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Main Third Update on Adult Learning Theory: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Third Update on Adult Learning Theory: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Year:
2009
Publisher:
John Wiley and Sons
Language:
english
Pages:
115
ISBN 10:
0470643412
ISBN 13:
9780470643419
File:
PDF, 1.91 MB

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Third Update on
Adult Learning
Theory

119

Third Update on Adult Learning Theory

This Third Update on Adult Learning Theory follows two earlier
volumes on the same topic, the first published in 1993 and the
second in 2001. Only one topic, transformative learning theory,
can be found in all three updates, representing the continuing
developments in research and alternative theoretical conceptions
of TL. Thanks to a growing body of research and theory-building, three topics briefly touched on in 2001 are now separate
chapters in this third update. They are on spirituality and adult
learning, learning through the body, and narrative learning in
adulthood. Also new in this update is a chapter on non-Western
perspectives on learning and knowing. New developments in two
other areas are also explored: understanding the connection
between the brain and learning, and how modern and postmodern ways of knowing are converging and are being expressed in
social movements. The concluding chapter identifies two trends
in adult learning theory for the twenty-first century: attention to
context, and to the holistic nature of learning in adulthood.

NEW DIRECTIONS FOR ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION

FROM THE EDITORS

New Directions for
Adult and Continuing
Education

Sharan B. Merriam
EDITOR

JOSSEY-BASS

Number 119 • Fall 2008

Available online. See inside for details.

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New Directions for
Adult and Continuing
Education
Susan Imel
Jovita M. Ross-Gordon
COEDITORS-IN-CHIEF

Third Update on
Adult Learning
Theory

Sharan B. Merriam
EDITOR

Number 119 • Fall 2008
Jossey-Bass
San Francisco

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THIRD UPDATE ON ADULT LEARNING THEORY
Sharan B. Merriam (ed.)
New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 119
Susan Imel, Jovita M. Ross-Gordon, Coeditors-in-Chief
© 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. All rights reserved. No
part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retr; ieval system,
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise, except as permitted under
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North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106-1346.
NEW DIRECTIONS FOR ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION (ISSN 1052-2891,
electronic ISSN 1536-0717) is part of The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series and is published quarterly by Wiley Subscription Services, Inc.,
A Wiley Company, at Jossey-Bass, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, California 94103-1741. Periodicals Postage Paid at San Francisco, California, and
at additional mailing offices. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to New
Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, Jossey-Bass, 989 Market
Street, San Francisco, California 94103-1741.
New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education is indexed in CIJE: Current Index to Journals in Education (ERIC); Contents Pages in Education
(T&F); ERIC Database (Education Resources Information Center; Higher
Education Abstracts (Claremont Graduate University); and Sociological
Abstracts (CSA/CIG).
SUBSCRIPTIONS cost $89.00 for individuals and $228.00 for institutions,
agencies, and libraries.
EDITORIAL CORRESPONDENCE should be sent to the Coeditors-in-Chief, Susan
Imel, ERIC/ACVE, 1900 Kenny Road, Columbus, Ohio 43210-1090,
e-mail: imel.l@osu.edu; or Jovita M. Ross-Gordon, Southwest Texas State
University, EAPS Dept., 601 University Drive, San Marcos, TX 78666.
Cover photograph by Jack Hollingsworth@Photodisc
www.josseybass.com

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CONTENTS
EDITOR’S NOTES

1

Sharan B. Merriam

1. Transformative Learning Theory

5

Edward W. Taylor
Empirical research on transformative learning has burgeoned in the last
decade, as have alternative theoretical conceptions to theories first
proposed by Mezirow and Freire.

2. Workplace Learning: Emerging Trends and New Perspectives

17

Tara Fenwick
Workplace learning is much more than training; attention is turning to
practice-based perspectives and power and politics in workplace
learning.

3. Spirituality and Adult Learning

27

Elizabeth J. Tisdell
Spirituality and spiritual development are, or can be, integral to an
adult’s learning experiences.

4. Learning Through the Body

37

Tammy J. Freiler
Embodied learning as another way of knowing and the body as a site of
learning are explored in this chapter.

5. Teaching with the Brain in Mind

49

Kathleen Taylor, Annalee Lamoreaux
New research in neuroscience is revealing how the brain translates
experience into learning and how learning changes the brain.

6. Narrative Learning in Adulthood

61

M. Carolyn Clark, Marsha Rossiter
Narrative learning—learning through stories and storying our experiences—is legitimizing an ancient form of human learning.

7. Non-Western Perspectives on Learning and Knowing
Sharan B. Merriam, Young Sek Kim
Indigenous knowledge and non-Western religious and philosophical
systems are challenging our historically cognitive processing orientation to adult learning.

71

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8. Troubling Adult Learning in the Present Time

83

Robert J. Hill
Modern and postmodern ways of knowing are converging in a new
New Social Movement.

9. Adult Learning Theory for the Twenty-First Century

93

Sharan B. Merriam
Attention to contexts in which learning takes place as well as the holistic nature of learning are characterizing movements in adult learning
theory today.

INDEX

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A

dult learning is at the heart of all adult education practice. From adult
basic education to continuing professional education, from the workplace
to an art museum, from a community college to a Bible study class, enabling
the learning of adults is the glue that holds us together. The more we know
about how adults learn, the more effective we can be in our work as adult
educators.
It is thus the intent of this volume, The Third Update on Adult Learning
Theory, to update readers on new thinking and research in adult learning.
This sourcebook follows two previous editions on the same topic, the
first published in 1993 and the second in 2001. Both editions have been
very popular, here and overseas, especially as companion books in adult
learning courses. The value of these sourcebooks, including this third
edition, is to bring together in one volume some of the latest thinking on
adult learning. Readers do not have to search myriad research journals to
find out what’s new; the authors of each chapter have done that for us! At
the same time, the updates are not designed for comprehensive coverage of
all that we know about adult learning; rather, they offer glimpses of new
thinking about adult learning, glimpses that may or may not develop into
more comprehensive models or theories of adult learning.
A quick review of the two previous updates reveals how quickly things
are changing. The 1993 sourcebook included chapters on andragogy, selfdirected learning, transformational learning, critical theory, and feminist
pedagogy. Although certainly andragogy and self-directed learning were not
new, the chapter authors sought to update the research in these two areas.
Transformational learning was also not new in the sense that Mezirow began
publishing articles on the topic years earlier, followed by a book in 1990.
However, there was no single place where his ideas were brought together
until the chapter in the 1993 update.
In the 2001 update, andragogy and self-directed learning were reviewed
in a single chapter as two foundational pillars of adult learning theory. The
chapter on transformative learning was retained because it wasn’t until
the 1990s that actual empirical, data-based research began appearing along
with a few alternative frameworks to Mezirow’s theory. A chapter in 1993
on situated cognition became a chapter on context-based learning in 2001.
Likewise, a chapter on consciousness and learning in 1993 became The
Brain and Consciousness in 2001. The new chapters in 2001 were on
emotions and learning, informal and incidental learning, and critical and
postmodern perspectives and somatic and narrative learning.

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When I was invited to consider putting together a Third Update on Adult
Learning Theory, I had to first ask myself and other colleagues what indeed
was new; what was on the horizon that would warrant another volume?
This thinking was also informed by having completed a third edition of
Learning in Adulthood with colleagues Rosemary Caffarella and Lisa
Baumgartner. From this experience and from discussions with colleagues,
the topics for this third update were determined.
Transformative learning theory, although not a new topic, was retained in
this update because the amount of research and writing has substantially
increased since the 2001 sourcebook. As an indicator of this burgeoning
interest in transformative learning, there have been seven international
conferences devoted to this topic, the most recent being in October 2007.
Ed Taylor first reviews the main tenets of transformative learning theory
according to its main architect, Jack Mezirow. Taylor then describes a
number of alternative conceptions of transformative learning, the most
recent being neurobiological, cultural-spiritual, race-centric, and planetary
views. He then discusses what these new insights into transformative
learning have to say with regard to the practice of fostering such learning.
The second chapter in this update reflects recent shifts in thinking
about learning in the workplace. Historically, learning in the workplace has
been construed as training; many organizations had (and still have) training
departments with training directors. Tara Fenwick points out that a focus
on learning in the workplace is a much more accurate assessment of what
actually takes place. Educators in the workplace are trying to figure out how
people solve workplace problems through learning, and how particular
groups of workers learn. She posits that these two concerns have brought
about a shift in conceptions of workplace learning.
Perhaps more than other adult learning topics, the popular press has
brought spirituality forward, especially as it manifests in the workplace and
higher education. In the third chapter of this volume, Libby Tisdell—who
herself has done substantial research on spirituality in adult education—
explores the notion of spirituality through looking at a definition, its
relationship to adult development, and how we can create space for it in our
adult education classes.
Another new area for adult learning, and one that was presented only
briefly in the 2001 update, is that of embodied or somatic knowing. It has
always been a part of our learning, but the Western focus on cognitive processing has ignored the body as a site of learning. In Chapter Four, Tammy
Freiler refers to the growing research base on this topic and explores how
one can learn through the body. Embodied learning is an alternate way of
knowing that reconnects the mind and body.
This connection between the mind and body is actually reinforced in
Kathleen Taylor and Annalee Lamoreaux’s chapter on the latest developments in the neuroscience of learning. They first explain how the brain
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works, the complexity of the brain, and then how learning, embodied experience, and reflection interact in making meaningful connections in the
brain. Brain imaging techniques have revealed how learning changes
the brain itself. The authors also suggest how adult educators might
maximize learning through knowing how the brain “develops.”
The next chapter, on narrative learning, by Carolyn Clark and Marsha
Rossiter, brings to our attention how stories connect with learning. As with
embodied learning, narrative learning was only briefly mentioned in the
2001 update. A recent book by these authors as well as a growing research
base have moved narrative learning from the margins of adult learning
theory to a more central position. As they point out, human beings have
always told stories to make sense of the world and convey “truths” of the
culture. What is new is how stories are a form of meaning making or
learning. We learn through stories, and creating a narrative to make sense
of our experience is itself learning.
Chapter Seven, by Young Sek Kim and me, introduces readers to nonWestern conceptions of learning and knowing. Whether one studies
indigenous knowledge systems of indigenous peoples in the West and across
the globe or religious and philosophically based systems such as Confucianism, Buddhism, or Islam, there are commonalities that can inform adult
learning theory. Learning is a holistic activity involving the mind, body, and
spirit. It is also a collective activity in that learning is done with the
community for the benefit of the community. In these systems, learning is
also truly lifelong.
In Chapter Eight, Bob Hill takes us to the edges of postmodernism,
asserting that we are in a new New Social Movement called the Convergence
Movement. Learning in this “moment” means being increasingly skeptical
about universal truths, or metanarratives. He sees the Convergence Movement as critiquing “the intersection of adult learning and social justice from
a postmodern frame.” Hill maintains that the Convergence Movement,
unlike postmodernism, offers more than critique; it poses creative solutions
to oppression and marginalization. Meaning making is the imaginative
employment of for example, humor, street theater, dance, and song.
In the final chapter in this volume, I review the previous eight chapters
and make some observations as to how adult learning theory appears to be
developing. First, there is growing attention to the contexts where learning
takes place and how those contexts shape learning. Second, and quite
clearly, adult learning is no longer focused on the individual’s cognitive
processing. Adult learning is much more of a multidimensional, holistic
phenomenon where the body, the emotions, and the spirit count as much
as the intellect. This enlarged conception of adult learning has also
engendered attention to more creative and artistic approaches in practice.
I would like to personally thank each and every author who so professionally responded to the invitation to contribute to this volume. To a
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person, you were wonderful to work with. I’d also like to thank Jovita RossGordon and Susan Imel, editors of the New Directions for Adult and
Continuing Education series, for their helpful suggestions and guidance in
this process.
Sharan B. Merriam
Editor

SHARAN B. MERRIAM is professor of adult education at the University
of Georgia, Athens.
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This chapter updates transformative learning theory
through discussing emerging alternative theoretical
conceptions, current research findings, and implications
for practice.

Transformative Learning Theory
Edward W. Taylor
There is an instinctive drive among all humans to make meaning of their
daily lives. Because there are no enduring truths, and change is continuous,
we cannot always be assured of what we know or believe. It therefore
becomes imperative in adulthood that we develop a more critical worldview
as we seek ways to better understand our world. This involves learning
“how to negotiate and act upon our own purposes, values, feelings and
meanings rather than those we have uncritically assimilated from others”
(Mezirow and Associates, p. 2000, p. 8). Developing more reliable beliefs,
exploring and validating their fidelity, and making informed decisions are
fundamental to the adult learning process. It is transformative learning theory that explains this learning process of constructing and appropriating new
and revised interpretations of the meaning of an experience in the world.
Thirty years ago, when Jack Mezirow (1978) first introduced a theory of
adult learning, it helped explain how adults changed the way they interpreted
their world. This theory of transformative learning is considered uniquely
adult—that is, grounded in human communication, where “learning is understood as the process of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or
revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience in order to guide
future action” (Mezirow, 1996, p. 162). The transformative process is formed
and circumscribed by a frame of reference. Frames of reference are structures
of assumptions and expectations that frame an individual’s tacit points of view
and influence their thinking, beliefs, and actions. It is the revision of a frame of
reference in concert with reflection on experience that is addressed by the
theory of perspective transformation—a paradigmatic shift. A perspective
transformation leads to “a more fully developed (more functional) frame of

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reference . . . one that is more (a) inclusive, (b) differentiating, (c) permeable,
(d) critically reflective, and (e) integrative of experience” (Mezirow, 1996,
p. 163). A perspective transformation often occurs either through a series of
cumulative transformed meaning schemes or as a result of an acute personal
or social crisis, for example, a natural disaster, the death of a significant other,
divorce, a debilitating accident, war, job loss, or retirement. These experiences
are often stressful and painful, and they can cause individuals to question the
very core of their existence (Mezirow, 1997). An example of a perspective
transformation is illustrated by Marie Claire, an American, who describes her
experience of moving to Switzerland for a number of years:
I was very sheltered before [moving]. I think it made me aware of the fact that
there are people who do things differently. There are different cultures. . . . I
tended to look at things a lot more basic. . . . People are the same all over the
world to a certain extent. You got to go to work. You got to do your daily job.
I tended not to be so narrow minded. . . . What I really thought about the
United States was how shallow, how provincial. . . . We didn’t know anything
about other countries, we were so isolated. We always thought we were the
best. I was starting to think that maybe we weren’t the best, because we are
missing out on so much. When you’re living in Europe you’re exposed to so
many different languages and cultures and so much history and beauty that
we miss out on here. We are isolated, so I started to think of my country as
not being number one anymore [Taylor, 1993, p. 179].

Central to Marie Claire’s transformation is her intercultural experience,
critical reflecting on her experience, and engaging in dialogue with others.
Her experience of learning to adjust to living in Switzerland becomes the
gist for critical reflection: “[Shared] learning experiences establish a common
base from which each learner constructs meaning through personal reflection and group discussion. . . . The meanings that learners attach to their
experiences may be subjected to critical scrutiny” (Tennant, 1991, p. 197).
Critical scrutiny, or more specifically critical reflection, is seen as conscious
and explicit reassessment of the consequence and origin of our meaning
structures. It “is a process by which we attempt to justify our beliefs, either
by rationally examining assumptions, often in response to intuitively
becoming aware that something is wrong with the result of our thought, or
challenging its validity through discourse with others of differing viewpoints
and arriving at the best informed judgment” (Mezirow, 1995, p. 46).
Marie Claire’s discourse with others in the host culture was the medium
through which transformation was promoted and developed. However, in
contrast to everyday discussions, this kind of discourse is used “when we
have reason to question the comprehensibility, truth, appropriateness (in
relation to norms), or authenticity (in relation to feelings) of what is being
asserted” (Mezirow, 1991, p. 77). Through multiple interactions with others,
Marie Claire questioned her deeply held assumptions about her own culture
in relationship to the host culture.
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Since the early 1980s, this learning theory has spawned a number of
alternative theoretical conceptions and a treasure chest of research about
both the basic assumptions of transformative learning and the fostering of
transformative learning in the classroom. The next section discusses emerging conceptions of transformative learning, followed by related research on
the practice of transformative learning.

Alternative Conceptions of Transformative Learning
The ubiquitous acceptance of Mezirow’s psychocritical view of transformative learning theory has often led to an uncontested assumption that there
is a singular conception of transformative learning, overshadowing a growing presence of other theoretical conceptions. Even though efforts have been
made in the past to make sense of varied perspectives (for example, Dirkx,
1998; Taylor, 1998), their numbers were limited and contributions to transformative learning not fully appreciated. At present, it can be argued that
there are a variety of alternative conceptions of transformative learning theory that refer to similar ideas and address factors often overlooked in the
dominant theory of transformation (Mezirow’s), such as the role of spirituality, positionality, emancipatory learning, and neurobiology. The exciting
part of this diversity of theoretical perspectives is that it has the potential
to offer a more diverse interpretation of transformative learning and have
significant implications for practice.
To bring the reader up to date, in the previous edition of this volume
(Merriam, 2001), there were three alternative perspectives discussed in
contrast to Mezirow’s psychocritical perspective of transformative learning:
psychoanalytic, psychodevelopmental, and social emancipatory. A psychoanalytic view of transformative learning is seen as a process of individuation,
a lifelong journey of coming to understand oneself through reflecting on the
psychic structures (ego, shadow, persona, collective unconscious, and so
on) that make up an individual’s identity. Individuation involves discovery
of new talents, a sense of empowerment and confidence, a deeper understanding of one’s inner self, and a greater sense of self-responsibility (Boyd
and Meyers, 1988; Cranton, 2000; Dirkx, 2000). A psychodevelopmental
view of transformative learning is a view across the lifespan, reflecting continuous, incremental, and progressive growth. Central to this view of
transformation is epistemological change (change in how we make meaning),
not just change in behavioral repertoire or quantity of knowledge. In addition,
there is appreciation for the role of relationships, personal contextual influences, and holistic ways of knowing in transformative learning, that have
been often overlooked in Mezirow’s rational emphasis on transformation
(Daloz, 1986; Kegan, 1994).
In the latter two perspectives, including Mezirow’s psychocritical view,
the unit of analysis is the individual, with little consideration given to the
role of context and social change in the transformative experience.
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On the other hand, a third alternative perspective, a social-emancipatory
view, in a small way starts to address these concerns. Rooted primarily in
the work of Freire (1984), this perspective is about developing an “ontological vocation” (p. 12), a theory of existence that views people as subjects,
not objects, who are constantly reflecting and acting on the transformation
of their world so it can become a more equitable place for all to live. Its goal
is social transformation by demythicizing reality, where the oppressed
develop a critical consciousness (that is, conscientization).
Three teaching approaches are central to fostering emancipatory transformative learning (Freire and Macedo, 1995). First is the centrality of critical reflection, with the purpose of rediscovering power and helping learners
develop an awareness of agency to transform society and their own reality.
Second, a liberating approach to teaching couched in “acts of cognition not
in the transferal of information” (p. 67) is a “problem-posing” (p. 70) and
dialogical methodology. Third is a horizontal student-teacher relationship
where the teacher works as a political agent and on an equal footing with
students.
In addition to the previously discussed views, four additional views of
transformative learning (neurobiological, cultural-spiritual, race-centric,
planetary) have lately emerged in the field. Most recent is the neurobiological perspective of transformative learning (Janik, 2005). This “brain-based”
theory was discovered by clinicians using medical imaging techniques to
study brain functions of patients who were recovering from psychological
trauma. What these researchers determined was that a neurobiological
transformation is seen as invoking “the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, and the hypothalamic-pituitary pitocin secreting
endocrine system to alter learning during periods of search and discovery”
( Janik, 2007, p. 12). In simpler terms, the findings suggest that the brain
structure actually changes during the learning process. These findings in
turn bring into question traditional models of learning (behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism) and instead offer a distinctive neurobiological,
physically based pathway to transformative learning. From this perspective,
learning is seen as “volitional, curiosity-based, discovery-driven, and
mentor-assisted” and most effective at higher cognitive levels (Janik, 2005,
p. 144). Furthermore, a neurobiological approach suggests that transformative
learning (1) requires discomfort prior to discovery; (2) is rooted in students’
experiences, needs, and interests; (3) is strengthened by emotive, sensory,
and kinesthetic experiences; (4) appreciates differences in learning between
males and females, and (5) demands that educators acquire an understanding
of a unique discourse and knowledge base of neurobiological systems.
A cultural-spiritual view of transformative learning (see Brooks, 2000;
Tisdell, 2003) is concerned with the “connections between individuals and
social structures . . . and notions of intersecting positionalities” (Tisdell, 2005,
p. 256). This perspective focuses on how learners construct knowledge
(narratives) as part of the transformative learning experience. In particular,
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it appreciates a culturally relevant and spiritually grounded approach to transformative pedagogy. Its goal is to foster a narrative transformation—engaging
storytelling on a personal and social level through group inquiry. Crosscultural relationships are also encouraged, along with developing spiritual
awareness. The teacher’s role is that of a collaborator with a relational emphasis
on group inquiry and narrative reasoning, which assist the learner in sharing
stories of experience and revising new stories in the process.
A race-centric view of transformative learning puts people of African
descent, most often black women, at the center, where they are the subjects
of the transformative experience. As a non-Eurocentric orientation of transformative learning (Williams, 2003), it is in the early stages of theoretical
development where race is the predominant unit of analysis with an emphasis on the social-political dimensions of learning. Like Freire’s emancipatory
perspective, the vocabulary associated with transformative learning is often
not used: “Traditionally, African people have had systems of education that
were transformative. Rites of passage and rituals are among the many forms
Africans have created to nurture the consciousness of every member of
society into a greater connection with the Self, the Community, and the
Universe ” (p. 463). It is a conception of transformative learning that is culturally bounded, oppositional, and nonindividualistic. Essential to this view
is engaging the polyrhythmic realities—“the students’ lived experience
within a sociocultural, political, and historical context” (Sheared, 1994,
p. 36). In addition, there are three key concepts in fostering transformative
learning: promoting inclusion (giving voice to the historically silenced),
promoting empowerment (not self-actualization but belongingness and
equity as a cultural member), and learning to negotiate effectively between
and across cultures. Fostering transformative learning is seen as a deliberate and conscious strategy in employing a political framework (consciousness raising, activism, fostering a safe learning environment) with the
expectation that it “may be necessary for one to undergo some form of selfreflection and transformation in order to teach transformation” ( JohnsonBailey and Alfred, 2006, p. 55). This conception of transformative learning
has the potential to address some of the concerns raised by Brookfield
(2003) by foregrounding the interest of black students, instead of as the
“other” or as an alternative view.
A planetary view of transformative learning takes in the totality of life’s
context beyond the individual and addresses fundamental issues in the field
of education as a whole (O’Sullivan, 1999). The goal of transformative education from this perspective is reorganization of the whole system (political, social, educational). It is creating a new story from one that is
dysfunctional and rooted in technical-industrial values of Western Eurocentric culture, which gives little appreciation to the natural, or to an integral worldview. This view recognizes the interconnectedness among
universe, planet, natural environment, human community, and personal
world. Most significant is recognizing the individual not just from a
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social-political dimension but also from an ecological and planetary one.
Transformation is not only about how we view our human counterparts; it
explores how we, as humans, relate with the physical world.
Key differences exist among the various views of transformative learning.
Beginning with the goal of transformation, one of the most fundamental differences is that of personal or emancipatory transformation (self-actualization
to planetary consciousness). Related to this difference is the emphasis on
individual or social change. Those views that are more rooted in the individual (psychocritical, psychoanalytic, psychodevelopmental, neurobiological)
give little attention to context and social change and their relationship to
transformation. Where the individual and society are seen as one and the
same (emancipatory, race-centric, cultural-spiritual), transformative learning
is as much about social change as individual transformation. Another
difference is the role of culture in transformative learning. The more psychologically centered models (psychoanalytic, psychodevelopmental,
psychocritical, neurobiological) tend to reflect a more universal view of
learning, with little appreciation for the role of social or cultural differences.
On the other hand, those views that recognize difference (social emancipatory, culturally relevant narrative, race-centric, and planetary) place much
greater emphasis on positionality (where one’s “position” is relative to race,
class, gender, sexual orientation) and its relationship to both the process
and the practice of transformative learning.

New Insights from Research and Implications
for Practice
Along with emerging alternative perspectives on transformative learning
theory, research continues to flourish as to the nature of transformative
learning. In my recent critical review of research (Taylor, 2007), a number
of findings have implications as to the process of transformative learning
and how it can be fostered in the classroom. Even though most research
continues to be situated in higher education settings, the focus has shifted
somewhat away from the possibility of a transformation in relationship to a
particular life event, toward greater interest in factors that shape the transformative experience (critical reflection, holistic approaches, and relationships).
To begin with the construct “perspective transformation,” as previously
discussed, it has been found to be an enduring and irreversible process
(Courtenay, Merriam, and Reeves, 1998). In addition, research further substantiates the relationship between action and perspective transformation
(MacLeod, Parkin, Pullon, and Robertson, 2003). For example, Lange
(2004) found a transformation in fostering citizen action toward a sustainable society to be more than an epistemological change in worldview; it also
involved an ontological shift, reflective of a need to act on the new perspective. These studies along with others suggest that it is important for
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educators to create opportunities for learners within and outside the classroom to act on new insights in the process of transformative learning. Without experiences to test and explore new perspectives, it is unlikely learners
will fully transform.
Second, there are new insights about critical reflection and its significance to transformative learning. In particular, they shed light on the nature
of reflection, factors that influence reflection, indicators of reflection, joint
reflection through peer dialogue, and factors that help explain nonreflection. For example, recognizing levels of reflection using categories developed by Mezirow (content, process, premise), Kreber (2004) concluded that
when learning, in this case about teaching, teachers may need at times to
begin with premise reflection—that is, being more concerned with why they
teach than with how or what they teach. Premise reflection involves critically “questioning our presuppositions underlying our knowledge” (p. 31).
In addition, critical reflection seems to be a developmental process,
rooted in experience. It begins to give credence to Merriam’s position (2004)
that “mature cognitive development is foundational to engaging in critical
reflection and rational discourse necessary for transformative learning”
(p. 65). For educators, these findings suggest the importance of engaging
learners in classroom practices that assist in the development of critical reflection through use of reflective journaling, classroom dialogue, and critical
questioning. Furthermore, it also means recognizing that becoming more
reflective is a developmental process requiring time and continuous practice.
Third, research further substantiates the importance of a holistic
approach to transformative learning in addition to the often-emphasized use
of rational discourse and critical reflection. A holistic approach recognizes
the role of feelings, other ways of knowing (intuition, somatic), and the role
of relationships with others in the process of transformative learning. Dirkx
(2006) suggests it is “about inviting ‘the whole person’ into the classroom
environment, we mean the person in fullness of being: as an affective, intuitive, thinking, physical, spiritual self” (p. 46). By engaging the affective, it
provides “an opportunity, for establishing a dialogue with those unconscious
aspects of ourselves seeking expression through various images, feelings, and
behaviors within the learning setting” (Dirkx, 2006, p. 22). For practitioners
this means actively dialoguing about the feelings of learners, in concert with
reason, when fostering transformative learning.
Other holistic approaches include the importance of relationships with
others in fostering transformative learning. Types of relationship found to
be most significant for transformation are love relationships (enhanced selfimage, friendship), memory relationships (former or deceased individuals),
and imaginative relationships (inner-dialogue, meditation; Carter, 2002).
In addition to the typologies of relationships Eisen (2001) identified a “peer
dynamic” among successful peer-learning partnerships on the part of
community college teachers. This dynamic reflected a number of essential
relational qualities: nonhierarchical status, nonevaluative feedback, voluntary
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participation, partner selection, authenticity, and establishment of mutual
goals.
Fourth, there has been an interest in the lack of transformation among
some individuals and barriers that discourage and inhibit transformation.
The lack of change seems to be explained by a variety of factors. For example, in a study that explored how learners made meaning of their life histories via dialogue in an online graduate course on adult development,
researchers found a lack of critical reflection among learners because “group
members did not ask critical questions of one another or challenge each
other’s assumptions. This lack of critique may have truncated the group
process prematurely” (Ziegler, Paulus, and Woodside, 2006, p. 315).
Another explanation for nonreflective learning is shown through learning
preferences in the use of reflective journaling (Chimera, 2006). Some learners who were classified as nonreflectors when their journals were analyzed
were found to prefer talking about issues rather than writing them in a journal. Some did not see it as necessary to write their thoughts down and therefore did not see a need for journal writing. This lack of change on the
individual level should remind educators that it is important to take time to
know students as individuals, recognizing their preferences, and engaging
a variety of approaches in fostering transformative learning.
Identifying barriers that inhibit transformative learning can also help
explain a lack of change among students. Examples of barriers are rules and
sanctions imposed on welfare women returning to work in a family empowerment project (Christopher, Dunnagan, Duncan, and Paul, 2001); the
downside of cohort experiences, where there is often an unequal distribution of group responsibilities and emphasis on task completion instead
of reflective dialogue (Scribner and Donaldson, 2001); and rigid role
assignments (Taylor, 2003).
A response to learner resistance and barriers to transformative learning
is for educators to develop awareness of learner readiness for change. Recent
research reveals that it is important to appreciate the role of life experience
among learners and become more aware of learners who are susceptible to
or who desire change. For example, life experience has been found to be
particularly significant in online settings (Cragg, Plotnikoff, Hugo, and
Casey, 2001; Ziegahn, 2001). Greater life experience seems to constitute a
“deeper well” from which to draw and react to discussion that emerged
among online participants.

Final Thoughts
Transformative learning theory continues to be a growing area of study
of adult learning and has significant implications for the practice of teaching
adults. The growth is so significant that it seems to have replaced andragogy
as the dominant educational philosophy of adult education, offering teaching
practices grounded in empirical research and supported by sound theoretical
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assumptions. Also, as previously discussed, there is the emerging presence
of alternative conceptions of transformative learning, challenging scholars
and educators to look beyond transformative learning as defined by
Mezirow. These alternative perspectives offer fresh insights and encourage
greater research in the area of transformative learning.
Despite the growth in understanding transformative learning, there is
still much not known about the practice of transformative learning in the
classroom. One area in particular is the student’s role in fostering transformative learning. What are the student’s responsibilities in relationship to the
transformative educator? Second, there is a need to understand the peripheral consequences of fostering transformative learning in the classroom. For
example, how does a student’s transformation affect peers in the classroom,
the teacher, the educational institution, and other individuals who play a
significant role in the life of the student? Furthermore, there is little known
about the impact of fostering transformative learning on learner outcomes
(grades, test scores). Definitive support is needed if educators are going to
recognize fostering transformative learning as a worthwhile teaching
approach with adult learners.
Finally, the growing body of research and alternative perspectives
should remind educators that fostering transformative learning is much
more than implementing a series of instructional strategies with adult learners. Transformative learning is first and foremost about educating from a
particular worldview, a particular educational philosophy. It is also not an
easy way to teach. Wearing the title, or moniker, of a transformative educator
“should not be taken lightly or without considerable personal reflection.
Although the rewards may be great for both the teacher and the learner,
it demands a great deal of work, skill, and courage” (Taylor, 2006, p. 92). It
means asking yourself, Am I willing to transform in the process of helping
my students transform? This means taking the position that without developing a deeper awareness of our own frames of reference and how they
shape practice, there is little likelihood that we can foster change in others.
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EDWARD W. TAYLOR is an associate professor in the adult education doctoral
program of the School of Behavioral Sciences and Education at Penn State
University-Harrisburg.

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This chapter outlines recent research in four areas that
can help us rethink workplace learning: definitions,
practice-based system perspectives, identities and
literacies, and power and politics in workplace learning.

Workplace Learning: Emerging Trends
and New Perspectives
Tara Fenwick
The most pressing issues of workplace learning for adult educators have tended
to fall into two main categories. The first is figuring out how people solve
workplace problems through learning, problems that have become increasingly
complex and difficult even to recognize, through learning. These problems can
range from integrating new technologies and improving flow of work processes
to getting interdisciplinary teams to work together, stopping inequities and
prejudices in the workplace, or making people aware of their own power to
change the conditions of their work. Educators, being people of action rather
than simply social scientists gazing in fascination at the world, tend to use what
they find out about people learning in work to help other people learn.
So knowledge about workplace learning processes often turns quickly into
knowledge about workplace pedagogy.
The second category of issues in workplace learning that tend to preoccupy adult educators has to do with understanding how particular groups
of workers learn. The groups that have attracted most educators’ attention
tend to be marginalized populations, mainly because there is concern about
the access of these populations to meaningful, humane work and decent
incomes. Therefore, lots of attention recently has focused on the learning
processes and learning needs of groups such as older workers, persons with
disabilities, racialized groups, new immigrant workers, low-income workers in precarious work, and so on.
Both of these issue categories have influenced a shift in conceptions of
workplace learning toward those discussed in this article: practice-based

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systemic perspectives, identity and literacy theories, and concepts of power
and politics.
Beyond adult educators, other groups have focused strong interest on
understanding workplace learning processes as well as workplace pedagogies—
ways to better teach, support, plan, organize, coach, and enhance workplace
learning. Human resource development professionals, for example, have a
distinct body of literature exploring workplace learning processes that is
aimed at developing organizations, individuals, and careers, and generally
improving productivity and well being. Business and management professionals have also become keenly interested in workplace learning in recent
decades, examining processes through which groups develop, share and
store knowledge, improve practices, and solve problems. In fact, the nature
and organization of work has changed so rapidly in the past decade with the
effects of globalization that learning has become a lightning rod, attracting
all sorts of new attention outside educational debates. All the emphasis on
the so-called knowledge economy has created demand for innovation—people
learning to be creative and entrepreneurial—as a way to stay competitive.
New technologies and environments have fundamentally changed what
and how people learn in work. Organizations all over North America and
Europe are pressed to integrate migrant workers, invoking important issues
of inclusion, equity, gender, and race politics in the workplace that have
shaken traditional training orientations in the workplace learning agenda.
Therefore it is not surprising that interest in workplace learning has
accelerated since the mid-1990s. This has expanded into an assortment of
fields including, besides those already mentioned, sociology of work, social
technology studies, economics, feminist studies, and industrial relations.
Naturally there are overlaps in the concepts of workplace learning afoot
among these groups, although each tends to frame these learning concepts
according to its own distinct purposes.
In this article, the discussion focuses on learning processes in the workplace from concepts emerging in the field of adult education, without straying
into pedagogies and programs that can enhance learning. Four topics on
learning processes seem to be particularly important for addressing key
purposes and issues of workplace learning from an adult educator’s
view: emerging definitions, emerging focus on practice-based learning
processes, emerging importance of identity and literacy, and power and
politics in learning.

Emerging Definitions and Changing Perspectives
The expansion of workplace issues not only generates new perspectives on
learning but also blurs categories. Learning can refer to skill acquisition,
personal transformation, collective empowerment, or a host of other phenomena. Workplace can be an organization, a Website, a kitchen table, even
a car. Work varies widely across public, private, and not-for-profit sectors,
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and among activities of tradesworkers, managers, self-employed professionals, farmers, and domestic workers. Indeed, work itself is a slippery category; it can be paid or unpaid, based in action or reflection, material or
virtual, in or out of the home, or more often in various overlapping spaces
among these categories. Just as neither workplace nor work can be referred
to as some generic, identifiable phenomenon, so does learning in work take
multiple forms, faces, and qualities.
In some definitions, the term workplace learning has been limited to
individual change, with “organizational learning” reserved for groups. However, the problem with this division is that many recent perspectives of
learning in work refuse to separate the individual from the collective in
examining learning processes. In this article workplace learning refers to
relations and dynamics among individual actors and collectives. Further,
workplace learning here is understood to involve not just human change
but interconnections of humans and their actions with rules, tools and texts,
cultural, and material environments. Overall, then, workplace learning in
this discussion refers not to formal planned training but to “informal” learning. This learning is often embodied, not simply mentalist or even involving
conscious cognitive activity. It is also often embedded in everyday practices,
action, and conversation. Learning here is treated not as the outcome of
change but as a process. In particular, workplace learning can be defined
as expanding human possibilities for flexible and creative action in contexts
of work.

Emerging Focus on Practice-Based Systemic Learning
Before about 1985, workplace learning was characterized primarily as acquisition (Fenwick, 2008); individuals were believed to acquire and store new
concepts and skills and behaviors as if knowledge were a package that didn’t
change in the transfer from its source to the learner’s head. Learning workers
were understood to be acquiring intellectual capital, increasing the organization’s resources, and returning its investment on training. This perspective appears to have completely declined in much workplace literature since
about 2001 (Fenwick, 2008). However, more generally, constructivist
notions of workplace learning as sense making have become more frequent
since the mid-1980s as reflective practice, self-directed learning, transformative learning, and learning style concepts filtered into training literature.
Much of this remained focused on the individual, and particularly on the
individual’s mentalist activity.
In the early 1990s, the concept of a “learning organization” began to
emerge in various forms, all of which tried to conceive the relation between
the reflecting individual and the active collective in learning processes. The
“communities of practice” model, based on ideas first proposed by Etienne
Wenger (1998), among others, has been widely taken up in workplace studies.
Learning is viewed as the ongoing refinement of practices and emerging
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knowledge embodied in the specific action of a particular community. Individuals learn as they participate in everyday activity within a community
(with its history, assumptions and cultural values, rules, and patterns of relationship), with the tools at hand (including objects, technology, language),
and in the moment’s activity (its purposes, norms, and practical challenges).
This practice-based systemic orientation was taken up more widely as
models of “co-participation” and “co-emergence” were applied to understand learning in work. In these conceptions, individual and social learning
processes are viewed as enmeshed. Another example is cultural-historical
activity theory (CHAT), long popular in Nordic research of workplace learning but just recently introduced into North American literature (Sawchuk,
Duarte, and Elhammoumi, 2006). In this view, the workplace is a system of
activity shaped by its “object,” which is the central problem space at which
action is directed. The object could be providing learning opportunities to
students that balance societal needs and their own with limited resources in
the case of a university department. Or it could be delivering or producing the
maximum possible barrels of oil while respecting community needs for
employment and environmental protection in the case of a crude oil sands
plant. The everyday action of work and learning is further shaped by the
system’s division of labor, community relationships, rules, tools, and cultural norms as well as the perspectives of the actors within it. CHAT theorists look carefully at the system’s culture and its history–how things came
to be as they are and came to be viewed as they are. They also focus on the
contradictions that all systems carry within them. For example, many work
systems carry simultaneous pressures to innovate and take risks while performing with excellence, mastery, and no error. Other work systems also
demand greater and greater production to increase profit even though excess
production lowers the value of products and increases the value of labor,
both of which reduce profit. Here we can see how CHAT retains its Marxist
influences in this recognition of the inherent contradictions in capitalist
work systems based on labor exchange and the historical emergence of particular practices (Chaiklin, Hedegaard, and Jensen, 2003).
From a CHAT perspective, learning is viewed as expansion of the system’s object and reconfiguration of the system’s practices. Further, learning
combines collective expansion and innovation with individual expansion in
conceptions, interactions, and practices. The expansion often comes about
through the successive exacerbation and resolution of contradictions within
the system. For example, within an organization that promotes collaborative
work but gives most rewards to individual effort, some people might begin
to seriously question the contradictions at play and their consequences. In
a research-intensive university department, these questions could ultimately
become directed at the overall object driving their research. Is the object
more to generate refereed journal publications and grants, or more to create
networked relationships and to have an impact on practice, if these two
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directions come into conflict? Is the object measured through visible shortterm outcomes in place of ambiguous and unpredictable long-term
outcomes, even when the latter may be more salient to deeper-impact
research? Such questions, taken up seriously throughout the organization,
cause the object to expand and shift as individuals’ understandings expand
and shift.
A third perspective is complexity theory, which has surfaced in organizational studies as a useful way to understand how activity, knowledge, and
communities emerge together in the process of workplace learning.
Individual interactions and meanings form part of the workplace context
itself; they are interconnected systems nested within the larger systems in
which they act. The core concept is emergence: knowledge, phenomena,
events, and actors are mutually dependent, mutually constitutive, and actually
emerge together (Davis and Sumara, 2001). As workers, for example, are
influenced by symbols and actions that touch their everyday work, they
adapt and learn. As they do so, their behaviors, their meanings, and thus
their effects on the systems connected with them change. The focus is not
on the components of experience (which other perspectives might describe
in fragmented terms: person, experience, tools, and activity) but on the relationships binding them together. Workplace learning is the continuous and
dynamic invention within these relationships that enable a complex system
to flourish in changing environments. For example, studies reported in
Reading Work (Belfiore and others, 2004) found floor workers’ continuous
experimentation in diverse workplaces. Hotel cleaning staff invented their
own accountability system of codes and recording that was efficient, flexible, and politically astute. Textile workers responded to new ISO-9000
requirements through various inventions of uptake and subterfuge to meet
the contradictory demands of increased weaving production while stopping
to complete written reports. Such examples show that learning can also be
occasioned by disturbances from within or outside the system that become
amplified, causing emergence of new, expanded, and more resilient patterns.
Further, nothing is predictable; in emergence, the whole is greater than the
sum of its parts and is therefore not predictable from examining the parts
or the relationships.
Thinking critically, one finds that some of these practice-based orientations to workplace learning bypass questions of politics and power relations: Who is excluded from the construction of knowledge in a
community of practice? What dysfunctional or exploitive practices are
perpetuated in communities of practice? What hierarchical relations in the
workplace reproduce processes of privilege and prejudice? At issue is
the extent to which practice-based or social learning theories-including
notions of communities of practice, complex adaptive systems, or even
CHAT-suppress or enable core questions about the politics and purposes
of workplace learning.
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Emerging Importance of Identities and Literacies
Work communities are powerful sites of identity, where individual workers’
desires for recognition, competence, participation, and meaning are both
generated and satisfied. Identity is ultimately a representation or mental
conception that we ascribe to ourselves and to others: “Our conception of
who we are, our identity, is constituted by the power of all of the discursive
practices in which we speak—which in turn ‘speak’ us” (Chappell and others, 2003, p. 41).
People’s sense of their own knowledge in work and the knowledge
valued by the group to which they see themselves belonging form a critical element of their sense of identity. Identity work itself involves learning. Workers figure out how to position themselves in an organization,
how to perform identities that are acceptable to their immediate peers but
also allow them freedom and some autonomy and control. In work environments of rapid change where people must transform their practices,
people often learn to “shapeshift”: they literally learn to perform different selves and knowledges in different environments, while learning to
establish some coherent identity to anchor themselves, or even market
themselves.
Researchers have explored how particular identities are created among
these forces, and how learning processes are involved (Billett, Fenwick, and
Somerville, 2007). One case studied miners compelled to transform their
work from manual labor in heavy equipment operation to computerized
manipulation of equipment using joysticks in an office. At issue were the
men’s macho-masculine identities, which were no longer relevant. Overall,
adult education researchers are interested in how people come to recognize
the limitations of their current work identities, how they recognize possibilities for new identities, and what strategies they learn to cope with repressive constraints on their work identities.
Language and literacy are closely related to identity and learning.
People’s sense of whom they are and what they know and can do at work is
embedded in the language and textual practices they use. One area of workplace research examines how learning is shaped by particular written texts
in changing workplace environments such as documents, policies, recordkeeping forms, and employee growth plans. Such texts standardize what
counts as knowledge, thus controlling the work practices and working relations of the people employed (Farrell and Fenwick, 2007). Common examples are the form filling required by new global standardization systems and
the accent training given in call centers to make all non-American workers
sound American on the telephone. New literacy practices have also been
created in the shift to self-directed team arrangements. Workers used to
hierarchical communication pipelines have had to learn how to participate
productively in team meetings—how to set goals, analyze, and assess collective work through leaderless reflective team dialogues. As people are pressed
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to learn these new literacies in their work, their sense of self shifts along
with how they conceptualize and do their work.

Power and Politics in Workplace Learning
Calls for research to uncover power relations in workplace learning have
not resulted in much empirical research. In the literature review of nine
journals from 1999 to 2005 (Fenwick, 2008) only about 15 percent of published articles touched on power or politics, and most of them presented
theory rather than empirical study. Five perspectives of power appear to be
represented among them. In the radical view, organizations are viewed as
sites of central contradictions and ideological struggle between those who
control the means of production and those whose labor and knowledge are
exploited. In the discursive view, power is viewed as circulating through
regimes of knowledge and discursive practices. Power is not possessed by
particular people or institutions but is constantly created and readjusted
through relations among people and practices, notions of what is normal
and what is valuable. Workers participate in and help to sustain the very
regimes that discipline and repress their identities and opportunities.
In the identity politics view, power relations consolidate a dominant
workplace culture whose practices and beliefs actively marginalize or even
persecute individuals by virtue of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or conformance to the ability norm valued by the dominant. The
micropolitics view analyzes power relations as confined to individual strategies
to improve their own advantage, such as gamesmanship. Finally, the
community view avoids critical analysis of structures, knowledge politics, or
even interpersonal politics; power is viewed as benign energy, exercised
mainly in mobilizing individuals around shared vision, mutual engagement,
and sense of belonging.
Adult education analyses of work tend mostly to feature the radical
and identity politics views of power, so further discussion of these two is
warranted to show their links to learning. In the radical view, workplace
learning is often envisioned as radical transformation among workers—
empowerment purposed toward workplace reform. Radical or “emancipatory” learning involves workers first in critically analyzing existing
repressive conditions of work, including mechanisms in place for controlling knowledge and the means of production (Bratton and others, 2003).
Then strategies for resistance and change are generated collectively, in a
learning process that builds solidarity, individual and collective agency, and
workers’ capacity to defend their rights. This learning process of transformation is often positioned in opposition to reproduction, where workers
learn to accept and even support exploitive, hierarchical structures that subjugate them and reproduce existing (inequitable) power relations. However,
some have argued that this traditional dualism may be overly simplistic, that
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research needs to examine how reproductive and transformative learning
are entwined in everyday work and with what workers themselves want to
learn.
In critical workplace learning research adopting an identity politics
view of power, issues of race, disability, sexual orientation, and religion are
almost completely absent despite their growing importance in other areas
of adult education. Gender, on the other hand, has received substantial
attention. Studies show that women continue to confront gendered training
structures in organizations that are based on patriarchal values, male-oriented
communication patterns, and family-unfriendly schedules. Women in
particular are often expected to nurture the close relationships and community that organizations want, mentor others, and display cheerfulness
(Mojab and Gorman, 2003). Yet the learning valued and supported most in
organizations tends to be related more to leadership and innovation in
professional and managerial jobs, where women continue to be underrepresented. Meanwhile, women who are new immigrants and of color are
overrepresented in precarious, contingent employment such as call center,
food service, and home-based work, where there are few learning opportunities to help women obtain better-paying and more secure employment.
Finally, an important emerging line of research incorporates considerations of space and spatiality into analyses of power and learning in workplaces, borrowing from critical geography (Hearn and Michelson, 2006).
Space is not considered a static container into which work and workers are
poured, but a dynamic multiplicity that is constantly being produced by
simultaneous “stories-so-far.” One simple example from my own experience: private offices were constructed for government social service officers
at their own request, for reasons of noise, privacy, and overall stress reduction. This severely reduced casual information flow and relational connections among these officers. The need was met through formal meetings and
increased reliance on written memos and e-mail, which served to increase
workload and stress and reduce ongoing informal experimentation. Issues
for learning and work include how spaces are constituted in ways that
enable or inhibit learning, create inequities or exclusions, and open or limit
possibilities for new practices and knowledge. Particularly in new work
arrangements such as virtual organizations and transnational work sites,
space and time have become a critical influence on work learning. We need to
ask, What knowledge counts where, and how does it emerge in different
time-spaces? How are identities negotiated through movements and
locations? How is learning enmeshed in the making of spaces?

Future Directions
Workplace learning is contested terrain filled with fundamental tensions
related to what knowledge counts most and who says so. When we read various theories and studies of workplace learning, we can see how perspectives
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are shifting about what constitutes knowledge, how workers are connected
to one another and to their environments, and how action and reflection are
related. More important, researchers and educators promote differing purposes for workplace learning that influence how learning is understood.
Some focus on individual human development, some on building solidarity
and political consciousness among workers, and others are more interested
in “upskilling” workers and productivity. Other differences in perspective
arise from the unit of analysis. Those who focus on the individual might
explain learning as developing expertise or transforming beliefs. Those who
focus on the system might examine social learning processes and change
occurring in practices among the group. These different perspectives are not
necessarily irreconcilable, but neither do they nest neatly into one another.
No single model for workplace learning is acceptable in the face of such
distinct positions.
The three emerging areas described in this chapter have become particularly important in guiding future research: practice-based systemic
views, identities and literacy, and power and politics in work-related learning. Of all the ideas currently afloat in adult education addressing work
issues, these trends seem most likely to influence future perspectives, program design, and pedagogical practice in workplace learning. Overall, we
have a great need for rigorous in-depth empirical research that traces what
people actually do and think in everyday work activity, and for research
methods that can help illuminate the learning that unfolds in everyday
work. Such research could help us counter the plethora of books that present a depoliticized, morally infused prescription for what we ought to do
to “promote learning” in current workplaces, and it may even help expand
possibilities for what work and spaces of work could become in our future.
References
Belfiore, M. E., and others. Reading Work: Literacies in the New Workplace. Mahwah, N.J.:
Erlbaum, 2004.
Billett, S., Fenwick, T., and Somerville, M. (eds.). Work, Learning and Subjectivity.
New York: Springer, 2007.
Bratton, J., Mills, J. H., Pyrch, T., and Sawchuk, P. Workplace Learning: A Critical
Introduction. Aurora, Ont.: Garamond Press, 2003.
Chaiklin, S., Hedegaard, M., and Jensen, U. J. Activity Theory and Social Practice: Cultural
Historical Approaches. Langelandsgade, Denmark: Aarhus Press, 2003.
Chappell, C., and others. Reconstructing the Lifelong Learner: Pedagogy and Identity in
Individual, Organisational and Social Change. London: Routledge Falmer, 2003.
Davis, B., and Sumara, D. “Learning Communities: Understanding the Workplace as a
Complex System.” In T. Fenwick (ed.), Socio-Cultural Understandings of Workplace
Learning. New Directions in Adult and Continuing Education, no. 92. San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 2001.
Farrell, L., and Fenwick, T. “Educating the Global Workforce?” In L. Farrell and T.
Fenwick (eds.), Educating the Global Workforce. London: Routledge, 2007.
Fenwick, T. “Understanding Relations of Individual-Collective Learning in Work:
A Review of Research.” Management Learning, 2008, 39(3), 227–243.
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Hearn, M., and Michelson, G. Rethinking Work: Time, Space and Discourse. Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Sawchuk, P., Duarte, N., and Elhammoumi, M. Critical Perspectives on Activity: Explorations Across Education, Work, and Everyday Life. New York: Cambridge University
Press, 2006.
Wenger, E. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press, 1998.

TARA FENWICK is professor and head of the Department of Educational Studies
at the University of British Columbia.
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The role of spirituality in adult education and adult
learning is discussed by defining spirituality and
exploring how spiritual experience facilitates spiritual
development.

Spirituality and Adult Learning
Elizabeth J. Tisdell
“What do you mean by spirituality?” This is a question I’ve often heard in
the past decade as I tell people of my research interest in the role of spirituality in learning in adult and higher education. Typically, there are three
follow-up responses. The first is often another question: “Is spirituality the
same as religion?” The second is a look (often from other academics) that
seems to indicate they wonder if I’m some sort of new age flake. The third
is something like, “Oh, that’s fascinating!” which often results in a continued conversation where the person shares a significant spiritual experience
and what was learned from it.
Spirituality is currently a hot topic. There are numerous responses
among adult and higher education scholars to its current interest by society
at large, some similar to those just noted. Many agree with bell hooks
(2000) when she suggests that it’s time to “break mainstream cultural taboos
that silence our passion for spiritual practice” (p. 82). But there are others who
wonder, as Robert Wuthnow (1998) observes, “whether ‘spiritual’ has
become synonymous with ‘flaky’” (p. 1). The subject of spirituality is still
somewhat marginalized in the academy, but since the new millennium
there’s been a growing discussion about its role both in higher education
(Chickering, Dalton, and Stamm, 2005; Dillard, 2006; hooks, 2000, 2003)
and in adult education (English and Gillen, 2000; English, Fenwick and
Parsons, 2003; Tisdell, 2003; Tolliver and Tisdell, 2006).
The purpose of this chapter is to consider the important influence that
spirituality has in adult learning and how discussions of it are affecting the
field of adult education. In so doing, I’ll begin by attempting to define
spirituality and then consider the nature of spiritual experience and its

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relationship to adult development. Finally, I’ll conclude with some brief
implications for practice.

Defining Spirituality in Adult Education
Defining spirituality is a somewhat elusive task; it means different things to
different people, and there is often some confusion between “spirituality”
and “religion.” Generally, in contemporary literature spirituality is about an
individual’s personal experience with the sacred, which can be experienced
anywhere. Religion, on the other hand, is about an organized community of
faith, with an official creed, and codes of regulatory behavior.
Most contemporary scholars who write about spirituality focus on its
role in an individual’s creation of ultimate meaning, usually in relationship
to a higher sense of self or what is referred to as “God,” “Divine Spirit,”
“Lifeforce,” or “Great Mystery.” Many also highlight its connection to
wholeness and the more authentic self. Faith development theorist James
Fowler (1981) emphasizes the significance of unconscious processes in how
individuals make meaning of ultimate reality. He notes the significance of
image, symbol, metaphor, music, or kinesthetic sensory experience that is
beyond the cognitive or rational realm as central to those meaning-making
processes that people often connect to as the spiritual. A participant in my
own study of adult educators’ spirituality described it as “a journey toward
wholeness”; he then went on to use language full of symbols and metaphor
to try to find ways of expressing that wholeness. But if spirituality is about
wholeness, and because the whole is always greater than the sum of the
parts, then spirituality itself is always greater than that which can be
described in language. When defined as a journey or an experience leading
toward wholeness, everyone has a spirituality (including agnostics and
atheists), but not everyone has a religion.

Spirituality and Religion
The distinction just made between spirituality and religion—that spirituality
is about an individual’s personal experience or journey toward wholeness,
whereas religion is about an organized community of faith—seems clear
enough at first blush. But in reality, it’s not quite as simple as that, for three
primary reasons. First, most of us were socialized in a religious tradition,
and the earliest stage of our spiritual development took place within the
context of that particular religion. Thus, even if we have long since left
the religion in which we grew up, our earliest religious training affects our
understanding of our spirituality as a “journey toward wholeness” at a
foundational level, because it is the beginning stage of that journey.
Second, although religions are communities of faith with an official
creed and rules of regulatory behavior, they do offer guidance on how to live
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a spiritual life and have personal experiences of the sacred. They also come
with rituals, music, symbols, prayers, and sacred stories that connect with
or honor many of life’s transitions that serve as gateways to the sacred. Thus
for many of us some spiritual experiences might have taken place or been
ritualized and given further meaning in the context of our religious traditions. In such instances, it might be difficult to separate spiritual experience
from one’s religion.
A third source of confusion between religion and spirituality has to do
with the interchangeable use of the terms in some literature, particularly
that which is less contemporary. But if one remembers that spirituality is
primarily about an individual’s experience whereas religion is about an organized community of faith, it’s possible to glean whether an author is really
talking about religion or spirituality. Used as nouns, the terms spirituality
and religion differ in the ways I have just noted. But when the adjective
religious is used to describe an individual’s experience or imaginative work
(as in “religious experience” or “religious imagination”), the meaning of the
terms religious and spiritual is equivalent. In short, spirituality is about
experience, and when the term religious is used in relation to experience,
the author is likely talking about what contemporary writers would call
spirituality. Thus, if William James (1902/1982) were writing his famous
book The Varieties of Religious Experience today as opposed to a century ago,
he probably would title it “The Varieties of Spiritual Experience.”

Spirituality in Adult Education
Spirituality has historically had quite an important influence in the adult
education field (English, 2005), though often the connection has been more
implicit. Even though spirituality is generally seen as an individual’s experiences of what is perceived as sacred, how one frames or understands those
experiences can strongly influence one’s beliefs and behaviors. In living out
their spirituality, some people focus more on its inward activities such as
prayer, meditation, and experiences of wholeness; others focus more on how
it influences their outer action in the world, and they might not discuss spirituality per se unless asked about it directly. As Leona English (2005) points
out, where the influence of spirituality has been particularly strong historically in the field is in its abiding influence in the lives of well-known social
justice educators whose work has shaped the field. Myles Horton of the
Highlander Folk School and Paulo Freire of the emancipatory education
movement, like many others, were strongly influenced by the Christian
social gospel; it was a strong underpinning to their social justice work. The
focus of their work as adult educators, however, was on educating for social
change, as opposed to directly discussing spirituality. Similarly, it was an
abiding influence on Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady of the Nova Scotia
Antigonish movement.
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In more recent years, this implicit influence of spirituality in adult education has become more explicit in that there’s more direct discussion of it.
This influence has been felt in four primary ways. First, a significant number of adult education professors have had earlier careers in ministry. Jarvis
and Walters (1993) edited a book in which the contributors examined how
theology and spirituality influenced their educational philosophy and their
work overall. Second, more recent writers have discussed the influence of
spirituality and soul in how it affects learning on an individual level (Dirkx,
1997, 2001; English and Gillen, 2000; Hunt, 2001). A third influence is in
the arena of workplace learning, where authors focus on how it influences
how they think and act in the professional workplace or in working for the
common good as leaders and educators (Bolman and Deal, 1995; Daloz,
Keen, Keen, and Parks, 1994; Conger, 1994; English, Fenwick, and Parsons,
2003; Fox, 1995). However, as Fenwick and Lange (1998) have pointed
out, some of the wider literature on spirituality in the workplace has an
emphasis on individual needs and organizational development for the
purposes of profit rather than a focus on the common good. Finally,
the strong influence of spirituality is still present in those educating for
social justice in myriad adult education settings (Clover, Follen, and Hall,
1998; Dillard, 2006; English, 2005; Tisdell, 2003; Tolliver and Tisdell, 2006).

Spiritual Experience and Spiritual Development
As William James noted a century ago, there are a variety of spiritual experiences. From an adult education perspective, this connects to the area of
experiential learning. Just as in any experience that leads to learning, a
spiritual experience takes place at a particular moment in time. But making
sense of it or learning from the experience happens over time. This is where
it connects to spiritual development, because development is generally
conceptualized as change over time (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner,
2007). How these moments in time relate to change over time is considered
here in light of the nature of spiritual experience.

Learning Through Spiritual Experience
Life is full of ups and downs. Sometimes it’s rather ordinary, at other times
chaotic. Spirituality helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary business
of life, and spiritual experiences can create a new order out of chaos, or jazz
out of discord. Sharon Welch (1999) noted in her discussion of spirituality
that the famous jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams would occasionally pause
in midperformance to make audiences more attentive: “Listen! This will
heal you!” (p. 19) she would say. This admonition, no doubt, got people’s
attention and helped them listen in a new way. Significant spiritual experiences are like that.
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Some people report having spiritual experiences all the time. But significant spiritual experiences of deep learning seem to happen only occasionally. Such experiences offer hope, healing, or affirmation, as if to say,
just like Mary Lou Williams’s admonition to her audiences, “Listen! This
will heal you! This will teach you something new.” They stand out as “shimmering moments” in our lives—moments that we often go back to with awe
and wonder. The ongoing power of their “shimmer” endures as we continue
to make meaning. These are often moments of significant learning that lead
to continued development.
There are many types of shimmering moments. In my study of how
spirituality informs the lives and practices of thirty-one culturally diverse
adult educators (Tisdell, 2003), the participants discussed several types of
significant spiritual learning experiences. The first set of spiritual experiences reported seems to speak to the universality of human experience
across culture. Giving birth or witnessing one, being present at a death, or
having a close brush with one’s own potential death, resulting in a new
sense of life purpose, are examples. A second set were reports of significant
nighttime dreams and daytime synchronicities (those odd coincidences Jung
talked about that seem more than coincidental). These sacred moments
offered new learning about hope, healing, or direction in times of difficulty;
brought elation and joy in times of celebration; facilitated or affirmed a life
decision; or spoke to the interconnectedness of everything.
A third type were those that took place in nature or in meditation.
These created a sense of learning about the value of centering and affirmed
a sense of wholeness and the interconnectedness of everything. Some spoke
of these as experiences of bliss. Those who were engaged in a regular
spiritual practice, as through regular prayer or mindfulness meditation
genres, suggested that their practice helped them learn to cultivate attention
to the spiritual, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary business of life.
They reported that they often had spiritual experiences in meditation, but
the most significant spiritual experiences happened in the context of living
their lives.
A final type of spiritual experience was related to the ongoing development of some aspect of identity. These were reported much more often
by women and people of color. For example, many of the women discussed
developing a more positive gender identity over time through deconstructing the patriarchy of some of their childhood religious traditions, and then
reclaiming aspects of those traditions through a more woman-positive
spirituality lens. Similarly, people of color discussed learning some of the
history and spirituality of their own cultures of origin, resulting in reclaiming
a more positive cultural identity overall.
The spiritual part of those experiences was when they reclaimed aspects
of the sacred in their own cultural or gender story, or found new power in
reframing some of the cultural symbols, mythic stories, music, or metaphors
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that were part of their earlier life experience. In this sense, they spiraled
back to reframe earlier experiences that not only yielded a greater sense of
creativity but also facilitated healing from oppression of themselves and
others from their cultural communities. Many discussed these experiences
as helping them learn to be their more authentic self in light of their more
integrated sense of identity.
Mary Catherine Bateson (1995) calls spiraling-back experiences of this
kind, where people reflect back on old experiences and discover something
new, “spiral learning.” What may have been peripheral to these earlier learning experiences can become an important meaning-making opportunity at
a later date, through the process of spiral learning, whether spiritual or not.
But just as events and experiences of the past can be infused and remapped
with new meaning, so too can symbols, mythic story, metaphor, and music.
For the participants in my study, when these spiral-learning experiences
were infused with the stuff of symbol, mythic story, metaphor, or music,
they were often discussed as spiritual experiences and were seen as transformative as well as spiritual.

Spiritual Experience Fostering Spiritual Development
Much of the learning from these types of spiritual experiences, especially
from spiral learning, resulted in further spiritual development, as well as
development of the overall self. This is likely because such experiences facilitated a more integrated sense of identity. Most developmental theorists who
write about spiritual development connect it with other aspects of development. James Fowler (1981), known for his linear stage theory of faith
development, ties spiritual and faith development strongly to cognitive and
moral development, drawing heavily on the work of Piaget and Kohlberg.
But he takes issue with them because of their ignoring of “the role of
imagination in knowing, their neglect of symbolic processes generally and
the related lack of attention to unconscious structuring processes other than
those constituting reasoning” (p. 103).
Though Fowler’s work has the limitations of all linear stage theories as
well as the fact that his sample of 359 was almost entirely made up of white
people of the Judeo-Christian tradition, his work highlights the important
way in which people construct knowledge through image and symbol, an
area that has been ignored by most development and learning theorists.
Other writers have drawn on Fowler’s work in studying spiritual development at particular life stages. James Loder (1998) discussed it from a
theological perspective in relation to various stages of adulthood, whereas
Sharon Daloz Parks (2000) deals primarily with young adulthood but also
discusses the significance of imagination and the role of constructing knowledge by engaging imagination. Robert Wuthnow (1998, 1999, 2001) has
conducted a number of studies about people’s conceptions and experiences
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of spirituality as adults and how it influences their further development. His
interesting study (2001) of how artists conceptualize spirituality and how
it influences their work and further creativity also gets at the power of
symbol and imagination in relation to spirituality.
Whether or not spiritual development unfolds in a series of linear
stages is a matter of some debate and, as Wilber (2000) observes, depends
on how one defines spirituality. However, he suggests that spiritual development unfolds in overlapping and interweaving levels, “resulting in a
meshwork or dynamic spiral of consciousness unfolding” (p. 7). Each level
includes and expands on the development of earlier stages and moves to
greater integration, which reflects an important theme of spiritual development: the ongoing development of identity. Significant spiritual experiences
as specific moments in time, as they are integrated into one’s overall life,
clearly can lead to further development of identity. This often happens in
concert with further cognitive and moral development, through further
education or life experience, and is often a process of moving forward and
spiraling back to reframe earlier experiences. When participants in my own
study described such movement as spiritual, they tended to slip into
metaphorical or symbolic language. Perhaps it’s the connection to the
symbolic and imaginal realms that happens in an experience at a moment
in time, helping people tune in to other levels of consciousness that Wilber
refers to, and that make people feel something is “spiritual” development as
opposed to simply psychological development.
Bateson (1995), in her consideration of spiral learning, and Kegan
(1994), in his discussion of the unfolding of the “orders of consciousness,”
both discuss the spiral shape of development overall. But neither really
focuses on the role of spirituality in the process. This idea that spiritual
development has a spiral shape not only fits what I saw in my own study
but is also present in other authors’ and researchers’ narratives that get at
aspects of spiritual development (Borysenko, 1999; Daloz, Keen, Keen, and
Parks, 1996; Loder, 1998; Terkel, 2001; Wade-Gayles, 1995; Wuthnow,
1999, 2001). On the basis of these studies and narratives, adults who value
spirituality often describe their adult spiritual development as a process of
questioning or moving away from earlier beliefs or experiences from one’s
childhood religious or cultural tradition, as other ways of being in the world
are explored through education or other life experiences related to cognitive
and moral development. Then later they spiral back and reframe aspects of
those earlier experiences, often in light of mythic or cultural story or other
forms of knowledge that tap into creativity.
By the time many who see their lives as a spiritual journey or a journey
toward wholeness have reached midlife, they have questioned, doubted,
explored other spiritual possibilities, and gone on the journey of reclaiming
and spiraling back. They often have embraced the tension of opposites,
rather than resorting to either-or thinking that might be characteristic of
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THIRD UPDATE ON ADULT LEARNING THEORY

earlier adulthood; and have more of an ability to live the tensions of the
paradox. Tensions often pull us open to new spiritual experience and ways
of seeing the world (P