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Becoming Adult Learners: Principles and Practices for Effective Development
An Interview with Lecturer on Education Eleanor Drago-Severson

Harvard Graduate School of Education
February 1, 2005

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Eleanor Drago-Severson is passionate about transformational learning across a person’s life span. Her new book, Becoming Adult Learners: Principles and Practices for Effective Development (Teachers College Press), explores how and why adults develop “ways of knowing” to better prepare them for their work in the 21st century. Applying renowned Meehan Professor Robert Kegan’s constructive-development theory, Drago-Severson has taken an in-depth look at how to best support adult learners in the New Economy.

Becoming Adult Learners
The new book by HGSE lecturer Eleanor Drago-Severson, Becoming Adult Learners: Principles and Practices for Effective Development  

Q: What sort of demands has the New Economy placed on workers? How has what is considered “literate” changed over time?

A: In the early 1900s individuals were considered literate if they could write their names. In the twenty-first century, particularly in the workplace, defining one as literate often includes familiarity with technology and critical thinking skills. Today, in the United States, 64 million working adults between the ages of 18 and 64—more than 90 percent of our nation’s workforce—are in need of improved language skills, a high school diploma, or enhanced basic skills that will allow them to meet the demands of the modern workplace. Without multiple skill sets or sufficient training, workers in today’s information age will lose their places as new technological positions replace manual jobs.

To thrive as workers, learners, parents, and citizens in this New Economy, adults need to have both educational credentials and enhanced basic skills. To build a “level playing field” for all adults, we must offer the opportunity to develop the basic skills and competencies now needed to succeed. Basic skills are required to work effectively in today’s complex world; these include math, English language proficiency, an aptitude for thinking critically, collaborative problem solving, and the ability to use computers and other technology.

Recently, national attention has focused on the complex nature of the twenty-first-century workplace and the need to better support workers as they grow and enhance their skills and competencies to meet the demands of the changing nature of work. Research indicates that about 1.1 million workers will be at risk of losing their jobs as companies across the country come to demand skills that they do not have. Managers across the country seek employees who can adapt to the changes inherent in our fast paced and complex workplaces. My book, Becoming Adult Learners: Practices and Principles for Effective Development is a contribution to these efforts.

Q: Your findings suggest that greater attention needs to be paid to the diversity of “ways of knowing” amongst learners in the classroom. Can you explain this further?

A: Becoming Adult Learners describes research from a larger study conducted by the Adult Development Team—which I’ll refer to as the team—of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). This is the first in-depth study of adult learning in adult basic education (ABE) and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) programs settings that applies Bob Kegan’s constructive-developmental theory to understand how a group of adult learners make sense of their learning experiences and their lives. The adult learners in Becoming Adult Learners were shop floor workers and enrolled in a high school diploma program sponsored by their employer, the Polaroid Corporation, which in my belief offers broader implications for adult learners in other educational settings.

Becoming Adult Learners points to a new and promising way to help prepare adults in ABE and ESOL for the demands of the modern workplace. This research emphasizes the need for attending to a more subtle form of diversity in the classroom: learner’s “way of knowing”—which is an internally consistent “meaning-making system” that we all use to make sense of, or interpret, our experience. Kegan and other constructive-developmental theorists regularly employ these terms to describe an internally consistent meaning making system from which we, as human beings, interpret our experience.

Research results demonstrate that adults with different preferences, needs, and developmental orientations need different forms of support and challenge in order to learn and grow.

This research explores how a person’s “way of knowing” constitutes a lens through which ABE/ESOL learning and teaching experiences are filtered and how that way of knowing can change and become more complex over time, given developmentally appropriate supports and challenges. In other words, our research team employed constructive-developmental theory to examine the interplay between a learner’s developmental capacity and his or her experience in a program. Research results demonstrate that adults with different preferences, needs, and developmental orientations need different forms of support and challenge in order to learn and grow. Greater attention to adults’ ways of knowing in the classroom is critical to supporting adult learning and growth. A constructive-developmental approach can help practitioners and policymakers better understand and support adult learning given the complex demands upon us in this twenty-first century. These demands require not simply skill, knowledge, and competency acquisition (content knowledge)—though these are important—but also more complex ways of knowing, i.e., structure of knowledge.

The team sought to better understand how adults make sense of their learning experiences. For example: how do learners with different developmental capacities experience programs aimed at supporting their learning? How do these adults make sense of the various supports and challenges these programs provide? How can such programs be organized and develop structures to better support adult learners with different developmental capacities? In Becoming Adult Learners, I focus on how adults at the Polaroid workplace learning site made sense of these issues and how program learning influenced their growth as workers, learners, parents, and even as human beings.

Q: How does your new research to build bridges for teachers, curriculum makers, and others to better respond to the needs of adult learners?

A: This research illustrates not only how adult developmental theory can bridge to teaching and learning practices aimed at supporting adults’ processes of transformational learning—e.g., increases in cognitive capacities that enable us to better manage the complexities of work and life—but, it also shows the possibilities and promise of employing developmental principles in our efforts to create more optimal learning environments for adults. Thus, it highlights a qualitatively different way of thinking about supporting adult learning.

More specifically, this work points to an important reconceptualization of what ABE/ESOL teaching and learning can be like. Adults’ different “ways of knowing” can help explain how the very same curriculum, classroom activities and/or structures, assignments, or teaching behaviors can leave some learners feeling satisfied and well supported, while others feel abandoned, frustrated, or lost. In such cases, educators may unintentionally be using materials, classroom designs, or teaching strategies that place expectations on students that are beyond their capacities. The teaching of any subject matter only as an aggregation of facts and/or concrete rules to be learned may feel frustrating to adult learners who have particular ways of knowing (e.g., socializing and self-authoring ways of knowing). At the same time, this kind of teaching and learning would likely feel satisfying, comfortable, and supportive to adults who make sense of their experience with another way of knowing (e.g., instrumental way of knowing), since they orient to a concrete, step-by-step approach when learning. Teachers who have a developmental understanding of how adults engage in the teaching and learning process will have an enhanced capacity to support all learners in their classrooms, across a range of ways of knowing.

Infusing ABE/ESOL and workplace education curricula with linkages to learners’ workplaces and to real-life experience—both personal and professional—can support and challenge a range of learners with different ways of knowing and help them to transfer learning. Educators in these environments need multiple ways to attend to adults’ needs and a variety of curricula that help adults reflect on their learning by connecting it with their work and their lives outside the workplace.

A constructive-developmental approach can help us to understand adult learners’ skills, knowledge, and constructions of knowledge in a new light.

A constructive-developmental approach can help us to understand adult learners’ skills, knowledge, and constructions of knowledge in a new light. By extension, it can help us to better achieve our mission as adult educators. These findings point to the importance of creating opportunities for teachers and workplace educators to develop a knowledge base—or to strengthen their already existing knowledge—about how developmental theory can inform teaching practices, curricula development, classroom structure, and their understanding of the diversity of ways in which learners make sense of their experiences. This means creating opportunities for teachers to learn about both the underlying principles of a developmental approach and their implications for practice, and possibly providing incentives for such coursework through professional development credits.

Q: You talk about the importance of the cohort, or a “community of connection” for effective adult learning. How does the placement of an adult learner within a group environment improve educational outcomes?

A: One central research finding relates to the importance of the cohort and collaborative learning as key supports to adult learning. Belonging to a cohort, or a tightly knit group with a common purpose, proved important to supporting skill development and transformational learning. I found that given the power of the cohort and of learning in groups, workplace and adult education programs that form these kinds of supportive holding environments will better serve adults with a diversity of ways of knowing and learning needs.

Discourse asserts that the need for close connection to a group of colleagues or fellow learners is less important for adults than it is for adolescents, who are in the midst of developing their identities and separating from their families and have not yet created their own, new community of affiliation. This discourse often maintains that adults who, as the traditional understanding goes, have already formed social support networks with their families, friends, and co-workers are less in need of such community. Despite interesting differences in the cohort design across the three research sites, the interpersonal relationships that these adults developed in the cohort made a critical difference to their academic learning, their emotional and psychological well-being, and their ability to broaden their perspectives. Sustained connection to fellow cohort members made a difference to individual learning in these three very important ways.

While working and learning together in cohorts has great benefit for adults, it may not be feasible to build the same kind of consistent and enduring cohort structure into all programs given the complexities of adult learners’ lives, program restrictions, and funding requirements under which many ABE programs operate. Some cohort designs might make for some challenges along the way, especially for adults who make sense of their experiences with a particular way of knowing. Importantly, this research does not claim that any one particular cohort design is favorable. Instead, our research suggests that good matches to a variety of ways of being supported or challenged might be more crucial to success than a particular structure regarding entry and exit.

For More Information
More information about Eleanor Drago-Severson is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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