September 21, 2016
Learning is a lifelong process, at certain stages of growth it comes far more naturally than it does others. Childhood is the quintessential time for this when the brain is fresh and surrounded entirely by the unknown. Continuing to take in information, to learn becomes second nature as you age and specifically progress through school, it’s actually understanding where the difficulty lies. This is where Robert Leamnson and Jack Mezirow offer forth their thoughts on how to comprehend new information as it’s taught from the perspective of the college student and established adult, from the perspective of teaching them as well. Their methods and philosophies are equally similar yet ripe with differences, each offering a distinct perspective on how to best accomplish the task.
Our brains by adulthood have had plenty of time to become set in their ways, flawed or otherwise. The difficulty in teaching a mind that has already made up its own becomes apparent as Mezirow states “Adults have acquired a cohere body of experience-associations, concepts, values, feelings…frames of reference which define their world” (86). Frames of reference- an internal bias a person has built up throughout their life greatly affect how they not only take in information but also how they utilize and make sense of it. It’s through this bias Leamnson and Mezirow reach an agreement in the difficulties of teaching and being taught. Leamnson goes at it with a more precise look delving into the actual architecture of the brain equating teaching to “something like demolition before construction can begin.” (75) Indeed that is a terrifying thought for anyone striving to ascend their education. To think that your brain has all these counterproductive and sometimes completely useless material can easily bring an uneasy feeling. A feeling which might cause many to go through the motions, certain that this is just the same as the prior twelve years. It is the educator’s job to break this mold, to re-ignite and to build the foundation for the passion of knowledge. The differences between learning as an adolescent and as an adult are remarkable and how you go about this is where the two writers disagree.
Before getting into their individual theories of teaching what must be discussed first is the demographic of which they are aiming at. Leamnson’s “Today’s First-Year Students” speaks to the late-teens, early twenty year olds whereas Mezirow directs his article towards the more established adult, the pre-thirties and beyond. A minor seemingly minor distinction that can be overlooked at a glance. The recent high school graduate sprouting into college will generally be entirely disinterested in the idea of four more years of class, seeing college as simply the last hurdle and treating as such. These students come from entirely different backgrounds than what the college professor is able to handle. Having built up an “‘immunization’ mentality about disciplines” (Leamnson 76) they enter the classroom with a distorted idea of school, this idea commonly is the precursor to their false confidence. This false confidence is a sort of armor, with the instructor’s teachings being unable to penetrate. Adult learners differ in that while having even more time to build up bias more often the adolescent-esque bravado has eased away. Life experience, settling down growing into a responsible grownup has its effect on the process of being educated. More so here than in the younger crowd, it’s not about teaching but to “strengthen and build on this foundation to…become more aware…more effective at working to collectively assess reasons, pose and solve problems” (Mezirow 90). Now we may go into the technique.
There are a wide number of variables when it comes to teaching, with an almost limitless number of approaches. As daunting a task as it is to learn, it is just as so to be the educator. For truly effective teaching Leamnson’s idea is based on the theory that the teacher needs to understand the student in order for the student to understand the teacher. Focus needs to be put on emphasizing the student, essentially taking the core material and adapting it for easier digestibility to overcome the stubborn armor they have enshrouded themselves in. College in context of educating as a whole isn’t a simple victory lap nor is it a routine that can be passively accomplished, the task of rerouting redundancy and reigniting the passion for knowledge. Mezirow has a list of processes in which learning can be done saying “one process is to elaborate an existing point of view…a second way is to establish new points of view…a third way is to transform our point of view…finally, we may transform our habit of mind” (90). To initiate these processes, it is said that the educator must take the roll as an architect to create an open environment which readily encourages the flow of new challenging information composed as to be individually relevant, communication amongst participants that poses questions and challenges to better incite personal reflection while keeping a specific amiable feel as to not shock or cause outright denial of the information. Discourse as this is called is the key to teaching Mezirow believes, the conditions are peculiar but if care is taken those conditions can be met and can lead to fruitful scholars.
As a daunting task it may be, learning as well as teaching an aging audience, all is not lost. The path may be riddled with inordinate knowledge, unnecessary bias and a stubbornly structured brain but Leamnson and Mezirow have written extensively how to overcome the challenge. Each with a method quite different from the other, the underlying style and theme sharing a large amount of similarity. Although not necessarily typical in the classical form of schooling, undertaking the responsibility of educating older students lends itself to being far from what’s expected. In doing so however, in exploring the student’s tendencies, in adapting the material to fit their idiosyncrasies while simultaneously filtering out the redundancies to create increasingly critical minds we benefit ourselves individually as well as society.