Monday, June 21, 2010

Reflections on Adult Learning

Merriam, Caffarella and Baumgartner (2007) state that both self-directed learning (SDL) and andragogy "are grounded in humanistic theories." (p. 283-284). The assumptions of andragogy do form part of my reflective learning about my experiences as an adult learner and as a practitioner of workplace learning and development. The very fact that so many adult educators utilize andragogical principals in their practice of adult education, reinforces their relevance as a tool for creating the appropriate learning environment. Setting aside arguments as to their comprehensiveness, accuracy or validity, it remains important that a significant number of educators utilize andragogy to inform their practice. If these educators are doing so, there has to be a wide-based recognition of their utility or they would have fallen out of practice.

The outcome of learning, according to Maslow's hierarchy, is self-actualization. One of the alternatives proposed by Maslow was reported to be "the grappling with the critical existential problems of life." This was very insightful to me because Dr. Cornell West of Princeton University has taught on this very point, stating that to be truly human, individuals must focus on the significant and fundamental questions of what it means to be human. Dr. West uses the word paideia to characterize the learning of what it means to be human. According to Wikipedia, the ancient Greek word paideia means instruction or learning related to an individual's realization of their true form, an understanding of what is meant to be genuinely human. This type of education seems to be totally within the humanistic framework, as one of Rogers' characteristics of learning is "essence is meaning" (Merriam, Caffarella and Baumgartner, 2007, p. 283).

Far from being amorphous, these humanistic learning principles have deep social and political implications. They have fundamentally contributed to the formal institutions of adult learning. The andragogical notion of increasing self-directedness in learning is completely supported in practice. The two most clear examples of which are, in my opinion, the traditional apprenticeship model of instruction (where the apprentice begins with very directed supervision of work by the master, through a journeyman stage with less directedness and greater discretionary learning, through the eventual establishment of self-directed practice at the master level). The second example that I can come up with is American formal educational instruction (where the students at the primary level experience a very directed form of learning, which becomes somewhat less directed in secondary and post-secondary education and culminates in the more or less self-directed activities of the Ph.D. candidate). It was explained to me somewhere along the line in my academic career that the Ph.D. is the terminal degree as by the point at which a learner earns a Ph.D., he or she is capable of independently using the same learning process in which they mastered that subject to any other subject they choose to learn. Both examples are pretty strong indications that our wider educational and social arena have embraced the notion of self-directed learning.

Because humanistic learning is experiential, or rather derivative from our reflection upon and assignment of significance to experience, I also want to relate another example from my experience that is nearly as old as the apprenticeship model that comes from my personal experience in monastic education. In the Rule of St. Benedict, there is an early passage that speaks to the types of monks. In this section, Benedict acknowledges that some monks, after years of monastic practice, may advance to the state of becoming an anchorite or hermit because "they have already learned" and "can cope single-handedly." This is a Western monastic understanding of the progression of learning, however, the self-same thing is recognized in the Eastern monastic understanding (Christian and non-Christian) where each monk selects a master under which he/she learns the way of life and achieves the goal to which his/her life is ordered, whether that is salvation, enlightenment or in our humanistic learning theory language, self-actualization. Thereupon arriving, the monk/nun becomes a master in their own right and begins to accept students themselves.

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