My Philosophy of Adult Learning

Personal Adult Learning Philosophy
Joseph Roberson
ISD 605, UMBC, Spring 2013

The purpose of this paper is to begin developing a consistent and cohesive personal philosophy concerning the adult learner. This process begins with a comparison of my already-existing philosophy concerning adult learning against the categories in a respected taxonomy of educational philosophies. The categories are: Liberal (Classical), Behavioral, Progressive, Humanistic, and Radical. This comparison did not reveal one clear philosophy that I fit into. It did reveal discrepancies between my espoused theory and my theory-in-action (Lorraine M. Zinn, Adult Learning Methods, ed. 3, p. 72). In other words, do my speech and actions align with what I purport to believe in? Any conflicts uncovered in this process must be resolved if the learning activities I design and/or teach are to be effective.

Personal Adult Learning Philosophy

The insights obtained from completing the Adult Education Philosophy Inventory questionnaire, along with assigned readings, provide a starting point for the process of arriving at a Personal Adult Learning Philosophy. I have a clearer picture now of where my beliefs differ from how I currently teach, between my “espoused theory” and my “theories-in-action,” between what I say I believe in and what I actually do. While I may not be able to– or even want to– change my philosophy to conform to one of the given categories out of this process, I will be better equipped to design effective learning activities by understanding any bias I bring to the project.

What is a philosophy?
A philosophy is “A set or system of ideas, opinions, beliefs, or principles of behavior based on an overall understanding of existence and the universe; a philosophy or theory; gen. a view, an outlook” (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, volume 2, page 2187). A theory is a blueprint for the actions required to build something. A blueprint which contains inconsistencies or contradictions– or just plain bad information– will result in a defective building. The foundation may not support the structure’s weight; the walls may be crooked; the front door may open onto the bathroom instead of onto the foyer. A good blueprint will make it far more likely that the architect’s original vision is manifested as intended.

What is an “Adult Learner”?
According to the Penn State Commission for Adult Learners website, an “Adult Learner” is a person who: 
• is 24 years of age or older; or
• is a veteran of the armed services; or an active duty service member; or
• is returning to school after four or more years of employment, homemaking, or other activity; or
• assumes multiple adult roles such as parent, spouse/partner, employee, and student.
(, 02.06.2013)

What is a human being?
While it may seem at first glance irrelevant, and maybe even silly, to define the term human being (because it is so obvious and universal, and therefore not subject to argument), the fact is that the definition is not uniform across all cultures and across all times. The point I want to make is that our notions about what a human being is– that each of us is fundamentally separate from other human beings and from the rest of the Universe; that “all men are created equal;” that every adult human being is autonomous, self-directing, and responsible for his/her actions– are culturally-determined, partial, imperfect, still evolving, and relative.
No definition of human being will ever fully and completely describe the phenomenon of being alive right here and right now.

What is an Adult Learning Philosophy?
A set or system of congruent ideas, opinions, beliefs, or principles of behavior based upon an overall understanding of adult learners. There are a number of distinct types of Adult Learner Philosophies, including Liberal (Classical), Behavioral, Progressive, Humanistic, Radical (Zinn, p. 72).

What is a Personal Adult Learning Philosophy?
In the context of ISD, a Personal Adult Learning Philosophy is the set of ideas, beliefs, notions, et al, that influences the learning activites you design. This philosophy may be consciously formulated or it may be unconscious, having been received through cultural conditioning, life experience, religion, etc. This philosophy may be internally consistent or it may contain inconsistent and even conflicting ideas and attitudes.

Why is it important to define one’s Personal Adult Learning Philosophy?
Investigating one’s own notions about the adult learner yields insights into why one does what one does vis a vis the adult learning experience (whether in personal learning activities or in teaching other adults). These insights help in forging a more cohesive philosophy, which in turn leads to more effective design. No philosophy can ever fully or completely describe the phenomenon of Adult Learning. No theory of Adult Education can ever fully or completely predict the outcome of any learning activity. No mental map can ever fully or completely describe the landscape it refers to:

The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean,

And prate about an “Elephant”

Not one of them has seen.

-John Godfrey Saxe, The Blind Men and the Elephant

Until human beings learn that their conflicting philosophies– culturally-determined mental maps which stand between them and direct experience of the real– are not ‘The Truth’ they will continue to dehumanize, and even kill, one another over philosophy.

Alright then, so what is my Personal Adult Learning Philosophy?
To start the inquiry I took the Philosophy of Adult Education Inventory (PAEI). The results surprised me, for they revealed a strong alignment with Behavioral Philosophy. Behavioral Philosophy promotes “skill development and behavioral change” (Elias & Merriam p.72). I have to assume my teaching falls largely in this category because I teach yoga–a physically challenging practice–mostly to beginners and to students who show up unpredictably. To keep everyone safe, I have to control what each student does to some extent. I have to be a pedagogue.

My second highest score was Progressive. I had expected my scores would reveal, rather, a strong tendency towards the Humanistic or Liberal philosophies. I was also surprised that my scores were quite even across all the categories, with no one score extremely high and none extremely low. According to Zinn, “If you find your scores fairly equal among all the philosophies–or are spread among three or more–you may want to spend some time clarifying your beliefs and values and looking for possible contradictions among them” (p.74). However, one of the qualities I value is the ability to transcend or overcome limiting beliefs and habits. So I am not sure whether I agree that the even distribution of scores is a bad thing. I do not necessarily need to achieve the norm of showing clear alignment with one or two of these categories. Perhaps taking the test again would yield different results. This paper is not the end of the process, but rather the beginning.

This old dog can learn new tricks?
It is now widely accepted that the brain remains plastic and that new learning is possible for adults. It is strange to think that this was not the popular conception until recently. But apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks! Many intractable societal problems are caused by bad habits and addictions such as smoking, alcoholism, overeating, gambling. Creating and sustaining healthy habits is part and parcel of Yoga. While my implementation involves tools from Behaviorist Philosophy, the overall mission is aligned more with Progressive Philosophy’s aim to “promote societal wellbeing.” It is my intention to use my ISD skills to help bring Yoga-related health cultivation practices to the workplace as a contribution to the current healthcare crisis.

One aspect of Liberal Philosophy I value highly is lifelong learning. As the saying goes “If you aren’t growing, you’re dying.” Learning is its own pleasure and its own reward.
Progressive Philosophy seeks to “give learners practical knowledge and problem-solving skills.” Learning is also a lifelong process because life is never static. Humans must constantly respond to changing conditions by solving problems to maintain balance, homeostasis, stability. In this day and time, lifelong learning is becoming more and more necessary just to keep your existing job– much less to qualify for a new one.

The purpose of adult learning in the Humanistic philosophy model is to “enhance personal growth and development; to facilitate self-actualization” (Zinn, p.72). A former student once defined Yoga as a kind of parent, a guiding influence that is supportive and encouraging but also firm in demanding the best of you. Yoga sets a very high bar as to what full self-actualization looks like and compassionately exhorts you to close the gap between this goal and where you currently stand.

Another valued trait of Humanistic Philosophy is authenticity, which is defined as “real, actual, genuine; original, first-hand; really proceeding from its stated source, author, painter, etc.” (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, volume 2, page 150). I value openness and authenticity and I try to model this in my classes by sharing (with discretion) personal struggles and failures. This helps break down the pedagogical hierarchy of teacher and student and creates a more egalitarian atmosphere where students know it is perfectly OK to fall over during Tree Pose or to fail at achieving the advanced stage of a pretzel.

One aspect of Radical Philosophy I am passionate about is the need for ‘deschooling,’ for emancipation from the many and varied ways individuals are shaped, molded, and manipulated by external influences. How many solicitations and seductions have entered you through your eyes and ears today? How many memes (an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture) have ‘infected’ you today with unconsciously-adopted behaviors and notions? As one acquaintance put it: “Every moment of every day you are either being enrolled into something or you are enrolling someone else. Better to be the one doing the enrolling.”

The advertising, entertainment, and political industries deploy sophisticated media to enroll you into their customer base by shaping your perceptions, by positioning you– by persuasion in its myriad forms. In order to fulfill our democratic ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for each citizen, we must learn how we are constantly and unwittingly informed and formed by external influences, both benign and rapacious. Only by transformative learning, by ‘waking up,’ do we develop a strong internal guidance system, an “internal locus of control” (Knowles p.188).

We have in mind a new education that would set out to cultivate just such people–experts at crap detecting.

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity

These things I believe in and attempt to incorporate in my teaching:
• All beings are equal in their essence– all being equally temporal, ephemeral, and limited forms, arising and then dissolving, in the (apparently) unlimited ‘Ocean’ of Eternity and Infinity which we call Universe;
• All humans deserve to be treated as equals, unless and until evidence suggests otherwise;
• The purpose of learning is to consciously evolve, to be a change agent in evolving life on the planet towards greater life, liberty, and happiness;
• My philosophy is based on the notion that all learning is, in a manner of speaking, “waking up.” What I mean is that in order to learn, in order to respond differently to the same stimulus than you have in the past, in order to change behavior towards the better, in order to raise your thinking above the level of thinking that got you into the problem you are trying to solve, you must “wake up” from the dream, from the incongruity between your mental map and the actual landscape.