All adult learning, even self-directed learning, rarely occurs “in splendid isolation from the world in which the learner lives; it is intimately related to that world and affected by it”. (Jarvis, 1987).
Adult learning does not occur in a vacuum. What we need or want to learn, the opportunities that are available and the manner in which we learn, are all largely determined by the societal influences under which we live. This could be as micro as the ‘society’ of the classroom that the training is being conducted in, to as macro as where we feel our position is in the human race itself.
What Shapes Adult Learning?
Adult learning is shaped by macro influences, such as the demographics of the course, and the influence of globalisation and technology; and micro influences – personal environment, self-esteem and in-class hierarchical positioning. And micro does not mean small in this context, it means ‘up close’. If for example a workplace training was taking place and there were participants who did not get along, this could affect how well they communicate, speak up or work together during the training, and therefore impact the overall effectiveness of the training program – more so if the feud is between individuals where one has a higher ‘rank’ in the company than the other. By getting ‘up close’ to this kind of microscopic detail prior to designing and executing the training, we can implement strategies to minimise the risk of these environmental influences causing a negative impact on the training.
In regards to the wider environment, according to the likes of Belanger (1996), Glastra et a1. (2004) and Brysk (2003), the nature of adult learning is shaped by three main characteristics:
When you are designing and delivering your own training programs, ensure that you have considered if any of these factors could impact the environment, and subsequently, the learning experience.
Let’s examine each of these contextual environments at a deeper level:
Because we live, work and learn in a global marketplace, have global workforces and global connections, we have to evolve and adapt at a much more accelerated level to maintain competitiveness. We must consider everything from multiple currencies, practices, processes, ethics, culture, language, learning styles and timezones. Years ago most of these considerations would not have been necessary, but in today’s world, any training programs that do not consider these elements and more, will be insufficient.
As technology continues to change our workflows, job roles, product, services and organisational procedures by the day, training that does not constantly update to include the knowledge use and application of new technologies will soon become redundant.
Students who are enrolled in training courses where they are significantly younger or older than the rest of their colleagues, or from an entirely different cultural or socio-economic background can be subtly or significantly influenced by that demographical environment, and that would mean that we would have to plan and deliver our training accordingly if we wanted to create the optimum learning experience for everyone.
A Deeper Look:
While the three ideas explored above effect the deliverance of the course, and how it is presented, there are further things that individually shape a learner’s experience.
These contextual factors can influence an adult learner’s experience. Some of which are illustrated by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs operates on the principle that if someone is not safe, and they do not have food, they are not able to properly address issues of self-esteem or belonging, then their ability to acquire new information may be jeopardised.
This is illustrated in a pyramid of needs, where the actualisation of each need is dependent on the need below it being fulfilled first.
Each layer of the pyramid supports the other, with people prioritizing food over environmental comfort, environmental comfort over the ability to belong to social groups, and belonging over self-esteem. It is only when the first four layers are fulfilled that a learner can self-actualise, that they can become aware of themselves, their needs, and their place in the world.
The first four layers of the pyramid are what Maslow calls ‘deficiency needs’, and we can see them illustrated below:
An individual does not necessarily feel anything if they are met, but feels anxious or unfulfilled if they are not met.
The deficiency needs are physiological, while the top level is concerned with growth and psychological needs. The higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus when the lower needs in the pyramid are satisfied.
In a learning situation, this would require the facilitator to control conditions in a way that would satisfy the lower levels of the model in order to allow for the top parts (learning and growth) to actually take place, aside from being nourished, warm and safe.
“Such conditions are freedom to speak, freedom to do what one wishes so long as no harm is done to others, freedom to express one’s self freedom to investigate and seek for information, freedom to defend one’s self justice, fairness, honesty, orderliness in the group are examples of such preconditions for basic need satisfactions.” (Maslow, 1943).
Essentially, Maslow suggests that personal growth and development is much more accessible when the fundamental survival needs of your learners have been satisfied. However, this theory has its doubters, as such concepts could be arguably different in many learning environments.
Achievement in Spite of Circumstance
Take prisons, for example. In regards to the particular prisons I have worked in, despite my learners being physically behind bars, the learners’ survival needs (e.g. food, shelter and warmth) are being met. In class, there was an agreed understanding that everyone was free to express their opinions without fear of ridicule or judgment, thus allowing a safe learning environment.
Despite many of them being in an unpredictable, unsafe and ‘unloved’ environment, they still managed to achieve academically in the prison education system.
The research that I conducted into art education in correctional settings supports part of Maslow’s theory. My findings illustrated the importance of a conditioned learning environment to the learners. There were many references to the teacher, the feelings they get when in the class and how the atmosphere impacts on their overall experiences.
Questionnaire feedback from incarcerated learners in my study indicated answers such as:
“It’s always cold in the classroom.”
“It would be better if we could open the windows for air. It’s too stuffy.”
It is difficult to imagine how these learners could have had any productive learning experiences at all when such basic needs are not being met, if you are looking at it from Maslow’s perspective. In fact, there are many examples of learner achievement in educational attainment despite terrible physical conditions. Obviously, creating the optimum learning environment is always going to enhance the learning experience for the better, however, as we see from many examples, students can sometimes achieve in spite of their circumstances.
Formal vs Informal Teaching
Finally, other ways that context can influence adult learning is to consider the situation the adult is learning in, such as whether they are learning in a formal or informal manner. For example, if they are in an institution, a company, a community centre, taking an exam or researching at home on the internet – all this can affect the emotions someone has whilst they are learning, the kind of experience they have and, ultimately, how much they learn from it. It is also wise to consider the different relationships of power and the social place of the learner in a learning situation.
Alternatively, learners who have enrolled themselves in a self-study personal development course are likely to feel some degree of choice, control and influence over their own learning. Whereas in a learning environment such as a prison, there are a few more restrictions, and although the learners are responsible for their own work, they certainly don’t consider themselves to have a significant degree of power over what they are learning.
Students are influenced by both their macro and micro environments. As educators, by taking these influences into account and improving the environment as much as possible for our learners, we can facilitate their most successful educational outcome.