Adult Learning and Development: My Task Today

I am supposed to make a presentation on Psychological theories of Adult Development and Learning today. This is a part of the course I am doing at UCL. Though I did not have much time to focus on the subject over last couple of months, coming as it did in the middle of the most dramatic phase in my life, when I finally started working on it, I found the subject immensely interesting.

So, a summary for those interested:

The first thing to note is that the studies of adult life reveals that it is a period of change and development, much like our other phases of life. So, presupposing that we, as adults, are only supposed to apply skills, attitudes and values learnt in our childhood to tasks of adult life may not be the right thing to do. Not that this case is rested yet, the time-tested views of adulthood as a period of stability do continue to hold, but it is a good point to start with. [Allman, 1982]

Why we need to have a good understanding of adult development process to apply to learning is quite obvious. Alan Knox [1979] outlined three possible applications: To predict and explain success in education, to help people adapt to changing adult roles, and to improve the effectiveness of marketing and instructional activities. So, in summary, if we could have a theory what people precisely go through during adulthood, once we have accepted that people change, we can do better to help them through the change. Hence, the interest in adult development, not to leave out the political implications of understanding the rapidly maturing society in the Western countries.

Mark Tennat [2006] makes a point that the interest of adult educators is to maintain the status quo, not to push through 'change'; rather, the focus seem to be to ensure that adults follow the socially set norms, stages and tasks through their the adult life. He cites McCoy's [1977] Adult Life Cycle tasks and educational programme responses, which pairs out tasks and activities like 'become involved in community <-> civic education, volunteer training'. The whole point of this exercise of adult development stages is to set out social norms and fit the pieces together through structured education interventions.

The objections to this approach have legs. First, the 'tasks' are quite narrowly defined. McCoy's structure presents, for example, the task 'Achieving Autonomy' and this is paired out to educational intervention in terms of training how to 'live alone' and divorce workshops. That is way too narrow and culturally specific to be useful! Besides, the tasks are depicted as iron-clad boxes that we must get into, and the adult education is supposed to adapt us all to such frameworks. This is indeed a frighteningly wrong approach, and almost smacks of social engineering.

So, while the 'stages' of adult life and the concept of 'tasks' are popular - and I must admit that my interest in it started with the discovery of Erik Erikson's framework in the leadership literature, more specifically as quoted in Warren Bennis in his 'On Becoming a Leader' - the current thinking about lifelong learning promotes a more humanistic, self-driven view of adult learning, with the principal object of equipping the participants to handle the change in the external environment. No wonder, my deja vu moment of thinking about adult development came while looking at a Jennifer Lopez movie poster, which I reproduce here.

Not necessarily in that order, anymore! I guess that's what needs to be looked at - presenting a big challenge to the adult educators, and particularly those who have been tasked to keep social stability by governments of the world. It is almost too easy to see the dialectics at play: On one hand, technology keeps changing the game, and on the other, educators try to reverse it, and when that fails, plays the catch up. Where is the commitment towards change here?

However, the second part of my presentation is about a critique of the methodologies, and why the research in adult development may not be as pristine as it looks. In fact, Tennat makes a point that more pristine the conclusions of a research looks, it is more suspicious, because it is exceedingly difficult to carry out scientific research in Adult Development.

Quite naturally, if you consider what needs to be done. Capture an adult's tasks of life as s/he moves through different stages? That is supposed to shift and change all the time. First, think about the methodology. The three methodologies used to conduct such studies were Cross Sectional, Longitudinal and Time-Lag designs.

Gould [1972] ran a Cross-Sectional research in 1970, gathering data from four age groups, those born in 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Gould conducted a study on his outpatients, and then hypothesized the concerns at various stages of life, and constructed a set of statements based on those concerns. He then administered this questionnaires on 524 non participants, white middle class men and women between 16 and 50 years of age, and asked them to rank a set of statements in terms of their personal applicability.

The problem with this design is that people in different age groups will have different concerns, shaped by the external events. Quite clearly, those born in 1930s will have experiences of Great Depression and the Second World War, and would be expected to approach life differently than those born in 1950s, the war babies who were born in a period of prosperity.

The Longitudinal studies, which study the same cohort over a longer period of time, tend to avoid such shifting concerns [which makes any comparison impossible]. In this, the same group of people were studied over a longer period of time, as in Grant Study, where 173 graduates from 1940 were followed through from age 18 to 60 years, and then to 80 years. They were part of a larger group of 268 male undergraduates who were tested extensively early in their college years. After graduation, they completed an annual questionnaire until 1955, and every two years after that date. They were also interviewed at ages 25, 30, 47, 57, 65 and 80. Valliant [1990] reports this research with a simple thesis: ego defence mechanisms mature through life cycle and healthy adults progress through an adaptive mechanism.

However, even such an extensive study can not claim to be without a bias or limitation. Some problems are immediate: Experimental Mortality [as some participants dropped out of the research] and Familiarity [as the participants grew overtly familiar with the questionnaire]. Also, the theoretical perspectives and preferences shifted over time, for example, the work of Klein and Sullivan, Anna Freud, Erikson and Hartman became popular only after the Grant Study commenced. This was bound to shift the perspectives of the researchers conducting the research.

While methodologically it is possible to combine cross-sectional and longitudinal designs in a sort of time-lag study, so as to study different age cohorts over time period, so as to eliminate distortions related to historical factors, it is easier said than done. The end object, a person's intellectual development, is hardly quantifiable and hence difficult to compare, and the precise impact of historical factors can not be singled out. Besides, the historical influences are not linear and cumulative, as we would like to believe. A 20 year old is 1975 could indeed be quite different from a 20 year old in 1975, or in 1980.

Some researchers attempted to operate at a more general level than defining tasks. For example, Lowenthal et al [1977] used cross-sectional techniques to identify adaptive processes of men and women across lifespan. Levinson [1978] tried biographical interview techniques to elucidate changes in the relationship between self and the world. Loevinger [1976,1998] was concerned about ego as a central frame of reference to understand self and others. However, these efforts were also socially and historically specific and are bound to produce a rather narrow perspective, and not observations which can be easily generalized.

Apart from the methodological problems, the social and historical bias continue to plague the research in adult development in different ways: the definition of inventories of life tasks, selection of subjects of research and data gathering techniques, and the concept of a 'healthy' personality, were bound to be rooted at the time and cultural context the research was carried out.

The inventory of life tasks, set out in narrow terms, is a socially approved timetable for what should happen when. This is also specific to social groups in a narrow way, but when generalized, and especially when used to make social policies, it may have unintended and often dangerous consequences in today's diverse and dynamic societies.

The selection of subjects, looking at the major research projects, appear too specific to generalize. For example, Levinson's celebrated research was based on the study of 40 American men and women, with 10 blue collar workers, 10 novelists,10 biologists and 10 business executives. All have been married at least once. The point is while there is merit in making such a selection, it is hardly the basis of an easily adaptable general conclusion about adult life stages.

Besides, the questions asked are too culturally specific. For example, 60% of respondents in Grant Study considered following the footsteps of their father into profession to be a desirable goal, a statement hardly shared by aspirational emerging country population. Similarly, failure to marry by 30 was seen as undesirable by 37% of respondents [graduated in 1940, remember], a sentiment which may hardly be shared by post-60s generations.

The big problem also arise in what is perceived to be a healthy personality. Different thinkers have set it out differently: For Kohlberg, this is towards autonomous and principled morality; For Erikson, this is about achieving inner unity; for Maslow, this is a journey towards self-actualization with its increased sense of self and autonomy. Overall, there seems to be a consensus that the end point of development is achieving individuality, autonomy and the integrated self.

This is surely deeply influenced by the ethics of individualism, or, if I may say, Protestant Ethic as set out by Max Weber as the basis of industrial civilization. First of all, there may be a significant gender bias in this, as Gilligan [1986] points out. Her central point is while for men, breaking with their principal caregiver, mother, who comes from an opposite sex, and achieving autonomy and separateness, is the principal route to development, it is reverse in the case of women, who would aspire to develop sameness and relationship. Gilligan sets out her case for undervaluing of female characteristics in adult development literature, including the work of Piaget and Kohlberg, where the male values of justice and rights are given higher priorities than the corresponding female values of responsibility and relationship.

Other studies attempting to apply the methods of Levinson's research to women open up other problem areas. Caffarella and Olsen [1993] studied sixteen such studies and reported a number of factors, including the importance of interpersonal relationships in women's self concept, the problem of handling different roles, diversity and discontinuity of women's development, and the effect of historical changes and the lack of role models.

So, the crucial question - can we change during adulthood? More importantly for adult educators, can we change by ourselves? How much can others affect us in this process of change, or are we completely dependent on making this change happen for ourselves? This is a key question for adult educators, but also for the therapists and managers to some extent.

I am planning to conclude the presentation covering the ideas of McAdams, who see identity as a narrative, something an individual constructs while going through the adult life. It is not a given, but something to be actively sculpted. The identity in this construction sits atop Personality Traits [consistent, comparative aspects of our personality, like extroversion] and Personal Concerns [context sensitive aspects, like values, belief, faith etc] but gets made. The difference in this approach is that we are acting rather than being acted upon, the holder of identity is enabled to construct it, not unlike a work of art. Gergen and Kaye takes this even further, and talks about a socially constructed identity, something 'the whole human connectedness' creates. Indeed, I am thinking of my Facebook identity.

It is interesting to look at theoretical psychology in the context of adult learning, and I am grateful that I took the trouble of joining this course, despite the enormous demand on time this involves and the fact that I am getting torn between several commitments at the same time. But this is something where my heart is, something I clearly enjoy: I may focus myself, in the coming days, wholeheartedly to the discipline of adult education.


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