Whose learning story? Differing pictures of 'adult' learners in higher education

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Whose learning story? Differing pictures of 'adult' learners in higher education

Tamsin Haggis, University of Stirling, Scotland

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 31st Annual Conference, 3-5 July 2001, University of East London

This paper reports on a small-scale research project designed to test some of the implications of a number of influential ideas about 'adult' learning by comparing them with individual accounts of forays into the jungle of postgraduate learning. The project was conceived in response to a lack of research-based information about the relationship between models of adult learning and the process of learning as described by adult learners themselves, particularly in higher education. The experiences of these particular students revealed a diversity of approach and experience which did not fit with the idea of a distinctively 'adult' way of learning, and which was rich in a multiplicity of elements which did not appea rin the models.

Higher education, 'lifelong learning', and 'student learning'

The term 'lifelong learning' now serves an increasingly wide range of different agendas. In the UK, a perceived need to 'strengthen the relationship between educational provision, outcomes and national economic requirements' (Barton, 1997) has resulted in the dominance of an economic and policy-driven interpretation of the term, which is beginning to have specific effects on higher education. Some of these effects, such as the change from an elite to a mass system, are well underway. Other planned trajectories, such as the move towards a valuing of pedagogy, and an acceptance of the need for increased explicitness, whilst clear at the level of policy, are progressing to varying degrees. What links many of the new pressures for change is a concern for and interest in student learning. In this new context, 'bottom up' or 'practitioner' interests in learning now have to coexist with a funding-driven imperative to understand this area better, so that 'lifelong learning' targets related to 'widening access' and 'participation' will be achieved (Dearing, 1997; DfEE, 1998).

Competing visions of learning: complexity and simplicity

In this context, there is a now an expressed desire to find 'well-researched evidence for what works best' (Hannan, 2000; THES, 2001) in teaching and learning situations. This approach implies that 'successful methods' can be found which will exist independently of the specific, contextual features of actual teaching and learning situations. Such a view, however, is arguably in conflict with research into student learning in HE which suggests increasingly that learning is hard to measure, control or understand. Models relating to 'approaches to learning' (Marton & Saljo, 1984; Prosser & Trigwell, 1999) and 'conceptions of learning' (Perry, 1970; Belenky et. al., 1986) for example, are constantly being modified and expanded in an attempt to accommodate what is gradually being understood about learning in this context. Brockbank & McGill (1998) suggest that the complexity of teaching and learning as a situated process is as yet hardly described at all. They talk about process as a 'black box' which is 'hidden in teaching and learning', which they suggest needs to be 'opened up and made more explicit', if we want to promote learning more effectively (ibid:65) Not all of the literature, however, portrays this picture of complexity. There is a strand of writing that, rather than seeing learning processes as little understood and in need of further exploration, discusses and uses certain models and ideas about learning as if they are straightforward 'applications' of theory to practice. Ideas about 'adult' learning, for example, appear to be being used by some authors as if uncontested descriptions of how adults learn not only exist, but do so in a form robust enough to form the basis of curriculum planning and programme design in higher education. These discussions tend to focus on the characteristics of adults as learners, (see Knowles, 1973/ 1990) ideas connected with adult learning processes (particularly 'self-directed learning' and 'experiential learning'), and teaching methods implied by these conceptualisations of adult characteristics and process.

This literature discusses specific learning characteristics attributable to 'adults' (Gibbs, 1992). It appeals to research into or 'principles' of adult learning, and to specific adult educational theorists (see Entwistle, 1992; Nightingale and O'Neil, 1994; UCoSDA, 1995), as a justification for certain types of 'innovation' in teaching and assessment. In these writings, assumptions about 'the ways that adults learn' underpin apparently uncritical discussions of 'self-directed learning' and 'experiential learning' as the basis for new approaches and methods. For example, learners are 'expected to become' or 'must' be 'self-directed learners' (Birenbaum & Amdur, 1999; Johnson, 2000); students are expected 'to become more responsible for their own learning' (Houston & Lazenblatt, 1999:71; Spiller & Fraser, 1999:139) and to 'take control' (Baker & Dillon, 1999:68). Kolb's (1984) model of experiential learning is used as the underlying rationale for a variety of different methods and forms of assessment (Bond & Wilson, 2000; Sangster et al, 2000; Wisker, 2000). No reference is made in these discussions to the long running debate about the validity of notions of 'adultness' (Squires, 1987; Hanson, 1996), the contested nature of self-directed learning as either a descriptive or a prescriptive process (Bookfield, 1986; Collins, 1991) or the problematic nature of accepting Kolb's model as a description of how adults learn' (Bullough, 1989; Fraser, 1995).

That these theoretical ideas can be powerful frameworks within which to plan teaching, and that their use can contribute to positive and productive learning experiences is not being questioned. However, their use in this strand of literature as if they were 'universal truths' about student learning raises a number of questions. Many of these articles are found in publications related to 'staff development' in higher education. If crucial factors of difference, complexity and specificity in real learning interactions are not investigated or reported, potentially useful ideas may be adopted or rejected by inexperienced lecturers as the 'cause' of success or failure in particular learning situations, when the realities of situated practice are much more complex.

Exploring the 'black box' of adult learning processes

One area of the complexity of learning that has received little attention is the connection between models of 'adult' learning and adult learners' own descriptions of their processes (Brookfield, 1994). Taylor (1987) carried out a study in this area which reported a number of dimensions of learning which were 'absent' or 'under represented' in the literature. As well as perceiving a pattern in student descriptions which involved 'disorientation', 'exploration', 're-orientation' and 'equilibrium', she identified 'emotionality, 'intuition', 'relational quality' and 'politics' as dimensions of 'the experience of learning for self-direction' that were present in the learners' experience, but 'invisible' in dominant discussions of adult learning.

The research project described below was undertaken to find out if student descriptions of the experience of learning in higher education supported the ideas about 'how adults learn' that are prevalent in the articles discussed above. Two areas in particular were investigated. The first was the assumptions surrounding the idea that adults 'naturally' learn, or like to learn, 'independently'. The idea that adults want, and can take the initiative in, the management, planning and evaluation of their own learning often presents 'learning' as a systematic and orderly process, and is frequently understood as implying a desire or ability to work alone, or to interact with others simply as a 'resource' for learning. The second, related, area was the implication that adult learning processes 'naturally' proceed in either a linear, step by step manner, or in a cyclical fashion, that incorporates successive stages of experience, reflection, and theorising (Kolb, 1984; Gibbs, 1988 ). By exploring these two implications of models of 'adult' learning, the project was also, by implication, testing the overall idea that 'adult' is a valid category, in the sense that adults can be said to learn in ways that are similar to each other.

The study was carried out with postgraduates, partly because they were arguably the most 'adult' type of formal learner in higher education, and partly because it was felt that a deeper level of reflection and description would be possible through the participants' perception of the interviewer as a 'co-participant' in the learning environment of higher education. The eight participants were all studying full-time for Masters Degrees and PhDs in the humanities and social sciences, and self-selected themselves on the basis of an interest in exploring their own learning processes.

They were of mixed age (25 - 44), gender (3 men, 5 women), class, and educational background. All were white, but they were of mixed nationality. Each participant was interviewed once, in a semi-structured interview which took about one and a half hours, and which was then transcribed verbatim.

All of the participants' names have been changed, although their gender can still be identified.

The main focus for discussion in each of the interviews was the process of working towards creating a piece of academic writing. The questions encouraged participants not only to reflect on the act of writing itself, but also the journey towards this end point, the process from the moment they received an essay title or began to think about a paper.

This approach reflects Lea's (1997) view of writing as evidence of the 'socially situated processes' through which meaning is created in learning, rather than seeing it as an outcome of the cognitive processes of a de-contextualised individual. The study employed a qualitative design and methodology, and was expected to produce further areas for investigation, rather than widely-generalisable results.

Adults learning

The participants were asked questions that aimed to be as neutral as possible, whilst probing for particular aspects of experience. In probing the area of 'disorientation', for example, participants were not asked if they felt disorientated, but if they were 'clear about what was expected' at certain points of their courses, and whether or not they felt they had a sense of direction throughout the process. Questions also aimed to explore non-linear, nonrational and half-perceived aspects of process, as well as feelings and the nature of relationships with others. Analysis of the data supported the continuing use of some of these categories, but the categories were almost always described in multiple relation to each other (for example, issues connected to power, self-perception and emotion were described as an integral part of relationships with others in learning). In addition, new categories such as 'chance' and 'creativity' emerged.

The pictures of learning experience that were painted in these conversations were extremely complex and seemed to be individually unique. Each individual story consisted of a multiplicity of emotional, relational and creative elements of learning, which manifested themselves in a variety of ways. Frustration blocked some, irritated others, and boosted still others. Relationships were central in some cases, but incidental in others. Even if two people related to ideas 'visually', they did so in quite different ways. In addition, these elements were often experienced in a distinctly 'non-orderly' fashion. Although the participants were all successfully 'autonomous', their experiences of working alone were far from linear and methodical.

Confusion and disorientation were common, bringing with them strong emotions of all kinds. A sense of direction was often absent, with only 'an interest', 'a feeling' or 'a sense' guiding what was seen more as an exploration than the execution of a pre-determined plan. Intuition, chance and hunches were cited as what moved a piece of work forward, and a sense of being lost or blocked was quite common.

The accounts of learning were characterised, if anything, by irregularity, by starting ands topping in unexpected and unpredictable ways, by periods of active engagement and periods of withdrawal that appeared to follow no specific pattern.

These pictures of learning are very different from those suggested by the models of learning that were being investigated. Complexity and unpredictability, however, are not the full story. Despite the many different, difficult and nebulous aspects of emotional and mental experience, the participants all ultimately achieved their goal of producing a structured, logically-argued and coherent piece of academic work. These students were 'in control' of their learning, in the sense that they didn't give up, they found strategies to enable them to cope with difficulty, and they were able to use difficulty, 'intuition' and emotion to enable themselves to continue learning in a way that was often also experienced as extremely positive. This compares to elements of Taylor's 'equilibrium' phase in 'learning for self direction' which was characterised by 'purposiveness, conceptual clarity and analytical and logical thinking' (1987:194). It is not that learning here was experienced as only disorienting, difficult, relational and emotional, or that such elements of learning were necessarily negative or unhelpful. The picture is more that rational planning, clarity of intention and success in the logical structuring of ideas, are crucially intertwined with a variety of complex factors, that interact in unique and unpredictable ways.


The idea that individual learning experiences are unique is not confined to these descriptions of learning. Current thinking in the area of 'learning styles', for example, has developed from simplistic ideas of categorising learners into opposed categories towards observations that 'everyone has a learning style, but each person's is as unique as a signature' (Reid, 1995:171). Williams and Burden (1997) suggest that 'learning is essentially personal and individual' and suggest that, rather than asking 'how are learners different from each other and can we measure these differences?' it would be more helpful to ask 'how do individuals go about making sense of their learning?' and 'how can we as teachers assist learners in making sense of their learning in ways that are personal to them?' (1997: 96).

Answering these questions is a much greater challenge than seeking to find 'research-based evidence' of what 'works' in formal learning situations. It is a challenge likely to be ignored by practitioners and policy makers in search of 'technical' answers to the 'problem' of how to help students achieve particular learning outcomes. Taylor suggests that an understanding of learning as having 'an inside-out structure (order and pattern evident from within) and as a relation between person and environment (an act of communication)' (1987:194) is at odds with an educational literature which 'tends to assimilate everything into a frame of reference of individual, logical and externally observable behaviour' (ibid). She suggests that characteristics of the 'equilibrium phase' are those valued by our culture, a culture 'which reflects primarily a male gender perspective', and which renders 'invisible' elements of transitional phases towards equilibrium that include 'confusion, emotionality, intuitively-guided search, integral involvement of others, and reflection on experience' (ibid). It is precisely the 'invisible' aspects of process, however, that Brockbank & McGill (1998) have suggested need to be explored and named if learning is to be promoted more effectively.

One of the 'invisible' areas discussed by Brockbank and McGill (1998) is the unconscious modelling by teachers of what they call the 'absence of struggle' in coming to terms with complex ideas. This might be particularly relevant in the area of academic writing. Faced with a student in a state of confusion, teachers in this situation are likely to emphasise the need for 'equilibrium' features of learning such as planning, organisation, and clarity. Whilst this advice may be helpful to the student, it is easy to gloss over the fact that confusion and disorientation are a common and often crucial part of the experience of learning and writing.

Despite our own personal experiences of struggle, it is easy to 'write history backwards' (Kuhn, 1970) in terms of the personal experience of writing, and to talk as if all writing is approached and carried out in a systematic and orderly way. When this happens, helpful 'advice' could leave the student feeling even more disorientated and isolated, rather than helping them in the way that was intended.

Not acknowledging the existence of unpredictability and uniqueness in learning could also have relevance in the broader context of lifelong learning and widening access.

Students new to a mass higher education system are likely to be attempting to manage individual versions of disorientation, half-understood mental processes and 'process-induced emotion' whilst they are working part-time, managing debt, and trying to fit in with a family or social context which may not be supportive of their aims. For these students, courses designed around assumptions that 'adults' will always benefit from the opportunity to structure their own learning, or that they will know how to respond to demands to meet pre-determined learning outcomes in predetermined ways, could have quite serious implications.

Failure to 'make room for' the individuality of learning process experienced by these students is likely to impact not only on the quality of the student experience but possibly also on levels of achievement and retention.

More research into the nature of the situated uniqueness of adult learning experiences in higher education is needed to complement the more strategic and generalising approaches to the study of student learning that appear to be common in this context. Whilst these approaches may yield results at the level of broad principles and overall strategy, more in-depth exploration of the details of situated complexity could provide much-needed information about how these broad principles may work out in the specificity of actual learning and teaching situations.


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