II: Perspectives of adult learning

Adult learners and theories of learning

Learning in adulthood: an introduction

It has been argued previously in this book that cognitive development and learning are close concepts. The focus of this chapter is on the concept of learning. Learning is a multifaceted phenomenon that takes place throughout the whole life. When talking about adult learning, we can mean at least four different situations. Firstly, coping in everyday life requires constantly learning new things. Using prior knowledge and learning new things are both prerequisites for, for example, learning how to use a new phone or prepare a new dish. Secondly, an important form of learning in everyday life is learning at work. Few work tasks today consist only of repeating some routine procedures. Instead, workers face new, complex problems daily that require innovative solutions and learning, either conscious or unconscious. Thirdly, in the era of lifelong learning we deliberately educate ourselves in certain periods of life. The motives for deliberately educating oneself might be related to coping with new demands, for example new challenging problems at work, or a need to educate oneself to something completely new. Fourthly, many of us want to learn new things on leisure time for a hobby. These different learning situations often take place in collaboration with other people and sometimes learning is not even possible without the help of others. The social aspect of learning is thus also crucial.

A division between different types of learning processes can be made between incidental and deliberate learning. In incidental learning, a person unintentionally learns something new that comes up in the situation as a by-product of another activity (Marsick & Watkins, 2015, p. 7). For example, an owner of a new smart phone can learn from a friend how to use a new application by accidentally seeing the friend using it. In this type of learning, the learner did not plan to leant something new; the learning happened unintentionally. In deliberate learning, the learner is aware that her goal is to leant something new and she deliberately pursues learning. In this intentional form of learning, the learner also monitors her learning by assessing whether she has reached the goal or not (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989). The basic mechanisms of learning in these different types of learning processes maybe similar, but the factors involved in the processes, such as motivation, goal orientation, and metacognitive regulation, may be very different.

Many researchers have proposed theories of learning that would describe the phenomenon fully and be applicable to a wide range of situations. These “unified” theories have not been successful because learning cannot be dealt with as one specific phenomenon but rather as more like a metaphoric concept that refers to several individual, social, and even organisational processes (Lehtinen, Hakkarainen, & Palonen, 2014). The tenn “learning” used in everyday discourses and scientific publications refers to a variety of phenomena; including behavioural changes in animals but also the learning of complex conceptual knowledge (Lehtinen, 2012; Saljo, 2009; Sfard, 1998). Recently, several attempts have been made to describe and organise this large variety of theories of learning (Lehtinen, 2012). For example, Sfard (1998) categorised theoretical thinking about learning into two ontologically different categories: the acquisition and participation metaphors of learning. Paavola, Lip-ponen, and Hakkarainen (2004) extended Sfard’s model by proposing an additional metaphor that they called the knowledge creation metaphor. The very idea in this way of thinking is that the different metaphors are not mutually exclusive, but in analysing learning in different situations and contexts, different theoretical approaches are needed (Lehtinen, 2012).

Saljo (2009) has highlighted that relevant understanding of the variety of different theories of learning requires that we pay attention to the differences in the units of analysis used in different theoretical approaches and the suppositions related to them. This leads to an approach in which learning is analysed not as one phenomenon but as a complex system. Learning as an adaptive complex system means that there are processes related to learning taking place on different levels of the system. These levels of the system are mutually interdependent but cannot be reduced to each other (Hurford, 2010; Lehtinen et al., 2014; Ohlsson, 2011). In human learning, there are several levels of the system. They all have unique properties that extend from very basic neural adaptation processes to intentional conceptual learning at the individual level all the way to changes in group processes and larger cultural activity systems. Following the principles of the complex and adaptive system approach we describe in this article the current state of the art as regards knowledge about some of the different systemic levels relevant for understanding adult learning.

This article explores the different types of processes of adult learning from the individual, social, and cultural perspectives. When focusing on the individual level, questions such as the structure and functions of memory, basic mechanisms of formation of concepts and skills, and the development of regulatory processes are crucial. Learners’ perceived characteristics in learning situations, such as factors concerning motivation, conceptions, and beliefs, direct the functioning of cognitive processes. Prior knowledge and experiences, as well as regulative skills, set the boundaries for the possibilities of learning in specific situations. On the social level, different forms of collaborative practices and processes that are partly based on the neurological predispositions for cooperation enable learning that would not be possible on the individual level. Cultural factors set a very powerful framework for learning processes. The tools, equipment, language, and signs that we use, as well as their history, have a major impact on what kind of communities of expertise can be formed. Understanding and supporting the types of learning needed in rapidly changing environments requires analysis of the processes related to constructing radically novel concepts and deliberate practice leading to advanced practices. It is also necessary to analyse the functioning of social processes and larger expert networks facilitating the increase of individual and collective intellectual capacity.

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