Foundations of Adult and Continuing Education
reviewed by Alan Mandell & Shantih Clemans - September 07, 2018
Title: Foundations of Adult and Continuing Education
Author(s): Jovita M. Ross-Gordon, Amy D. Rose, & Carol E. Kasworm
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 1118955099, Pages: 432, Year: 2016
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This is a huge book, full and rich and sometimes overwhelming in its breadth. Its something like the work of the encyclopedists of the mid-18th century, who decided to try to pull together all of the knowledge worth knowing; in this case, the knowledge associated with the broad and rather unwieldy world of adult and continuing education. Authors Ross-Gordon, Rose, and Kasworm are not claiming the status of Diderot, dAlembert, du Châtelet, and Voltaire (indeed, at many turns, they are quick to point to the vastness of the territory they are seeking to organize and the impossibility of fully attending to each area), but they are attempting to present the foundations, offering us a starting point and a map for further investigation.
In its 12 chapters, the book sets out to define the field: there are chapters on the definition of adult education and of adult learners, on who adult educators are and what they do, on adult education as a profession and its organizational contexts, on the philosophy of adult and continuing education, on the history of the field, on the ways in which technologies have affected the teaching and learning of adults over time, and on the changing boundaries of adult and continuing education. Central to each of these chapters are three things: first is the palpable sense that definitions, questions, and assumptions are never static, and that we always need to examine what we are thinking, doing, and even wishing for within an historical context; second is that many of the roles, ideas, vocabularies and practices that we too often take for granted are highly contested and filled with contradictions about which we need to become more aware; and third, a theme that pervades the entire book, is that there is always more to learn. (Just take a look at the extensive bibliographies included for each chapter; the reference list for the chapter on the adult learner, Chapter Seven, includes more than 125 references!)
Foundations of Adult and Continuing Education is organized into 12 large chapters, followed by a hefty index. Four chapters stand out as illustrative of the content and style of the book. The expansive role of adult educators, who they are, where and how they work, what drives their vocational identities and functions, is thoroughly covered in Chapter Three, Who Are Adult Educators and What Do They Do? The chapter is dense and detailed, beginning with historical contexts and ending with current practices and tensions. Importantly, as the authors point out, diversity among adult learners demands that adult educators develop a repertoire of flexibility, versatility, and awareness of themselves, their strengths and struggles, as they navigate their relationships with students across modes of learning.
This diversity is further examined in Chapter Seven, The Adult Learner, which encourages us to recognize the tricky terrain of the language we use and the definitions that often go unexamined. Indeed, as the text makes clear, various terms such as non-traditional student, and even adult learner, are inadequate to fully define and characterize this dynamic population of learners. The construct of Knowles andragogy is one of the more helpful and clear sections in this chapter. Knowles six assumptions about adult learners (in relationship to self-concept, experience, readiness to learn, orientation to learning, motivation to learn, and goals for learning) provide a frame and specificity for the reader. How adult students actually learn, a huge topic that could have justified a separate chapter, is also covered. A long list of ways students learn, including self-directed learning, neuroscience, and cognition are noted. In an effort to highlight the myriad orientations, critical reflection and transformative learning, embodied and spiritual learning, as well as group and organizational adult learning are also introduced.
The authors chapter on Philosophy, Chapter Five, typifies the kind of discussion found in the volume. All aspects of the educational process are suffused with philosophical decision making (p. 164), and thus it is incumbent on all of us to think with care and clarity about how we try to make sense of the world (p. 155). In this way, for these authors, philosophy is not about disinterested theorizing; it is about acknowledging that our philosophical underpinnings (even our unconscious ones) do matter. They are filled with assumptions about self, identify, human nature, social change, and, at their core, about the very nature of belief (p. 145) and the ultimate purpose (p. 137) of our work as educators. In effect, we push aside attention to philosophy at our own peril.
Quite consistent with a pattern found throughout the book, this chapter offers a collection of easy summaries of major philosophical systems. We read about the basic tenets of pragmatism, existentialism, and postmodernism, and about the ways in which feminist theory, critical race theory, and critical adult education (p. 151), among other philosophical lenses, have sought to grapple with the proliferation of understandings about the nature of reality, knowledge, and the individual (p. 166). Whatever our educational practices, backgrounds, or value inclinations, the chapter emphasizes that we as adult educators (whatever the context in which we work) need to be doing philosophy; that is, questioning, reflecting, arguing about what we are up to and why.
What stands out in Chapter Eight, Policy and Politics, is the way in which our thinking and our work as educators are always embedded in politics and shaped by policies. Our ideas and day-to-day strategies as teachers, course developers, program coordinators, literacy specialists, and HR trainers are intertwined with political decisions and public policies. As in other chapters, this focus on policy and politics alerts us to changes over time; for example, the significance of the GI Bill of Rights, the massive growth of community colleges, and workforce development initiatives. It also points us to the ways in which none of our work takes place in a vacuum, and that attention to both the presence and influence of multiple perspectives and the struggles for change is part of our responsibility as adult educators.
Without a doubt, Foundations of Adult and Continuing Education covers a vast territory. The breadth of the themes, topics and questions introduced is, indeed, impressive. But the encyclopedist spirit left us wondering: How can this book be effectively used by a teacher or read and applied by a student? What assignments might flow from it? What companion readings might add specificity and applicability? For example, the summaries provided at the close of each chapter are just that, simple summaries. Couldnt these chapter closings have served as interactive openings to engage readers? These summaries were, in many ways, lost opportunities for readers to raise more questions, express concerns, consider problems, explore, and make connections to the actual practice of working in the field. In this way, the authors seem to be struggling to reconcile two threads: the effort to offer a more personal message (its sprinkling of reminders that there is a you reading the text) and the huge number of topics that are presented. The book, admirable and exhaustive, attempts to cover just about everything, but, almost of necessity, cannot provide adequate depth, and there are missed opportunities to engage, entice, and excite readers.
Its these kinds of responses that lead us to thinking about the ways in which, for all of its strenuous efforts at coverage, there is an even deeper paradox in Foundations of Adult and Continuing Education. The authors have written a rather conventional text for what the book itself acknowledges is a rather unconventional field. In a world in which the trusty textbook is becoming an anachronism and in which the amount of information accessible to us would be unthinkable to Diderot; and in a field that is regularly changing shape and that embraces the unpredictability of deep reflection, we wonder if a text like this, even one that so genuinely embraces the big tent tradition (p. 6), is possible to successfully write, or is the kind of resource that students and others in our field need today.