“adults are problem-centred, not subject-centred, and desire immediate, not postponed application of the knowledge learned.” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p 53).
What really caught my attention about this quote is that it seems to dichotomize learning (and learners) as either problem centred or subject centred. Dichotomies drive me nuts; they never seem to tell the entire story. It reminds me of the nature vs nurture debate in developmental psychology – can no one else see that it’s a bit of both? Or somewhere in the middle?
As soon as we slap labels like this on people or behaviours, theorists set up camp on either side and go to battle, and that takes away from what could be a more telling and informative exploration of what motivates adult learners. So I refuse to argue that it may be one or the other in this case; I think it’s kind of both. People can be very interested in particular subject matter, but learning doesn’t happen until there is some sort of a problem to solve; a realization that an action, belief, or previously held solution doesn’t adequately explain or solve a problem.
This quote has helped me to realize that teaching isn’t always about helping to solve a problem, or support learners as they work to build skills that will address a situation or need in their lives. Sometimes, it’s about creating a problem; to challenge, to encourage students to spend some time in the discomfort that is not knowing, to show them that there might be a better way of thinking about sometime or doing something.
Some constructivist theorists argue that learning is about whether a skill or concept works for that person to the degree that they need it to, whether it is how to work the clutch on a manual transmission car or how to organize their thinking around parenting theories (von Glaserfeld, 1995). This works well with the idea that adult learners need immediate application of new knowledge – of course they do, otherwise how will they know if it is viable?
I don’t know that I had an “aha” moment with this quote, but I suppose that my annoyance with this forced dichotomy drove me to think further about what I believe engages adults in learning. It is important to examine my own beliefs and biases from time to time to clarify and test them against new information. My own learning activities influence my reflection on this quote as I feel that I seek out subject centred learning all the time. That being said, I am realizing that not everyone is like me!
It is important to ensure that how I approach teaching adults and developing workshops is not simply driven by how I learn. That is why reflecting on quotes like this is important; it makes me seek out sources of information outside of my life experiences and more deeply consider the viewpoints of others. It also encourages research based practice, which I think is very important for effective teaching.
This quote has reminded me that it is important to ensure that the adult learners I work with find the relevancy of what I am teaching. While I don’t believe that we should argue that adult learners are only driven to seek out learning activities when they are faced with a problem, I do believe that we need problems to learn.
In order to create situations that will stimulate learning, these problems need to be relevant. Essentially, people need to care. As an educator I will need to; establish where learners are at and why they are in my workshop, create an environment and develop activities that would produce problems that learners will need to solve, adjust these as needed for those learners that aren’t finding the relevancy of these problems, and provide opportunities for learners to test the viability of their learning.
Merriam, S. B. & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Von Glaserfeld, E. (1995). Radical constructivism: A way of knowing and learning. London: The Falmer Press.