Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Gender, Experience and Knowledge in Adult Learning

Elena Micelson
Gender, Experience, and Knowledge in Adult Learning: Alisoun's Daughters (Routledge, 2015)

There is broad agreement that experiential learning plays a central role in adult education. Adults learn by doing and by drawing on their own prior experiences and knowledge as they do so. Malcolm Knowles, the founder of andragogy (the theory of adult learning), made six assumptions about adult learning and two of these assumptions revolve around experience. The first is that adults bring their own experiences to their learning. The second is adult learning is best when it is problem-centred rather than content-centred. David Kolb's Learning Cycle (shown below) also places experience at the heart of adult learning.

This book does not question the importance of experiential learning but looks deeper at the assumptions made about what those experiences (and the reflection that arises out of it) actually are. The author maintains that there is an assumption that we will experience the same thing in roughly the same way and following on from that our reflections will also be broadly similar. Galileo stated that anybody could look through his telescope and they would all see the same thing.

The author wants to reflect on whether that is true. Could it be that our 'universal' concept of experience and knowledge is socially conditioned and that gender, sexuality, race and class need to be taken into account when thinking about what experience and knowledge actually are. If we all looked through Galileo's telescope we may very well all see the same thing but our experiences would be very different and our reflections on what we saw would all be different too. On top of that she argues that we tend to value some kinds of experience and knowledge over others and that the ones that we devalue are, not without coincidence, the experiences and knowledge of women, ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups.

As an example, I am involved with a educational movement called Trade School which offers learning in exchange for bartered items. In the 'About' page of the Trade School website it says that "Trade School celebrates practical wisdom". Just think about that word "wisdom" for a moment and then picture first a wise man and then a wise woman. Does "wisdom" suddenly become gendered? What I see (and I hope I'm not alone here) when I think of a wise man is somebody scholarly, a  deep thinker, somebody who thinks in the abstract and is somewhat aloof and detached from the rest of the world. A wise woman, however, feels to me to be keepers of a traditional and archaic knowledge that she learnt from previous generations and will pass onto the next. Her learning comes from her experience of the world and of community around her. It is a wisdom that may not be valued as much as that of her male counterpart.

For the author of this book many adult educational theorists (especially Kolb) either simply ignore or downgrade the social context of peoples' experience and knowledge. She does give some credence to John Dewey (one of our most pre-eminent educational theorists) for believing that experiential learning can only properly exist within a social sphere. The different experiences and the different forms of knowledge that come from that experience should be properly acknowledged in the field of adult education. 

I have to admit that I found parts of this book quite dense and difficult to read. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that the disciplines of postmodernism, feminist epistemology, queer theory and critical studies simply did not exist when I was at university in the early 1980s so I was starting from a position behind many of the intended readers of this book. They will be familiar with many of these ideas anyway and probably use the same kind of language. 

Yet for anybody interested in the theory (and practice) of adult learning I believe that this book would be a very useful read. I didn't have a "Road to Damascus" moment as the scales fell from my eyes as I turned over every page, What I did experience was a view into a part of a world that I thought I knew quite well but that I hadn't seen through the experiences of others. Perhaps, as adult educators, that's the most useful lesson to be taken from this book. Adult educators must not assume that adult learners are able or willing to look through their eyes.

P.S. 'Alisoun's Daughter' mentioned in the title is the Wife of Bath from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I'm glad the author chose her as the role model for this book. It's my favourite of the Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath is outrageous, opinionated and, in the context of the fourteenth century, very liberated indeed. Her first words are:

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke...

[Experience, though no authority were in this world,
is enough grounds for me to speak...]

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