The implications of complexity theory have become a recurring topic in the literatures of a wide range of scholarly and professional fields including adult education. This paper builds on literature calling attention to the educational need for pedagogically addressing the implications of the intensifying complexity in the environments that confront adults in their professional and personal lives.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study:
Three theoretical streams, (a) Complex adaptive systems; (b) learning through experience; and, (c) adult developmental theory provide the basis for the pedagogical approach that is presented. The focus is on contingently applying these distinct streams of theory into learning designs. We share our experiences in experimenting with course designs for preparing adult learners for taking action on personal, civic, and professional challenges embedded in ambiguity and uncertainty in which rigid application of ready-made solutions is not possible. Our goal is to stimulate deeper experimentation. Accordingly, the question guiding this paper is, “How can we as adult educators create conditions in our classrooms, and other learning venues, for addressing the need for preparing adults to mindfully learn through the challenges that confront them in the context of increasing complexity?”
For purposes of illustrating our experience and provoking questions, we draw on examples from our work in three graduate level courses in distinct disciplinary settings—specifically, organizational psychology and adult learning, adult education, and technology management.
This paper is an analytical essay drawing out the implications for generative learning from an integrative literature review connecting the three theoretical streams identified above that guide our thinking and work. We provide a framework for creating generative learning spaces based on the implications drawn from this integrative literature review, along with examples of application.
Our experiences in a range of settings suggests that applying the framework can provide educative structures in which adults may stretch their capacity to make meaning, and learn how make choices for timely action, under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity generated by the complexity their socio-economic environments. The approach also provokes new challenges for faculty as well as students, challenges that require more systemic research. We conclude with an agenda for future research.