Adults and lifelong learning: expectations

So one of the exciting thing about designing your own independent study or learning experience, is that you have just as many printed words on a syllabus as you do pen-scribbled words.

I’ll be writing four reflections for Prof. Mary Hess on what I’ve learned from readings and experiences throughout the spring on adults and lifelong learning. We decided that using my blog to publish these learnings will: 1. make it fun, 2. generate a sense of collegiality, because friends in calls and jobs and are asking these questions too, & 3. help me remember what I learned after the class is done. First call pastors, synod staffers, congregational staff people, people in the pew, honestly my family members (hi mom & dad), students, seminary staff leaders – have all expressed a desire to learn too in this broad topic of adults and lifelong learning. So, are my first thoughts – reflection #1, guided by my reading of In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life by Robert Kegan out of Harvard.

The scribbled words on my syllabus (below) for the first reflection say, “What does learning look like for adults?” This is because Mary and I sat down with my drafted syllabus and realized that my initial “first reflection guiding question” was too detailed. I was going to ask “Why should church leadership coach adults to be learners/Why is lifelong learning important?”

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Yes, those are letters and words. Clear handwriting is not my forte.

You can’t really answer that unless you find out how adults learn. So that’s the first question. Here’s what I learned in reading the first 100 pages of Kegan’s book:

The environment in which adults learn is really complex and really heavy. Yes, In Over Our Heads is just over 20 years old. I was seven when this was published, and the expectations that our culture (Western American, middle class) has on adolescents specifically, not adults, are still very real:

– Employable

– A good citizen

– A critical thinker

– Emotionally self-reflective

– Personally trustworthy

– Possessed of common sense and meaningful ideals

Even the author says “This is a lot to want” (19).

Think about then the expectations that culture places on adults? I’m only a fourth of the way into the book, but I have a feeling that he will start to make the argument that the “training” or “instruction” that adults receive about how to be adults is not inadequate to meet the expectations that culture has on adults, and for what it means to be an adult.

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Kegan talks about personal development in terms of consciousness – not mental capacity or behavior (which are parts of consciousness) – there are first-fourth orders of consciousness. The first is very simplistic, linear thinking, and the fourth is when you are able navigate the complexities of being yourself and honoring the other, and at the same time maintaining boundaries. This is all in the realm of psychology which I’m not terribly familiar with, but that’s how I would summarize the framework he’s using. I believe he is trying to make the point that to meet the expectations that culture places on adults, adults must be functioning with a fourth-order consciousness.

I would argue that this is a really difficult and complex environment in which adults learn. Adults are expected, by culture, to communicate in various ways, to set limits, maintain boundaries, create and preserve roles, and exercise executive leadership (99).

So, where in there do adults find the space for listening and humility, crucial elements in learning, since to learn is to admit that you have something to learn, right? Perhaps listening and humility is implied in these cultural expectations. That’s the next question I would ask to the author – and honestly to anyone whose interested in this too. How do adults learn about new things, especially things that help them maximize their strengths or grow their vocation as leader/servant – and at the same time meet the needs that our culture expects of them?

Honestly, I read these few chapters and I got stressed out. Now that I’m an adult I have to do all this stuff? I have to maintain boundaries, communicate, preserve roles, etc.? Oh my goodness!

It also made me wonder: What is the list we all silently carry around of things we expects adult to do/be? What do we expect of our colleagues? Of our empty-nester parents? Of our pastors? Or our for profit people or non-profit people? I’m guessing that others might read this and panic too, thinking, “I don’t do all those things!!” So maybe a take-away is that we’re all under that cultural pressure. None of us are immune to the expectations of our culture – and at the same time we can feel comfort knowing we are not alone. That’s the good news I see in this. That adults are under similar cultural expectations – none “bad” or “good” – and we can empathize with each other and know that we’re all together.

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Well, in an ideal world. That’s a good thought. Does it actually happen? Are there communities where adults lift each other up and say, “I’ve been there too, and you can totally maintain healthy boundaries too.” Where might that comradary be? What might that look like? What does it look like – is there a place or group that empathizes together as adults come together to support each other in the cultural expectations that are placed on them?

Adults are under a lot of cultural expectations. But I think we can shape our response (not reaction) to those expectations with care and with each other. Kegan brings the challenges and dynamics of this to light and I’m glad to have him as a companion, if only in text, in this journey of learning about adults and their lifelong learning.

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3 thoughts on “Adults and lifelong learning: expectations

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

  2. Allison, I just read your article in the Voice. I was absolutely thrilled to learn that you will be serving the LORD as a Pastor. Congratulations as you continue toward that ministry. You will be in our prayers. God Bless you and Timothy!

    Reply

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