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Adult Learning in the Social Context


reviewed by Victoria Marsick - 1988

coverTitle: Adult Learning in the Social Context
Author(s): Peter Jarvis
Publisher: MacMillan Publishing, Indianapolis
ISBN: 0709914830, Pages: , Year:
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It is somewhat ironic that an Englishman’s eye is needed to cast a fresh perspective on what might seem to be natural territory for scholars and practitioners in the United States: learning from experience. Despite our history of “doing” and the position held by Dewey in our educational theory, we still hold a mystical reverence for the expert. Education is frequently designed to “tell” theory, which learners might then practice, rather than to help learners reflect on and learn through their experience. Jarvis reflects on the process of reflection in this book. He also places adult learning in a social context, contending that learning has been explained primarily by psychologists, which, while valuable, leaves out other important dimensions.


Jarvis emphasizes the learning process itself. Education, the “institutionalization of learning” (p. 8), is conceptually distinct from how people—specifically adults—learn, although many equate learning with memorizing information or the classic “banking” approach identified by Paolo Freire. Learning is often perceived as a product, usually defined in some way as a behavioral outcome. Jarvis examines and rejects the behaviorist stance, arguing that learning may have many outcomes other than behavioral change, some of which are not at all observable. Central to Jarvis’s beliefs is the meaning that people make of their lives through interaction with one another, as well as the line between habitualized, routine, nonthinking responses to a situation and reflective learning.


In developing his arguments, Jarvis acknowledges and critiques two prominent writers about experience: Malcolm Knowles and David Kolb. Knowles popularized andragogy, the notion that adults learn differently from children, although he later agreed that some children learn best this way as well. Central to Knowles’s arguments is experience-based learning focused on problem solving. However, Knowles writes more about education than about learning. Jarvis also points out that the essential difference between andragogy and pedagogy is the social status of the learner, who is treated in either a dependent or an independent manner, whether child or adult.


Kolb’s work is the starting point for the research on which Jarvis’s book is based. Kolb suggests that people apprehend and transform experience differently. Some apprehend through concrete experience (CE), and others through abstract conceptualization (AC). Some transform through reflective observation (RO), and others through active experimentation (AE). Kolb suggests that learning is a dialectical process, and that the best learning draws on all four ways of knowing. He develops theories both of learning styles, based on some combination of these dimensions, and of the learning process, a cycle that moves from experiencing to observing to conceptualizing to experimenting and back to experiencing. Jarvis values Kolb’s work in that it offers an alternative to the behaviorist perspective about the nature of reality, scientific truth, and learning. However, Jarvis suggests that Kolb ties his theory too much to experience of an affective nature. Moreover, while he highlights the importance of reflection in experiential learning, Kolb does little to describe its role in the process, which is a central focus of Jarvis’s book.


Jarvis uses Kolb in a somewhat unconventional “research” strategy to evolve a socially oriented theory of adult learning. He conducted nine workshops about adult learning and its relationship to teaching in one year, with a mix of two hundred American and British educators. His sample, not randomly or scientifically drawn, was comprised primarily of white, middleclass, English-speaking educators of both adults and children, and university graduate students. Jarvis asked participants to identify a critical incident in which they learned something. Participants then built simple models of the learning process based on their experiences, first in pairs and then in groups of four. Jarvis then gave the groups Kolb’s model in the first case, and an adaptation of it from previous workshops in the remaining cases, and asked them to modify it.


The resultant final model is the springboard for a discussion of learning processes. Jarvis’s model starts and ends with the person, a concept distinguished from “mind” and “self.” All three concepts are related and, based on George Herbert Mead’s thinking, are seen as socially constructed through experience as one interacts with others in society. Learning affects this process because it is the transformation of experience into knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Learning takes place when there is a disjuncture between one’s biography and either a felt need or an idealized “want.” However, people do not always learn through experience. Jarvis maps out nine different possibilities, some of which leave people reinforced in their perspectives but unchanged. Other routes lead to growth and development, or, at times, to what Dewey called a “miseducative experience.” Miseducative experience can result in alienation, anomie, harm to one’s self-concept, and a passive stance that inhibits further learning.


Jarvis is also concerned with whether experience is meaningful, and whether people simply react to their environment or proactively shape it. Finally, he notes that experience can take place individually or in groups through informal social interaction, or through an educationally designed activity, be it the formal school system or a nonformal alternative. Jarvis develops a hierarchy of nine learning responses using these concepts, the first three representing nonlearning, the second three nonreflective learning, and the final three what he believes to be a higher form of reflective learning: presumption, nonconsideration, rejection, preconscious learning, practice, memorization, contemplation, reflective practice, and experimental learning. These distinctions, while useful for understanding a “pure type,” at times seem artificial and contrived. For example, experimental learning and reflective practice are considered distinct because the first has to do with knowledge and the second with skills.


Jarvis has contributed to our understanding of reflective learning by critically examining the literature, and by generating an adapted version of Kolb’s model through dialogue with a small sample of educators. His model needs further testing with other social groups of adults. Jarvis’s model is much more complex than Kolb’s, and perhaps for that reason, leaves the reader both aware of the need for a fuller explanation of the reflective process and a desire for greater clarity as to its key dimensions. The model has been generated, through a kind of action research, even though many might not grant the soundness of the method. Despite this somewhat empirical base, the reader sees more of Jarvis’s reflective thinking than the descriptions generated by workshop participants. The rich detail of their learning is used solely as a starting point for a philosophical and, at times, abstract discussion. This model also suffers from too much categorization in an attempt to analyze social reality to its fullest. What is needed at the book’s end is a return to the holistic process with which Jarvis began, that is, a contextually based description of how adults learn.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 2, 1988, p. 319-321
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 504, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:45:59 PM

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About the Author
  • Victoria Marsick
    Teachers College, Columbia University
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