits of this volume are in the consistent and thorough explanation of the “four ways of learning,” as the authors ground their entire discussion on showing how these ways of learning can work together through feedback settings to build a healthy and collaborative environment. To this end, the chapters on how we receive feedback (chapter 4), give feedback (chapter 5), and build a culture of trust in the organization (chapter 6) are certainly worth the price of the book.
The reader should, however, be aware of two minor concerns: First, this volume accepts Common Core Standards as its operating model for understanding competency rather than seeking out a more integrated model of content comprehension and skills application. Second, the authors seem to interchange the concepts of “colleague” and “adult learner,” which causes some confusion as to whether this handbook is for the quad office or the adult-learning classroom. If you find yourself being required to offer more and more intense feedback or are in a leadership position, read Henry Cloud’s extremely practical volume Necessary Endings (New York: HarperBusiness, 2011) before diving into this volume.