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.


Motivation and change

Motivation. I wrote about my own motivation to learn in this week’s discussion post, so here I would like to focus the motivation of participants in the various education and training programs I’ve worked in over the years. I found Ahl’s perspective fascinating. Merriam and Caffarella point out that “Ahl challenges the assumptions that motivation is a phenomenon existing only within the individual learner because it suggests a deficit… Ahl argues that we have created ‘the unwilling learners [who] are both the reasons for and the solutions to societal problems, while those who formulate the problems, and the basis for the formulation of the problem, remain invisible. They are made invisible because they represent normality, the ideology in power, and knowledge that is always taken for granted.'” Ahl feels that motivation is not just situated within the individual, but should be viewed within the context of power relations, and that research should focus on “…who states that this is a problem, and why, and the reasons for this conclusion (Merriam and Caffarella, 2014, 162).”

I appreciated Ahl’s zooming out to question the entire framework and premise of mainstream research on motivation. I agree with Ahl that there are factors and perspectives with are not adequately addressed by traditional theories of motivation, and that the majority of recommendations in the mainstream literature  to increase motivation are pedagogical and assume that teachers hold much of the power to increase adult learner’s motivations (Merriam and Caffarella, 2014, 162). Our field is steeped in this mainstream perspective.

While in general I found the learners in the training and education programs I have worked in to be quite motivated, both intrinsically and extrinsically, I have found intrinsic motivation to be higher than extrinsic. In the community and workplace English and literacy programs that I have worked with, students signed up voluntarily and often stayed in the programs for years, even though their participation in the programs did not lead to promotions or raises. In my most recent job, participants in the trainings I designed were required to attend, as the trainings were on new skills required for new job tasks and interventions. However, these participants were also quite intrinsically motivated. My experience was that all of these learners were driven by the desire to master new skills and ideas – the mastery that Pink names as a key internal motivator, the “…compulsion to progress and improve around things that matter (Merriam and Caffarella, 2014, 147).” I have not found a significant lack of motivation at all. In fact, motivation among learners in my most recent job often stayed high even when training quality was poor and some or all of Wlodkowski’s four “motivational conditions,” inclusion, attitude, meaning, and competence, were not present (Wlodkowski, 2008, 102).

Ahl’s ideas brought to mind one particular training at which motivation took a steep dive. I had designed a training on nutrition interventions for Haitian community health workers (CHWs, workers who live in rural villages and work with village households to improve health outcomes.) The nurses delivering the training were excellent trainers. They had worked to build, as Wlodkowski describes, an atmosphere of “harmony and community” in which learners felt “safe, capable and accepted (inclusion);” a positive attitude among learners towards the topic and learning (the topic was immediately relevant to CHWs’ jobs) (attitude); a “…challenging learning experience in an engaging format about a relevant topic” so that meaning was increased; and a chance for learners to increase and demonstrate competence (Wlodkowski, 2008, 102-110). However, after the first two days of training, the CHWs learned that they would not receive their monthly pay that month as funds were low. This was an ongoing problem, and it turned out that the CHWs had not been paid for three months straight. They went “on strike” and refused to participate in the rest of the training. The issue was resolved and the training finished, but this was a striking example to me of an issue beyond an educator’s control that had a huge impact on motivation.

Change. I found this week’s readings on change very interesting. I appreciated Kegan and Lahey’s description of mental complexity, the three “mind” types among adults, and the need for leaders and others to move from being “self-authoring” to “self-transforming (Keghan and Lahey, “Reconceiving the Challenge of Change,16).” I did wonder about their proposal that this need has become urgent in the workforce due to our transformed economy and workplace: “We have witnessed the transition from physical labor to mind work as the dominant employee activity. We now live in a global economy characterized by rapid change, accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs, and an unprecedented level of competitiveness. These developments create demand for higher levels of education and training than were required of previous generations… These developments also create new demands on our psychological resources. Specifically, these developments ask for a greater capacity for innovation, self-management, personal responsibility, and self-direction (Kegan and Lahey, “Reconceiving the Challenge of Change,” 25). I believe that the need for more “self-transforming” minds has always been great. but sometimes not encouraged or even repressed by social and workplace constraints, especially among those in subordinate positions.

Of all of this week’s readings, I found Keghan and Lahey’s “The Real Reason People Won’t Change” to be the most immediately applicable to my work life. Their proposition that uncovering “competing commitments” and “big assumptions” will help people to change their behavior rings true for me. I have actually done some work like this with a therapist years ago. She did not call what we were discovering “competing commitments” or “big assumptions” but that is what they were. While that therapy work was about personal issues, I have learned to examine these things in my work life as well.  Digging down to uncover deep-rooted competing commitments and assumptions is hard work, as Kegan and Lahey point out: “This is a difficult process, and it doesn’t happen all at once, because admitting to big assumptions makes people uncomfortable. The process can put names to very personal feelings people are reluctant to disclose, such as deep-seated fears or insecurities, highly discouraging or simplistic views of human nature, or perceptions of their own superior abilities or intellect (Kegan and Lahey, 2001, 7). I admit that once I have done the digging I do not always choose to change, but I at least understand where my reluctance comes from.

Motivation and change

My first blog post (ever)

I’m grateful to Christin for inviting us to blog for this course! While I’ve read and occasionally responded to others’ blogs, I’ve never done one myself. I’m a digital immigrant and I admit to not being a natural at learning new technologies. But I welcome this chance to become a blogger, even if it’s years after most people started blogging…

Week 3’s readings and discussions have been rich and varied and it’s been hard for me to choose a focus for this blog post. I’ve decided to reflect on just a few points that resonated with me.

First, the topic of intelligence, learning, and aging. I started my coursework toward the M.Ed. in Instructional Design this summer. As a middle-aged learner coming back to the formal higher education classroom after many years away from it, I wondered if I would be able to complete academic work satisfactorily, keep up with classmates, and handle online learning; I felt that doing academic work would be harder for me than the last time I was in school. But that has not been the case. I have found that because of my extensive and varied work experiences in the field of instructional design, the readings interest and resonate with me and I have real experiences to add to discussions and writing. It is my experience that has made the coursework in this degree come alive for me and has helped me to make sense of and analyze what I read, and connect it to real-life practice. In fact, because of my experience I “feel smarter” that I did as an undergraduate or during my first graduate degree (completed a few years after college).

Because I am an older learner, and because to date this degree has been a good experience for me, I appreciated learning more about the research on intelligence and aging as presented in Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner’s Learning in Adulthood, 2007, chapter 14. In particular, I was grateful to read about the research on “plasticity” (p. 367) and the Seattle Longitudinal Study’s findings that suggest “…little if any [intellectual] decline of practical consequence until after the mid- to late sixties. Even this decrement is modest until the 80s are reached (p. 371).” I also read with interest about the alternative concepts of intelligence that have emerged in recent years, particularly the theories about “practical intelligence.” I sense that my “feeling smarter” than I did as an undergraduate may come from my having developed “successful” or “practical” intelligence. I particularly appreciated Merriam et al’s summary of this research: “For educators of adults it provides rich evidence that adult intelligence is much more than traditional IQ tests, but also encompasses what many of us have believed it to include all along: everyday or practical intelligence.” Yes.

Second, the idea of the life course concept as a social construct, as Tennant and Pogson articulate in Learning and Change in the Adult Years: A Developmental Perspective, 1994, chapter 5. While this idea is not new to me, I appreciated learning in more detail about alternative life course concepts and having their differences highlighted in a way that brings their “social construct” nature into relief. For example, I loved reading about the Confucian conception of the life course, so different from our culture’s focus on our development as individuals (pp. 102-103). It was also helpful to read about how notions of gender roles have influenced constructions of life course over the years. What I underlined and starred most heavily in this chapter, however, was the following: “For [Gould], psychological health and development are expressed in terms of how well the individual adapts to society’s needs – there is no social critique or analysis. Thus it is not society that is problematic; any problems belong to the individuals who cannot adapt properly to society’s requirements. The possibility that there are some forms of social organization that are alienating or oppressive is not addressed (p. 116).” I whole-heartedly agree with this critique and look forward to more of this type of analysis in the weeks ahead.

My first blog post (ever)