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Learning with Adults: A Reader
Date Reviewed: April 8, 2015
Learning with Adults begins with the following assumption: adult learning is central to the flourishing of a democracy, a democratic world, and practices of justice and peace. The volume borrows the foundations of Paulo Freire, Jürgen Habermas, John Dewey, Theodor Adorno, Jack Mezirow, and other critical theorists and democratically-minded educators and philosophers to develop a substantial discourse around adult learning. This volume is a companion to the original, Learning with Adults: A Critical Pedagogical Introduction (2012, Sense Publications) and is volume 13 in a series committed to the expanding field of adult learning centered in emancipatory, democratic, and critical studies.
This second volume developed as a multi-authored extension of the initial volume. The authors of the initial volume understood that more work needed to be completed around adult learning as it relates to sexual orientation, disability, literacy, and consumer rights. The authors extended this initial plan to include chapters on relating adult education to poverty, libraries as learning sites, social creation, aesthetics, and media. Unlike traditional reader-companion volumes, this reader does not provide the foundational texts for the initial volume but provides amplifying essays brought together by contemporary authorities in adult learning and outside scholars, including Zygmunt Bauman.
This is an interesting collection as it lays out essays toward an emancipatory vision for adult learning and away from the consumerist or compliance categories of training and education. The volume has five parts, beginning with the learning society and moving through questions of identity, instruments of practice, and learning in everyday life. The final section is on policy and context, which connects to an important literature on citizenship education for adult learners.
The volume makes a contribution to the definition and scope of adult learning. In sum, adult learning, throughout the volume, is best understood from Oscar Negt. In his essay, “Adult Education and European identity,” he says adult learning is “learning processes that are determined by people’s own interests and horizons of perception, so that general relationships are made comprehensible” (126). The assumption throughout the volume is that adult learning is dynamic and that the methods, processes, and outcomes constantly shift as people’s own interests and horizons of perceptions shift. D.W. Livingstone outlines how adult learning that is emancipatory extends the scope of education and reverses the trend that “we may becoming increasingly willfully ignorant societies rather than learning ones” (33). Each of the chapters offers models for adult learning, some better than others, to increase critical thinking and to challenge societal norms.
Several of the essays highlight the social inequality evident in access to formal education and claim that social and economic class status continue to be roadblocks in granting access to transformational learning. Adult learning, for these authors, is an invitational practice for all people and is, in itself, emancipatory. The authors continually highlight how the history of education (à la Meyers  and Smith ) is in need of ongoing critique if education, specifically adult education, is going to move beyond compliance and consumerist practices.
These essays press against dominant ideologies, namely that “the dominant tendency in contemporary thought has been to equate learning with the provision of learning opportunities in settings organized by institutional authorities and led by teachers approved by these authorities” (37). Adult education has rarely moved beyond this dominant trend and has mostly accentuated it, which limits transformative learning for marginalized adult communities. The essays engage in a clear critique while also offering models for emancipatory and transformational adult learning processes (see Livingston’s and Cranton’s chapters).
These models are the take away gifts from the volume. The models fall into three categories. The first set of models are site-based learning models, where the locations of everyday life are taken up as locations for learning. The second set of models arise from within the institutionalized practices of societies, where social and economic practices invite critical questions and transformative learning opportunities; and the third model is rooted in the ideologies of good education, namely processes to enact justice and peace.
Overall, the volume holds education for adults as a learning paradigm for its own consideration. The site-based learning discussion recognizes that learning spaces are most often beyond the classroom and are found in the student’s everyday experiences. However, adult education that occurs in a classroom then becomes, itself, a site of the everyday experience. Additionally, this volume is a model for how the liberal arts tradition is a common practice in adult learning, whereby multiple disciplines make intersections around a common question. There is broad range of voices from education, philosophy, economics, sociology, and elsewhere included, yet all are committed to common questions of lifelong adult learning.
Finally, the volume in itself is an adult learning model; the renaissance feel to the book results in unexpected points of informational learning for the reader. For example, on the topic of capitalism’s impact on the labor force and access to education, D.W. Lingston highlights that in 1983 only 28 percent of workers needed a college degree; by 2004 this figure rose to 45 percent. What is important is that over this same time period, degree attainment increased from 22 percent (of the population) to 54 percent, which is an increase of 34 percent (46). The data assists the reader in understanding how formalized processes of education result in trends toward underemployment. The point of information locates the implications of economics on the practice and process of adult learning.
The volume, however, falls short of expectations. I was expecting the inclusion of several foundational texts in relationship to the field of adult learning. Also, several of the essays trail away from the central argument around learning with adults into diatribes on the respective intellectual agendas of each author; this is both a gift and burden. Each of the diatribes is not unimportant yet limits the volume’s coherence toward detailing models and processes for adult education amidst diverse populations. The positive aspect of this is mentioned above.
I recommend this volume to curious readers. Learning with Adults assists its readers in understanding the complexities of learning with adults and makes clear that the field of adult learning is underdeveloped and misunderstood when connected to the traditional avenues of education. If a reader is looking for a more basic and invitational text on the topic of adult learning, I recommend purchasing the first volume in this series (English and Mayo, Learning With Adults: A Critical Pedagogical Introduction, 2012).
Adult Education in Changing Times: Policies, Philosophies and Professionalism
Date Reviewed: March 5, 2015
Marion Bowl’s Adult Education in Changing Times: Policies, Philosophies, and Professionalism explores the impact of changes in global policy on the field of adult continuing education. She teaches as a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Birmingham in the UK. This title is Bowl’s most recent in a long line of publications on adult and continuing education.
Bowl states “this book explores how adult educators – their work, their expectations, and the expectations laid upon them – are being affected by the changing political and economic environment” (5). She asks “why, when lifelong learning has been a policy priority for the past 40 years, does publicly funded adult education appear to be fighting for its life? And why do so many qualified, skilled, and experienced adult educators find themselves in an educational landscape that does not recognize or value their contribution?” (1). She begins by tracing the development of neoliberalism and its impact upon adult education specifically in England and New Zealand, examining the scope and definition of adult education and exploring adult educators’ beliefs and values.
She then divides the rest of the volume into two sections: “Historical and Political Contexts for Adult Education” and “Adult Educators’ Working Lives Researched.” The first section presents a brief historical overview of adult education, including the impact of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, colonial expansion, urbanization and industrialization, post-World War II institutions, and globalization. The author pays particular attention to institutions, including UNESCO, OECD, the World Bank, and the European Union. She ends her historical survey by examining the role of professionalism and professionalization in the development of adult education.
In the second section, Bowl explores policy and practice using her interviews with sixty-two educators in the field of adult education, evenly split between England and New Zealand. Interviewees were invited to discuss their career histories, their values and philosophies, how the field has changed over their careers, and perceived challenges and opportunities (76). She brings their narratives together to fashion a picture of adult educators’ working lives. Her findings on these educators’ attitudes toward theory, particularly the approaches of Paulo Freire and Carl Rogers, provide some interesting conclusions. In addition, her discussion of the factors impacting career identity are very insightful.
Bowl ends her book by offering lessons for changing times (153). This is arguably the strongest chapter of her book and deserves to be expanded. She argues that the shifts in adult education – the growing emphasis on economic ends, marketization, the view that adult education is an individual responsibility, and tighter monitoring of educator standards – have deeply impacted the field. She advocates for a stronger linking of political engagement with pedagogical approaches; argues against hegemony in education, including preordained outcomes; supports more scrutiny of the use of power; and argues in favor of a stronger exercise of agency by educators. Finally, she notes that educators must be more willing to engage theory and politics for a “re-birth of radical education” (166).
This book is well written and contains an excellent bibliography which provides a road map to these areas of the professional literature. The historical overview, however, is very limited. For example, the Protestant Reformation receives only one paragraph, and the book’s scope covers only England and New Zealand. Despite these limitations, Bowl’s scholarship provides a great starting point for explorations into these subjects in other contexts. Even though Bowl does not address theological education, adult education remains an important topic for theological education. Theological continuing education needs more discussion about its theoretical foundations and approaches, and Bowl provides a good starting point. Adult Education in Changing Times would make a good addition to progressive theological libraries with strong educational programming and terminal degrees with tracks in religious education.
Learning Patterns in Higher Education: Dimensions and Research Perspectives
Date Reviewed: February 26, 2015
Researchers and teachers will find this book a useful resource on student learning and enhancement. Based on twelve international collaborative research units’ seminars sponsored by the Scientific Research Network of the Research Foundation Flanders at Antwerp in December 2011, the volume reports empirical research and theories on educational practice to support studies of learning pattern development in higher education. Thirteen of fifteen essays are multi-authored, and the contributors are mostly higher educational specialists from Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and Spain. A few essayists are from Ireland and United Kingdom. Though written from the European continent, many of the learning concepts, strategies, and patterns – cognitive strategies, factors for learning patterns, and learning-learner characteristics – are transposable in higher education. A few essays explore pedagogy in global contexts. One article in particular compares multidimensionality and learning differences between students from the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Spain and Latin America, and Hong Kong.
Six chapters in Part I examine dimensions of learning patterns. Given the twenty-first century’s multifaceted learning environment, educators face the challenge of presenting learning integratively and creatively so as to motivate learners in their respective contexts and learning patterns. The authors claim that individual learner-oriented approaches and student subgroup orientations in learners’ cultures affect learning presage, perceptions, processes, patterns, and outcomes. The book claims that research continues to validate self-directedness among mature adult learners amid other reasons for facilitating effective adult learning.
Nine chapters in Part II engage aspects of measuring student learning patterns and development. Core measurement issues include (a) learners’ academic achievements, (b) motivations and cognition on measuring achievements, (c) student teaching experience as a process for their deeper learning, (d) transition from higher education into the workforce and professional service, and much more. Teachers may be interested to discover that learners’ self-confidence and self-directedness are crucial to inspire their performance. Even so, perceived workload, task complexity, working memory capacity, and attention span directly affect learners’ degrees of engagement. The effectiveness of a pedagogical mode – whether it is lecture-based, case-based, an immediate mixed-learning model, or a gradual mixed-learning model – will depend on the student’s motivation and learning profile.
The empirical settings and the theories presented are not directed at the teaching of religion and theology. Students of religious studies are not among the human subjects identified in the reported empirical investigations. Thus, for Teaching Theology & Religion’s readership, the book is not as relevant as other edited volumes including: Andrea Sterk’s Religion, Scholarship, and Higher Education (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002); Richard Devine, Joseph Favazza, and Michael McLain’s From Cloister To Commons: Concepts and Models for Service Learning in Religious Studies (Stylus, 2002); Sherry Hoppe and Bruce Speck’s Identifying and Preparing Academic Leaders (Jossey-Bass, 2004); and David Smith and James Smith’s Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning (Eerdmans, 2011). Several essays in Learning Patterns in Higher Education allude to the importance of learners’ contexts for constructing effective pedagogical models. However, the book does not examine the many sociopolitical aspects that have impacted learning (for comparison, see Liam Gearon and Sue Brindley’s MasterClass in Religious Education, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
Nonetheless, this book is well researched. Readers will profit from its extensive treatment of learning theories, and it will enhance an educator’s overall teaching competence. Educational psychology and theories of human development are embedded in many of these theoretical explorations, and therefore, the findings in this book may be transferrable to the practice of religious studies or theology.
Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice
Date Reviewed: January 30, 2015
Sharan Merriam and Laura Bierema aim to present “an overview of the major theories and research in adult learning in language that those new to adult education can understand.” They also seek to “[point] out applications of these ideas to practice” (xii). They have certainly hit the mark. They discuss relevant theory clearly and concisely, including multiple perspectives and ethical issues. Graphs, tables, and charts illustrate complexity and detail. Each chapter ends with a summary of its main points, a list of its highlights, and suggestions plus resources for pedagogical development and classroom practice. These features make Adult Learning eminently useful for college, university, and seminary professors, pedagogical development professionals, and anyone else who introduces adults to new ideas or new skills.
Adult Learning falls roughly into four parts. Chapters 1 and 2 set the stage. First, the authors examine the social and developmental contexts of adult learners. In order to thrive in a global and diverse society that values knowledge and technology, we must develop habits of lifelong learning. But what kind of learning best serves our needs? Should it change our behavior? Develop our bodies, minds, and spirits? Train our brains? Socialize us? Help us make sense of our experiences? The authors outline five approaches to consider based on these questions.
Chapters 3 to 5 are devoted to the latest research on three prominent theories of adult learning. Andragogy (as opposed to pedagogy) presumes that learners are self-directed, experienced, preparing for particular social roles, and ready to apply what they learn. Self-directed learning, although facilitated by teachers, makes adult learners responsible for what they learn and how they learn it. Transformative learning uses critical reflection and dialogue to help learners rethink their worldviews.
The next four chapters build on significant components of adult learning theory, exploring the roles of experience, body and spirit, motivation, and the brain. Adult learning is not limited to the cerebral dimensions of memory, intelligence, and cognition. It also involves activity and emotion; evocations of the past and incentives for the future. Merriam and Bierema discuss pedagogies for all five ways of knowing and end with three chapters on contemporary contexts for learning. These include digital technologies, approaches to critical thinking, and cultural diversity.
Adult Learning succeeds because the authors practice what they preach. They address an audience of adults who are developing themselves for a social role -- the role of a teacher. At the same time, they assume that their readers are not highly trained in pedagogical theory. As they share their expertise, therefore, they appeal to their audience’s teaching experience and motivations to hone the craft of teaching. They address contemporary higher educational contexts, help faculty think critically about teaching practice by presenting multiple perspectives, and offer concrete suggestions for applying new pedagogies. Adult Learning is a book to be read once, consulted often, put into practice, and shared with others.