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.

The Spread of Learning Rhizomes

February 14, 2013

It would appear that the learning rhizomes are spreading uncontrollably—which, for any trainer-teacher-learner, is a wonderfully positive phenomenon.

etmoocHaving been introduced recently to what Dave Cormier calls rhizomatic learning—a connected learning process that mirrors the spreading of rhizomes so there is no center, just a wonderfully ever-expanding network of learning connections rooted in creation, collaboration, and the building of communities of learning—I now am seeing this connected learning phenomenon nearly everywhere I look. (There seem to be more learning rhizomes than the total number of Starbucks outlets or branch libraries around me.)

This has happened amazingly quickly—primarily because, less than two weeks ago, I was introduced to Cormier and rhizomatic learning through #etmooc, the Educational Technology and Media MOOC (Massive/Massively Open Online Course) organized by University of Regina professor of educational technology and media Alec Couros and others.

There is no denying the rapid spread of the rhizomes and my awareness of this wonderful phenomenon. Interactions with a small (but growing) number of the more than 14,000 people who are signed up for the current offering of #etmooc are already taking place through live-tweet sessions and the absolute flood of tweets under the #etmooc, @etmooc, and #etmchat hashtags, along with postings in our Google+ community and our blog hub, and responses to their YouTube posts. It requires a tremendous sense of discipline—and an acknowledgement that there is life outside of #etmooc—to keep from being overwhelmed by the information deluge produced in this course.

Those learning rhizomes, furthermore, are not just firmly rooted in the fertile ground of #etmooc itself; they are reaching far beyond the incredibly permeable walls of the course. Posting comments on a few MOOCmates’ introductory videos on YouTube apparently initiated some sort of algorithmically-triggered response from YouTube, for among my incoming email messages yesterday morning was a first-time alert from YouTube under the subject line “Just for You from YouTube: Weekly Update – February 13, 2013.” And under the subheading “We think you’d like…” was a learning link I really did like—to a video posted by Kansas State University associate professor Michael Wesch—whose work I happen to adore.

Although the “Rethinking Education” video turned out to be one posted more than a year ago, it felt completely fresh. An extension of his earlier “A Vision of Students Today” video coming out of the Mediated Cultures/Digital Ethnography projects at Kansas State University, it was right in the center of a playing field—the wicked problem of rethinking education and online learning—that I’ve been recently been exploring in conversations with colleagues in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project, with American Library Association associates Buffy Hamilton and Maurice Coleman, and many others with whom I’m increasingly rhizomatically and quite happily entangled.

Tower_and_the_CloudWatching the “Rethinking Education” video gave the rhizomes a significant growth spurt, for the numerous references in that brief yet densely-packed video sent out new learning shoots ranging from references to Wikipedia articles on commons-based peer production, education, Education 2.0, and knowledge to numerous glimpse of other resources easily accessible online. Even in his ending credits, Wesch managed to send out one final learning rhizome: a reference to the EDUCAUSE book The Tower and the Cloud: Higher Education in the Age of Cloud Computing. Being a huge fan of what EDUCAUSE produces, I went to the site; discovered that the book was available both in a print version for purchase and as a free PDF; and soon had a copy on my tablet. My home-based online learning experience morphed into a mobile-learning (m-learning) experience as I left home, tablet in hand, and continued learning by reading the beginning of the book while using public transportation on my way to an appointment in downtown San Francisco.

So many rhizomes, so little time! The simple act of having created a personal learning environment that, in the space of one morning, included the MOOC-inspired use of print materials, online materials accessed from a desktop computer, exchanges with colleagues from the desktop and from the mobile device (the tablet), and reading material from that same mobile device, helps any of us understand viscerally why the 2013 Higher Education edition of NMC’s Horizon Report documents tablets and MOOCs as the two technologies currently having the greatest impact on higher education—and, I would suggest, on much of what we see in training-teaching-learning.

Buffy_Hamilton--Nurturing_Lifelong_LearningMy head explodes. I need to the intellectual equivalent of mind-to-mind resuscitation. I need to breathe. So I spend that latter part of the day more or less offline in face-to-face conversations with friends and colleagues, then attend an evening neighborhood association meeting that includes interchanges with two recently-elected City/County supervisors. But the rhizomes are not dormant. While I’m asleep, they’re expanding. Lurking. Waiting for me to log back on this morning and discover that Buffy Hamilton has posted her stunningly beautiful PowerPoint slides from the “Nurturing Lifelong Learning with Personal Learning Networks” presentation to Ohio eTech Conference attendees yesterday. And through the act of posting that deck, she brings us and our tangled-spreading-sprawling learning rhizomes right back where we started, for she includes references drawn from our conversations about #etmooc, rhizomatic learning, and much more to inspire me to complete this latest act of digital storytelling that draws upon the #etmooc rhizomes.

N.B.: This is the eighth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc.

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