Teaching, Learning, and Consequences: The Factor of Change in Adult Education

Posted: February 1, 2007 in Adult Education, Education, Educational Technology, Ethics


Learning is change, and change carries with it consequences. Hergenhahn points out: “Learning is a relatively permanent change in behavior or in behavioral potentiality that results from experience and cannot be attributed to temporary body states such as those induced by illness, fatigue, or drugs” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 250). Maples and Webster state: “Learning can be thought of as a process by which behavior changes as a result of experiences” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 250). Change is what learning is all about, and with change comes a turning point for educators and learners whereby decisions are made as to what effect or impact learning will have on life. Kelman and Warwick identify education as “any act, planned or unplanned, that alters the characteristics of another individual or the pattern of relationships between individuals” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 371). For educators it is important to understand the causes, value, impact, resistance to, and consequences of change and to prepare for the rewards and challenges that come from teaching and learning.

Why Education and Change?

What causes learners to seek out education and change? Life events often elicit adults to engage in formal or informal education. Aslanian and Brickell state that most adults “learn in order to cope with some change in their lives,” and these triggering events directly or indirectly motivate a need or desire for learning (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 107). Transitions in life due to age, marriage, job opportunities, and disease are all examples of life events that either cause or encourage learning. Some of these events are based on an accepted life timetable such as graduating high school, going to college, getting a job, getting married, and starting a family, but some events like illness, divorce, and death of a child are life changing situations that come unexpectedly. No person’s life follows the same pattern, and each person brings different and varied experiences to a learning situation.

Dealing With Contradictions and Paradoxes

The world has contradictions and paradoxes, and as learners engage in the learning process they are faced with making meaning of new knowledge and information. Reflection offers an important way to piece together knowledge by relating it to past experiences. Dialectical thinking serves as a catalyst for new knowledge and the change that comes via learning. “Thinking in a dialectic sense allows for the acceptance of alternative truths or ways of thinking about similar phenomena that abound in everyday adult life” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 152). Kramer observes that this type of thinking begins in childhood but reaches a level of maturity at middle age (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 153). Furthermore, Kramer’s idea alludes “this mature dialectic thought is characterized by an awareness that all thought processes are culturally and historically bound and therefore dynamic and constantly evolving” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 153). In the end, “ways of thinking then become neither inherently good nor bad but rather are seen as unique for different groups of people at specified points in time” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 153). Learning is dynamic, and what once seemed to be the case in defining a person’s meaning is often subject to change. This change can also be far reaching.

Mezirow and Freire

Two theorists that extend the process of learning and change are Mezirow and Freire. Mezirow’s transformational learning theory focuses on “dramatic, fundamental change in the way we see ourselves and the world in which we live” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 318). “The mental construction of experience, inner meaning, and reflection are common components” of transformational learning (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 318). Mezirow points out that life is viewed through “meaning perspectives” that serve as a “lens through which each person filters, engages, and interprets the world” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 320). To summarize the effects of perspective transformation: “A change in perspective is personally emancipating in that one is freed from previously held beliefs, attitudes, values, and feelings that have constricted and distorted one’s life” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 320). Freire’s emancipatory philosophy centers on radical social change, and this philosophy reaches for a stage of consciousness called critical consciousness (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 325). “Here one achieves an in-depth understanding of the forces that shape one’s life space, and becomes an active agent in constructing a different, more just reality” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 325). In a sense, both theorists rely on critical thinking as a way to transform the learner. In effect, as learners are introduced to new concepts, and as they accept them into their lives, they are transformed and reach a new state of being and understanding. This understanding may generally not support prior thinking and can bring about a major shift in the life of the learner. Such a shift can lead to consequences that change the learner’s life situation in many ways.

Resistance to Change

Some learners resist change, but not necessarily because they personally don’t want to change. Daloz points out: “Most adults are richly enmeshed in a fabric of relationships which hold them as they are, and many of their friends and relations do not wish to see them change…Sometimes it is just plain simpler to stay right where they are, or at least appear that way” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 371). Generally, a learner resists change because they do not feel they can move past their current life expectations, or they do not feel they need to change. This is a reality that may discourage teaching, but as Illeris states:

However, resistance can also lead to accommodations of a more constructive nature with far reaching results to follow, partly because the resistance potential can be a very strong incentive, which in a constructive process can unite with the life fulfillment potential in an effort to find and develop alternatives to those conditions perceived as unacceptable. (Illeris, 2002, p. 102)

Furthermore, Illeris warns “in many cases education forms the only context where participants have a realistic opportunity to allow their resistance to unfold and to adapt it in a constructive and progressive manner, and that this can be the source of the most far reaching potential for learning” (Illeris, p. 103). Although resistance to change can serve as a challenge for an educator or learner, its potential for growth is immense, and within the context of a proper learning environment can be a positive experience for the educator and learner.


Creating a positive learning environment is a key to learning, and ethics play a major role in reaching that end. Merriam and Caffarella pose some interesting questions concerning ethics and adult learning: “What is the right way to act in the teaching-learning situation? What are the responsibilities of the instructor and the learner? Do we have the right to challenge learners to grow?” (p. 369). They point out: “The changes that occur as the result of actively engaging in learning activities can be profound and disturbing to the learner” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 383). Because a learner may not be prepared for the consequences of learning, or even resist learning as mentioned earlier, it is paramount that an educator be prepared to offer advice and assistance to a learner as they face challenges in accepting and incorporating new knowledge into their lives. An educator can provide resources that outline the choices, but “the decision to proceed in a particular direction lies ultimately with the learner, not the educator” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 385). Education is often empowering and as Merriam and Cafarella refer and cite Freire they state:

For those who follow an empowerment model of education, the consequences of enabling adults to take control of their own lives are fraught with ethical questions. Empowerment involves the important notion of praxis-reflection and action. Learners who become aware of their oppression become empowered to take action to change not only their situation but the social structure that led to oppression in the first place. (p. 384)

Critical theory further expands on the decision-making process of the learner in education.

Critical Theory

Adult education in the context of critical theory moves beyond the status quo as established by the system. Adult educators try not to concern themselves so much with the arrangement of the classroom or the objectives of the course, but look to reach out or create learning situations that enable students to have a voice in the educational process. Habermas refers to discourse where bias and prejudice are set aside and people are more open and objective in the educational process (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 353). Critical theory works to enable people to “unfold their potentials” and not a potential that has been defined by a dominant society or system (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 353). Essentially, as stated by Collins, critical theory works to allow educators and learners to become involved in tasks that “identify social structures and practices which (mis) shape social learning processes and undermine capacities adults already possess to control their own education” (Merriam & Caffarella, p. 353). To continue, Merriam and Caffarella identify a key suggestion by Collins: “critical practice means being engaged in definable concrete projects for social change without which talk of justice, emancipation, and equality becomes hollow rhetoric” (p. 353). Furthermore, Vella’s twelve principles for effective adult learning are examples of enabling critical theory goals, and creating a positive learning environment with the idea of quantum thinking: “looking at the world in a new way” (Vella, 2002, p. 29).

Jane Vella

Vella incorporates elements of dialectical thinking, transformational learning, emancipatory philosophy, dealing with resistance, ethics, empowerment, and critical theory with her twelve principles for effective adult learning. Vella’s twelve principles include: needs assessment; safety; sound relationships; sequence and reinforcement; praxis; respect for learners as decision makers; ideas, feelings, and actions; immediacy; clear roles and role development; teamwork; engagement; and accountability (Vella, p. 4). Vella states: “One basic assumption in all this is that adult learning is best achieved in dialogue…the word between us” (p. 3).

To teach Vella points out that it is vital that an educator conduct a needs assessment to ascertain what experiences the learner brings to the learning situation and based on these experiences, what the learner needs to know. Creating a safe learning environment is important to create a circumstance where students can share their life experiences, apply new knowledge, discuss understanding, and reveal concerns about what is being learned in an uninhibited manner. Resistance can play a role in the idea of safety, but an educator must remember this can be an opportunity for resistance to unfold as learners recognize they are in a non-threatening environment.

Safety goes hand in hand with Vella’s idea of developing sound relationships. A sound relationship is based on mutual respect, and Vella refers to Freire’s statement that “Only the student can name the moment of the death of the professor” (p. 88). Vella adds: “And only the professor can welcome that moment” (p. 88)! Another of Vella’s principles is sequence and reinforcement. “Sequence means the programming of knowledge, skills, and attitudes in an order that goes from simple to complex and from group supported to solo efforts” (Vella, p. 13). “Reinforcement means the repetition of facts, skills, and attitudes in diverse, engaging, and interesting ways until they are learned” (Vella, p. 13). Praxis is action with reflection, and here Vella directly ties to Freire’s empowerment model. Reflection is a key component in Vella’s twelve principles because it allows the learner to take new content and reflect on past experience but also enables the learner to apply this new content in new situations (Vella, p. 14). Praxis is a state of learning by doing and reflecting throughout the process.

Next, respect for learners as decision makers ties into ethics and education. It is ultimately up to the learner to decide what will be done with the knowledge gained in any situation. As learners realize that this is what the teacher wants, it allows for greater meaning and understanding on the learner’s part but also enables the learner to take responsibility for their own learning.

Vella’s next step relates to safety: “Using the principle that there are three aspects of learning: ideas (cognitive), feelings (affective), and actions (psychomotor), we can prevent that initial fear at the onset of a new adult learning event” (Vella, p. 17). A learner’s ideas and feelings lead to actions, and an educator plays a vital role in nurturing these learning events. Action is a result of change, and true learning leads to action on the part of the learner.

A learner often engages in furthering their education based on life events, and when they do they don’t have time to waste. Vella warns: “We want to spend our time studying content that will make a difference now” (p. 19). Furthermore, throughout the process role clarification is necessary to enable dialogue. Vella clarifies: “Adult students need reinforcement of the human equity between teacher and student and among students. It takes time for adults to see themselves and the teacher in a new role” (p. 20). In essence, this principle of role clarification is closely related to sound relationships. Vella points out the influence of Freire and the death of the professor, and she goes on to point out that the educator “might, through hard work and study, be able to name the moment of their own death as professor and celebrate their living as learners” (p. 188).

Vella’s final three principles, teamwork, engagement, and accountability, are bound together in the fact that people, or all living things for that matter, do not develop alone, and as humans engage in quantum thinking, they are held accountable by events, themselves, and their colleagues (Vella, pp. 23-25). All of Vella’s principles lead to change. Vella relates: “Thomas Kuhn offers us a useful hypothesis: change of a pattern which he calls a paradigm shift, will only occur when the present pattern has proven ineffective and impossible to live with” (p. 26). Vella’s principles are dialectical, transformative, and emancipatory, they ease resistance, and engage critical thinking and reflection.


Vella’s goal, and the goal of all adult learning, is to bring about meaningful change, to assist a learner in unfolding their personal potential, and to help look at the world in a new way. Quantum thinking is significant thinking. It is at catalyst for change that is fueled by open dialogue, and a desire to learn: a desire to change. Change then is not only a factor in adult education, but may more properly be defined as a result. The result can be simple, or an eye-opening experience that can persist for a lifetime. Change is also dynamic and most often leads to more learning and hence more change. In any case, the crux of adult learning is both the educator and the student working together thinking dialectically, transforming their lives, becoming emancipated from old ideas, breaking through resistance, respecting ethics, and empowering each other: true learning or change, if is to be meaningful, needs to exist in such a way.


Illeris, K. (2002). The Three Dimensions of Learning. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company.

Merriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Vella, J. (2002). Learning to Listen Learning to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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