Few would argue with the notion that lifelong learning is very important to one’s sense of youthfulness and vitality. But while increasing numbers of organizations are offering courses and workshops for adult learners, these offerings often neglect to address the most meaningful areas of growth in one’s life.
We typically view learning as a process which involves receiving technical information or developing skills. We read books and attend lectures and classes in order to learn about new fields or to learn how to cook, make pottery, and so on. This view of learning could be termed “instrumental” – we learn how to better control and manipulate our environment. While instrumental learning is the most common experience of learning, adults actually regard two other forms of learning as far more valuable and meaningful. These could be termed “social” and “developmental.” Social learning involves learning about others, such as how to relate better with others and how to express oneself to others. Developmental learning involves learning about oneself.
When adults are asked what they feel is most important for them to learn in their lives, they typically reply with some variation of social or developmental learning. I recently conducted a study of adult learning in everyday life. I examined the self-reported learning situations of a group of 34 urban adults during a typical week in their lives. Participants were signaled via an electronic watch at random times during the day and asked to report on their experience. In addition, individual interviews were conducted to gain a more detailed understanding of the participant’s learning situations during the week. During the interview I asked each participant, “What do you feel is most important for you to learn in your life?” The participants’ answers invariably involved either learning about themselves (developmental knowledge), learning how to get along better with others (social knowledge), or some combination of social and developmental knowledge. Some of the participants’ responses are listed below.
A 42 year-old hospital patient advocate:
. . . to become more of myself. That would be learning to me.
A 53 year-old President of a trade association:
Who I really am as opposed to what society has defined me as. Or opposed to what I think I should do . . .
A 43 year-old computer programmer:
I would like to someday truly know what my true calling is. I feel like a lot of what I do is sort of, what’s the description for it, I do it because I do it, not because I wholeheartedly chose to do it. So in other words, where my passion is. Or what is it really that I’m supposed to do in this life? That’s something that is still a mystery to me. It’s easy to get distracted, to just go on everyday and do the things that I do.
A 51 year-old corporate manager:
About relationships. Like how to make them work. How to maintain your integrity and remain whole and yet have relationships with other people so that you can maintain your boundaries, so to speak. And still enjoy the fruits of relationships with other people.
A 44 year-old real estate clerk:
Learning how to express who I am, because that’s difficult. To be really clear about who I am and communicate that to others is hard. [And] to learn about other people and be comfortable and happy with other people.
A 27 year-old health food store clerk:
How to live my life, that’s important for me to learn to do . . . And maybe that’s how come I think it’s important that I learn about other people too. Because it’s interesting to see how they live their lives and how they have their perceptions of the world and that’s another way of collecting data, in a way, that I can find useful, or take what’s useful or not.
Further, learning experiences which also involve elements of social and developmental learning are more likely to be “transformative” for adults. These experiences are more likely to change or broaden one’s perceptions because they are usually viewed as more intrinsically meaningful than other kinds of experiences. The adults who participated in my research study often described these learning experiences using words such as “expressing their core” or being a “heart” experience.
Adults learn by constructing meaning from their experiences. Situations which aren’t viewed as meaningful are typically rejected as a source of learning. An important aspect of these meaningful learning experiences is that they not only involve one’s intellectual faculties, but one’s emotional capacities as well. Thus, incorporating elements of social and developmental learning will undoubtedly enhance the impact of standard learning activities.
Relatedly, purely instrumental learning is both a solitary experience and fairly passive in nature – we typically are receiving what another has to teach. Again, while this is a common and important way to learn, adult learning is more often relational in nature. My research suggests that the recent boom in adult learning activities in recent years signals a yearning for connection with others. Although adults often pursue solitary learning activities to gain various kinds of instrumental knowledge, the tremendous growth in public workshops and classes denotes a desire for community. In fact, many adults pursue learning activities simply to meet like-minded people, as witnessed by the rapid growth of such organizations as the Learning Annex. By incorporating elements of social and developmental learning, educators can help to satisfy adults’ yearning for connection. Through social learning, one connects with one’s community. Through developmental learning, one connects with oneself. Both are important, not only for one’s developmental growth, but also for one’s satisfaction with life.
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Originally posted by Kim Hermanson, Ph.D. Johns Hopkins School of Education