Harvard Educational Review
  1. Towards the Essence of Adult Experiential Learning

    By Anita Malinen

    Jyväskylä, Finland: SoPHI Academic Press, 2000. 174 pp. $24.95.

    In Towards the Essence of Adult Experiential Learning, Anita Malinen argues that the broad field of adult education is "suffering from paradigmatic plurality" (p. 12). With its fragmented contributions from pedagogy to cognition, there is no common theory of adult learning. In the interest of refining both her own theory and advancing the credibility of an otherwise autonomous academic field, Malinen searches for an "all-embracing, universally generalizable theory upon which to base the study and practice of adult education" (p. 12). In this book, Malinen - an adult educator, researcher, and philosopher from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland - bravely enters into this challenge, analyzing the complexities of and connections among five specific adult learning theories.

    Malinen focuses her attention on the concept of adult experiential education, which is sometimes viewed as a conceptual framework and sometimes as a technique for engaging adults in their personal experiences of learning. Since the topic of adult experiential learning includes a broad range of authors, Malinen specified her research to five theorists who are widely published, represent a diverse cross-section of the field, and are considered "major figures" in adult education.

    These five theorists include Malcolm Knowles, David Kolb, Jack Mezirow, Reginald Revans, and Donald Schön. Malcolm Knowles' 40-year-old approach to adult learning, called "andragogy," challenges what he defines as a traditional approach to pedagogy. In his view, adult learning should be self-directed and involve a process of active inquiry, which is initiated by the learner. His framework, which Malinen carefully examines, is based on the theories of John Dewey, Eduard Lindeman, Abraham Maslow, and Carl Rogers. David Kolb considers learning to be an "emergent, continuous, cyclical, holistic and adaptive process" (p. 69). The epistemological grounding for his work comes from Jean Piaget, Kurt Lewin, and John Dewey. Jack Mezirow focuses on "transformational learning" in which an adult acquires "more developmentally advanced meaning perspectives" (p. 91). Mezirow's ideas of transformation, grounded in critical theory, also include a new awareness of social and cultural power. Reginald Revan's theory of action learning, developed more than forty years ago as an approach for employees to actively engage with resolving management problems, "emphasizes 'real-life' on-the-job learning" (p. 57). The fifth theorist, Donald Schön, bases his reflection-in-action theory on constructivist education, which posits that a learner makes meaning of an experience based on his or her own understanding of reality. In forming a more cohesive theory for adult education, Malinen weaves together these five authors' concepts of teaching and learning to work toward a universal theory of experiential education.

    Malinen builds her interpretation of the five theories around three categories. The first category, which she explores in chapter three, concerns research problems about knowledge and knowing, including questions such as, "How is knowledge and knowing defined? What is the content of knowledge? What are the subjective conditions of knowing?" (p. 22). By comparing the five theories, Malinen concludes that "knowledge of reality does not lie in the individual subject, nor in the known object, but in the dynamic flow between these two" (p. 54).

    In chapter four, Malinen considers the second category, which includes research problems about the conception of individual dimensions of adult experiential learning that she presented in earlier chapters. She addresses questions such as, "What is meant by experience? What is the position and meaning of the learner's experience in the learning process? What is meant by 'reflection' in the learning-process?" (p. 22). Exploring the relationship between culture and individual, Malinen asserts that the individual is never free from his or her social context. The individual, in other words, experiences learning through the transaction between his self and his environment at any given moment in time. "For these reasons," Malinen writes, "it is impossible to think of experiential learning at all except . . . from a social point of view" (p. 100).

    The final category, chapter five, builds on the relationship between the individual and his or her environment by considering the social dimensions of adult experiential learning. Malinen asks, "In what kind of context does learning occur? What kind of role does interaction play in the learning process? What does educating an adult mean? What qualities are required for an adult educator?" (p. 22). Through the exploration of these questions, Malinen concludes that the relationship between the adult educator and the adult learner "is a process between existential and epistemological perspectives" (p. 132). Practically, this means that since teaching practice and the learning process are based on the balance of the educator's and the student's epistemological foundations, one cannot say that there is only one way to learn or to teach a particular subject. However, Malinen argues, this does not mean that the relationship between the teacher and the learner is obsolete. In fact, it is "essential in establishing the quality of . . . learning" (p. 133).

    To help readers see how these five theories intersect, Malinen often uses columns, putting the five authors' words side by side to distinguish varying epistemologies and methodologies. Although this strategy can be useful when comparing specific phrases involved with similar concepts, such as a "Mezirowian disorienting dilemma, a Schönian element of surprise, a Revansian recognition of a common ignorance, a Knowlesian real or simulated experience, and a Kolbian surprising, unanticipated experience" (pp. 62-63), the complexity of these ideas still feels tangled. Out of their published context, the large portions of quoted text are difficult for the reader to absorb, and Malinen's analysis of these texts is complicated by her use of vocabulary that is defined differently by each of the theorists. Though Malinen's effort to uncover the subtle differences in the five theories is impressive, the book would have been strengthened had she included less of their published texts and more summation of her comprehensive findings.

    The intricate questions that Malinen explores in these pages can at times be overwhelming. However, readers who are already familiar with the theories of Knowles, Kolb, Mezirow, Revans, and Schön will find this book useful for exploring the epistemological nuances of five central theories of adult experiential education.

    A.H.
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    Book Notes