Malcolm Knowles, The Adult Learner, and Revisiting Cherished Resources

October 3, 2013

Reading the sixth edition of The Adult Learner (in which Elwood Holton and Richard Swanson further build upon what Malcolm Knowles wrote in the first four editions) reminds us why the book justifiably carries the subtitle “The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development” (added to the fifth edition)—and why a seventh edition is also available.

Knowles--It’s thoughtful. It’s thorough. It’s engaging. It acknowledges its limitations. It surveys a variety of other seminal learning texts produced over a period of several decades and leaves us with nearly 40 pages of additional resources to explore. And, most importantly, it reminds us of how consistently we have identified and sought solutions to the challenges learners of all ages face and also reminds us how far we still have to go in effectively responding to those challenges.

Current calls for finding alternatives to our antiquated approach of facilitating learning through lectures, for example, seem to place us at the cutting edge of contemporary training-teaching-learning efforts—until we reread (on p. 44) an educator’s call, first published in the Journal of Adult Education in 1940, for change: “Not only the content of the courses, but the method of teaching also must be changed. Lectures must be replaced by class exercises in which there is a large share of student participation…” (Harold Fields, acting assistant director of Evening Schools, Board of Education, New York City). Fields might have been fascinated by what Michael Wesch accomplishes through experiential learning with students participating in his mediated cultures projects at Kansas State University. Or by what some of us are experiencing through webinars with interactive learning opportunities for participants rather than relying on the one-way-transmission-of-information model that only occasionally takes a break for brief question-and-answer sessions before returning to the teacher-as-center-of-learning experience and often leaves learners uninspired. Or by the possibilities for engagement in connectivist massive open online courses (MOOCs) if learners are properly prepared to take advantage of what those courses can offer. Or what learners experience through flipped classroom efforts that at least partially move lectures out of the classroom to make space for more engaging experiential learning, with Kahn Academy videos being one highly recognizable example of how the process works.

Furthermore, those of us who mistakenly believe that formal lifelong learning is a new concept precipitated by the need to keep up with our rapidly-changing tech environment gain, from revisiting The Adult Learner, a more accurate appreciation for how long lifelong learning has been part of our learning landscape. We read the observation made by a college president in 1930 in the Journal of Adult Education that “[a]t the other end of the traditional academic ladder the adult educational movement is forcing recognition of the value and importance of continuing the learning process indefinitely”—a lesson some still don’t appear to have absorbed as we read about reduced funding for community college programs that can be an important part of the adult learning landscape. Adult learning, the college president continues, “is recognized not so much as a substitute for inadequate schooling in youth as an educational opportunity superior to that offered in youth…” (p. 41).

Even the term for adult learning—andragogy, as opposed to pedagogy (“the art and science of teaching children”)—that is at the heart of what Knowles built into the first edition of his book has far deeper roots than many of us suspect. The earliest citation found for andragogy was from a German educator who used the term in 1833. Subsequent citations include those from a German social scientist in 1921 and a Swiss psychiatrist in 1951 before Knowles included it in the first edition of what was then titled The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species.

Knowles eventually created the now-familiar model of andragogy grounded in a series of assumptions including the idea that adults “need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it,” “resent and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them,” “become ready to learn…to cope effectively with their real-life situations,” are “task-centered or problem-centered” in their approach to learning, and are effectively motivated by “the desire for increased job satisfaction, self-esteem, quality of life, and the like” (pp. 64-68). I suspect many of us also note the same assumptions with many of the younger learners we serve.

It’s an approach that’s compatible with what others, including Eduard Lindeman, Carl Rogers, and Robert Gagné, have written in their own classic works on learning. It’s an approach that appeals to us at a personal level and that can easily be recognized in our own experiences and drive to remain immersed in learning. And it supports a wonderfully inspiring philosophy expressed by Canadian psychologist Sidney Journard in 1972 and included in The Adult Learner: “Learning is not a task or problem; it is a way to be in the world” (p. 15)—words that might help all of us be more effective in our efforts to facilitate training-teaching-learning that produces positive results.

N.B.: This is the first in a series of reflections on classic training-teaching-learning resources.


Jonah Lehrer: Creatively Imagining Solutions

June 19, 2012

Imagine a book with an approach so creative and so playfully appealing that we run out and buy it, devour it, look for interviews with the author, and then dive into the promotional video as well as other videos because we discover depths in the work that we suspect we’ll never grow tired of exploring. Then realize you don’t have to imagine it, because Jonah Lehrer has written it.

Reading Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works pulls us onto familiar turf—the study of creativity, how the brain works, how we resolve the numerous challenges life tosses our way, and how we as trainer-teacher-learners can more effectively fulfill our potential. It also takes us down some intriguing paths by creatively using storytelling to help us understand how much effort is required to produce what so often appears to be an unearned flash of brilliant insight.

As Malcolm Gladwell so effectively does in Outliers: The Story of Success, Lehrer continually shows us that it’s practice that often can be found at the base of those divine moments of creativity we so admire.

“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly,” he writes near the beginning of his book. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.

Drawing from research into the way the brain works, he helps us understand what we can do to nurture our own creative impulses.

“When our minds are at ease…we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere”—a practice we can foster in our students through the learning opportunities we provide. “In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve….It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along—we just weren’t listening” (pp. 31-32).

There’s plenty here for those steeped in adult learning theory as proposed by Malcolm Knowles in The Adult Learner and Robert Gagné in The Conditions of Learning.  In the same way that Knowles and Gagné encouraged us to recognize that learners progress by building upon what they already know, Lehrer looks into the way our brain functions and he reports that a newly created thought is “transmitted back to its source—those pleasure-hungry dopamine cells in the midbrain—so the neurons learn from the new idea. ‘We call that a recursive loop,’ [Earl] Miller says. ‘It allows the system to feed on itself, so that one idea leads naturally to the next. We can then build on these connections, so that they lead to other, richer connections’” (pp. 67-68).

Those steeped in the theory and reality of the way we approach change—ranging  from Everett Rogers and his seminal work Diffusion of Innovations to Dan Ariely and his Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions—will be equally intrigued by the insights Lehrer provides through his summaries of brain-based research. Taking something as simple as the transformations we undergo as a result of traveling to new places, he observes that “[w]hen we get home, home is still the same. But something in our minds has been changed, and that changes everything” (p. 130)—an observation that presciently captures what happens to us in the course of traveling with Lehrer through Imagine.

By the time we finish reading the book, we recognize that something in our minds has changed. Reading and trying to solve the brain teasers he provides early in the text makes us more aware of how we approach problem-solving. Reading about how Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Milton Glaser, and many others diligently approach their craft helps change the way we approach our own. And reading how creative teams that aren’t completely inbred and, at the same time, are not completely composed of individuals who have never worked together before makes us more aware of the successful learning teams we have been lucky enough to join.

Yet even as he works to show us the magic behind what so often appears to be creative legerdemain, Lehrer is smart enough to know that even though we are making great strides in understanding the science behind our creative processes, there is still something innately human about retaining a sense of awe when we explore this subject: “Creativity is like that magic trick. For the first time, we can see the source of imagination, that massive network of electrical cells that lets us constantly form new connections between old ideas….There will always be something slightly miraculous about the imagination.” (p. 251).

N.B.: For a look at how Lehrer’s book can guide us in developing effective communities of practice, please see “Imagine, Creativity, and Communities of Practice” in ASTD’s Learning Circuits online publication. And for information about the publisher’s withdrawal of Imagine, please see this updated posting.


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