Handbook of Research on Adult Learning and Development

I am reading the 2009 Handbook of Research on Adult Learning and Development edited by M.C. Smith . It’s comprehensive overview of theoretical perspectives on adult development and learning, research methods in adult development, aging research and policy perspectives on aging. Understanding adult learning requires understanding developmental changes across adulthood.

There are 26 chapters, and I plan separate blogposts summarising the key insights from each.

This will be a largely notetaking rather than an analytical exercise.


In the latest issue of Nature there is a short article about the International Commission on Stratigraphy currently studying the case for making official the term Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene would be a peculiar addition to the geological timescale. So far, it is more a prediction than a fact of Earth’s history, because many of its defining features are only starting to register in the rock record. And the driving force behind the geological transition it labels is not a continental rearrangement, massive volcanism or an extraterrestrial impact — forces that have reshaped the planet in the past. Yet the Anthropocene does deserve proper recognition. It reflects a grim reality on the ground, and it provides a powerful framework for considering global change and how to manage it.

But a reader (Neville Woolf) suggests that the notion of anthroposcene is limited, because it ignores the existence of what he calls “a third kind of life form”:

There is an implicit assumption that humans are the key aspect of this transition, rather than that it is the addition of a third kind of life form characterized by external memory/analysis systems. The bulk of life forms use a single genetic memory. There was a transition during the Cambrian Revolution to add a second type of life form with a sensory-cognitive-motor capability. Now we have a third kind of life form which also uses the storage capabilities of inorganic matter and the analytic capabilities of computers. The result is now that machines are better at prediction than are brains. This is the driving capability of the new life form, and the assumption that the control will remain with humans rather than move to the machines seems implausible

This is an interesting idea and would suggest that the current period could be termed technocene, although I am struggling to think of the ways in which this third form can be said to be life.

The rise of the creative class

In The Rise of Creative ClassRichard Florida points out that little analytical value remains in traditional Marxian class distinctions of proletariat, bourgeoisie, capitalist and worker but also argues that the more recent concepts of knowledge worker, professional-managerial  and symbolic-analytical worker are also not sufficiently nuanced to describe the  contemporary forms of work.  He puts forward a four-category typology, “the new class structure” (Florida, 2002, pp. 68-72): creative class (comprised of two sub-groups – the super creative core and creative professionals); service class; working class; and agricultural workers.

1) Creative Class: within this group, the differentiation between the two sub-categories (the super creative core and creative professionals) is primarily based upon the extent to which these sub-groups produce transferable, widely usable forms (products, knowledge, methods, etc) as their primary function.

Super creative workers include eg scientists, engineers, writers, artists, architects, editors, designers, analysts, programmers.   The key characteristics of this sub-group are that they:

  • fully engage in creative process
  • produce new forms (designs, products, theories) that are readily transferable and widely useful
  • engage in creative work regularly – it’s their core task, it’s what they are paid to do
  • not just solve problems but find and define problems

Creative professionals includes health-care professionals, lawyers, managers, finance, office managers, some technicians in knowledge-intensive domains.  The key characteristics that distinguish this group are that they:

  • engage in creative problem-solving (but largely don’t define the problems)
  • draw upon existing knowledge to solve specific problems (but largely don’t create new knowledge)
  • sometimes may come up with a method or product that may become transferable and widely useful, but this is largely not part of their job description
  • apply or combine standard approaches in unique ways to fit the situation
  • exercise a great deal of judgement
  • sometimes may participate in testing and refinement of new techniques, product or method

2) Services class: low-end, typically low wage, and low-autonomy occupations, for example food-services workers, cleaners, personal care attendants, secretaries and clerical workers, security guards, some types of computer support specialists, etc. Florida argues that services class has emerged out of economic necessity because of the way the creative economy operates (it carries out largely a support function for the creative class).

3) Working class: including occupations such as roduction operations, transportation and material moving, repair and maintenance, construction work.

4) Agricultural workers: self-explanatory.

He also argues that the rise of creative class is reflected in shifts in values, norms and attitudes, in particular individuality, meritocracy, diversity and openness which always existed among certain types of professions but are now becoming increasingly much more pervasive and mainstream (ibid, pp. 77-80):

  • Individuality: creative workers have strong preference for individuality, self-statement; don’t want to conform to organisational directives; resist traditional group-oriented norms; endeavour to create individualistic identities (which can entail a mixing of multiple identities)
  • Meritocracy: merit, hard work, challenge and stimulation in work are strongly valued; propensity for goal-setting and achievement;  no longer define themselves mainly by financial status symbols – instead want to move up on the basis of their abilities and effort; are motivated by respect of peers; have faith that virtue will be rewarded; value self-determination; mistrust rigid caste systems.
  • Diversity and openness: diversity in all its manifestations is valued – seeking environment open to differences (from ethnic diversity to sexual orientation to acceptance of odd personal habits and styles of dress); value (geographic) mobility.


Does the university education benefit the individual student more than society as a whole?

Amanda Goodall’s Socratess in the Boardroom had been in my to-read stack for nearly a year until I finally started it last night.  The key argument of the book is: there is a positive relationship between university performance and its leadership by an accomplished researcher, hence research universities should be led by top scholars.  She sets out to support this argument by drawing from four data sets, quantitative and qualitative. Firstly she scopes current leaders of world’s top 100 universities, followed by scoping of the deans of the top business schools. Then she examines whether the characteristics of current leader can predict future success of their university.  Finally she draws upon interviews with 26 university leaders in the UK and the US to outline possible explanations for, as she says, “why better scholars may make better leaders” (p. 5).

In the first chapter in which she lays out her argument Goodall makes an interesting statement (undeservedly buried in a footnote):

“Teaching students is also an important output [of research universities]; however the evidence suggests that a university education tends to benefit the individual student more than society as a whole (see Kruger and Lindhal [2001] and Oreopoulos [2007]. For this reason I believe that undergraduate students (graduate students are different) should not be heavily subsidized by the state, given the enormous financial benefit of a degree to individual later in life. But generous scholarships for those who cannot afford fees should be readily available” (p. 2). [emphasis mine]

This sounded intriguing so I looked up the two references.

Oreopoulos’s 2007 paper “Do dropouts drop out too soon? Wealth, health andhappiness from compulsory schooling” is focused on compulsory education rather than higher education, and I don’t see how it can be used to support Goodall’s statement that “…the evidence suggests that a university education tends to benefit the individual student more than society as a whole”.

Krueger and Lindhal’s paper “Education for growth: Why and for whom” is more relevant. The aim of the paper is to bring together the micro- and macro-economic literature examining monetary return on investment in education (the focus of the microeconomic research) and macro growth research exploring whether the level of education in a country is related to the country’s GDP growth rate. Yet the argument that this paper makes is much more nuanced and less certain than Goodall suggests. In Section 2.2, Social versus Private Returns to Education, Krueger et al say [all emphases mine]:

The social return to education can, of course, be higher or lower than the private monetary return. The social return can be higher because of externalities from education, which could occur, for example, if higher education leads to technological progress that is not capturedin the private return to that education,or if more education produces positive externalities, such as a reductionin crime and welfare participation,or more informed political decisions.The former is more likely if human capital is expanded at higher levels of education while the latter is more likely if it is expanded at lower levels. It is also possible that the social return to education is less than the private return. For example, Spence (1973) and Fritz Machlup (1970) note that education could just be a credential, which does not raise individuals’ productivities. It is also possible that in some developing countries, where the incidence of unemployment may rise with education(e.g., Mark Blaug, Richard Layard,and Maureen Woodhall 1969) and where the return to physical capital may exceed the return to human capital (e.g., Arnold Harberger 1965), increases in education may reduce total output.” (p. 1107).

Furthermore, Krueger et al argue:

A potential weakness of the micro human capital literature is that it focuses primarily on the private pecuniary return to education rather than the social return. The possibility of externalities to education motivates much of the macro growth literature… Micro-level empirical analysis is less well suited for uncovering the social returns to education. (p. 1108)

“The micro and macro literatures both emphasize the role of education in income growth. A large body of research using individual-level data on education and income provides robust evidence of a substantial payoff to investment in education, especially for those who traditionally complete low levels of schooling. From this micro evidence, however, it is unclear whether the social return to schooling exceeds the private return, although available evidence suggests that positive externalities in the form of reduced crime and reduced welfare participationare more likely to be reaped from investments in disadvantaged than advantaged groups.” (p. 1130)

They conclude by pointing out that there are “conflicting conclusions regarding any deviation between the social and private returns to education.” (p.1131).

So Goodall’s statement inaccurately suggests that the evidence is conclusive. Also she fails to make it clear that the evidence she draws upon is based on microeconomic perspective (which as Krueger et al say, is less well suited to uncovering social benefits of education) and doesn’t take into consideration findings from macroeconomic literature (in particular those related to positive externalities from education).  This omission is ironic, because Goodall spends some part of her introductory chapter elaborating on positive externalities and social benefits from research, which suggests to me that she is aware of and sensitised to the argument.


  • Goodall, A. (2009). Socrates in the boardroom: Why research universities should be led by top scholars. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Krueger, A.B., & Lindhal, M. (2001). Education for growth: Why and for whom? Journal of Economic Literature, 39(4), 1101-1136.
  • Oreopoulos, P. (2007). Do dropouts drop out too soon? Wealth, health, and happiness from compulsory schooling. Journal of Public Economics, 91(11-12), 2213-2229 .

A Lacanian perspective on individual learning in organisations and implications for qualitative research

Reading Michaela Driver’s paper in the latest issue of Management Learning.  She analyses individual learning in organisations drawing on psychoanalytic (Lacanian) theory.  The key premise is that the self is always constructed in and through speech, but what we say we know about who we are and what we want is an illusion, a fantasy designed to cover up a lack that is impossible to get rid of: “It is a fantasy because the self we construct in the imaginary order is always constrained by language and what Lacan described as the symbolic order. As we try to articulate in an authentic fashion who we are and what we want, we are always using language, which consists of words, structures and conventions made by others, even generations of others. Therefore, the language through which we construct the self is not authentic in the sense that it does not reflect who we really are or what we really desire.(p. 563, emphasis mine)

She proposes three key points emerging from Lacanian theory that are of relevance for learning in organisations (p. 564):

  1. Conscious speech consists of imaginary constructions of the self.
  2. These constructions continuously fail as they are disrupted by unconscious desires.
  3. Recognition of and reflection on this failure provides opportunities to experience the self as a creative, powerful subject of the unconscious that is free of and can never be contained by an imaginary order.

If we accept this explanation, then, moving beyond the implications for learning that is the main subject of this paper, I want to ask: what are the implications for qualitative methods of inquiry that rely so heavinly on constructions of self? (ironically, Driver uses a number of qualitative studies – interviews, diaries, etc- to support her argument).

Reference: [access by subscription] Driver, M. (2010). Learning as lack: Individual learning in organizations as an empowering encounter with failed imaginary constructions of the self. Management Learning, 41(5), 561-574.

Concepts and paradigms in mixed methods research

Bergman writes (all emphases mine):

“Concepts, also known as conceptions or constructs, play various important roles in empirical research and, by extension, could be the subject of more explicit inquiry in mono and mixed methods research. For empirical researchers, a concept can be understood as an abstract object, abstractum, or a mental representation. Well-being, depression, poverty, achievement, family, class, illness, democracy, power, gender, and ethnicity are examples of concepts.”

Isn’t a concept a representation of ontological reality (or does he imply this by “mental representation”). Otherwise it is a metaphor (a construct) and not a concept. For example, achievement is a construct (‘achievement’ doesn’t exist in nature, it’s a construct, what counts as achievement depends on a given context) while gender or ethnicity are concepts (they objectively exist in reality, even if people can create their own subjectivity around them).   Am I wrong?

He goes on to discuss the use of term ‘paradigm’ in social science research, in particular in relation to mixed methods research designs.  He uses Powers & Knapp’s (1990, p.103) definition of paradigm:

“An organizing framework that contains the concepts, theories, assumptions, beliefs, values,
and principles that inform a discipline on how to interpret subject matter of concern. The paradigm also contains the research methods considered best to generate knowledge and suggests that which is open and not open to inquiry at the time.”

He then argues:

“In the literature on mixed methods research, the term paradigm is used in a number of ways.
Most often, it is used when authors attempt to differentiate qualitative from quantitative
research. At first glance, it appears that they are indeed different paradigms as most authors
in this vein even provide tables, which classify the differences between qualitative and quantitative
methods on epistemological, ontological, and axiological grounds…On closer inspection, however, it is difficult to sustain these differences because qualitative and quantitative analysis techniques do not necessitate a particular view of the nature of reality, privilege a specific research theme and how to research it, or determine the truth value of data or the relationship between researchers and their research subject…If we were indeed faced with two competing paradigms, then it would not be possible to combine qualitative and quantitative elements within one research question because, as Kuhn already recognized, competing paradigms are incommensurable.”

It follows that qualitative and quantitative research cannot be called ‘paradigms’, but they often are.

Bergman allows that the term in ‘paradigm’ may be used in its weaker sense, meaning an ‘approach’ or a ‘framework’ (eg humanism, structuralism, constructivism, etc):

“In its weaker form, the term is roughly synonymous with a ‘‘worldview’’. Given that most grand or middle range theories could be considered a worldview, the use of the term paradigm would lose its specific significance.”

He concludes on an excellent point:

“So how many paradigms are there in the social and related sciences? In the sense of the strong meaning, probably none… In the weak sense, where the term paradigm signifies an approach or framework, there are as many paradigms as there are authors who feel the need to distinguish a meta, grand, and middle-range theoretical approach from alternatives.”

Reference [access by subscription]: Bergman, M. (2010). On concepts and paradigms in mixed methods research. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 4(3), 171–175.

Open teaching, open learning

Cormier and Siemens reflect on their experiences with teaching open courses, in particular a form of course that they term ‘massive online open course’ or MOOC.

Of particular interest to me were their observations on educators’ roles in open courses: “Open learning adjusts the role of the educator with respect to access to new content and engagement tools now under the control of the learner. Educators continue to play an important role in facilitating interaction, sharing information and resources, challenging assertions, and contributing to learners’ growth of knowledge.” They list the following teacher roles:

  • Amplifying – drawing attention to important ideas/concepts
  • Curating – arranging readings and resources to scaffold concepts
  • Wayfinding – assisting learners to rely on social sense-making through networks
  • Aggregating – displaying patterns in discussions and content
  • Filtering – assisting learners in thinking critically about information/conversations available in networks
  • Modeling – displaying successful information and interaction patterns
  • Staying present – maintaining continual instructor presence during the course, particularly during natural activity lulls

Compare this with the more familar list – delivering lectures, marking assignments, monitoring attendance, and so on.

Other ideas and principles they put forward that resonated with me:

  • “Content itself is not a sufficient value point on which to build the future of higher education”
  • “The registration process is the approach to the conversation; the filtering, the deciding whether or not to participate, happens after registration”
  • “The opening up of the teaching process is an important dimension of openness in education more broadly.”
  • “The community-as-curriculum model inverts the position of curriculum: rather than being a prerequisite for a course, curriculum becomes an output of a course.”

Reference: Cormier, D., & Siemens, G. (2010). Through the open door: Open courses as research, learning, and engagement. EDUCAUSE Review, 45(4), 30-39. [Online]