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Book Review-Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide

For a long time, I’ve thought about the ability to learn as a master skill – the one that unlocks all the other possible skills.  Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide echoes that same sentiment.  It acknowledges that, today, the world we live in requires greater degrees of learning than ever before and recognizes that much of the way we try to support and encourage learning isn’t best practice and doesn’t work.

The Adult Learner

A foundation of adult learning is Malcolm Knowles et al.’s work in The Adult Learner.  It separates how we need to support learning in adults compared to how we typically teach children.  Instead of a content dump that we expect the person-receptacles to accept, we must find ways to connect their need to learn and recognize that the content dump isn’t always the right way to reach the learner.

Learning in Adulthood expresses the concern that self-concept of the learner (Knowles; first point) is a desired outcome rather than a preexisting condition.  Here, I’m on the fence, as I recognize that we’ve had to become more self-directed and self-aware in our learning as the world has become more complex.  However, I concur that, at some level, the idea that a learner will have self-concept and therefore self-directed learning is a bit aspirational.  Later in Learning in Adulthood, it is acknowledged that “the existence of independent pursuit of learning in adulthood has been well established.”  I’m not sure I can draw the distinction between these two.

There’s concern that readiness to learn (Knowles’ third point) and orientation to learning (Knowles’ fourth point) can lead to a reductionist view of learning – that is, learning is only about formulaic behaviors and algorithmic task proficiency.  I disagree and instead place this in another category: we know we’ll forget if we don’t have a way to apply this learning soon given the constant state of being overwhelmed that we all find ourselves in.  (See The Information Diet for more on being overwhelmed.)

Finally, there’s a concern about the learner’s need to know (Knowles’ sixth point) with the argument being that some learners just like learning.  I place myself firmly in this category – yet I’ll say that it’s a continuum of connection.  Everything I learn is connected to something else and therefore has utility to me in terms of better understanding the things it’s connected to.  So, for me, the need is internally driven but still driven.  See Why We Do What We Do for Edward Deci’s take on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Put Out the Fire

MOOC Learning

Some years ago, the idea of an MOOC (massive open online course) became popular.  The thinking was that if you could deliver a course through video recordings and automated testing, you could open it up for the world to take.  The money would be made in selling certificates that certified you took the course.  It was built on the premise of self-directed learning.  It has a humanitarian feel, like the open-source software development movement, and it promised to be the hottest new thing.

As we gained experience with MOOCs, we began to realize that the dropout rates were enormous.  Courses might enroll a thousand people and lose 900 of them in the first few weeks.  The idea of free training was good enough to sign up for, but the people willing to do the work was much smaller.  In truth, the problem was probably multi-layered, like nearly all problems.  The courses were experiments and as such not well funded.  Having taken a few courses – and a few of them to completion – I can say that the experience of the MOOC was often poor.

An instructor would set up a camera at the back of the room while they did a lecture.  They failed to realize that this was even less engaging than them doing it live and that the key thing about video isn’t actually video.  It’s getting the audio right – and few people ever did.  Instead, the video would be off-color – seeming too orange – and it would be difficult to decipher the words the instructor spoke.

But there’s something more, too.  The fundamental model from which most instructors approached the course was the content-dumping metaphor.  In a college classroom, where you know you or your parents are pouring out a lifetime of savings, you’ve got a strong secondary motivator to make it work.  In a MOOC, this motivation was gone – and so were many of the students.

Educational strategies that support multiple modalities of instruction aren’t easy – and they’re not skills that the average college professor has.  Learning how to develop a course that can be done asynchronously, online, and self-directed is hard enough.  Doing it in a way that allows for virtual or live instructor-led delivery was – and is – more than most college professors can do.  As a result, MOOCs are present in the overall educational landscape, but few learners are willing to climb the hurdles that are placed in front of them to reach the educational goals they started with.

Informal Learning

College classes and adult learning courses are formalized.  They have a structure, approach, and outcome.  However, much of how we learn isn’t that way.  Marcia Bates suggested that 80% of our learning happens in ways that are neither active nor directed.  Things like blogging are learning, as the writing process causes people to sort out their thoughts and develop greater clarity.  (See Opening Up for more on how this works.)  Blogging, by most accounts isn’t, considered learning but instead sharing or teaching.  However, the process is generative and encourages learning.

We also learn as we participate in communities.  Communities of Practice (CoP) have long been a part of the knowledge manager’s toolkit.  (See Lost Knowledge for more on the relationship between knowledge management and communities of practice, and Digital Habitats for more on how to create them.)  CoPs lead to learning that isn’t easily seen as needed.  It’s situational and networks the people who have the knowledge to create a framework for learning what is needed when the need arrives.  It also creates the relationships that allow people to “phone a friend” when they’re looking for information that they don’t have.

The Make Up of Adult Learning

We speak about different kinds of learning, but what kinds of learning are in use?  In 2005, The United States Department of Education did a survey asking adults what kind of learning they had engaged in within the preceding 12 months.  The answers had 44% of those surveyed in any formal adult education, 27% in work related courses, 21% in personal interest learning, and drop down to 4% in part-time college degree programs.  That means that most (but not all) people are continuing their learning journey.  It also means that many people still see education as formal adult education.  It’s not exactly surprising given the focus on the concept of Human Capital, popularized by Gary Becker.

Conceptually, it means that investing in learning is an 8% return on investment forever.  That makes it a solid investment.  Becker’s work centered on formal education as it looked at the value of college degrees, but it extends to other forms of learning as well.

Structural Barriers to Learning

Andrew Carnegie may have been a “robber baron” in his time, but his contribution to America can’t be missed.  In thousands of small towns, the libraries that were built by his vision of public access stand as reminders.  While most libraries have long since outgrown their humble beginnings, they were started as a way to equalize access to resources – and many continue to do this today.  (See The Public Library for more.)

In the distant past, no one could afford to own books.  The Gutenberg printing press made it so that the wealthy could own books, and folks like Benjamin Franklin began to read by borrowing books from his colleagues.  Thus, the elite could gain access to information – but for the “common” man, books and the knowledge they could impart was beyond their reach.  One of the important issues in adult learning is how we level the playing field so that everyone has an opportunity to learn.  MOOCs do that.  The commoditization of learning does that – but it does so at the expense of the educators.  Course creators find their potential revenues reduced by a factor of ten or more.  Professors struggle to remain professionally viable as higher education enrollment shrinks and budgets follow.


McClusky proposed a model for learning that is based on our capacity and the margin of capacity we have.  This may be measured in time, resources, or capacity for effort.  We have a balance.  On one side, we have what it takes to live, both in our external commitments and our internal expectations.  On the other side, we have our resources in terms of our physical prowess, sociability, mental resources, economic resources, and, finally, skills.  We learn only when we have more resources than we have demands.  McClusky uses the language of “power” for resources and “load” for demands.

In the context of an investment rate, this makes sense.  You can only invest what you don’t need to live.  If you’re going to make progress on saving or investing, you must create a gap between your income and your expenses.  This is notoriously hard for people to do.  We tend to have demands that slightly exceed our capacities.

Learning Lenses

Lenses, in life, change the way that we see things.  They can magnify the tiny.  They can allow us to see far away objects.  They also necessarily restrict our view in ways.  In Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan explores lenses used to view organizations as well as their relative strengths and weakness.  There are two proposed components of the lenses that we use.

The first is a point of view.  These are both the perspectives that we have and the mental schemas that we have developed about how the world works.  (See Efficiency in Learning for more.)  These are, relatively speaking, easy to address in terms of broadening the view than the second part of our lenses.

The second is habits of mind.  These are what Daniel Kahneman would call system 1 in Thinking, Fast and Slow and what Charles Duhigg is talking about in The Power of Habit.  It’s the biases that we have in operation and the things that we don’t think about.  That’s why changing habits of mind is hard.  Consider Jonathan Haidt’s work in The Happiness Hypothesis and Dan and Chip Heath’s exploration of his Elephant-Rider-Path model in their book, Switch.  In this context, they speak of the relative ease of convincing the rational rider that losing weight is a good idea and the relative irrelevance of it, as the emotional elephant eats their way through a bad day.  We recognize that there are parts of our mind that are not easily placed under cognitive control.

Disorienting Dilemma

Step 1 of the 12-step process in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is admitting you have a problem.  (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more on this.)  Many in AA will tell you that, for some, it takes a lot to get to the first step.  It’s destroyed relationships, lost jobs, and homes.  Often, people come at a low point in their lives when they recognize that what they believe and the way they’ve been operating isn’t working.

Not everyone needs to encounter the conditions that bring people to someone to a 12-step group.  However, to learn, we need to have a reason to believe that what we know is insufficient, imprecise, or just wrong.  It’s that knowledge that sparks the effort that is the learning process.  Sometimes the impetus is simply that we can’t comprehend the current conditions.

Dialectical Genius

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Today, we call that dialectical thinking.  It’s the heart of a treatment for suicidal ideation, and it’s an orientation to life that leads to continuous learning.  In my post Fractal Along the Edges, I called out the nature of life as contradictions – and how we often mistake the real drivers for the ones that are more apparent.

Sometimes, the learning that we need to do isn’t in a new space or area but is instead around the roughness that composes the line between two different thoughts.

Effective is Reflective

One of the challenges with training is the measurement of efficacy.  As Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation explains, most people spend their time evaluating efficacy at a trivial, reactionary level.  The result of this is that we focus on how the people feel about the training experience.  Certainly, we need to consider whether people will recommend the training to others because of the impact on the word of mouth for the course.  (See Diffusion of Innovations for more on this impact.)  However, this invariably means that, when we need to do activities to get to application of the learning and results that are uncomfortable, they’ll often get removed because they’re uncomfortable.  Reflection and application of what is being learned is often unpleasant, because it forces us to confront our bad practices and to engage in the struggle to change them.

The kind of learning that we’re most interested in isn’t the kind of learning that can be replaced with a checklist or productivity aid.  In fact, we shouldn’t want to teach something that we can use a productivity aid for.  (See Job Aids and Performance Support for more.)  The kind of learning that we’re most interested in changes behavior when there are no clear rules.  It’s the application of the knowledge to the problems for which it’s relevant.

Power, Patterns, and Guidance

Power is contextual.  People who have large amounts of power in one way have little in another.  It’s a common problem for leaders of organizations who come home and must navigate a completely different power dynamic at home.  The patterns of behavior that they use at work just don’t work at home.

Sometimes these patterns of behavior create ruts into which people fall unexpectedly.  It’s not uncommon for new graduates to look to others for guidance rather than trying to experiment or find the answers on their own.  They’ve learned with their traditional educational experience that the right answer is the one the instructor wants – not necessarily what is objectively right.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to find our own “right.”  The answer lies in Learning in Adulthood.

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