“In a networked world, learning is a network-forming process. Knowledge is a networked product (Siemens on Connectivism video).” Connectivism is so interesting to me! I loved taking a dive into connectivism and network learning this week. In the video Siemens also points out, “we are knowledgeable to the extent that we have connected concepts and ideas over time.” This process, says Siemens, rounds out our perspective and deepens our understanding over time.

It is not only easier than ever, but also more important than ever, that we as learners learn how to learn in a networked world. As Cormier points out in the “What is a MOOC” video, we live in a world where information is everywhere and there is a staggering amount of it online all the time. Cormier describes MOOCs as an effective way to engage in connectivist learning – MOOCs are events that are open and participatory, and they are a step on the road to life-long learning. In the video “Succeeding in a MOOC,” Cormier points out that creating a network (his third of four elements for success in a MOOC), is essential to engage in learning in a MOOC. Without it, you cannot connect concepts and ideas in order to create new knowledge -this is the essential nature of connectivism.

Anderson and Dron (2011) also point out, “Connectivist learning focuses on building and maintaining networked connections that are current and flexible enough to be applied to existing and emergent problems. Connectivism also assumes that information is plentiful and that the learner’s role is not to memorize or even understand everything, but to have the capacity to find and apply knowledge when and where it is needed (p. 87).”

In his video, Downes explains that “network learning” (which seems to be synonymous with connectivism) can happen at three levels: 1) connections made between neurons in the brain; 2) connections made between people; and 3) connections made between ideas. This “connectedness” creates knowledge that is emergent and a product of the interactions between all members of the network.

Siemens’ article, “Connectivism: A Learning Theory or Pastime for the Self-Amused (2006)” was particularly helpful in laying out Connectivism’s place among earlier learning theories (Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism). Siemens (2006) explains, “The more rapidly knowledge develops the less likely it will be that we will possess all knowledge internally. The interplay of network, context, and other entities (many which are external) results in a new approach or conception of learning. The active creation of our own learning networks is the actual learning, as it allows us to continue to learn and benefit from our network, compared to a course which has a set start and end date (p. 14).”

Siemens also draws on Downes’ (2006) conceptualization of learning in today’s networked digital environment:  “A learning activity is, in essence, a conversation undertaken between the learner and other members of the community. This conversation, in the web 2.0 era, consists not only of words but of images, video, multimedia and more. This conversation forms a rich tapestry of resources, dynamic and interconnected, created not only by experts but by all members of the community, including learners. (Network Pedagogy section, p. 6).” This concept of learning emerging from a network – knowledge that comes from but is greater than the sum of its parts – is at the heart of Connectivism.

As I moved through learning activities this week – the articles and videos given to us – my additional searching online, my tweets and others’- I found myself trying to dissect my experience as a connectivist learning experience. While I’ve done this type of learning before, this is the first time I’ve consciously done it while learning about connectivism! I reflected on how I was moving from one node to the next based on what I was finding, building my understanding of connectivism as I went. While I cannot claim to have created much of a network, it’s a start and this time around I was conscious of doing it. Very interesting.

I was both fascinated and drawn in, and also a bit wary. Part of me wondered, “Is this a new kind of learning and a new kind of knowledge, or is it simply constructivist/CoP learning with new tools (web 2.0, etc.)?”  Some of the principles of Connectivism that Siemens (2004) lays out seem familiar to me, for example:

Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions. Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning. Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill. Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities. Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due… (p. 6).

True learning has always come from diversity in thought, from nurturing and seeing connections, from knowing how to choose what to learn and to sift through information. Staying current is certainly not a new need. Is what’s new only the tools, and the speed at which knowledge becomes obsolete (a shorter “half-life”)? Still, I’m fascinated and intend to learn more!

I enjoyed the additional resources I found: a blog by David Cormier, and another blog by Paul Stacy, in particular, his blog on The Pedagogy of MOOCs. I particularly appreciated Stacy’s explanations of xMOOCs and cMOOCs. It helped me to understand my own sense of what I’ve read about courses offered through edX and Coursera – that these are not really connectivist, but are more just traditional courses put onto an online platform. Stacy (2013) points out, “All of these new MOOC’s [edX, Coursera, Udacity] are focused on objectivist and behaviourist methods of teaching and learning. Their pedagogy is based on an assumption that when there are tens of thousands of learners social learning isn’t feasible. So instead of interaction with a person these MOOC’s focus on replacing the human social component of learning with a kind of artificial intelligence interaction with the platform. Coursera holds this up as good practice by noting, ‘Even within our videos, there are multiple opportunities for interactions: the video frequently stops, and students are asked to answer a simple question to test whether they are tracking the material.’ Designing MOOC pedagogies based on what some are calling robot marking jeopardizes quality, learning outcomes, and ignores best practices in online learning.”

Tweeting was fun! I had never done it before. I found myself tweeting about resources rather than ideas or content, given the character limit. One of my colleagues (Oh Gauche!) did tweet very concise little snapshots of Connectivist ideas – very nice! I’ll have to learn how to do that. I was excited about following David Cormier’s tweets and was quickly disappointed! As our instructor pointed out, he often tweets about his kids or food. Since subscribing to his tweets I’ve gotten one about pastries his wife made (with photo), one about a course he’s starting (more on point), one about buying a “corded phone” for his home (uh, yeah, some of us grew up with those), and today, “Nothing says Christmas like camo-santa” with photo attached. Seriously? I don’t think I’ll subscribe for much longer… So far, tweeting seems like a “surface” activity to me, perhaps best for sharing and promoting resources and nodes.

Thanks to our instructor for a great Connectivist week!


Communities of practice

I appreciated Wenger’s basic definitions of a community of practice: “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” Wenger explains that a community of practice (COP) is not just a club or network, but is a group with a “shared domain of interest,” to which all group members are committed. In addition, group members “build relationships that allow them to learn from each other,” this is the “community” in COP. Finally, group members are practitioners. As practitioners, within the COP they develop a shared practice, a “…repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems, etc. (Wenger, 2006).”

It helped as well to read about how the changing and expanding nature of adult education and life long learning has pushed Edwards (2006) (and others) to expand the definitions and conceptualization of learning contexts. Edwards suggests that some current conceptualizations are “binary” and limiting – informal/formal, everyday practices/educational institutions – and imply that context is a “container” into which learning fits (pp. 3-5). Edwards suggests that we should instead “…focus on relational polycontextualising practices in our discourses of lifelong learning (p. 5),” because it is within these relationships that cognition and learning often lie (not within one individual alone). The article ends with a list of provocative questions; I particularly appreciated the following, “If the boundaries of contextualisations for pedagogy are becoming more porous, what forms of teaching emerge and what is their impact on learners and learning something? (Edwards, 2006, p. 9).” Given the recent expansions in what we consider to be learning environments and events (online, blended, COPs, MOOCs, to name a few), and the  expanding platforms and modalities, this is an important question.

I found it interesting that the two Conrad studies involved quite small study samples, particularly the sample of only 10 participants described in “From Community to Community of Practice.” Despite the small size, some of the study findings do seem relevant and resonate with my own experiences. In the 10-participant study, Conrad (2008) notes that despite a certain level of support for learning within participants’ workplaces, participants’ learning (even when directly relevant to their work) did not appear to impact the workplace or work practices significantly: “… learners’ learning experiences did not appear to transform the workplace in meaningful ways. Tolerance and respect were the norm. The encouragement that was reported by a minority of participants took the form of logistical adjustments in the workplace… (p.16).” She also notes, “Although some workplaces encouraged learning more tangibly than others, there was no indication from learners or their workplace colleagues of the existence of a subsequent widespread or renewed energy within the organization. Sharing the enthusiasm of learning occurred in limited ways, often with colleagues who had also participated in online courses (p. 18).”

My experience has been that, even with courses or workshops required or specifically suggested by my employer (which the courses in the study were not), using my learning to create post-course impact on my workplace and work practices is quite challenging. In my most recent job, we were always swamped, and leaders were used to doing things certain ways. I could implement new practices within my team but having a wider impact was almost impossible (even though it was needed, for example in the area of project management). We’ve been learning about necessities and drivers in 624 – the structures, practices, and agreements that must be in place in order to facilitate 1) transfer of new skills and learning to the workplace; and 2) positive impact on the work resulting from the transfer. Examples: mentoring or coaching, changes to job structures or job descriptions, adjustments to projects, etc. If these are not in place, transfer and impact will be limited and short-lived.

In her second study, Conrad (2005) found that in the online learning cohort studied, learners themselves took on a fair amount of responsibility for creating and constructing their online community. She also notes that, while the community “survived” a poor instructor, instructors played a key role in constructing community: “…good instructors created community, poor instructors didn’t. These learners defined good instructors as present, prompt, energetic, responsible, and knowledgeable… [they] gave appropriate feedback and demonstrated a level of passion for their teaching… (p. 12).” This has certainly been my experience in the UMB ID program. We are not one cohort taking all courses together, so the time we have to build community as learners is limited (Conrad notes in her 2005 study the value of time spent together to developing a solid online community). The instructor’s online presence, promptness, feedback, etc. in my courses to date has very much affected the sense of community that I feel. I’ve felt it 602, of course! Part of this is due to our weekly communication and online sessions with the instructor. They go a long way towards helping me feel that 602 is a learning community.

Communities of practice

Experiential learning

What I appreciated most about this week’s readings and videos was the opportunity to learn more about the theoretical underpinnings of instructional methods and strategies that I have used for years as an adult educator and trainer. According to the five perspectives on experiential learning outlined in Merriam, Caffarella,and Baumgartner (2007), much of my practice has drawn on the constructivist and situative perspectives (p. 160). In the constructivist approach, “people have concrete experiences; they reflect on them and construct new knowledge as a result of these reflections (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 160).” In the situative approach, learning happens not in the learner’s head but in the situation itself, for example in communities of practice (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 160).

As an instructional designer, teacher, and facilitator, I have learned that eliciting learners’ experiences and helping them to reflect, build on, and learn from them leads to effective learning – the constructivist approach. One recent example from a training that I designed for village health workers (VHWs) in Africa and Haiti: before VHWs learned the details of weighing and measuring babies, detecting cases of severe malnutrition in children, and referring children to the clinic, they discussed their experiences with nutrition and malnutrition in the communities where they worked, their thoughts on its causes, and how they might approach families based on previous experiences. The facilitator’s role here was to “…encourage learners to discuss and reflect on concrete experiences in an open and trusting environment (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 169).”

I have also participated in a few communities of practice over the years, particularly when I was working as an adult ESOL and literacy instructor and program director. As the director of a team of teachers in a labor/management workplace education program, I created our own community of practice. We shared best practices, challenges, and materials in structured sessions during our team meetings. This is how we built some of our best work. In this practice we followed Kolb’s reflective cycle, described in this week’s video “The 3 minute Kolb.” We had concrete experiences (trying out particular strategies in the classroom), then we engaged in reflective observation during structured sharing sessions, then we engaged in abstract conceptualization about the strategies or methods, and finally we did “active experimentation” where we went back to the classroom to revise or try new methods. This was “reflection on action,” where practitioners “…consciously return to the experiences that we have had, reevaluate these experiences, decide what we could do differently, and then try out whatever we decided to do differently (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 175).”

Early in my career I was very influenced by Paulo Freire’s work, and it was helpful to learn in this week’s reading that his pedagogy falls in the “critical culltural perspective” within experiential learning (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 168), where learners critically examine problems and identify collective actions to address those problems and promote social change.As an ESOL and literacy teacher, I regularly tried to build problem-posing into my instruction, particularly when I worked at a labor/management education program. I appreciated reading about Mezirow this week as well. While I have studied and deliberately followed Friere’s pedagogy at times. I had not known about Mezirow until enrolling in the ID Program. I can see his influence in my teaching and instructional design, particularly in his emphasis on critical reflection: “…just having the experience is not enough. The learner must critically self-examine the assumptions and beliefs that have structured how the experience has been interpreted (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 134).” I have tried to build such critical examination into my work, particularly by asking “why” something is the way it is – digging down to causes and assumptions about the way things work (Freire promotes critical reflection as well, not just at the individual but the societal/systems level.)

I also appreciated the critiques of transformative learning. In particular: “Both Freire and Mezirow  have been criticized for romanticizing the social change process. Both educators start with the oppressed or the person trapped within a culturally induced dependency role, and both require these victims to liberate themselves, albeit with the help of the dialogic or transformative educator (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 154).” I have reflected on this myself over the years, even noting years ago that in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he sees learners somewhat as “blank slates” who have never before examined their reality critically and must be helped to do so. I also appreciated the question raised by Merriam et al. (2007), “…what right do adult educators have to tamper with the worldview (mental set, perspective, paradigm, or state of consciousness) of the learner?”  And “What is the educator’s responsibility for the action component of praxis? (p. 154).” I found that it made most sense to engage learners in problem-posing and identifying concrete action for change when I worked as an educator within organizations that had as their mandate social change and organizing. Educators working in settings without that type of “backing” must tread carefully. We must also be aware that learners may 1) have a more developed critical analysis that the instructor; and 2) may have no desire to engage in either personal or collective action leading to social (or personal) change.

I found the article “Impact of Experiential Learning on Cognitive Outcome in Technology and Engineering Teacher Preparation” a useful example of research on the effectiveness of experimental learning, in particular the research finding that learners benefited from organized experiential learning, and that “…no independent active or experiential approach is singularly superior, and in fact the approach could be significantly enhanced by instructional styles and learner receptiveness to teacher personality (Ernst, 2013, p. 39).” It is always interesting to see how the ideal comes real and is measured in some concrete way!

Experiential learning

Constructivism highlights

I appreciated reading Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) this week. They made many good points about today’s social context for learning. I found a few points particularly relevant to my practice. First, Merriam, et al. highlight some researchers’ suggestions to “…confront ‘the totalizing gaze of the ideology of globalization as an inevitable force of nature because it negates the centrality of human agency (p. 15).” Second, they emphasize, “to survive in the global economy, an organization needs to evolve into a ‘learning organization’ whereby new and expansive patterns are permitted, allowing employees to learn individually and collectively (p. 16).” I agree that globalization and its dominant players can (and do) steamroll over large sections of the world’s populations, and that as educators we have a role in promoting “human agency” at individual and collective levels, by promoting not just acquisition of concrete skills but the development of critical thinking, learning to learn, examination of the status quo, and the building of “learning organizations.” At my most recent job (a non-profit global health organization) we were keenly aware of the need to become a true learning organization, and were taking steps toward building learning into organizational structures when I left. For example, we were exploring a supportive supervision/supervisor as coach model, with ongoing evaluation as part of the model as well.

I found this week’s articles a bit of a plunge into deep waters, particularly the Stetsenko and Packer articles. Even though a 602 colleague and I are doing the constructivism presentation this week and have done some extra research on constructivism in preparation, when reading this week’s articles I felt that I had jumped from the shallow “introduction” end of the pool straight to the deep “in-depth analysis of variations on constructivist theory” end of the pool . However, I was able to glean some key points that help me to understand constructivism and its application a bit better.

First, I appreciated Karagiorgi and Symeou’s (2005) point that constructivist instructional strategies should support the development and negotiation of meaning by creating “…a rich context within which meaning can be negotiated, and ways of understanding can emerge (Hannafin et al., 1997)” (from Karagiorgi & Symeou, 2005, p. 19). The authors name role-playing games, simulations, and case studies as examples of instructional strategies that can create this rich context. I have used such strategies myself as an adult educator and have experienced how they can help learners to construct new meaning together.

In his article “Is Vygotsky Relevant? Vygotsky’s Marxist Psychology (2008),” Packer describes Vygotsky’s view of a “new” psychology: “Vygotsky was extending a powerful line of analysis. Marxism had already provided the knowledge needed to control social organization and make a new kind of society. What was now needed—and now possible—was “the mastery of our own being”: the control of human psychological organization and the making of “the new man.” According to Vygotsky, the focus of the new general psychology would be “the laws . . . which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves.” Knowledge of these laws would make man “architect of his own fortune” (Hegel, 1812/1904, p. 271) (p. 16). Vygotsky even believed that this new psychology would bring about the “artificial creation of a new biological type” of human being. He emphasized the social nature of our consciousness, as a product of the interaction between a person and her/his environment (Packer, 2008, pp. 22-23). This helped me to understand the roots of cognitivists’ beliefs that knowledge is constructed together by learners (rather than received as an “input” from the outside). It was interesting to read about Vygotsky’s idealism and the belief that a “new psychology” could create a new type of human being (similar to Marxist beliefs about creating a new society). While that may not be possible, it seems that Vygotsky has indeed influenced and moved psychology and learning into new realms (and away from behaviorism).

The Stetsenko and Arievitch (1997) article was the steepest climb for me. I feel that more exposure to the theorists mentioned in the article would allow me to grasp the authors’ arguments more fully. However, I did take away the following: “The metaphor “child as Robinson Crusoe” is replaced by the notion of shared activities, co-operation between the individual and other people. The focus is on the inherently contextualized nature of any developmental process, and hence, on the embeddedness of human development in culturally and historically defined contexts. This is an assumption that stresses social inter-action as playing a decisive role in the production of mental capacities, which are unavailable to the isolated individual. This assumption emphasizes mutuality, cooperation, communication, and social embeddedness of the self and of the individual’s development (p. 162).” Also, in describing a few main lines of social constructivist research, Stetsenko and Arievitch point out, “Rogoff conceptualized learning that results in the child’s cognitive development as the process of the child’s guided participation in culturally organized activity with a more skilled partner. The central idea is that children’s cognitive development is inseparable from their social environment (p. 167).” While I cannot claim to fully understand the distinctions that Stetsenko and Arievitch detail, I appreciated these important reminders of the underlying constructivist belief that knowledge is built through shared activity and social interaction, and embedded in human beings’ fundamentally social nature and the social context in which they live.

Constructivism highlights

Learning and the brain

A few weeks ago we read in Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) about cognitivism: “Learning… is a cognitive phenomenon. The organism ‘comes to see’ the solution after pondering a problem. The learner thinks about all of the ingredients  necessary to solve a problem and puts them together (cognitively) first one way and then another until the problem is solved… The locus of control over the learning activity… lies within the individual learner; for behaviorists, it lies within the environment (p. 285).” This week’s readings on the brain threw light onto the science behind cognitivism. It was helpful to learn about how the study of human memory – sensory, working (short-term), and long-term memory, and the phases of encoding, storage/retention, and retrieval – as it reinforced for me the underpinnings of cognitivist approaches to instruction, for example Gagne’s nine events of instruction.

I particularly appreciated reading about schemas, or “categorical knowledge,” which people form about events and objects: “…schemas… are filled with descriptive materials and are seen as the building blocks of the cognitive process… they are active processes whose primary function is to facilitate the use of knowledge (Merriam et al., p. 401).” Merriam et al. explain that adults all have “…individualized set[s] of schemata that reflect both our experiences and world view (p. 402).” They go on to explain how prior knowledge and experience are an important part of learning and becoming an “expert,” one who is able to perceive problems and solve them strategically within a particular domain (p. 404).

In addition, this week’s Merriam and Bierema chapter reviewed Sternberg’s three components of intelligence – analytical (“IQ”), creative (thinking “out of the box”), and practical intelligence. They explain that “practical intelligence has to do with how we deal with everyday experiences in real-world contexts. Practical intelligence involves acquiring and using tacit knowledge – that knowledge which we come to know through experience and which we rarely articulate (p. 180).” This theory, as well as the theory of schemata, underscore for me the importance of what I have experienced as an adult educator: eliciting and building on adult learners’ previous knowledge and experience – bringing schemas to the surface and facilitating application of knowledge to “real-world” problems – facilitates learning.

It was interesting to read at the end of the Merriam et al. chapter that, according to Bruer, “Currently, we do not know enough about brain development and neural function to link that understanding directly, in any meaningful, defensible way, to instruction and educational practice (p. 417).” Jane Vella’s work with “quantum learning” is cited as an example of making connections between and assumptions about neurological function and learning theory and outcomes that are unproven (p. 417). This comes after the authors state earlier in the chapter, “… in helping adults connect their current experience to their prior knowledge and experience, we need to be knowledgeable about the amount of prior knowledge they possess in a particular area and design our learning activities accordingly (p. 404).” Isn’t this based on our understanding of schemata and expertise? I have read Vella’s work, and I admit that I found her more recent “quantum learning” ideas a bit vague and confusing. Perhaps the authors distinguish between basing learning theory and outcomes on proven neurological functions (schemata/expertise) versus unproven ones (quantum learning)?

While reading Malone’s article felt a bit like coming into the middle of a discussion and not quite catching up, I did appreciate the overview of social cognitive theory (Bandura) and choice theory (Glasser). I found the description of self-efficacy particularly useful: “…to have feeling of self-worth, individuals need to feel a sense of competence (self-efficacy) (Malone, 2002, 11).” I can see the influence of this concept in adult education, particularly in the emphasis on goal setting and self-esteem.

Learning and the brain


Pavlov’s dog and Skinner’s box made their way into our popular culture long ago, and  learning theories other than behaviorism have come to dominate the field of adult education and training. Among my professional colleagues in adult education and instructional design, behaviorism is felt to be somewhat outdated and mechanistic, especially in the light of humanist perspectives.

“Behaviorists believe that human behavior is the result of the arrangement of particular stimuli in the environment…” and “learning for behaviorists is defined as a change in observable behavior (Merriam and Bierema, 2014, 26).” In contrast, “…humanists refuse to accept the notion that behavior is predetermined by either the environment or one’s subconcious. Rather, human beings can control their own destiny; people are inherently good and will strive for a better world; people are free to act, and behavior is the consequence of human choice; people possess unlimited potential for growth and development (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, 282).”

It is easy to dismiss or disparage behaviorism as a learning theory, and I admit that, before taking this class, I tended to do that.  Of course, I was already familiar with behaviorism’s influence on the development of behavioral objectives and competency-based education (Merriam and Bierema, 2014, 27); I have for years developed instruction based on behavioral objectives. However, this course’s readings and videos on behaviorism have reinforced for me behaviorism’s major influence on current adult education and instructional design practices, and also brought to light very positive aspects of this influence.

It was helpful to be reminded in the Crash Course video that negative reinforcement, which in popular culture is sometimes imagined to be mild electric shock and the like, is actually “…any stimulus that, when removed, strengthens the response,” and is not the same as “punishment.” Also, “extinction” of a behavior should be brought about by negative reinforcement rather than punishment. It was also helpful, in the “History of Psychology” video, to be reminded that behaviorism played an important role in shaping psychology into a modern, scientific field.

But I was most struck by the interview with B.F. Skinner himself. The interview highlighted for me the huge positive influence that behaviorism continues to have on education. Skinner pointed out “…the power of reinforcement as a change agent,” and “…positive reinforcement as a powerful technique.” As Skinner discussed this concept, I thought about how much in  current child rearing, child education, and adult education practices have been shaped around positive reinforcement, as well as many institutional practices in government and industry (for example, the use of carbon credit trading rather than fines).

As he says  in the interview, Skinner believed that positive reinforcement is a powerful tool that could be used to advance our society “…beyond just being free and having dignity,” to create a society where human beings can “maximize” themselves and our cultures and society will survive. In the interview he gives the examples of controlling for minimal consumption and pollution. Skinner also knew the dangers of controlling behavior, as he says in the interview: “You need to understand all the ways in which you can be controlled so that you can avoid being controlled” for bad purposes, and he gives the lottery as an example of a negative use of behavior control. Hearing this high-level, even idealistic, perspective from Skinner himself was eye-opening and helped me to appreciate behaviorism’s positive influences.

Finally, I really appreciated the Seinfeld and Big Bang Theory videos! I have loved the dense, rich, and sometimes complex readings that we have done to date, but the videos were a fun, refreshing touch and gave me, among other things, a good mental picture of operant conditioning to store away for future use! I admit that this week’s Malone article went a bit over my head. Other than learning that “traits” or “general classes of behavior that are strengthened over time”  have become a focus of behaviorists in recent decades (Malone, 2003, 87), I did not glean that much about recent trends in behaviorism from the article. I look forward to reading what my colleagues thought of Malone.



I appreciated learning in this week’s reading that Knowles’ ideas of andragogy are based on humanist learning theory: “Malcolm Knowles’s writings on self-directed learning, groups, and andragogy in particular, are firmly lodged in humanistic principles (Merriam and Bierema,204, 31).” Learning more about humanistic psychology this week certainly strengthened my understanding of Knowles, and clarified for me some of the theoretical underpinnings of my own approach to adult teaching and learning. I even found the descriptions of humanism inspiring, and excellent reminders of the higher goals to which I’ve aspired as an educator:

“…Humanists refuse to accept the notion that behavior is predetermined by either the environment or one’s subconscious. Rather, human beings can control their own destiny; people are inherently good and will strive for a better world; people are free to act, and behavior is the consequence of human choice; people possess unlimited potential for growth and development (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007, 282).”

I first read Knowles many years ago in a UMB course on curriculum development for adult learners. Over many years of designing instruction and teaching, I have found Knowles’ basic assumptions about adult learners sound, and a good guide with which to steer my work (in addition to Paulo Freire’s work, which influenced me even more). I summarize these assumptions here: 1) A person’s self-concept moves towards one of self-direction. 2) Adults have rich experiences which are a resource for learning. 3) Adults’ readiness to learn is related to tasks associated with roles they must assume. 4) Adult learners are problem-centered more than subject centered. 5) Adults are, for the most part, intrinsically motivated to learn. 6) Adults need to know why they need to learn something (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 207, 84).

While my experience as an educator has confirmed many of Knowles’s assumptions, I have found the second assumption particularly true. I have found that eliciting learners’ experiences, having them reflect on those experiences, and having them connect those experiences to new information or skills, makes effective and powerful teaching and learning. A recent example: a few years ago, I designed a module on nutrition and malnutrition for community health workers in Haiti on how to identify malnutrition in children, refer cases to the clinic, weigh and measure children monthly, educate families about diet, etc. The module contained a lot of fairly technical content, for example, symptoms of various types of malnutrition, how to use a scale and measuring board and record height and weight, how to complete referral forms, etc. I designed the module to start with a discussion of learners’ own experiences with malnutrition in their communities. The discussion was dynamic and powerful and learners referred back to these experiences throughout the 3-day training.

Over the years I have also experienced limitations and frustrations when trying to use Knowles’s assumptions as a guide, so it was affirming to read this week that his writings have been questioned and criticized a great deal (I had not read many specific criticisms until this class). One critique that resonated with me: Knowles’s presents the adult learner as “…autonomous, free, and growth-oriented. There is little or no awareness that the person is socially situated, and to some extent, the product of the socio-historical and cultural context of the times; nor is there any awareness that social institutions and structures may be defining the learning transaction irrespective of the individual participant (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007, 88).”I have sometimes worked in settings where instructional goals are not determined by learners at all, but by what they must learn for their jobs, and yet I have been able to design very effective, and even transformative, instruction in these settings. An example: I designed a module for health workers in Haiti about recognizing and changing their own stigmatizing attitudes towards those with mental health disorders. The lead clinician required that this be taught (learners did not choose or plan it), and yet it was a powerful and transformative learning experience. Another example from Haiti that speaks to the critique cited above: women are often marginalized and oppressed in Haiti, particularly in the communities where our health workers worked. In order to design effective instruction in this context, one must make explicit this marginalization and oppression, discuss it and make overcoming it a long-term goal of instruction. This includes recognizing that women in this culture may not have the “autonomy” and “freedom” that Knowles assumes.

Merriam, et al state that there is relatively little research testing and confirming the validity of Knowles’s assumptions. For example, “…participation in planning does not appear to affect learning gain or satisfaction, even when the amount of participant input in planning is increased (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007, 91).” I found this somewhat comforting! While I strive to create a good learning climate, elicit learners’ experiences, teach towards helping learners tackle problems through learning, etc. the settings often do not allow for individual determination of and work towards individual goals, following a learning contract, etc. Even in “looser” settings doing that must be quite quite challenging, as instructors have limited time and must often work with learners as groups, rather than as individuals.