Adults and Adulthood
Sally Rogers, a high school English teacher, was asked by the adult education coordinator to teach an evening course. The title of the course was "Writing for Fun and Profit." Sally agreed thinking she could adapt most of what she used in her 11th grade writing course. She quickly found this to be a problem. For example, most of the illustrations in the text focussed on teenagers and their problems. She also discovered that a favorite technique she used with the 11th graders, that of having the students find a current event in the newspaper and then write a short essay on it, was objected to by the adults. They wanted to write about things that were important to them, rather than on some current event. Sally then realized that she would need to understand much more about how adults learn and develop, and adjust her teaching approaches accordingly.
There is little doubt that as a society, we are becoming more mature and adult oriented. If we take a moment and look about us, we can quickly see images of such change in the media, in politics, in the workplace, and certainly on college and university campuses. As
one example of this increasing adult orientation, many campuses now offer student services for the older learner. These services range from customary counseling and advising programs to organized day care centers and support groups for women. There are also noticeable changes in terms of courses like Sally Rogers was asked to teach or in the various degree programs where many courses are offered during more flexible times such as late afternoons, evenings, and on weekends.
Despite some of these changes, and the types of societal changes suggested in Chapter One, most higher education institutions and instructors, as well as most other organizations involved with instructing or training adults, continue to hold on to many old practices. Substantial alterations must occur in these various organizations if they are to serve the varied needs of the adult learner.
1. Adults as learners are simply not "big kids." Consequently, you should understand some of the differences between adults and youth as preparation for thinking about some of the instructional suggestions provided in this book.
Adults are different than younger people in that they have more experience, have multiple responsibilities, and must use time in an efficient manner. Adults also are complex beings, and as Draves (1984) has noted, "they bring to the learning situation a combined set of emotional, physical, mental, and social characteristics that makes each one of [them] unique" (p.7).
It is necessary to understand something about such complexities if we are to have success in working with the adult learner and in using an individualizing approach to instruction. In the following sections, we explore in some detail several human characteristics in an effort to better understand the adult as learner and the individualizing approach.
The debate over adult mental ability or intelligence has raged for years and may be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century. Evidence collected during World War I suggested that intellectual ability reached its peak at about the age of seventeen or eighteen, and then rapidly declined thereafter. Further studies using IQ tests tended to confirm this conclusion and helped cement the notion that "you can't teach old dogs new tricks."
The first significant work on adult intelligence to begin to refute these claims was published by Thorndike in 1928. Thorndike, using a series of laboratory tests, concluded that although learning
ability reached its peak somewhere between twenty and twenty-five years of age, adults could learn and intelligence did not decline significantly until about age fifty. This rather optimistic view evolved despite the fact that many of his experiments have been found to include factors that support a negative picture of learning and aging. As Darkenwald and Merriam (1982) have noted, "his studies were cross-sectional, testing a young cohort against an older cohort, most of the results were based on timed and/or motor tasks, and the tasks selected were not particularly meaningful to the participants (learning to write with the left hand or memorizing an artificial language, for example)" (p. 105). Still, for the first time, educators who worked with adults had positive evidence about the intellectual functioning of people as they got older.
This more optimistic view of adult intelligence was tempered a few years later by the results of a study conducted by Jones and Conrad (1933). In a rather ingenious study, the researchers administered the Army Alpha test to residents of a New Hampshire village who had been invited to attend a motion picture showing free of charge. During intermission the researchers had the residents complete the tests; those individuals who did not attend the movie were visited in their homes and invited to take part. Later the researchers analyzed the data. They concluded that intelligence peaked at about 21 and then gradually declined thereafter. They found that there was a decline "which is much more gradual than the curve of growth, but which by the age of 55 involves a recession to the 14-year level" (Weisenburg, Roe, & McBride, 1936, p. 23). One of the most intriguing aspects of the Jones and Conrad study was how the researchers chose to interpret performance of the different age groups on the various sub-tests. For example, scores on the "information" and "vocabulary" sub-tests did not reveal any age-related decline. However, deficits were noted on such sub-tests as "numerical completions." On the basis of these findings, Jones and Conrad concluded that the information and vocabulary tests were the least valid indicators of intelligence, and the tests emphasizing speed such as the numerical completion test, were a major factor in the measure of intelligence (Kidd, 1973). This conclusion put adults at a major disadvantage as compared to younger subjects.
Categorizing subjects according to age groups or cohorts and then comparing them on on equal footing was also considered an acceptable practice during the early years of intelligence research. Fortunately, researchers have since realized that these assumptions are fallacious, and in fact, give younger subjects a decided advantage. For example, the assumption that all subjects are the same regardless of age has been shown to be erroneous (Botwinick, 1978; Schaie, Labouvie, & Buech, 1973). What researchers of fifty and sixty years ago failed to account for is that time marches forward. They believed that all subjects--young and old--could be considered equal in every respect. This was despite the fact that younger subjects had considerably more formal schooling that older ones.
2. Assessing the actual learning ability of adults is no easy task.
As may already be apparent, the task of assessing learning ability is not as simple or straightforward as was originally thought. In addition to those problems noted above, there are other problems that confound the situation even further. For example, learning ability may be thought of as potential, as actual measured performance, as power to learn, or as speed of learning (Long, 1983).
Learning is usually associated with some change in performance. Although it may be desirable to link potential with performance, there is no way at present to measure potential independent of performance. Yet, many of the early studies did not distinguish between these variables. For example, Thorndike's work was heavily biased in the direction of ability or potential, when in reality he was dealing with evidence based on performance.
Once researchers realized that the study and analysis of adult intelligence was far more complex than originally thought, a very different picture emerged. Lorge (1963) conducted a replication of Jones and Conrad's original study; adjusting for the penalty that age places on speed-power tests, he concluded there was no intellectual decline as once thought with age. Lorge went on to say that his correction was not really a correction for age but for slowness, remoteness from schooling, disuse of practice with school functions, and lack of motivation.
3. The differentiation of fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence helped promote a greater understanding of adult abilities and limitations.
Additional attempts to better describe adult mental ability
were offered by Cattell (1963) and further tested and refined by Cattell and Horn (Cattell, 1968; Horn & Cattell, 1966a, 1966b; Horn 1967). They identified two distinct kinds of intelligence--fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence--that helped account for improved performance by adults on verbal tests and declining performance on visual and reaction measures. The theory is based on the premise that cohesion in intelligence is produced by the interaction of two contrasting but interacting influences: neurophysiology and acculturation (Knox, 1977; Schaie & Willis, 1986).
Fluid intelligence is thought to be primarily innate in nature and is related to all types of problem solving. It is what Wechsler (1958) called "native mental ability" and relates to how well an individual perceives complex relations, uses short-term memory, forms concepts, and engages in abstract reasoning. Fluid intelligence is relatively formless and appears independent of experience and education. Some examples of fluid intelligence include rote memory, common word analogies, and verbal reasoning.
Crystallized intelligence consists of acquired abilities such as verbal comprehension, numerical skills, and inductive reasoning. It is based on acculturation, including those factors learned in formal schools and in society. Thus, crystallized intelligence appears to be culturally based and is best applied to bodies of information such as school subjects (Long, 1983). Some examples of crystallized intelligence include general information, word lists, reading comprehension, vocabulary tests and how much knowledge the individual extracts from the social and physical environment.
Taken together, both types of intelligence cover most of the learning tasks that confront adults. According to Knox (1977), ". . . they constitute the global capacity to learn, reason, and solve problems that most people refer to as intelligence. Fluid and crystallized intelligence are complementary in that some learning tasks can be mastered mainly by exercising either fluid or crystallized intelligence" (p. 420).
Researchers investigating fluid and crystallized intelligence have discovered some interesting findings in relation to maturation and performance. Both fluid and crystallized intelligence increase during childhood and into adolescence. However, with the slowing of the maturation process, fluid intelligence tends
to reach its peak during adolescence and decline rapidly during adulthood. Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, continues to increase gradually throughout adulthood. Cunningham, Clayton, and Overton (1975) found that when untimed tests were given, the scores related to crystallized intelligence were the same or higher in the fifties as in the twenties. Figure 1 below summarizes the general picture of fluid and crystallized intelligence patterns with age.
What does all of this mean? According to Knox (1977), as fluid intelligence declines and crystallized intelligence increases in adulthood, general learning ability remains relatively stable. However, as people continue to grow older, they increasingly compensate for the loss of fluid intelligence by relying more heavily on crystallized intelligence. In short, this means they substitute wisdom for brilliance.
In more practical terms, the distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence is useful in that it helps explain the changes in intellectual performance over the lifespan. Since fluid intelligence is genetically based and independent of education or life experience, it
makes sense that performance would decline on some standardized tests. Some subtests of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (Wechsler, 1958) are correlated with fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence, however, increases with age and other subtests of the Wechsler scale are correlated with it. This type of intelligence is dependent upon experience, accumulated knowledge, and relationships between an individual and the social environment. As Darkenwald and Merriam (1982) observe, "The decrease in fluid and the increase in crystallized intelligence serve as equalizers with the end effect of a fairly stable overall IQ measure throughout adulthood" (p. 107).
4. Researchers who investigate the intellectual functioning of adults throughout the lifespan are painting an increasingly rosy picture of such functioning.
As we have seen, when different types of intelligence and meaningful measures are introduced, adult performance is maintained or even continues to increase well into later life. Schaie and Willis (1986) sum up this mounting evidence by observing, "If you keep your health and engage your mind with the problems and activities of the world around you, chances are good that you will experience little if any decline in intellectual performance in your lifetime. That's the promise of research in the area of adult intelligence" (p. 318).
There are other factors related to age trends in learning ability that also help explain performance change during adulthood. Factors such as physical condition, social class, and personality are important attributes that help describe adult life more completely. At the same time, they are often mistakenly applied to learning trends over the lifespan, and therefore, not separated out. For example, social class standing and extent of formal education have been shown to be more consistently associated with learning ability than age (Fozard & Nuttall, 1971. In the next sections, we will look more closely at these factors as a way of understanding the power each has in explaining the complexity of adulthood.
Nowhere is change in adulthood more evident than in those factors associated with physical growth and development. We can readily see these changes in ourselves as well as those around us. Telltale signs such as the graying of hair, slowing of body movement, and the addition of eyeglasses and hearing aids are all associated with growing older. For many years, these signs were taken pejoratively; something
to avoid at all costs. It was not unusual to find many older people putting on their eyeglasses or hearing aids only in the company of loved ones. The stigmatism of growing old in American society has, until recently, been a curse or deadly affliction.
Fortunately, much of this has changed during the past twenty years. We now see programs on television portraying the adult years in a realistic and accurate manner. Comedy shows and daytime soaps offer glimpses of real people. Even advertisements, once fascinated with the fountain of youth, have started to become more balanced in their portrayal of adulthood (Hiemstra, Goodman, Middlemiss, Vosko, & Ziegler, 1983). Perhaps no other place than in politics have we seen such a dramatic shift in the public's view of adulthood. It is not unusual today to find elected officials well into their seventies or eighties holding enormous power. And, as this becomes more the rule, we are likely to continue to see adulthood viewed in an increasingly optimistic way.
5. A variety of physical changes occur naturally throughout life that have a significant bearing on adult performance in and out of the learning setting.
With aging there are sensory changes which result from deterioration of the sensory apparatus itself, or deteriorations in the central nervous system. Both are susceptible to disease. The two most dominant sensory processes that we use are our eyes and ears. Both exhibit marked changes over the lifespan, but these changes can be overcome through corrective measures.
Some years ago, Kidd (1973) spoke to this point: "probably . . . [the] best index of the soundness of the human animal is the health and capacity of the eye. There are more substantial changes associated with aging of the eye than in almost any other characteristic" (p. 62). Growth in the function of the eye is very rapid in early childhood but then begins to slow during adolescence. This is followed by a gradual decline until the beginning of the fourth decade of life. Then a sharp decline occurs starting at about forty and continuing until age fifty-five. After that, the rate of change becomes more moderate.
In addition to a marked change in visual acuity during adulthood, there is also a change in the amount of illumination required. Research evidence suggests that after age fifty, the amount of illumination becomes a critical factor. For example, a fifty year old learner is likely to need twice as much illumination as a twenty year old learner (Cross, 1981).
The gradual deterioration of eyesight illustrates how the effects of aging need not interfere with the learning process. Without a doubt, these changes left unheeded will have a detrimental effect on learning performance. However, with the use of corrective eyewear and environments that can be adjusted for light intensity, normal and effective learning performance can be expected throughout adulthood.
Hearing, like vision, is susceptible to significant changes over the life span. Loss of hearing is the result of changes in the sensory apparatus itself where the neural processes involved in the transmission of sound become impaired. In most people, hearing acuity increases to about age fifteen and then gradually declines until about sixty-five. Thereafter, there is a sharp decline in hearing ability. Older people are also susceptible to a significant loss of hearing at the highest frequencies (beyond 10,000 cycles per second), and those at the lowest register of 125 cycles per second or less (Kidd, 1973).
Cross (1981) suggests that of all the physical impairments that accompany aging, loss of hearing may be the most difficult to overcome because it isolates the individual and is not usually visible to others. She goes on to say that the psychological damage may be greater than the actual physical affliction. This is a real problem that should not be overlooked. Often, enlisting the help of a spouse or loved one can be instrumental in an adult recognizing the importance and normalcy of correcting for hearing loss. If this can be accomplished, there is corrective equipment, such as hearing aids, that can return hearing performance to near normal conditions. In addition, the size of hearing aid equipment has been reduced to a point where the devices are hardly noticeable. Some can even be embedded in the ear canal or in the stem of eyewear.
There are other physiological changes that effect adult performance as well. They seem to be less significant than vision and hearing, but do have an effect. The most obvious is reaction time. Here, quite simply, as people grow older, they slow down. What this has meant in classroom situations is less clear than the meaning in terms of performance on timed tests. Clearly, adults on the average perceive, think, and act more slowly than younger learners. At least that is what timed tests have demonstrated. However, there is mounting evidence that speed of learning is overemphasized in most learning settings to the detriment of learners of all ages.
Another factor that exercises some affect over adult performance is physical health. Put simply, with advancing age there is a shift from illness that is acute in young adulthood (such as infections or accidents) to illness that is chronic (such as arthritis or circulatory problems) (Knox, 1977). What this means is that as people grow older, they are more likely to encounter diseases that may be long term or life-ending. This alone can have a dramatic affect on learning performance and offers another explanation for the variation of performance measured over the life span.
What steps can be taken to deal with these physiological factors so that the learning the learning performance can be enhanced? Obviously, knowing something about the normal physical changes that accompany adulthood is a good starting place. However, there are some concrete steps instructors of adults can take to expedite this process even more. In later chapters, we go into great detail along these lines.
Emotional factors also play a significant part in the learning enterprise, especially for adults. How people view education and learning is often tied directly to the kinds of experiences they had as students in the younger years. For example, if an individual found school to be a positive and rewarding experience, this affection will most likely be maintained throughout adulthood. If, on the other hand, an individual found school to be a negative and painful experience, then these same feelings often remain during the aging process. The end result may be the difference between a lifetime of active learning versus one of isolated provincialism.
6. Adults do not have fewer emotional experiences than children. They are just better at hiding their feelings.
Cross (1981), in describing a motivational model for adults, pinpoints self-evaluation and attitudes toward education as two of the most important elements in understanding how and why adults participate in learning activities. She points out that those persons who lack confidence in their abilities as learners are unlikely to volunteer in learning situations that might present a threat to their self-esteem. A similar situation would also exist in regard to attitudes toward education.
Thus, it is highly unlikely that an adult who had bad educational experiences as a youngster would return voluntarily to the scene of one's former embarrassment.
Recent research into adult participation has yielded some interesting findings as to what causes a person to either enroll in a learning activity or not. Rather than focus on what motivated a person to enroll say in an evening course at the local community college, efforts have been aimed at discerning what obstacles or barriers prevented participation. The results have been especially helpful in understanding the emotional complexity of adult life.
Obstacles or barriers can be organized according to three categories: situational, institutional, and dispositional (Cross, 1981). In a class like that taught by Sally Rogers described at the beginning of the chapter, it would not be unusual for several of her students to face one or more obstructions. Situational barriers are obstructions that arise from the circumstances of a person's life at any given time. Lack of money for tuition because the car broke down the week before classes started is one example. Lack of child care for a single parent would be another. Institutional barriers consist of all those policies and procedures that prevent or discourage an adult from participating in educational activities. Inflexible course schedules, full-time fees for part-time study, and administrative offices being open only during the day would be examples of this kind of a barrier. Dispositional barriers are similar to those we have already mentioned above. They relate to attitudes and self-perceptions about oneself as a learner. Many older people, for example, feel they are too old to learn. Another example would be the adult learner who breaks out in a cold sweat every time the thought of taking a math test occurs.
Taken as a whole, understanding these different kinds of barriers can be helpful in realizing that it is much more difficult for the adult learner to participate in an educational activity, than it is for the younger person whose primary occupation is that of student. Joe Daniels, Sally Rogers' students, and most other adult learners must juggle all sorts of roles, responsibilities, and expectations in order to participate in the first place. If any one of these barriers proves to be insurmountable, then the results will be predictable.
One of the most interesting outcomes regarding such barriers is that when participants are asked to indicate which is most important or significant, situational and institutional barriers are cited more frequently than dispositional barriers. Factors such as time, money, or unresponsive
institutional practices are frequently voiced. However, this situation is often misleading. The real importance of dispositional barriers is probably underestimated in that it is far more acceptable to say we are too busy to participate in learning activities or that they cost too much than it is to say we are too old to learn or lack the ability. Because of this, you should be alert for hidden signs which tell the true feelings of the individual learner.
There is little doubt that the life of an adult is much more varied and demanding than that of the child or adolescent. Adults are expected to be responsible for their actions, provide for themselves and their loved ones, and contribute to the welfare of the community. Society expects, even demands this. These "social roles" as Havighurst (1972) called them are part of everyday life, but can be easily overlooked when brought to the context of education.
7. It is important for an instructor to find answers to two important questions: "What does it mean to be an adult?" and "What does being an adult have to do with being a learner?"
By addressing these questions we believe we can demonstrate how your understanding certain social characteristics of adults is important to the success of the instructional transactions in educational settings. The first question, "What does it mean to be an adult?" can be examined in a number of ways. We might say that an adult is one who has achieved the age of majority and with this certain rights and responsibilities such as voting or military service. We might also say that an adult is one who has accumulated a potpourri of experiences, both good and bad. Another definition might emphasize the notion of independence and autonomy. While still another might focus on the characteristics of maturity and wisdom.
Regardless of how one defines an adult, two social characteristics stand out as significant in the context of teaching and learning: experience and diversity. Adults come from a variety of backgrounds, occupations, and locations. They have an assortment of experiences:
Unless the instructor of the computer course can overcome some of his negative stereotypes about older learners and provide a means whereby differences in background and experiences are integrated into the learning environment, unfortunate results such Joe and perhaps even John may simply drop the course.
There are other social factors that should be considered when instructing adults. Smith (1982), has identified four essential characteristics that adult learners exhibit. First, they have multiple roles and responsibilities, and this results in a different orientation to learning than children or adolescents. Second, adults have accumulated many different life experiences, and these result in certain learning mode, environment, and style preferences. Third, adults pass through a number of physical, psychological, and social phases during their lives. The periods of transition from one phase to another provide for the analysis and rearrangement of prior experience. Fourth, adults experience anxiety and ambivalence in their orientation to learning. For example, earlier schooling experiences such as those Joe had may inhibit personal attempts to become more autonomous and self-directing.
These four characteristics, according to Smith, create the conditions for adults to learn. In other words, adults learn best when they feel the need to learn and when they have some control over what is to be learned. Adults use their experiences as
resources in learning and look for meaningful relationships between new knowledge or information and prior experience. The motivation to learn is often related to the individual's developmental changes and life tasks. For example, a young couple receiving the pleasant news that they will have a baby typically leads to their both learning more about parenting and how to handle new born babies. Finally, adults generally learn best in supportive environments where differences in personality, background, and learning styles are both recognized and encouraged.
Similarly, Knowles (1984) has identified several key characteristics about adult learners stemming from his work on andragogy that have been supported by research and form the foundation for working with adults. They are as follows (p. 31):
The foregoing discussion has illustrated some of the differences between adults and children or adolescents. The problem is that when we ask the second question--What does being adult have to do with being a learner?--because it is often difficult to
explain the relationship between the two concepts. Some instructors see learners as "generic" students, whatever their age, and they are content to instruct in a manner that is inconsistent with what we know about adulthood.
Thus, there is the need for congruence between what it means to be an adult and what it means to be a learner. Successful instructors of adults realize this and look for ways of integrating the specialized circumstances, abilities, and experiences among all adults in their learning activities. Effective instructors find out about their participants through such techniques as informal conversations, needs assessments, and collaborative discussion groups. They spend time helping participants create positive relationships with the learning content, other participants, and the instructor.
Adults bring a wealth of experience to the learning environment, both good and bad. Being aware of each participant as a distinct and developing individual is an important first-step in your role as instructor. Treating each individual as you yourself would expect to be treated is of vital importance. Creating an atmosphere where participants themselves, about those around them, and about you as the instructor can help establish a spirit of mutual inquiry.
Through a more fundamental understanding of adults as learners, you can help them realize their own unique potential. By creating supportive and challenging settings, you will assist learners in planning, implementing, and evaluating their own learning. And, in the process, you will actually further the goals of individualizing instruction.
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