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.


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